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Sat, Feb 17, 2007

Birmingham Controllers Latest To Be Left In The Dark

January 17 Radar Outage Delayed Flights More Than Five Hours

Air traffic controllers in Birmingham, AL continue to butt heads with the FAA over the severity of a radar outage last month, that snarled flights for over five hours.

Local NATCA president Scott Pressley told the Birmingham News "safety was definitely compromised" when radar scopes at the Birmingham TRACON went blank at 4:45 pm January 17. The outage, which the paper states also affected the tower at BHM, delayed 15 departing flights and many arrivals.

FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen disputes Pressley's assertions. "Controllers are trained for any contingency," she said. "They do an outstanding job at Birmingham and throughout the system."

"When FAA says that safety wasn't compromised, it trivializes what we do as their traffic controllers," Pressley replied. "And safety was definitely compromised and it was the air traffic controllers and the compliance of the pilots that ensured the safety that day, not the FAA."

Pressley also states there is no true "backup" radar available... because controllers have used that secondary system since the airport's primary radar went down last month. That backup system only covers 50 miles; once the area's two long-range antennas are returned to operation, they will cover a 200-mile radius.

Bergen states Birmingham's primary system will be up and running later this month.

Making matters worse that night, Pressley says, is an apparent discrepancy between backup operations for Birmingham, and Atlanta Center -- which is supposed to "take over our air space and we just run the tower."

"They wouldn't take the air space," Pressley said, speaking of en route controllers, "so we had to continue running that air space without the radar when they could see it perfectly well. The controllers in Atlanta knew how unsafe the situation was and they were trying to help us ... and their managers wouldn't allow them to help us. We kind of had to make up the rules as we went."

Bergen replies the agreement requires Atlanta Center to handle airspace above 7,000 feet in the event of a failure at Birmingham. She says controllers in Alabama are well-versed with nonradar procedures in the area, so "the decision was made that they could implement the nonradar procedures for flights below 7,000 feet. The controllers in Atlanta could not work nonradar at those low altitudes."

A rash of radar system failures affected flights recently in such areas as Southern California, Chicago, and south Florida.

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

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