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Thu, Jul 20, 2006

NATCA Paints Dark Picture Of SoCal Power Outage

Says Controllers Used Cell Phones To Keep Tabs On Planes

A massive power and communications failure late Tuesday at the Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center left scrambling air traffic controllers to deal with a nightmare scenario -– how to keep dozens of flights away from each other above a large swath of the Southwestern United States despite the inability to see them, talk to them or relay crucial instructions for 15 excruciatingly long minutes.

That's the word from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association... which adds that all the skill, heart and determination that controllers bring into the control room every day was put to the test during one of the worst outages to ever hit the facility.

In fact, NATCA says, conditions were so bad at the Los Angeles ARTCC Tuesday that the only thing controllers had of use to aid the situation that actually worked was their cell phones –- devices which the Federal Aviation Administration has barred from control rooms, incidentally.

"We were completely dead in the water," said Bob Marks, Western Pacific regional vice president for NATCA. "We lost everything and could not talk to our airplanes for those 15 minutes. Our controllers were frantically picking up cell phones and calling air traffic control facilities around the region, including Bakersfield Approach, High Desert Terminal Radar Approach Control, Albuquerque Center and Southern California TRACON, asking them to expand the range of their radar scopes and let LA Center controllers know if anyone was in danger of a collision."

As Aero-News reported, delays mounted by the hundreds for thousands of air travelers... topping off yet another bad day, NATCA says, in what has become a miserable summer.

More importantly, the controllers union says safety margins were the casualty of Tuesday’s outage... as controllers' efforts and ingenuity prevented a catastrophe.

"They used their wits, their guile, and yes, their management-prohibited cell phones," NATCA President John Carr said.

The FAA maintains that "safety was never compromised" but Carr says that wasn't the case Tuesday... and moreover, that travelers know better.

"If radar and radios are not necessary to ensure safety, then shut 'em off permanently, and let's save a ton on the utility bill," Carr stated. "If outages are insignificant or inconsequential, let's get rid of all this burdensome equipment and revert to the safe haven of manual air traffic control. If the answer is always going to be ‘safety was never compromised,’ then don't even bother meeting with the media. With fraudulent misrepresentations like that, you can just mail them in every time there's a critical safety-related outage."

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

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