Official Blames Safety Flaws in U.S. Aviation System for Comair Crash

August 15, 2007

A lead investigator of last summer’s deadly Comair plane crash in Kentucky that killed 49 people says the accident exposed “latent failures” across the nation’s aviation system.

In an eight-page concurring opinion obtained by The Associated Press, National Transportation Safety Board member Deborah Hersman agreed that the pilots’ failure to notice clues they were going down a runway too short for takeoff was the primary cause.

However, she suggested her colleagues may have overlooked nine other critical errors that she says should have been included as contributing factors in the NTSB’s final report.

Among the factors that contributed to the crash, Hersman said, were a fatigued air traffic controller, a short-staffed control tower, outdated airport charts and missing paperwork that would have warned the pilots about a construction project that changed the taxiway route.

The Comair jet crashed in the predawn darkness Aug. 27, 2006, shortly after taking off from the wrong runway — an unlit general aviation strip too short for commercial flights. Of the 50 people onboard, only the co-pilot survived.

Comair, a regional carrier, is based in Erlanger, Ky., near the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

Voting last month in Washington, the NTSB decided that pilot error was the primary cause, and the Federal Aviation Administration had a lesser role. The NTSB findings will be released in writing later this month, along with Hersman’s concurring opinion.

“The system the pilots were operating in had multiple holes,” Hersman wrote. “Not one of these latent failures was significant enough to eclipse the actions of the pilots as the probable cause of this accident, but viewed as a group, they illuminate safety weaknesses that, if eliminated, may very well prevent another accident like this one.”

Comair spokeswoman Kate Marx declined to comment Monday because the NTSB’s final report hasn’t been released. In past statements, the airline has argued several factors, not just pilot error, were responsible for the crash.

An FAA spokeswoman declined to comment Monday.

Besides listing her findings about the Kentucky crash, Hersman argued that future NTSB investigations should be more comprehensive in identifying a primary cause. She suggested Congress might need to act to give the agency the flexibility to do that.

More than 30 lawsuits have been filed against Comair by families of victims; 10 families have settled their cases. Several of the suits have been settled.

Comair itself has named the federal government, Blue Grass Airport and an airport administrator in federal lawsuits filed against the airline by the crash victims’ families.

Comair spokeswoman Kate Marx said its filings against the federal government and airport “are another step in the legal process to ensure that all parties we feel share responsibility for the accident are held accountable.”

John Coon, the airport’s director of operations, is named as a defendant in the third-party claims. Coon, who helped oversee a major runway construction project weeks before the crash, is the first employee to be named as a defendant in the lawsuit, though Comair has previously sued unidentified airport employees.

Other unnamed employees for the Federal Aviation Administration and the airport are also listed as defendants.

Blue Grass Airport officials said that they could not comment because they had not reviewed the claims. An FAA spokeswoman also declined to comment.

A Fayette County judge earlier this month ruled that the airport board is entitled to sovereign immunity. The airline said in a legal filing that it objects to the ruling and wants to preserve its rights in federal and state courts.

Comair attorneys have said the wrongful-death lawsuits in Fayette Circuit Court will be moved to U.S. District Court in Lexington.

Comair’s filings repeat claims it has made earlier. It claims the FAA was negligent because it understaffed the airport control tower, overworked the controller on duty and did not provide adequate information about the construction project, which involved a repaving of the primary runway and relocation of taxiways.

Comair has previously sued the FAA in federal court but withdrew its claims because it had not completed an administrative process required before it can sue the FAA.

The airline has said the airport shares blame in the crash because of poor runway markings, bad signage, lighting problems and other issues related to the runway repaving project.

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