LOUISVILLE - The head of the Federal Aviation Administration said yesterday a second air traffic controller in the Blue Grass Airport tower would not necessarily have seen Comair Flight 5191 take off from the wrong runway.
FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey, in Louisville to tout new technology that allows pilots to know where other planes are on the ground and in the air, said a second controller could have been in a windowless radar room and would not have been able to see the plane turn onto the airport's shorter runway.
"Let's start out with the understanding that a second controller in the Lexington tower would have been focused on radar," Blakey said. "Radar is all about approach control, it is all about airborne traffic. That's obviously not what was an issue in the Louisville crash."
Blakey mistakenly referred to the crash as being in Louisville several times during her remarks, though she corrected herself a few times.
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Blakey, a former chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, also said it was not the controller's responsibility to watch the plane on the runway.
Amid questioning about the crash of the Bombardier CRJ-100, Blakey denied any suggestion that there is a nationwide shortage of air traffic controllers, as union officials and aviation experts have argued. She said a Louisville controller was reassigned to Lexington this week.
She also said that an FAA directive to have at least two controllers on duty overnight was "oral guidance." Spokeswomen for the FAA and the air traffic controllers' union have said it was a requirement.
An internal memorandum obtained by the Herald-Leader also refers to the standard as a requirement. The memo was written by the Lexington tower manager in November 2005.
The investigation of the crash, which killed 49 people on board Comair Flight 5191, has revealed that the lone controller on duty at the time of the accident cleared the plane for takeoff, then turned his back to perform administrative duties. The controller began his overnight shift after a nine-hour break, during which he got just two hours of sleep. He worked 15 hours in a 24-hour period.
A spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, an employee union, agreed with Blakey on a few points: It was not the controller's responsibility to make sure the plane was on the right runway, and the second controller might have been assigned radar duties, rather than ground control.
The controller has told investigators that he turned away from the jet to perform a traffic count. When he next looked up the plane had crashed and burned.
Union spokesman Doug Church noted that the controller had also been guiding a plane in the air through poor weather. If another controller had been working, that would have been one fewer distraction for the ground controller, he said.
"Safety was compromised," Church said.
He also disputed Blakey's assertion that there is no controller shortage, noting that the FAA has lost more than 1,000 controllers since 2002, even though air traffic has increased.
After the crash, the FAA ordered that control towers have at least two controllers on midnight-to-8 a.m. shifts. The FAA acknowledged earlier in the week that it had violated its own policy by having only one controller on duty at the time of the crash.
Blakey, who was appointed by President Bush in 2002, did not directly answer when asked whether FAA regional administrators knew the Lexington tower was not in compliance. Air control towers are managed and staffed by the FAA.
An FAA spokeswoman has suggested they did not know, but aviation experts and former traffic controllers say that's highly unlikely.
"If they can't staff by their own standards, there was a controller shortage," said Colorado aviation consultant Mike Boyd, who has testified before Congress about the air traffic control system. "She is blowing smoke. It is just a giant quagmire."
Boyd said he was not surprised that Blakey would dodge questions about who knew what and when.
"It is a yes or no answer: Did management know this or not?" Boyd said. "Refusing to answer, that is a cover-up."
Boyd said that most fault still lies with the pilot for taking off from the wrong runway. He said that he feels sorry for the controller, who must live with grief for something that wasn't his fault.
The crash came at a time when the union and FAA have been at war for almost a year.
After nine months of stalled negotiations, the FAA recently declared an impasse and cited a 1996 law to impose new work rules -- which the union vehemently oppose -- that cut pay for new employees. The new work rules will take effect Sunday because Congress failed to override them.
The union says the FAA is purposefully imposing them on the day before Labor Day.
"It is deliberate what they are doing," said Church, who says the FAA did not bargain in good faith. "It is vindictive."
Church noted that FAA spokeswomen have told reporters that the controller could have called in sick if he were too tired to work.
"He could not have done that this Sunday," Church said. "Under the imposed rules, they may not use sick leave for rest."
The union has said that several controllers will retire because of the new rules.
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.
Blakey has said the agency's labor costs are too high and are preventing the FAA from modernizing equipment.
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