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Passenger Safety Jeopardized in Caribbean; Power Outages Reveal FAA Negligence - (9/19/2005)

CONTACT: Jerry Nash, 787-407-5554

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – The Federal Aviation Administration’s failure to maintain air traffic control equipment at the San Juan Center and Radar Approach Control facility left air traffic controllers scrambling to keep airplanes separated and safe during a period of three severe power outages in three days leading up to the Labor Day weekend. Now, air traffic controllers are calling on the FAA to make sure passenger safety is never jeopardized again.

The first outage occurred when generators failed to operate when there was a loss of commercial power. The battery backup system engaged but only provided power to the radar. As a result, the facility had to go to what is known as “ATC Zero” for an hour, meaning it was basically shut down to all traffic and separation responsibility was shifted to adjoining facilities, including Miami Center as well as numerous international facilities throughout the Caribbean.

“We’re calling on the FAA to take immediate action to ensure this does not happen again. It’s because of their negligence that there was a complete loss of radios, which meant serious trouble and a very unsafe situation,” said Jerry Nash, facility representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “Air traffic controllers at their radar scopes were left to watch helplessly as nearly all of the Caribbean’s traffic was transitioning on possible conflicting flight paths.”

Quick thinking and determined controllers used their private cell phones to try and contact adjacent facilities to inform them of the equipment failures and to coordinate the dozens of flights already within San Juan's nearly 250,000 square miles of Caribbean airspace.

Making matters worse, another power outage on September 2 left the facility operating first on battery power and then on one generator. Initially, controllers lost all communications. While controllers worked in complete darkness except for the glow of their radar scopes, FAA managers decided to open the doors to allow in natural light. But carbon monoxide from the sole operating generator located below the open door soon became overwhelming. The door had to be closed again. All landline communications were lost and the sole coordination method was by pilots reporting in to controllers.

“This was a very dangerous situation and we have received no assurances that it won’t soon repeat itself.” NATCA Southern Regional Vice President Andy Cantwell said. “This is a major facility that controls a vast expanse of airspace over the Caribbean and they seem to have become forgotten by the FAA in a disturbing example of mismanagement and neglect.”

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