WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration allowed understaffing at the air traffic control tower at National Airport here at the time an Eastern Airlines jetliner nearly collided with a helicopter, a key congressman charged Friday.
The shift on Sept. 24 was inadequately staffed because the FAA had allowed a group of controllers to leave early to play golf, contended Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), who heads the House Public Works investigations subcommittee.
In the incident, an Eastern Airlines "shuttle" flight to New York aborted its takeoff after a helicopter crossed the runway in front of it.
'Diminishing of Safety'
Oberstar, whose panel has examined aviation safety issues, termed the staffing incident at National an "egregious example of the diminishing margin of safety in the nation's air traffic control system."
The FAA denied Oberstar's allegations, and spokesman Fred Farrar said that "the (airport) tower was fully staffed with 17 controllers and three supervisors" when the incident occurred at 5:20 p.m.
But Oberstar, at a news conference, said his subcommittee plans to investigate allegations "from a source inside the tower" that some controllers may have returned to the airport after their golf match to sign their names so that the shift looked fully staffed.
Farrar acknowledged that some controllers were playing golf that afternoon, but he contended that the golf match was "irrelevant" because those involved were working a shift that was scheduled to end at 3 p.m.--more than two hours before the incident.
However, one controller who worked that shift said in an interview that tower management had allowed the controllers to leave several hours early for the golf match. The controller asked that his name not be used. Normally, the controllers would have stayed at the tower for a training session to review new procedures, he said.
The FAA also said that the golf game was a special occasion "well-planned in advance," but the controller said that the game had been arranged only two or three days beforehand.
Oberstar said that his panel also will investigate discrepancies between the reports of the controller in charge of helicopter traffic at the time of the mishap, who said she thought she had given proper departure clearance for the craft, and of a tower supervisor who contended that he did not hear her instructions.
The congressman further charged that because there were too few controllers on hand, the supervisor was forced to handle air traffic instead of watching the overall operation.
"The fact that they had a supervisor working traffic is evidence in itself that they did not have adequate personnel," Oberstar said. The FAA flatly denied the charge, insisting that the supervisor was only helping a trainee controller who was handling traffic.