Crash Investigators Question Air-Controller Policy

The Federal Aviation Administration broke its own staffing rules at a Kentucky airport where a crash Sunday killed 49 people. The agency says the lone air-traffic controller on duty was doing work that is supposed to be divided between two people.

After clearing the twin-engine commuter jet for takeoff, the controller — a 17-year veteran — turned his back to do paperwork. The jet turned onto the wrong runway, which was too short for a commercial jet of its weight. The plane crashed as the pilot struggled, but failed, to guide it into the air.

Over the past three years, the number of air-traffic controllers at Lexington’s Blue Grass airport has dropped by nearly one-quarter, according to the FAA. And the controller told investigators that he was working on two hours of sleep after putting in two eight-hour shifts over a 25-hour stretch. The FAA says the shift schedule did not violate federal work rules.

The agency had required two controllers to do radar and ground control in the past, but the practice had fallen into disuse in some airports around the country. The agency reiterated the policy last year after a harried controller in Raleigh put two planes on the same altitude within about a mile and a half of each another – too close under federal rules.

When a controller retired earlier this year in Lexington, Ky., the manager there tried to hand over radar duty to an air-traffic control center in Indianapolis. But, according to the FAA, the center refused because it was in the midst of reorganizing its airspace.

The agency says the manager didn’t hire a new controller because there weren’t many flights overnight in Lexington. Another reason: He was trying to follow another agency policy encouraging efficiency because of recent budget cuts and an expected rash of retirements.

“It was a technical violation,” FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown says of the decision to let one person do radar and ground duties. “But it was at a time when they had very, very few operations, and the manager was also working with a policy that says, ‘We want you to staff to traffic.'"

The FAA’s looming labor crunch can be traced to the events of 1981. That year, controllers went on strike and President Ronald Reagan fired most of them. The thousands that the government hired to replace the fired workers are now preparing to retire themselves.

“We know that there is a wave of retirements coming up,” Brown says. The efficiency measures are “part of planning for that wave of retirements, getting a good sense of where they are going to be retiring, where they hit the mandatory retirement age.”

The FAA estimates it needs to hire 12,000 new controllers in the next decade.

Some aviation experts say an extra controller in the Lexington tower could have stopped the pilot from turning onto the wrong runway and crashing.

“It would have made a difference,” says Paul Czysz, a retired professor of aerospace engineering at Saint Louis University. He says an extra person might have scanned the runway before takeoff and noticed the mistake.

Czysz says leaving one person in the tower to watch radar and ground traffic was a bad idea.

“That's not efficiency,” he says. Controllers “are the traffic cops for the airport. You don't want the traffic cop distracted when he's directing traffic.”

But other safety experts doubt an extra controller would have mattered. Controllers are supposed to direct pilots to the right runway. But they are not required to visually confirm the plane has actually arrived there.

“This accident could still have happened if you had two, three or even four controllers in the tower,” says Gregory Feith, a retired investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board. “Because if each of those controllers is doing some sort of administrative-type duty and their attention isn’t necessarily focused out the window at a particular time, then – of course — the accident would not have been prevented.”

Since the accident, the FAA has staffed the Lexington tower overnight with two controllers. Officials say the current staff of 19 is enough to manage the facility there. But the FAA also says it plans to hire three new controllers at the airport in the next year.

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