Associated Press
September 20, 2006
By Leslie Miller

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Transportation Department's inspector general is reviewing air traffic control tower staffing policies after last month's plane crash in Kentucky that killed 49 people.

There was one controller in the tower at Blue Grass Airport on Aug. 27 when two Comair pilots took off on the wrong runway. There should have been two controllers staffing the airport under Federal Aviation Administration policy.

The review is under way amid a congressman's assertion that understaffing at the airport had nothing to do with the Lexington, Ky., crash.

The controllers' union has said the staffing shortage at Lexington is a symptom of a systemwide problem - one that will only get worse when a wave of aging controllers retires in the next few years.

Acting Inspector General Todd Zinser said Wednesday that investigators this week are making the first visit to an air traffic control facility since the accident.

David Barnes, spokesman for the Office of Inspector General, would only say that they are visiting an airport on the East Coast. "We're trying to do a good sampling without singling out any particular airports," Barnes said.

At a House hearing, Republican Rep. Robin Hayes of North Carolina said the lone controller at Lexington's airport wasn't responsible for the crash, and that it isn't necessary to have two controllers in an airport tower for aviation to be safe.

"It was not the controller's fault, it was not the FAA's fault," Hayes said at a hearing on aviation safety before the House aviation subcommittee.

The Lexington controller had his back turned to the airfield when the Comair regional jet took off on a runway too short for it to become airborne.

Pilots and other aviation safety experts have said air traffic controllers aren't responsible for making sure pilots take off on the right runway. They say it's unlikely the lone controller's actions played a major role in the accident, though investigators haven't yet determined the cause of the crash.

Without naming names, subcommittee chairman John Mica, a Florida Republican, criticized the air traffic controllers for raising the staffing issue.

"Efforts to make that accident - and the tragic loss of life that occurred on that day - a sounding board for one's own agenda is not in good taste," Mica said.

He pointed out that there are 145 commercial airports that have no towers at all.

Doug Church, National Air Traffic Controllers Association spokesman, said the union has "absolutely not" used the Lexington crash to further its agenda.

"We've been talking about staffing since 1999, and we'll never stop talking about staffing," Church said.

Mica and the FAA acknowledge that the agency needs to hire more controllers. They also concede the FAA must develop a staffing model that makes sense when air traffic is growing at some airports and declining at others.

Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, for example, has lost traffic since American Airlines abandoned it as a hub and doesn't need as many controllers any more, said FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown.