Eight months before Comair Flight 5191 crashed with only one air traffic controller monitoring Blue Grass Airport -- a violation of Federal Aviation Administration policies -- the tower’s manager warned his superiors that he did not have enough staff, according to documents released by federal investigators yesterday.
In a Jan. 12, 2006, e-mail, Lexington tower manager Duff Ortman sent a draft of a budget request to FAA hub manager Darryl Collins in Cincinnati to increase his overtime budget from $17,000 to $92,000. Without more controllers or more overtime, Ortman said, he could not comply with an FAA directive to have two controllers monitoring the airport on the overnight shift.
“There is no more rubber band to stretch,” Ortman wrote in an e-mail released yesterday by the National Transportation Safety Board.
From January to April, Ortman staffed two people on the overnight shift on “most days,” he said in an interview with the NTSB. But after a controller retired in April, he staffed only one person on the shift -- a decision that violated FAA policies.
He discussed the decision with Collins, according to an interview transcript.
In the days after the crash, an FAA spokeswoman denied that there were limitations on overtime. Ortman, however, said his budget allowed for only 34 days of overtime coverage for the entire year.
Spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen told the Herald-Leader the night of the crash that there was no directive that overnight shifts, also called midshifts, have two people.
But according to Collins, Bergen had a copy of a Nov. 16, 2005, memo that afternoon in which Ortman referred to the requirement.
“In other words, she blatantly lied,” said aviation consultant Mike Boyd, who has testified to Congress about the nation’s air traffic control system. “The FAA has been known to lie about things. They have been known to cover up things, and this is one more example of that.”
Investigators apparently did not learn of the staffing requirement until Ortman’s memo was leaked to reporters.
NTSB members asked Collins on Aug. 30 -- the day after news broke -- why the FAA did not provide them with the memo.
“No one believed it had a bearing on the accident,” Collins said. “The paramount issue was the controller’s performance, not how many people were on duty, until it came out in the press.”
Collins said he did not think having two people on the shift would have made a difference because the other controller’s attention may have been somewhere else.
Several experts have said that controllers are not responsible for making sure planes line up on the correct runway.
After the crash, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, an employee union, reiterated its longtime stance that the United States has a controller shortage that threatens safety. It is involved in a heated labor dispute with the FAA.
A union spokesman declined to comment yesterday because the union is a party to the NTSB investigation.
In a statement, the FAA noted that the NTSB has not determined a cause of the crash and said the agency will continue complying with the investigation. A spokeswoman declined further comment.
The FAA gave Ortman “a blank check” after the crash to cover overnight shifts, he said. In a 70-day period between January and March, the shifts were not fully staffed 40 times, according to the report.
Ken Bechtold, vice president of the NATCA’s Lexington local, said overtime was heavily restricted before the crash. Controllers were never told anything in writing, but managers said “that they didn’t have the money for it.”
The agency has not disclosed exactly who knew what and when about Lexington not complying with the FAA policies, which were created in 2005 after an incident at the Raleigh-Durham airport in North Carolina.
Agency administrator Marion Blakey dodged such questions when she spoke in Louisville after the crash. The FAA has not yet provided documents the Herald-Leader requested in an open records request filed a day after the accident asking for correspondence between Ortman and his superiors about staffing.
Yesterday’s report was the first indication that officials above the local level were aware the Lexington tower was not in compliance.
“The problem is politics, and political appointees is what is running the FAA,” said Boyd, the aviation consultant, who lives in Colorado. “So we don’t really know who is on first. We don’t know what to believe. But we do know this: The tower was understaffed. We do know that the FAA doesn’t even follow its own rules.”
Bruce Johnson, the FAA’s vice president for terminal services, told investigators he did not know the Lexington tower was out of compliance until after the accident. In November 2005, he “verbally” directed towers to have two people performing radar and tower functions; the radar function could be done by a controller in another tower.
But there was confusion over whether his instructions were “verbal guidance” or “policy,” Johnson said. Six facilities were not in compliance with his directions, but Lexington was the only one that didn’t follow because of staffing issues.
Johnson was asked how he ensures that towers are complying with FAA policies. He said he expects managers to tell him during quarterly meetings.