Safety Hearing Set Before Comair Crash

Louisville Courier-Journal
September 21, 2006
By James R. Carrol

WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers criticized the Federal Aviation Administration yesterday for failing to properly staff Lexington's Blue Grass Airport and other air traffic control facilities nationwide.

The lawmakers said at a House hearing that staffing shortages may have been a factor in the Aug. 27 crash of Comair Flight 5191, which killed 49 people when the plane failed to take off.

"The FAA has yet to address its staffing problems. That is a safety issue," said Kentucky U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, whose 6th District includes Lexington.

The FAA has acknowledged that the Lexington control tower should have had two controllers on duty at the time of the crash, not one. However, the FAA's top official said days after the accident that an additional controller would not have been watching takeoffs but instead monitoring a radar.

Nicholas Sabatini, the FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety, said at the House hearing that the nation remains "in the midst of the safest period in aviation history."

The hearing, scheduled before the crash, dealt with a variety of safety issues besides controller staffing, including the FAA's oversight of airline operations, maintenance, aging aircraft and the impact of new kinds of planes on the aviation system.

Chandler clashed with Sabatini over the controller staffing issue. Chandler asked how Lexington could have ignored the agency's two-controller requirement.

Sabatini said the FAA had issued an order requiring two controllers, and after an incident at the Raleigh-Durham airport last year, "there was a verbal conversation with somebody in Lexington" about staffing.

"But it still left room for interpretation," Sabatini said.

Chandler said requiring two controllers on the midnight shift "seems pretty clear to me."

"Were they directed to do it or not?" Chandler asked.

Sabatini said he would have to provide other FAA officials to answer that question.

Chandler then probed whether there were repercussions in Lexington for not having two controllers when the Comair flight crashed.

"Has anybody been reprimanded for it?" Chandler asked.

"I don't have that information," Sabatini responded.

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., scolded Sabatini that his answers on Lexington were "unacceptable."

"What (Chandler) asked is a very basic question -- what we got is gobbledygook," Pascrell said. "You're not talking straight right now."

Sabatini did not respond to the comments and he declined to be interviewed after the hearing.

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said later that "controller staffing and the Lexington accident were not a part of the intended subject matter for the hearing."

The chairman of the panel, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said, "It appears some have chosen to use the unfortunate tragedy of the Lexington Comair crash in August to forward their own agenda." Mica did not mention any names.

But Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., said no Democrats were using the accident for a personal agenda, but "we must not become complacent about our success."