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Massive Power, Communications Failure at Major Air Traffic Control Center Puts Controllers in Dark, Flights in Jeopardy - (7/19/2006)

CONTACT: Bob Marks, 760-458-2153                                               

PALMDALE, Calif. – 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.

Every ounce of 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. It was so bad, controllers say, that the only thing they had of use to aid the situation that actually worked was their cell phones – devices which the Federal Aviation Administration, inexplicably, has barred from control rooms, further impeding the safety of the system.

“We were completely dead in the water,” said Bob Marks, Western Pacific regional vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “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 L.A. Center controllers know if anyone was in danger of a collision.”

Delays mounted by the hundreds for thousands of air travelers, another bad day in what has become a miserable summer. But more importantly, the margin of safety was the casualty of Tuesday’s event as controllers’ heroic efforts and ingenuity prevented a catastrophe. “They used their wits, their guile, and yes, their management-prohibited cell phones,” NATCA President John Carr said.

In predictable, but no less maddening and irresponsible fashion, the Federal Aviation Administration reacted to the event with its timeless classic response: “Safety is never compromised.” But in this case, the facts prove otherwise, and travelers know better, Carr said.

“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.”

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