Crash of Flight 5191

Tower rules have long been ignored

News that the Federal Aviation Administration had violated its own policies by failing to properly staff the Blue Grass Airport control tower the day of the deadly Comair crash created headlines around the country.

But it was hardly news to aviation experts, a former FAA administrator or air-traffic controllers.

Accountability at the FAA, they say, is practically non-existent -- until a calamity strikes.

“You’re going to see now a lot of changes,” said Michael Goldfarb, former FAA chief of staff and now an aviation consultant. “You would hope that it doesn’t take a crash to wake people up. But unfortunately it does. And most aviation improvements come after major crashes.”

In Washington, FAA staffers told members of Kentucky’s congressional delegation the agency plans to reiterate its policy that Lexington must have two air-traffic controllers on overnight shifts, according to a statement issued last night by the office of Rep. Geoff Davis, R-Hebron. The FAA manages and staffs airport towers.

Following the crash of Comair Flight 5191 Sunday morning, the FAA ordered that control towers have at least two controllers during midnight to 8 a.m. shifts. That has been its policy since November 2005, but since March, the FAA has allowed the tower to be staffed by only one controller overnight. (The November policy allows a controller in Indianapolis to assume radar functions in Lexington. That never happened.)

When Flight 5191 took off from the wrong runway, the Lexington tower’s lone controller had turned his back to perform administrative duties, the controller told investigators.

The FAA said the local tower manager, Duff Ortman, made the decision to allow only one controller because of low air traffic. Ortman has not returned telephone calls from reporters.

FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said audits are performed annually and more intensive reviews occur periodically. She said local managers communicate regularly with their superiors. Lexington is part of the FAA’s southern region, which is based in Atlanta.

Another spokeswoman said she didn’t think regional managers were aware of the violation. But, after being pressed by a reporter, she acknowledged it was the job of regional managers to know.

“It’s their job to make sure the facilities are operating safely and efficiently; yes, it is their job to know that,” spokeswoman Laura Brown said.

Some members of Kentucky’s congressional delegation expressed concern about guidelines that were not followed. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, said he “is troubled by reports that the air-traffic control tower wasn’t adequately staffed, which is inconsistent with FAA guidelines.”

And Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, said in a statement that he is “deeply concerned with a variety of factors which could have contributed to the accident, including recent questions surrounding FAA policy and air-traffic control.”

Mike Boyd, a Colorado aviation consultant, called the FAA “a mess.” He said it commonly violates its own policies.

A former Lexington air-traffic controller put it another way. “Nothing will happen because it’s the FAA’s policy, and they will cancel their policy,” said Scott Zoeckler, a 35-year veteran controller who retired two years ago after 27 years at Blue Grass Airport.

There is little oversight of the FAA. The federal Department of Transportation’s solicitor general can investigate and audit the agency, Goldfarb said. But it can only make recommendations and cannot force changes.

The root of the problem is twofold, Boyd said: Presidents, both Democrat and Republican, appoint unqualified political allies to head the massive bureaucracy, and congressional leaders have shown little interest in oversight. “They’ll get in front of the media and fight each other,” Boyd said of congressmen. “But behind closed doors, they’re like chimpanzees. They get behind each other and groom each other.”

Boyd, who has conducted several studies on the air-traffic control system and testified before Congress, says towers across the country are understaffed.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, an employee union, has said that for more than a decade. Their ranks have dwindled by more than 1,300 since 2002, even though air traffic has increased since then.

The problem will get worse, the union and aviation experts say, because controllers who were hired after President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 striking controllers in 1981 will soon be eligible for retirement.

At least 70 percent of the nation’s 14,305 air-traffic controllers are expected to retire by fiscal year 2015.

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