WASHINGTON -- The air traffic controllers' union is petitioning a federal safety board to reopen its findings on the Aug. 27, 2006, Comair crash that killed 49 people, and include understaffing at Lexington's airport tower as a contributing factor, reports the Louisville Courier-Journal in its Saturday edition.
The tower had just one controller on duty at the time of the accident, and two would have presented a better chance at stopping the plane from using the wrong runway, according to a petition the National Air Traffic Controllers Association has filed with the National Transportation Safety Board.
"Had there been two people there, I seriously believe the accident wouldn't have happened," NATCA President Patrick Forrey said in an interview, reports the C-J.
On a related issue, the union has sent a letter to the NTSB complaining that nearly two years after the crash, the controllers and the Federal Aviation Administration have had just one meeting to address fatigue problems. One of the NTSB's recommendations after the Kentucky accident reiterated the board's previous urgings that the FAA deal with controller fatigue.
The petition and the letter, both obtained by The Courier-Journal, come as the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's aviation subcommittee delves into air traffic controller staffing at a hearing scheduled for Wednesday, the newspaper reports.
In issuing its findings on the Comair crash on July 26, 2007, the NTSB did not cite understaffing of controllers as a contributing factor to the accident. The board said "it cannot be determined if this decision contributed to the circumstances of this accident."
The Comair jet tried to take off from a runway that was too short, ran off the pavement and crashed. Only the co-pilot, James Polehinke, survived, reports the newspaper.
The NTSB later found that the pilots' failure to spot clues alerting them to their mistake in taxiing to the wrong runway -- and their failure to double-check instruments to verify their location -- caused the accident.
But investigators also noted that having one controller on duty at the time of the crash was contrary to an FAA policy requiring two controllers on the midnight shift.
The lone controller, Christopher Damron, told the NTSB he had turned away from the plane after clearing it for takeoff to attend to administrative duties, the C-J reports.
In their findings, the NTSB and the FAA maintained that a second controller would not have made a difference because that controller would have been monitoring radar in a room downstairs, not in the tower.
The union, however, said that finding contradicts the NTSB's own interview with a Lexington controller who said two controllers working on the midnight shift normally worked together in the tower.
"NATCA asserts that had two controllers been on duty that morning, the lone controller would not have been engaged in radar activities and would have had a better chance at stopping Comair 5191 from rolling down the wrong runway," the union's petition states, reports the newspaper.
The petition says the board "has simply closed its eyes" to the direct connection between the FAA's failure to meet staffing requirements at Lexington and the accident.
NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said the board would review the petition and comment after the review is completed.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said she did not want to comment directly on a petition sent to the NTSB, but her agency has never had a policy requiring two controllers to be working side-by-side in the tower.
The FAA required, when there were two controllers on the shift, that one work in the tower and the other on the radar, which may mean working downstairs, in a windowless room, she said.
"It's up to the NTSB to decide what the contributing factors are, but (NATCA is) implying there was a requirement to have two controllers in the tower, and that was not the requirement," Brown said.
NTSB member Deborah Hersman, who directed the Comair investigation, last year issued a separate statement after the board's findings saying that controller staffing was among several contributing factors to the crash the board should have cited, the newspaper reports.
The union and the FAA have been in an ongoing labor dispute since the fall of 2006, and the sides have disagreed vehemently over staffing levels at air traffic facilities across the country.
The union has contended that controller shortages are resulting in overworked and tired controllers who are making more potentially hazardous mistakes.
The FAA has said the staffing levels are adequate to safely handle current levels of air traffic.
Forrey said the union does not expect the NTSB to change its mind, but believes it's important for the public to understand that the FAA "is negligent in this accident."
The union does not believe fatigue was an issue in the Comair accident, although NTSB investigators found that Damron had slept only two hours in a 24-hour period, the C-J reports.
But the union agreed with the NTSB's recommendation that fatigue among controllers needs to be addressed.
Meanwhile, Forrey and the FAA's Brown disagreed about who is at fault for the lack of meetings on the subject.
Forrey wrote NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker that while an initial meeting was promising, "the FAA has once again allowed this important safety issue to be placed aside."
Brown said her agency and the union have met twice, and the union has declined to participate in an upcoming conference on the subject later this month in suburban Washington, reports The Louisville Courier-Journal.
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