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Wed, Mar 18, 2009

FAA Memo Raises Questions About Denver ATC Safety

Official Admits Report Is "Alarming," But Says Things Aren't So Bad

An internal FAA memo obtained by the local CBS affiliate paints an "alarming" picture of air traffic control in the skies over Denver, CO. That's not our take, or even the opinion of the controllers union... but rather the words of one FAA official.

Kathryn Vernon is Director of Western Terminal Operations for the agency. She told KCNC-4 in Denver the two-page memo -- sent out last month by Kevin Stark, Acting Air Traffic Manager at the Denver Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZDV) -- "leaves a lot of questions out there" about the state of air traffic control operations over the western city. But, she adds, there is "not a safety issue" in Denver airspace.

Stark would seem to differ. In the February 19 memo, he writes ZDV "has indicated that the loss of a large number of their experienced employees, the relative inexperience of many of their current controllers, and the increase in volume has created a situation they can no longer accept. They have indicated that the volume issues created by eight different routes flowing into their airspace routinely creates situations that put their controllers at risk, and they are unable to provide the level of service our customers deserve."

The station notes such arguments aren't exactly new, particularly throughout the years-long war of words between the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association over a new contract... but the station also points to an increasing number of spacing incidents over Denver in recent months.

Two separation errors were noted by KCNC earlier this year. On January 23, a Frontier flight inbound from Seattle at FL250 was inadvertently steered by ATC towards a conflicting SkyWest flight at the same altitude; six days later, a United 757 was turned towards a commuter plane also on approach to Denver International Airport (DEN). In both cases, traffic collision avoidance systems (TCAS) in the cockpits of the planes involved directed the aircraft out of harm's way. In the case of the latter, estimates show the United flight came within about a half mile horizontal from the smaller plane, and 800 feet vertically.

"If the pilots have to use their ... collision avoidance systems, the system has failed," said Bruce Lampert, a pilot and aviation attorney, adding TCAS is "the third layer of safety, the last safety net to prevent mid-air collision and death."

Without descending into similar hyperbole, Stark's memo appears to be one of the few edicts from FAA officials that give weight to NATCA's claims of understaffing, and controller inexperience. Not surprisingly, Vernon took steps to downplay that message.

"As the letter is written, I would agree with you it sounds alarming," she said. "And I understand the letter makes it look like we had a situation we had to get under control. I would disagree with that."

Vernon notes FAA figures showing the number of controller errors in Colorado have declined so far in 2009, compared with the same time period in 2008... despite an admitted drop in both the number of overall controllers at ZDV, as well as a marked rise in the percentage of those controllers who are still undergoing training.

"There is no reason for the public to lose confidence," she continued. "In looking at Mr. Stark's letter, I agree it leaves a lot of questions out there. But there is not a safety issue in the Denver airspace and Colorado airspace."

FMI: www.faa.gov, www.natca.org

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