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In air control towers, enough workers?

The Comair crash revives a fight over staffing levels. The DOT's inspector general starts a probe.

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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.

Flight 5191 was cleared for proper runway

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.


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