LEXINGTON, Kentucky – Months before the Comair jet crash that killed 49 people, air traffic controllers at the Lexington airport wrote to federal officials complaining about a hostile working environment in the tower and short-staffing on the overnight shift, according to letters obtained by The Associated Press.
In identical letters sent April 4 to Kentucky's senators, Republicans Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning, a control tower worker said the overnight shift, or "mid," is staffed with two people "only when convenient to management."
The Federal Aviation Administration's guidelines called for two people to be there the morning of the Aug. 27 crash, but only one was present.
"We had a controller retire last month and now we are back to single man mids," wrote Faron Collins, a union leader for the Lexington control tower workers. "I ask you one simple question. Are two people needed on the mids for safety or not? If they are, why are they not scheduled?"
Collins said Tuesday that he sent the letters to the Washington and Kentucky offices for both senators. Bunning's spokesman Mike Reynard confirmed that his office received them, but McConnell's office said it had not located the correspondence in its computer system that tracks constituent mail.
After mistakenly turning onto a runway that was too short, the commuter jet struggled to get airborne and crashed. Investigators said the plane made the wrong turn after the lone controller on duty turned his back to do some paperwork. The co-pilot was the sole survivor; he was seriously injured.
Besides the letter to the senators, another Lexington control tower operator wrote to the FAA's Accountability Board on Dec. 1, 2005, complaining about a hostile work environment in the tower. That employee requested anonymity, fearing discipline against him.
"Not only do the vast majority of controllers worry about the security of their jobs, but this anxiety in the work place should be considered a legitimate safety concern for the flying public since controllers are not in a healthy state of mind while working traffic," he wrote.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said that she couldn't comment on the specific case because she had no information, but added that all disciplinary matters are handled internally.
Meanwhile, Comair spokeswoman Kate Marx said pilots the day of the crash were using a map that hadn't been updated since Jan. 27. The airport's taxiway was altered Aug. 20, rendering that diagram outdated.
Although a new diagram was received Friday, two weeks after the crash, it didn't reflect all the recent changes to the airport's taxiway, and the airline is now urging pilots to use "extreme caution."
Marx said the information came from the federal government and was supplied to all airlines, not just Comair.
The National Aeronautical Charting Office, a branch of the Federal Aviation Administration, publishes the maps through vendors hired by the airline.
Brown said that the maps aren't changed to reflect every airport construction project, and that airlines are alerted to those changes through notices to flight crews. There was a notice about the Lexington construction, Brown said.