The Blue Grass Airport air traffic control tower was prepared for a radar center in Indianapolis to take over its radar functions for three hours Friday night because it was short-staffed, a Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman said yesterday.
The rare decision was later rescinded after "air control management" -- which includes the Lexington tower manager and the FAA's regional managers -- decided to make do with half the normal number of controllers, spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said.
The decision drew criticism from the air traffic controllers union, which has argued that the local tower is chronically understaffed.
"It was like gambling that nothing would happen," said local union president Randy Dailey, who worked in the tower that night.
Hours later, the control tower at Louisville International Airport relinquished its radar duties to Indianapolis Center from 3 to 4 a.m. Saturday, according to the union and the FAA.
There was not enough staff on duty for the Louisville tower's two controllers to take a meal break and continue radar functions, Louisville International Airport controller union president Jeff Gilde said. The tower took measures meant for emergencies -- not lunch breaks, he said.
"Staffing is at crisis levels and is going to get worse," Gilde said.
But the FAA says the Louisville controllers were not authorized to pass radar duties on to Indianapolis and should not have done so.
"The controllers did it on their own," FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said.
The controllers on the weekend overnight shift are paid overtime for not taking a meal break and are allowed to eat at their stations, Brown said. They are allowed to combine radar and ground functions for brief periods if a controller needs a break, she said.
Bergen said Friday's shortage in Lexington was a one-time occurrence caused by "extenuating circumstances."
The two weekend incidents highlight the clash between the FAA and the controllers union, which seized on them to bolster its contention the FAA is understaffing the nation's air traffic control system. The conflict between controllers and the FAA has taken on a sharper focus since the Aug. 27 crash of Comair Flight 5191 at Blue Grass Airport, which killed 49 of the 50 people on board.
The union has bristled at work rules the FAA imposed last week. Some aviation experts have said the union is using the perceived shortages as a bargaining ploy.
"It is unfortunate we can't believe anything the FAA says officially ..." said Colorado aviation consultant Mike Boyd, who has testified to Congress about the air traffic control system. " ... Remember, you're dealing with a labor union. They're not pure as snow either. But if you look at the track record, I'll take the controller union's word long before I take the FAA's."
Six controllers, including a supervisor, normally work the Lexington airport tower from 8 to 11 p.m. on Friday nights, Bergen said.
But only three worked during that time Friday.
Bergen said one controller was on sick leave, a supervisor was training and two other controllers have been out since the Comair crash on Aug. 27. One controller returned this week.
"It is very rare to have four people out at any one time," Bergen said.
The tower is managed and staffed by the FAA. It employs 18 controllers. The FAA has said they may work overtime as needed, but the agency also strictly regulates overtime to ensure controllers are alert.
The tower tried to call in the only controller who was eligible to work overtime that day but he could not be reached, Bergen said.
The rescinded plan called for a regional radar center in Indianapolis to handle radar duties and for the three Lexington controllers to perform ground control, Bergen said. Take-offs and landings in the Lexington tower's air space -- which has a 35-mile radius and goes up to 10,000 feet -- would have been metered, or slowed, as necessary.
"It turns out the traffic was not terribly heavy, so there was no need to meter it in there," Bergen said.
The FAA has plans to hire three more controllers in Lexington. Bergen said the agency will expedite the hiring of two of them.
The union has noted the FAA has lost more than 1,000 controllers nationally through attrition in recent years, even though air traffic has increased.
At the time of the Comair crash, only one controller was working in the Lexington tower. The FAA has since acknowledged that two were required.
Two controllers are now working the midnight to 8 a.m. shift, the FAA has said.
To fill that extra night shift, the FAA has made Lexington controllers work overtime, which has spread staffing thin, Dailey said. Ordinarily, tower management would have three people it can call in for overtime. But Friday two were not available, Dailey said.
Dailey said the tower had 31 controllers when he started there in 1991. (The FAA has said it does not have staffing numbers going back that far.)
In the last three years, the tower has gone from five supervisors to two, Dailey said.
After the Comair crash, the FAA transferred a controller from Louisville to Lexington indefinitely, Bergen said.
Gilde, the Louisville union head, said that's causing problems there. He said the Louisville tower has 10 fewer controllers than the 51 it should have.
A Louisville supervisor instructed controllers in a briefing to transfer radar duties to Indianapolis if they needed to take a meal break on the weekend overnight shift, Gilde said.
He quoted a memorandum from the Louisville tower manager that said, in part, controllers could combine radar and tower functions for short breaks.
"Should a longer absence be required for any reason, the CIC (controller in charge) shall coordinate with Indianapolis Center and request that they perform the radar function," the memo stated, according to Gilde.
It's not a question of interpretation, Gilde said.
"There's no gray area," he said. "It's black and white."