Last month's crash of a Comair jet is reviving a controversy over whether the Federal Aviation Administration's efforts to increase efficiencies and save money are jeopardizing air safety.
At issue is the role of air traffic controllers, the safety cops who guide planes across airport tarmacs as well as the nation's 17 million square miles of airspace.
When the Comair jet crashed on takeoff in Lexington, Ky., one air traffic controller was on duty, rather than the two required by the FAA. Critics see evidence that the air traffic control system is dangerously understaffed. The FAA and its supporters deny that, saying the problem is work-schedule inflexibility imposed by the controllers' union and Congress.
The dispute raises a deeper safety question, say aviation analysts: Should the FAA, which regulates airline safety, continue to be allowed to regulate itself?
"It's not a good idea, no matter how honorable or well-intentioned" people may be, says Clint Oster, an aviation expert at Indiana University at Bloomington. "When you regulate yourself, it's a whole lot easier to grant yourself a few small exceptions. As a friend of mine said, 'If Delta had decided to fly a few of their planes with one pilot instead of two, you think they'd be flying the next day?' "
Last week, the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation started an investigation to determine whether the FAA's Air Traffic Control facilities are properly staffed. The dispute will continue until that independent review is complete.
There is one thing no one argues about.
The lone air traffic controller in the tower that morning cleared Comair Flight 5191 for takeoff on the proper runway, then turned to do some paperwork, according to people familiar with the investigation.
It's impossible to know whether a second controller, if one had been on duty, would have noticed the small jet racing down the wrong runway and prevented the crash that killed 49 of the 50 people on board.
Union representatives, for their part, say they've been warning Congress for the past five years about the seriousness of a staffing shortage. There are currently about 14,300 air traffic controllers, some 1,000 fewer than in 2000, when air traffic reached a peak.
After the 2000 recession and the 9/11 attacks, air traffic dropped sharply. As a result, the FAA says, it didn't need as many controllers because the number of aircraft each controller handled had decreased. Today, air traffic has recovered to within half a percentage point of 2000 levels. Moreover, the increase in the number of corporate jets and small commercial jets has significantly boosted traffic at some of the busiest airports.
As a result, the union says, air traffic control towers routinely operate with fewer staff than they did five years ago, eroding safety.
"You're already asking 1,000 fewer controllers to do more," says Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "You can't continue to cut and slash corners and maintain the same margin of safety."
The FAA disagrees. Spokeswoman Laura Brown says the agency "feels we have the right number of controllers currently in place."
The FAA plans to further shrink the number of air traffic controllers by as much as 10 percent over the next decade. Its goal is to do it by increasing efficiency by matching the number of controllers in each tower with the level of air traffic at each airport, a process called "staffing to traffic."
On Labor Day, after two years of bargaining, the FAA imposed a new contract on the controllers that gives the agency more of the flexibility it says it needs to accomplish that.
"We want to do staffing to traffic, not set some arbitrary number [in a contract]," says Ms. Brown.
FAA supporters say safety will not be jeopardized by increasing efficiencies. The air traffic controller on duty in Lexington last month did his job – which was to clear the plane to take off on the proper runway, which he did, they note. They contend that it was not the controller's job to make sure the plane actually took off safely, a position with which others disagree.
The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the cause of the crash.
In the meantime, aviation experts such as Mr. Oster say the US needs to look to the reforms of the air traffic control systems in Canada and Great Britain for solutions to the FAA's staffing and budget problems. They created air traffic control systems that were operated and funded independently of their regulatory agencies.
In the United States, air traffic control functions are operated solely by the FAA and funded primarily by fees on airfares. The rapid growth of low-cost carriers over the past five years has significantly reduced the amount of revenue brought into the FAA, even as air traffic has increased. Airlines' rising use of small jets has exacerbated the problem, in that they yield less in per-passenger ticket fees for the FAA than big jets do but require the same level of work by controllers.
The creation of an independent air traffic control agency that collects fees from the airlines on the basis of their usage of the air traffic control system, says Oster, would address the system's funding need and provide staffing flexibility. It would also allow for an independent body separate from the FAA to regulate the agency's air-safety decisions.
Both the FAA and the air traffic controllers union oppose such a move. Each argues that Congress, the DOT's inspector general, and the General Accountability Office already provide enough oversight.