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Controllers Support New Runways But Have Concerns - (11/20/2008)

CONTACTS:  NATCA National Office, Alexandra Caldwell, 202-220-9813 (office), 202-997-7741 (cell), acaldwell@natcadc.org

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Just in time for Thanksgiving, President Bush and Department of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announce today the opening of three new delay-reducing runways at Dulles, O’Hare and Seattle-Tacoma airports.  While the hype is heavy the overall effect that these runways will have is weak, with one entirely useless, another increasing the risk of runway incursions and only one being remotely beneficial to the airport operation.

Dulles:  The Taxiway to Nowhere

Touted as a major fix for delays at Dulles, the new runway actually has the potential to increase delays and could be a distraction and a hassle to air traffic controllers, pilots and passengers.  Though the designated taxiway for the new runway has been put in it offers no direct or convenient connection points to the terminal and dead ends, requiring aircraft to taxi at least two-and-a-half miles to the closest gate.

“How can a system be successful if the very people that utilize it day in and day out have no say in its development and improvement?  This new runway is pure PR, a dog and pony show right before Thanksgiving to make the appearance to the flying public that the agency is doing everything it can to reduce delays,” said Kieron Heflin, NATCA facility representative at Dulles. 

The new runway doesn’t just affect controllers at Dulles.  Controllers at Potomac TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) – the air traffic control facility responsible for directing air traffic into and out of Dulles, not to mention other nearby airports – will be tasked with increasing the spacing between airplanes.  More spacing means a reduced flow of traffic into and out of the airport, leading to planes being put in holding patterns, wasting fuel.  With this added spacing there will more than likely be an increase in delays because controllers will be required to provide twice as much spacing than is currently provided today.

Software called CRDA (Converging Runway Display Aid) is available and it would assist in coordinating landing traffic and allow departure traffic to depart in between the gaps of arriving aircraft, alleviating this potential problem.  Though this software exists and is already installed on the Potomac TRACON computers FAA management chose not to implement it because the task of training controllers on this new software would take too much time – time they didn’t have with the FAA’s runway press tour quickly approaching.

Said Chris Sutherland, NATCA facility representative at Potomac TRACON: “What we are seeing here is the cutting of corners and the reduction of capacity just to meet an artificial deadline.  The end result of this long-awaited project is a disaster and a true example of why controller involvement is so vital to the modernization process.”

Seattle-Tacoma:  Upping the Ante on Runway Incursions

Despite runway safety being one of the NTSB top concerns on its “Most Wanted” list the new runway at Seattle-Tacoma airport triples the chance for a runway incursion – going from 450 runway crossings to 1200 with the addition of the new runway.

Like Dulles this was another runway project where the controllers had no input, leaving those who know the ins and outs of the airport operations out of the modernization equation.  A project 15 years in the making, the controllers at Seattle were only consulted and involved in the project in the last year, after the final plans had already been made.

“Such a massive undertaking only works successfully if all parties involved in the use of the system are allowed to contribute from the beginning; this was not the case in Seattle where controllers with countless years of air traffic control experience were only consulted at the last minute,” said Don Bagley, NATCA facility representative at Seattle-Tacoma. 

Whether or not the new runway will decrease delays remains to be seen.  Though a runway has been added no additional taxiways were added so while planes may be able to land more quickly there will be no decrease in the amount of time it will take to get to the gate.

Another concern that NATCA has with the added runway is the three new staff positions it requires to operate safely and efficiently.  With 14 of its 27 certified professional controllers (CPCs) eligible to retire in two-and-a-half years or less it remains to be seen how the seven junior controllers (six of which have only certified in the last year) will cope with the increasingly demanding operation.

Chicago O’Hare:  A Small Step in the Right Direction

While the new runway at O’Hare is beneficial to the overall operation the improvement is only marginal.  Capacity for the airport will not significantly increase until the final runways are installed at O’Hare as part of the its modernization plan.

Said David Stock, NATCA facility representative at Chicago O'Hare TRACON: “"The new runway will increase arrival capacity during periods of bad weather when the wind is out of the southwest through northwest.  The greatest capacity gains for arrivals and departures in all configurations will come from future runway expansion.  It's a step in the right direction.”

Unlike the other runway projects controllers were consulted in the development of the new runway.  NATCA remains hopeful that this runway will function as designed.

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