In the aftermath of the crash of Comair Flight 5191, Lexington has become ground zero in the 25-year-old labor strife engulfing the air traffic controllers union and the Federal Aviation Administration.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has used the Aug. 27 crash, which killed 49 of 50 people on board, to bolster its case that the air traffic control system is dangerously understaffed and spread thin. In a blistering statement just two days after the crash, it said the tragedy might have been avoided had a second controller been working in the Blue Grass Airport tower. And in recent weeks union officials have appeared in news accounts across the country to highlight perceived staffing shortages at various towers, including Louisville and Lexington.
The FAA has acknowledged that two controllers, rather than one, should have been working at the time of the crash. The tower, managed by the FAA, apparently violated staffing policies for months. But the FAA also maintains that the air traffic control system is not understaffed.
This week, the issue could jump into the national spotlight again, with congressional Democrats promising to use a subcommittee hearing on aviation to raise questions about the Lexington crash and the FAA.
“In no way are we going to use a tragedy to advance our own union agenda,” spokesman Doug Church said. “That’s not what this is about. But it is very concerning the FAA admitted they were not staffing the facility appropriately.”
The crash occurred a week before the FAA imposed new work rules the union vehemently opposes. The new rules include pay freezes and cuts for veteran controllers, a 30 percent wage cut for new controllers and a ban on using sick leave for rest, according to the union.
The union has benefitted from increased news media scrutiny of the FAA, said Mike Boyd, a Colorado-based aviation consultant.
Boyd pointed to FAA administrator Marion Blakey’s trip to Louisville a week after the crash as evidence the FAA is concerned about its image.
“I don’t think Marion Blakey would have rushed down there unless it were for damage control,” he said. “The tragic part is it became, literally, such a hollow, transparent attempt” when she mistakenly referred to the crash being in Louisville, several times during her news conference.
“That’s just pathetic,” Boyd said. “That did do more damage.”
FAA insiders have privately grumbled that the news media have allowed themselves to be manipulated by the union.
In an employees section of the FAA Web site, Gerald E. Lavey, deputy assistant administrator for internal communications, accused reporters of acting “like a pack of lemmings.”
“So much of the media is jumping on controller staffing because they’re being handed this line and are acting like Pavlov’s dog, rather than doing the investigation and analysis to see if what they are being fed holds water,” Lavey wrote. “In this very competitive news environment, getting the story fast versus getting the story right is the name of the game.”
Tense labor relations can be traced back to 1981, when President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 striking controllers. The union and some aviation experts say the replacement workers hired after the strike are now nearing retirement age, exacerbating staffing shortages.
About 25 percent of the FAA’s 14,305 controllers will be eligible for retirement in 2007. About 75 percent are expected to retire by 2015.
The FAA denies there is a nationwide controller shortage. It says it is taking steps to address the retirement wave by hiring 11,800 new controllers over the next 10 years.
It has also said the union contract, signed in 1998, was outdated and inflexible. Spokeswoman Laura Brown says it mandated additional hiring regardless of whether traffic levels required it.
“We have a staffing plan in place that we think safely staffs our air traffic control towers around the country,” said Brown, who added that 1,100 additional controllers will be hired by the end of the year.
The Lexington crash has also spurred political activity in Washington.
Many Democrats, who count labor as a major constituency, have sided with controllers in the dispute. U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, a Versailles Democrat, has called for a congressional investigation into staffing policies at the FAA, which is overseen by a Republican appointee.
The Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will hold a previously scheduled hearing Wednesday on “Oversight of Federal Aviation Administration Safety Programs.” Chandler is Kentucky’s only representative on the committee, and he plans to question federal officials about the Lexington crash.
The crash “has highlighted serious questions regarding air safety in this country, particularly as it relates to air traffic control,” Chandler said in a statement.
On Sept. 6 the FAA assured the congressman that towers are meeting staffing requirements, he said. “However, a mere six days later both Lexington and Louisville reported a shortage of controllers,” he said.
Republicans, even Kentucky congressional leaders, have been less vocal. Some Republicans, including House aviation subcommittee chairman Rep. John Mica of Florida, have defended the FAA and said another controller would not have made a difference.
In separate statements, Kentucky Sens. Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning said they are receiving regular updates on the investigation. Aides said McConnell has discussed the investigation with President Bush and Transportation Secretary nominee Mary Peters.
“Senator McConnell will do everything he can to ensure that the investigation proceeds smoothly, and that all questions are answered as thoroughly as possible,” McConnell’s office said in a statement.
Should the Democrats win control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the November elections, they are likely to push for a congressional investigation, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. But even if the Republicans maintain control, an investigation is possible.
“We’re in the middle of an election season and the Republicans control everything,” Sabato said. “It’s the old line in politics: Anything that happens bad on your watch is your fault. ... Whether it is true or not or fair or not, they are held responsible for anything that happens.”
Still, the crash is likely to have little partisan impact at the polls in an election season dominated by the Iraq war, Sabato said.
With the year winding down, the union’s hopes of congressional intervention are fading. But it will renew its push in the next Congress, Church said.
“We will fight it for a hundred years if we have to,” he said.
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