WASHINGTON — The National Transportation Safety Board's meeting on Thursday will likely answer who - the pilots, the airport, or the airline - is most at fault for the crash of Comair Flight 5191 at Blue Grass Airport last year.
Many experts who've been tracking the crash investigation think the safety board's focus will likely be drawn to the plane's cockpit.
"It's probably going to go back to the pilots," said Mike Boyd, an aviation expert and consultant based in Evergreen, Colo. "I don't think it can go back to the airport. The pilots screwed up. They were chit-chatting. . . . The tower was also understaffed according to FAA regulations."
Information from the NTSB meeting, and the agency's ruling on a probable cause of the crash, will prove critical in the coming weeks and months as attorneys representing all three groups and the victims' families debate who is legally liable for the crash, which killed 49 people, and as lawmakers push for air safety reform measures.
Thursday's meeting probably won't provide any major new revelations into the reasons for the crash, aviation experts caution. Much of that information, including the fact that the two pilots talked about children and careers as they prepared to take off, has been in the public sphere for months. The pilots mistakenly took off from a general-aviation runway that was half as long as the main runway they should have used.
If responses to questions submitted by Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Ky., during a recent House committee hearing on aviation safety are any indication, the transportation safety board likely will not wade into a heated national debate on staffing shortages and working conditions for air traffic controllers.
"A battle has been going on for quite some time between the FAA and air traffic controllers in this country," Chandler said. "It reared its head during this crash because there was only one controller in the tower."
The FAA controller in the tower has told investigators that he cleared the plane for takeoff, then turned his back to take care of some administrative duties. He did not see the plane take off from the wrong runway or crash into a nearby farm field.
According to FAA regulations, two controllers should have been in the tower.
In their response to Chandler's questions about staffing shortages and cases in other states where towers have been closed because of those shortages the Safety Board said it "has no current position on tower operating hours, except for a general belief that towers should be staffed, open and available when safety requires it. There are thousands of airports in the United States, of which only about 500 have control towers. Many of those towers are not open 24 hours a day because the traffic demand does not warrant it. Determining whether a tower closure is appropriate in a given situation requires examination of the facts and circumstances, but it would be dependent on more than just the number of operations during the hours of closure. The Safety Board does not believe that an airport without an operating control tower is inherently unsafe."
However, the board may make recommendations on improving the way pilots are notified of changes that could affect their flights, according to Michael Gobb, executive director of Blue Grass Airport.
On the day of the crash, the Comair Flight 5191 pilots didn't get four alerts, called Notices to Airman, including an update that the regular taxiway to the main runway was closed off.
Comair should have provided its pilots with the notices, Paul Czysz, a retired aeronautics professor at St. Louis University told the Lexington Herald-Leader for a story that appeared Sunday. Comair doesn't give its pilots the local notices because it doesn't receive such notices from Jeppesen, a Colorado-based company that provides aviation services such as weather maps, airport charts and flight planning information.
Jeppesen provides its clients with notices that are distributed electronically by the FAA, but that can sometimes leave out notices coming from local airports.
While the board is expected to focus on the pilots - Capt. Jeff Clay and co-pilot James Polehinke, the only survivor of the crash - some expect it to list other contributing factors, such as the missing notices, the lack of an up-to-date runway chart and a runway construction project at the airport.
"We are not privy to the NTSB's findings before the public hearing. However, our hope is that their comprehensive review includes shared responsibility across the parties," said Kate Marx, a Comair spokeswoman. "Throughout the investigation we have acknowledged our responsibility to safely transport our passengers, but our willingness to evaluate our own procedures should not overshadow other contributing factors."
The NTSB has made two previous rounds of safety recommendations because of the Comair crash, involving air-traffic controller fatigue and pilots cross-checking whether they've on the right runway before take-off.
During the meeting, which is expected to last anywhere from three to four hours, board officials will listen to the agency staffers that helped investigate the crash report on such areas as pilot performance and air traffic control. Board members will question and vote both on the staffers' findings and the accident's probable cause.
The agency will release a summary of findings at the end of the meeting and a full report several weeks later.
However, testimony from the victims' families, aviation experts and others will be absent from the day's events following a controversial decision by the NTSB not to hold a public hearing. A few families will travel to Washington to watch the proceedings from a separate room in the agency's headquarters; others will watch the meeting in Lexington via satellite.
"It's a little bit of a misnomer to even call it a hearing," said Jim Burnett, a former NTSB chairman who now practices law in Clinton, Ark.
"They didn't have a hearing in this case, and that's regrettable because public hearings in cases like this help frame the issues, reduce the chances for errors in reports and help focus public attention on issues in cases like this."
Lexington Herald-Leader staff writer Michelle Ku contributed to this report.