News Releases

Senator Murray Urges FAA Administrator to Move Aggressively to Hire More Air Traffic Controllers

Aug 31 2006

Senator Questions FAA’s Long-Delayed Staffing Plan

(Washington D.C.) - In the wake of the tragic crash of Comair Flight 5191 in Lexington, Kentucky, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) today sent a letter to Federal Aviation Administrator Marion Blakey urging the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to focus its resources on ensuring that a well trained and experienced controller workforce is in place to guarantee the safety of the flying public. Senator Murray is the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate Treasury, the Judiciary, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Subcommittee, which oversees funding for the FAA.

"On the eve of one of the busiest travel weekends of the year, travelers need to know that they are safe. They shouldn’t have to wonder if there are enough air traffic controllers or if those controllers have had enough sleep," said Senator Murray. "That's why we have strict standards that the federal government must fully enforce."

Murray asked the Administrator to explain why the FAA’s latest staffing plan would have fewer trained controllers on board this year and next year, why the FAA failed to detect violations of its staffing policy, and why the agency’s November safety directive was not issued in writing, among other questions.

The following is the text of the letter that was sent to Administrator Blakey:


August 31, 2006

The Honorable Marion Blakey
Federal Aviation Administration
800 Independence Avenue, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20591

Dear Administrator Blakey:

The tragic accident of Comair Flight 5191 in Lexington, Kentucky raises a critical question of whether your agency is adequately focused and positioned to maintain a sufficiently trained and experienced controller workforce that will guarantee the safety of the flying public. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) must move aggressively to hire sufficient controllers to ensure that facilities like Lexington Tower will not have to wait an inordinate amount of time to fill controller vacancies brought on by retirements and other causes.

Your agency is to be commended for frankly and promptly admitting that, at the time of the tragedy in Lexington, the air traffic control tower was operating with only one controller, in violation of your agency’s own safety directives. As I understand it, your senior safety managers issued a verbal directive back in November of last year that control towers must have separate controllers handling the ground operations and air operations at all times. This directive was issued after a potentially catastrophic “near miss” incident occurred while a controller was stationed alone in Raleigh, North Carolina. Despite the importance of this directive, the Lexington tower has been allowed to continually violate this directive on both weekdays and weekends ever since April of this year, when the facility experienced the retirement of one controller and the medical disqualification of another.

FAA management did not discover the violation of its own safety directive until after the tragedy in Lexington, when the agency discovered similar violations at six other FAA towers. Given that the policy was implemented in the wake of a recent near-tragedy in North Carolina, why were violations of this policy allowed to persist at numerous facilities for an extended period of time?

Let me be clear that I do not take it as a foregone conclusion that a second controller on duty at the time of the accident could have prevented the Lexington tragedy. Only the National Transportation Safety Board can tell us the true cause of the accident and the measures that your agency and the other parties will need to take in order to preclude such tragedies in the future.

The fact remains, however, that the FAA’s staffing plans now call for three new controllers at the Lexington tower to adequately meet traffic demands, but those positions are not scheduled to be filled until 2007 and 2008. Such a situation raises the question of whether your agency’s hiring plans will meet the need to maintain safety across our entire national aviation system.

As you know, back in December of 2004, you released the FAA’s first comprehensive staffing plan to address the large number of expected retirements in your controller workforce. At that time, you stated that this plan would be issued annually and updated each year to reflect your most recent projections of your staffing needs. Despite this public commitment, no updated report was issued in December 2005. When I asked you during hearings in early May of 2006 why we had not received the report, you assured the Subcommittee that we would be receiving it very soon. It wasn’t until last week that you formally submitted the report – some eight months late. It unfortunately required our Committee to propose large statutory fines for the late submittal of the plan to get you to release it to us.

Our initial review of your updated report is worrisome. Since your initial staffing plan was released in December of 2004, it appears that you now anticipate a greater number of retirements at the same time as you plan to hire fewer controllers to fill those losses, both for this year and next year. I remain concerned that further lengthening the time it takes to fill vacant positions – like those at Lexington tower – will only undermine the essential safety work of your people in the field.

I would appreciate your response to the following questions regarding the issues discussed above:

  1. Why did your agency issue its safety directive regarding minimum staffing under certain tower configurations verbally rather than in writing?

  2. Why weren’t the persistent violations of this policy detected and corrected more quickly?

  3. What circumstances have changed since December of 2004 such that you now want to have fewer trained controllers on board, both this year and next year?

  4. What explains the delay in transmitting your controller staffing plan this year?

  5. Can we assume that your next controller staffing plan will be submitted in March of 2007, consistent with the dictates included in the Senate Transportation Appropriations bill for 2007?

Thank you in advance for your prompt response to these inquiries. As always, I look forward to working with you to ensure the safety of our aviation system, both domestically and internationally.


Patty Murray
Ranking Member
Subcommittee on Transportation, Treasury, the Judiciary, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies