Editorials

No progress since crash of Flight 5191

Problems exposed by the crash of Comair Flight 5191 remain unsolved, two years after 49 lives were lost at Blue Grass Airport.

Improvements are stalled by partisan gridlock in Congress and the intransigence of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Until a new president and Congress are elected, there's little chance of relieving the strain on a stressed aviation system.

Frustrated by pay cuts and working conditions, air-traffic controllers, who direct traffic in the air and on runways, are quitting or retiring at alarming rates.

At some airports, more than a third of the controllers are trainees, reports the U.S. Transportation Department's inspector general.

The trainees are quitting at markedly higher rates this year. The attrition spike raises concerns about the FAA's ability to replace retirees and money wasted on training those who have left, says the Government Accountability Office.

The heavy reliance on trainees should also raise concerns about safety.

At Blue Grass Airport on Aug. 27, 2006, pilot error steered a commuter jet down a dark runway that was too short for takeoff.

The ensuing investigation also highlighted other factors, most notably a shortage of controllers.

Lexington's tower was supposed to have been staffed by two controllers overnight. But because of the shortage, only one controller, operating on a couple hours of sleep, was on duty when the commuter jet taxied down the wrong runway.

Since then, the FAA has kept two controllers on duty at Blue Grass overnight. The controllers union contends this has required even more unreasonable overtime and workload demands.

Just days after the Comair crash, the FAA imposed new work rules on controllers after contract negotiations broke down.

The new rules effectively reduced controllers' incomes by freezing wages and eliminating premium-pay opportunities. Starting pay was cut by 30 percent, to $37,800.

"With work schedules being changed daily, vacations being canceled and more time required on work positions, our veteran members are saying 'I'm out of here,'" Patrick Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, told a House committee this summer.

In response to the Comair crash, Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, sponsored legislation mandating a National Academies of Sciences study on safety issues, including runway incursions and tower staffing. The findings could help end one dispute between the FAA and the union by establishing scientifically based staffing standards.

Chandler's legislation is hung up in the Senate as part of an FAA reauthorization bill that would also pay for the next generation of control-tower technology, except that the administration and lawmakers can't agree on how to pay for it.

The FAA has plans to install lights at 22 airports to warn pilots when they're on the wrong runway.

But the FAA is refusing National Transportation Safety Board recommendations for requirements that pilots confirm they're on the right runway and that controllers withhold clearance to take off until a plane has crossed all runway intersections.

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