LEXINGTON, Kentucky – Nearly two years before the fatal crash of Comair Flight 5191, a control tower supervisor at the Lexington airport reported staff shortages that "can cost lives."
According to a safety memo filed in September 2004 and obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press, the supervisor reported the airport's radar system was not working properly but that the air traffic manager refused to call in a mechanical specialist because it would mean paying two hours of overtime.
The memo went on to complain that staffing in Lexington was a "low priority to the powers above us" who were more focused on solving problems at larger airports, such as Louisville and Cincinnati.
"Those types of poorly thought out decisions can cost lives," said the supervisor, who made the report anonymously through a NASA system used by tower operators and pilots to list safety concerns, which are ultimately relayed to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Investigators are looking into staffing at the Lexington control tower, among other things, as a possible contributing factor to the Aug. 27 crash that killed 49 of 50 people on board.
The plane headed down a runway too short to make a proper takeoff, but the lone tower operator — who got only two hours of sleep between shifts — had turned his back to do administrative work. According to FAA guidelines, two control tower operators should have been working at the time.
Since the crash, the FAA has put two tower operators on the overnight shift in Lexington.
"The anonymous report from 2004 appears to express concern about maintenance technicians, not air traffic controllers. We don't have a staff problem in general at control towers," FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said.
Brown said Lexington and other smaller airports do not have full-time maintenance workers on staff, relying instead on regional maintenance crews that arrive when there is a problem. After the crash, the FAA tested the equipment in the Lexington tower and found it was in working order, Brown said.
Victor Santore, Southern region vice president for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said the memo proves that staffing complaints are not just coming from rank-and-file controllers seeking more overtime pay.
"The FAA just characterizes it as union rhetoric, but here you have a member of management trying to warn someone that the facility is short-staffed, and nobody's doing anything about it," Santore said.
Although radar equipment problems have not been listed as a possible cause of the Kentucky crash, former Blue Grass airport control tower operator Scott Zoeckler said the supervisor's report is evidence of staffing neglect. The specific radar element listed as inoperable serves a major safety component, he said.
"You're sitting there looking at airplanes, and all of a sudden you have nothing to see," Zoeckler said. "It's about the scariest event you can have. Lexington is going to become the window to which the country sees the problem staffing is having on the entire system."