8:17 PM

ABC News Gets
MEM Center Story
Partially Right


NATCA is today giving kudos to ABC News for their positive spin on how well Air Traffic Controllers at Memphis Center handled the major communications outage they suffered this week. In a NATCA transcript from last night's national report, ABC had this to say on behalf of the men and women working the screens:

In an instant, controllers at Memphis Center lost phone lines, lost most radio communication with pilots, lost three of 11 radar systems. There were planes in the air they could no longer talk to or see. Memphis Center declared what's called an air traffic control zero, ATC Zero. They were out of commission. The Center is responsible for 100,000 square miles of high-altitude airspace over seven states. At the time, there were over 200 airplanes there. This radar animation shows how the FAA and other controllers scrambled to clear planes out of the airspace. They did so within an hour.
I think the kudos really need to go to the poised, clear thinking controllers at Memphis Center. But while ABC is telling you about their excellant work keeping heavies from trading paint over Graceland, what they weren't telling you is the cause of the problem. And when 100,000 SQUARE MILES becomes an ATC vacuum, I go looking for the reason why.

It turns out I had to look no further than Professional Airways Systems Specialists (PASS), the union that represents 11,000 employees of the FAA and DoD who install, maintain, support and certify air traffic control and national defense equipment. In a press release distributed by Dave Spero, PASS regional vice president, the union said this, verbatim:
Yesterday’s communications outage at Memphis International Airport was completely preventable. At fault is the FAA’s failure to address serious deficiencies in Harris Corporation’s Federal Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI), which provides circuitry and communications for the FAA.

The outage was caused by the loss of a circuit card at subcontractor Bell South’s central office, which prevented telecommunication lines from feeding information to air traffic and ultimately resulted in a complete shutdown of radar, radio and telephone contact at the Memphis ARTCC. Previously, when communications lines failed, a backup telecommunications system automatically came online to support these vital systems until the primary communications lines could be restored, thus preventing a full-scale failure. However, the FAA lowered the standards and definition for diversity in order to award this contract to Harris. As an effort to make the FTI contract more profitable, Harris Corporation merged the backup path for these systems together.
As I read these releases from PASS and NATCA, I cringe. I'm getting bombarded these days with bad news that paints a picture of our current FAA as a dysfunctional mess. I really want to disbelieve what I read from them, and I scour the Internets all the time for the counterpoint to what they claim. I look for stories about happy controllers working in tidy cabs operating state-of-the-art equipment that is failsafe to the point of being bulletproof.

In my humble opinion, we cannot move forwards from the Blakey/Bush era fast enough. And just as GM made nice with the UAW yesterday, there has to be common ground that FAA, NATCA and PASS can find to solve this problem.

Because unlike a UAW strike when ashtrays don't get installed in Escalades, if the unions ever get so fed up with the current state of FAA that they call another controller's strike, this country's stumbling economy will be toast.

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