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Air Travelers' Safety at Risk as FAA Radar Failures Hide Planes from Washington Air Traffic Controllers - (9/29/2005)

LEESBURG, Va. – A radar problem affecting all parts of the airspace handled by Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center has made dozens of planes invisible to controllers in recent days and caused delays for flights at Washington Dulles Airport. This serious safety concern is the latest example of the Federal Aviation Administration’s mismanagement of the air traffic control system and irresponsible policy of waiting to address technical problems until a failure and crisis develops.

Controllers in each of the eight areas at Washington Center have experienced the failure, which results in the radar target – representing an aircraft – disappearing from the radar scope. This leaves the accompanying data tag indicating flight information to float off in the direction the computer thinks the aircraft is headed, when in fact the aircraft is following its prescribed route of flight while controllers are left scrambling to locate its position and keep it separated from other flights.

“This is a disturbing and dangerous example of a flight safety problem that represents a disaster waiting to happen,” said Washington Center Controller Tim Casten, the facility representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “Not only does this show how badly run the FAA’s technical operations are but it calls into question the agency’s ability to ensure both the safety and security of the region’s airspace. We are calling on the FAA to take emergency action.”

The danger for controllers is that they lose presentation of individual planes in varying degrees and lengths of time. One radar sector recently was losing aircraft for 10-mile stretches, which places those and other aircraft in harm’s way. In one extreme instance, controllers lost all radar data on a flight for a span of eighty miles.

Casten said controllers are reaching the breaking point of what they feel they can safely handle in light of the chronic failure and may have to resort to using non-radar procedures to separate flights in their airspace; 1960s air traffic control technology – pencil, paper and radios.

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