WASHINGTON - Leading Democrats on the House Transportation Committee have called for an inquiry into control tower staffing in the wake of "disturbing reports" that the Lexington tower was understaffed at the time of Sunday's fatal crash.
Minnesota Rep. James Oberstar and Illinois Rep. Jerry Costello have asked the Department of Transportation to determine how many towers were complying with FAA guidelines that require one controller to monitor ground traffic and another to monitor radar. They also want to know what action the FAA took to ensure compliance.
Sen. Patty Murray, of Washington, yesterday asked the administrator of the FAA to respond to questions about staffing. Murray is the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate subcommittee that oversees transportation.
Following the actions of other members of Congress, Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, said late last night he will call for a "full investigation."
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Oberstar said he would recommend a hearing not on Lexington but on staffing standards at all towers, which he called a running issue.
But on the other side of the aisle, Rep. John Mica of Florida said yesterday that another controller wouldn't have prevented Comair Flight 5191 from going down the wrong runway.
"I believe it was adequately staffed," said the chairman of the House committee on transportation. "It isn't the air-traffic controller's responsibility to visually monitor every takeoff and landing."
On Wednesday, members of Kentucky's congressional delegation had expressed concern, but they also said they would wait for the National Transportation Safety Board to complete its investigation before calling for action. Chandler was the only one who could be reached for comment late yesterday.
The FAA has confirmed that, contrary to its stated policy, one air-traffic controller was monitoring all Lexington operations on Sunday morning when Flight 5191 crashed into a stand of trees, killing 49 aboard. After the crash, a second controller was added to the overnight shift.
Oberstar, the ranking Democrat on the transportation committee, said that technically Mica is correct.
"One person, under ideal circumstances, might well be able to handle the tower," Oberstar said yesterday. But "one controller doesn't have that extra moment to look out over the airfield ... and say 'you're going down the wrong runway.'"
He said it isn't his intention to "finger the controller for blame, but to measure the overall margin of safety."
"While the National Transportation Safety Board has yet to issue a full report on its findings regarding the causes of the Flight 5191 accident, it is not too early to investigate how widely the staffing practice at Blue Grass Airport is (used) at other critical air-traffic control facilities across the nation," wrote Costello and Oberstar. Costello is the ranking Democrat on the aviation subcommittee that Mica chairs. The two addressed their letter to DOT Inspector General Todd Zinser.
In the Aug. 30 letter, Oberstar and Costello note that the FAA's policy against controllers working alone stems from a November 2005 incident in Raleigh, N.C., when an overloaded controller caused a near-miss when two planes were directed too close to one another.
Costello's chief of staff, David Gillies, said that they hope to hear from the DOT quickly. "Given the nature of the accident, we hope it's sooner rather than later," he said yesterday.
David Barnes, spokesman for the DOT Inspector General's office, confirmed that Zinser had received the letter. "We will be working with them to address the issues they raised," he said.
Sen. Murray asked FAA administrator Marion Blakey why the agency did not correct the violation of its own policy requiring that the Blue Grass Airport's tower have two controllers, rather than one.
The aviation subcommittee Mica chairs will probably address the crash and related issues at a previously scheduled hearing on aviation safety planned for Sept. 20. The all-government panel includes representatives of the FAA, the NTSB and the DOT Inspector General's office.
Mica said he is very interested in the recent airport construction. The main runway, the one Flight 5191 should have taken, had just been repaved and its center lights were out.
He added that any action before the NTSB has completed its investigation, which could take months, is "very premature." He maintained that staffing in Lexington was more than adequate.
The controller on duty "fulfilled his responsibilities in the exact appropriate manner, from what I've been told by the NTSB," Mica said. "I could have 120 air traffic controllers and it would not make any difference."
"Records I've seen show that Lexington from midnight to 6 a.m. has six to eight flights," Mica said. "If one controller can't handle that it would be a pretty pitiful state of affairs."
Oberstar said that when the FAA decided this spring to cut back on overnight tower staff, they said "it would never put any facility at risk."
Chandler, who represents Lexington in the 6th District, is the only Kentuckian on the transportation committee and its aviation subcommittee.
He said in a statement late last night that while it "remains premature to settle on any cause of the tragedy," the circumstances warrant further review. He noted that he will be briefed next week by FAA and NTSB officials.
Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, said Wednesday that he "is troubled by reports that the air-traffic control tower wasn't adequately staffed." Rogers, who is now chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security, chaired the subcommittee on Transportation from 2001-2003.