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FAA Ban on Weather Communications Equipment and Radios Compromises Safety of Its Employees and the Flying Public - (12/28/2006)

CONTACT:     Kelly Raulerson (Daytona Beach), 386-747-8441; Doug Church (Washington, D.C.), 202/220.9802 

, Fla. – The Federal Aviation Administration’s September decision to ban weather radios, commercial radios and cell phones from its air traffic control facilities placed air traffic controllers in extreme danger in the control tower cab and radar room at Daytona Beach International Airport when Monday’s tornado roared within 150 yards of the facility – with no warning given to the six controllers on duty – before carving a destructive path through Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. This marks the third such incident in three months at an FAA facility that, until recently, had access to the very latest severe weather warnings, as should be the case involving air traffic safety.

Ironically, just last week, FAA officials briefed Daytona Beach controllers on a security order detailing what to do during hazardous weather conditions. One of the requirements listed was, “Keep a watch on the skies and watch/listen to local weather." The order also states that the responsibility to evacuate the tower rests with the manager/supervisor on duty. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association believes the FAA, in disobeying its own orders for monitoring local weather conditions by banning all methods in which to do so, constitutes negligence on the part of the agency.

“This is a situation that defies all measure of common sense and responsibility,” said NATCA Executive Vice President Paul Rinaldi. “The FAA removed the radios as part of its imposed work rules in an effort to punish controllers. But it’s turning out to be a fateful decision that has serious, life or death consequences that clearly the agency foolishly overlooked. We call upon the FAA to immediately put back all radios and life-saving communications equipment.”

Without any way to hear about the tornado warning that was issued for the area, two controllers remained at their posts in the tower cab. They reported poor visibility due to the heavy rain and said they noticed the large, thick windows surrounding them start to move eerily in and out. They said the building shuddered a bit and they heard a low, moaning sound.

At the time, the tower controllers were vectoring a Comair regional jet (Delta Connection) to the airport but, without any knowledge of the tornado embedded in the severe weather, could not warn the pilots. Ordinarily, the aircraft would have been directed to the airport by the associated approach control. However, commercial power had failed about 20 minutes before the aircraft’s arrival, and the uninterruptible power source in the approach control had also failed just moments before the tornado struck the airport, silencing their radios and plunging the radar room into darkness. The pilots realized they had lost contact with the radar controllers, and had the presence of mind to attempt to call the tower, which still had power. The tower then took over the approach functions for their arrival. 

The Comair jet was initially approaching a runway that would have placed it head-on into the tornado's path, but the severe weather moved onto the airport too quickly for it to land ahead of the storm front. Instead, it was redirected to the opposite runway to land behind the frontal passage. The airplane landed safely approximately two minutes after the tornado had passed, but the pilots noticed the damage to Embry Riddle from the runway and asked the controllers on the radio frequency about what had happened. Controllers also could not warn a second approaching aircraft, a single-engine Cessna, but the aircraft was re-directed to an airport south of Daytona Beach upon encountering low visibility.

“Without access to critical severe weather information, the FAA is not only showing a blatant disregard for its employees but also for the flying public,” said Kelly Raulerson, NATCA’s Daytona Beach facility representative. “Before this ban went into effect, we used to hear frequent tests of the Emergency Broadcast System on the radio in the tower that we kept on. We certainly needed to hear that familiar alert on Monday. Instead, we were cut off from the world and left in a very vulnerable position.”

In September, a severe weather system spawned tornadoes near both DuPage Air Traffic Control Tower in Illinois and Lincoln Air Traffic Control Tower in Nebraska. With FAA management having just days earlier removed radios from all towers under the imposed work rules, neither facility’s controllers knew of the impending danger nearby. At Lincoln, two controllers were on duty with no supervisors at a late hour in the day. Tornado sirens sounded, an event that, according to controllers’ own orders, mandates the use of weather radios, radios and televisions to monitor the weather. But there was nothing in the tower to use.

At DuPage, a tornado came within two miles of the tower. But controllers had no way of seeing it because heavy rains reduced visibility to a quarter of a mile. The next day, the controllers notified the FAA supervisor on duty and stated that the radio that was in the tower, which management took away, would have alerted the staff sooner. The supervisor replied, "You should have looked out the window."

Rinaldi’s call for the FAA to put back the radios into the facilities comes as the National Weather Service, in published reports, says Floridians should expect more severe storms this winter because El Nino is causing a stronger jet stream.

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