Months before the deadly Comair Flight 5191 crash, a local flight controller warned elected officials in a letter that the Blue Grass Airport control tower was only meeting required staffing levels for overnight shifts "when convenient to management."
The letter, obtained by the Herald-Leader, was written by local flight controller union vice president Faron Collins in April and sent to Kentucky Sens. Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning. It noted that the Federal Aviation Administration required that overnight shifts -- called mid shifts -- be monitored by at least two controllers: one for ground control, another for radar duties.
In Lexington "we're working two-man mids when convenient to management," Collins wrote. "We had a controller retire last month and now we are back to single-man mids. I ask you one simple question: Are two people needed on the mids for safety or not? If they are, why are they not scheduled?"
Collins accused the FAA of playing politics with safety and understaffing the Blue Grass tower, which the FAA manages and staffs. He noted that in 2004 the FAA had considered closing the Lexington tower and 40 others at night, but reconsidered after running into congressional opposition.
Yet a year later the FAA was saying the overnight shift needed two people, Collins wrote.
"This is the FAA playing a scary game of politics and using safety as the trump card," he wrote. "The FAA wants to be able to tell Congress next year that the cost of keeping these facilities open has now doubled."
At the time of the Comair crash, which killed 49 people, only one controller was working in the Lexington tower. The FAA has since acknowledged that two were required.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said yesterday she had not yet received word from the agency's congressional affairs office about whether the FAA was approached by either of the Kentucky senators.
Bunning's spokesman Mike Reynard told the Associated Press yesterday that his office received the letter, but McConnell's office said it had not located the correspondence in its computer system that tracks constituent mail.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has argued for more than a decade that single-controller overnight shifts are a safety hazard. Some former flight controllers not affiliated with the union disagree.
The letter was written during heated contract negotiations between the national union and the FAA. The agency declared an impasse in April, and unilaterally imposed work rules the union opposes last week.
Collins urged the senators to support legislation to send the FAA back to the bargaining table.
In an interview yesterday, he said he wrote it as part of a union letter-writing campaign to convince Congress to intervene. He said he decided to raise safety concerns while he was at it.
"I thought that since I'm going to sit down and write this letter, I'm going to tell them how unhappy I am," Collins said.
He also described a "very bleak" work environment where tempers were on edge. He said the FAA accountability office ignored a letter that reported a threat against a manager.
A key question that remains unanswered is whether FAA regional management knew that the Lexington tower was violating FAA policies.
Collins said he didn't know.
"I'm not sure where the buck lies," Collins said. "I thought we'd see somebody take the fall for this. Somebody made a serious judgment error and still has their job."