FAA Says KY Tower Was Understaffed

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There should have been two controllers on duty in the Lexington, Ky., control tower instead of just one, on the morning that a Comair Bombardier CRJ-100 commuter jet crashed after trying to take off from the wrong runway, the FAA said on Tuesday. Of the 50 people on board the Comair flight, 49 were killed. FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the FAA has required two controllers in all towers on all shifts since November 2005, after a near-collision of two aircraft near Raleigh-Durham Airport in North Carolina. The Lexington tower will now have at least two controllers at all times, one on radar and one on the tower position. Early Sunday morning, the controller on duty, who had 17 years of experience, cleared the Comair flight for takeoff on Runway 22 (7,003 feet), then turned away to perform some administrative tasks. The jet took off on Runway 26, which is only 3,500 feet long. However, Brown said, a second controller wouldn't have necessarily made any difference. Officials from the FAA and NTSB were unclear or declined to answer when asked if the controller should have watched the airplane take off. NTSB member Debbie Hersman said, "The decisions about what needs to be done and what needs to be changed, that's all a part of the NTSB analysis." In general, the controller is responsible for separating the aircraft from other traffic. No other aircraft were active on the airport surface at the time of the Comair flight's departure. Andrew Cantwell, regional NATCA vice president, told CNN that controllers are not required to watch planes depart, and he does not think controller error contributed to the crash. "I believe the controller performed his duties as required and, unfortunately, there were other duties to be accomplished at the same time," he said. The controller worked from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Saturday and came back to work at 11:30 p.m. Saturday ... and after two hours sleep ... to begin an eight-hour overnight shift, the Associated Press reported, yesterday.

Capt. Larry Newman, chief of air traffic control for the Air Line Pilots Association, told USA Today that controllers "clearly have the obligation" to make sure airplanes are on the correct runway before allowing them to take off. "It's equally the responsibility of the [flight] crews to know where they're supposed to go and not supposed to go," he added. NATCA is opposed to ever allowing one-person shifts, spokesman Doug Church told AVweb on Tuesday. "One-person midnight shifts are never a good idea. It reduces the margin of safety and strips it down to its barest minimum," he said. NATCA has opposed one-person shifts -- officially -- since 1993, when that opposition was written into the organization's constitution, Church said.