Federal Study Finds Staff Shortages in Control Towers

In all, 2,563 (or 11.1 percent) of the 23,002 total midnight shifts surveyed by the inspector general were staffed with only one controller between Aug. 28, 2005 and Sept. 2, 2006, the report said.

Mar. 21--Understaffing at air traffic control towers during the midnight shift was a common problem at many airports in the year before the crash of Comair Flight 5191, according to a federal report released yesterday.

Federal Aviation Administration guidelines call for two controllers to be on duty during the midnight shift so that one controller can monitor traffic on the radar while the other handles traffic on the ground.

The FAA issued a verbal guidance in late August 2005 that two controllers were required on the midnight shift.

But during the year leading up to the crash, understaffing at towers during that shift was common because the verbal policy "was misinterpreted and inconsistently applied," according to the report from the Department of Transportation's Office of the Inspector General.

In all, 2,563 (or 11.1 percent) of the 23,002 total midnight shifts surveyed by the inspector general were staffed with only one controller between Aug. 28, 2005 and Sept. 2, 2006, the report said. The inspector general looked at staffing at 62 towers comparable in size to Blue Grass Airport.

But even when towers had two controllers on the midnight shift, the duties were often combined so that only one of the controllers was responsible for watching traffic on the ground and in the air while the other took a break.

"Radar and ground control duties were combined for substantial periods of time even though there were at least two controllers on duty," the inspector general said.

The inspector general's report is likely to be a topic of conversation when the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee conducts a hearing on FAA operational and safety issues Thursday in Washington.

The report is "hopefully a wake-up call," said Randy Harris, president of the Lexington chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "Hopefully the FAA wakes up before too much longer and understands what's going on" and realizes it has to follow the policies, he said.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency does not take issue with the report. She said the FAA already has addressed the report's major recommendations, including putting procedures in writing.

The verbal policy on midnight staffing was put in writing on Nov. 17, 2006 -- more than two months after the Comair crash in Lexington.

The inspector general studied 20 randomly selected weeks of staffing data at 15 of the 62 towers it reviewed. It then projected, with "a 95 percent confidence level," what those numbers would look like for all 62 airports.

Eight of the 15 towers did not meet the FAA-required two controllers during at least one midnight shift in the year before the Comair crash. Blue Grass Airport was not one of the 15 studied. Louisville was sampled, but didn't have any shifts that were out of compliance with the two-controller rule, the report said.

The control tower at Abilene, Texas, was understaffed on one shift. Duluth, Minn., had as many as 133 midnight shifts with just one controller, the highest number among the airports reviewed. Other airports with non-compliant shifts included Nashville (16 shifts), Huntington, W.Va. (28), and Des Moines, Iowa (33).

The best estimate is that 33 of the 62 towers (or 53.3 percent) in the review did not meet the two-controller staffing requirement during the study period, the inspector general said.

On the day 49 people died in the crash of Comair Flight 5191, Blue Grass Airport wasn't the only tower staffed with just one controller during the midnight shift, the report said. Two towers -- at Duluth and Fargo, N.D. -- also had just one controller scheduled during the midnight shift.

Since the crash, a controller has been added on the midnight shift at Lexington, so one person is responsible for radar duties and one is responsible for tower duties, Brown said.

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