Study: U.S. Airport Never Enacted Plan to Meet Tower Staffing Policy

LEXINGTON, Kentucky_A U.S. airport where a plane took off from the wrong runway and crashed last year had put together a plan to help it comply with federal guidelines on staffing in air control towers but never enacted it, according to a staffing study.

The tower at Blue Grass Airport in Kentucky reached a deal in early 2006 in which a regional radar center in Indianapolis would assume some of the overnight radar duties between March and November, according to documents obtained by the Herald-Leader newspaper in Lexington. The deal was an effort by the airport to meet Federal Aviation Administration guidelines designed to prevent one person from handling both ground control and approach control.

Only one controller was on duty Aug. 27 when Comair Flight 5191 crashed shortly after takeoff, killing 49 of 50 people on board. The controller, who was operating both systems, had his back turned at the time of the crash.

The staffing study concluded that it would cost Blue Grass Airport US$135,000 in overtime to fully staff the tower overnight, the Herald-Leader reported Saturday. The airport's overtime budget was only US$17,000.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the plan was not enacted because it would also require the lengthy process of reclassifying Lexington's airspace from midnight to 6:30 a.m.

"(The study) was only one piece of a discussion, it wasn't a final word," Brown said.

Instead, the tower went with one controller overnight after a controller retired and a request for a bigger overtime budget by the tower manager was denied, the newspaper said.

Even if the plan to give some of the duties to Indianapolis Center was eventually put in place, some controllers argue it would not have been enough to address the problem of controller shortages.

"We're never going to be comfortable with that arrangement," National Air Traffic Controllers Association spokesman Doug Church said. "There should always be a local approach control 24/7 (24 hours a day, seven days a week) that knows the airspace like the back of their hand."

Since the crash, the Lexington tower has assigned two people to work the overnight shift, thanks in part to an increase in the overtime budget to US$154,500.

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