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NATCA Statement Regarding the NTSB Final Report on Comair Flight 5191 - (7/26/2007)

CONTACT:     Doug Church; 301-346-8245 (cell)

NATCA President Patrick Forrey:

“On behalf of all air traffic controllers in the United States, I would like to start off by expressing our deepest sympathies to the families of the victims of Comair Flight 5191. This was a horrible tragedy and we know the past year must have been extremely difficult while this investigation was being conducted.

“The NTSB this morning focused on many things but I would like to discuss one key part of this investigation: The staffing of the Lexington control tower.

“As the NTSB stated, there was only one controller working in the Lexington tower on the morning of Aug. 27, 2006, instead of the two required by the Federal Aviation Administration on overnight shifts for facilities of this type. There was a near-tragedy in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina in August of 2005 in which only one controller was on duty instead of two and this prompted the FAA to issue guidance requiring two-controller midnight shifts in all combined tower/TRACON facilities. But that guidance was NOT followed in Lexington.

“I want to emphasize, in case there is any doubt: This Lexington controller did nothing wrong. He cleared the aircraft to the correct runway and performed his duties by the book. Our bottom line is this: WE BELIEVE THIS TERRIBLE TRAGEDY MIGHT WELL HAVE BEEN PREVENTED HAD THERE BEEN A SECOND CONTROLLER IN THIS FACILITY ON THIS SHIFT.
“NATCA’s long-held position is there should NEVER be one controller working by themselves. Ever. It is not safe, for the controller or for the flying public. In the case of this tragedy, if the FAA had followed its own policy, the tower controller might have had enough time to catch the error. This was a deadly mistake by the FAA in not properly staffing this facility according to the agency’s own requirements, and exemplifies what can happen when you try to operate an inherently governmental safety service like a business.

“The lone controller on duty performed 31 separate activities in the time leading up to, including, and after, the crash. We have detailed these for you in a printout for those here with us and it’s also on our web site, the link to which has been sent to you (e-mail Doug Church if you need it) and also identified the fact that 14 of these duties – nearly half – would have been performed by a second controller, allowing the tower controller more time and opportunity to scan the runway and possibly catch the mistake that was made by the flight crew.

“This is an experienced, excellent air traffic controller that we are talking about here, who’s been on the job for over 18 years at this airport.

“His ordeal is ongoing and he is taking it hard. This is a traumatic event in his life that has created a great deal of hardship and many challenges. This is something that all controllers consider their worst nightmare. But this is the job that we sign up for as controllers; high stress, high stakes. Lives are precious and the safety of all crew and passengers is our highest priority.

“Bottom line: The FAA created a situation that might have ended very differently had they followed their own policy of appropriate staffing levels. The FAA failed in their responsibility to provide every possible safe guard to the flying public… they required this man to perform the tasks of two controllers. This lone controller had no opportunity to act as a safety net, to turn a tragedy into an “almost tragedy” as controllers do so many times across this country. The agency put him in an impossibly difficult situation of performing two critically important jobs by himself to save a buck…. His life and the lives of the families of the victims of Comair Flight 5191 are forever altered.

“This tragedy illustrates the importance of safely staffing our nation’s air traffic control facilities.

“This is a system operated by human beings. Pilots make mistakes. Controllers make mistakes. But we catch each other’s mistakes if we have the resources and the staffing to do so. That is the key to aviation safety. Just two weeks ago, a potential disaster on the runway at Fort Lauderdale was prevented because of an alert controller. The tower was fully staffed at the time. But on July 5, a controller’s mistake led to a near-miss at LaGuardia involving an ill-advised crossing of an active arrival runway. Only one ground control position was staffed instead of the needed two. When you double controllers’ workload by cutting staffing, mistakes are going to result. It’s a direct correlation.

“Redundancy is an issue NATCA has been raising for many years as it pertains to the safety of the system. Today, the NTSB provided the public a report on the causal effects to the tragedy at LEX last August. Even though the notable cause of the accident was due to pilot error, it is important to note that had the required air traffic controller staffing been provided, the departure on the wrong runway might have been caught before the aircraft rolled down the runway as it is at airports across the country on a daily basis.

“The FAA’s agenda of treating the safety and security services of air traffic control like a business is a dismal failure. The manager at LEX requested additional staffing and/or overtime funding to ensure that proper staffing for all shifts – including the midnight shift – were met. He was refused the staffing and the overtime, and thus, could not meet the two-controller midnight shift requirement. Just a few short months later, Comair rolled down the wrong runway and the single air traffic controller on duty had no chance to catch the pilot’s mistake.

“Redundancy. It might be the most important word in aviation safety.”

NATCA submission to NTSB on Comair 5191
Activities performed by LEX controller prior to COM5191 accident
Summary of incident at RDU that prompted the FAA to issue the order calling for two controllers to work the midnight shift in facilities with combined tower and TRACON functions
Link to NTSB Report

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