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Kansas City Center Radar Failure Delays Flights, Disrupts System - (10/17/2005)

CONTACT: Howard Blankenship, 913/638-5030

OLATHE, Kan. – An hour-long radar failure at the Kansas City Air Route Traffic Control Center late Sunday afternoon sent controllers scrambling to locate aircraft and keep them safe while transitioning to a far less efficient backup system. The malfunction also caused delays for passengers waiting to depart Kansas City International Airport.

Air traffic controllers’ radar displays stopped working at approximately 5 p.m. CDT, with 335 aircraft above the skies of the central United States. The failure stopped radar targets for individual flights from updating on controllers’ scopes. Controllers then had to manually transition to a backup system that provides a limited display.

“The transition period was utterly chaotic until we regained control and caused an unusually high level of stress in the facility,” said Kansas City Center controller Howard Blankenship, who also serves as facility representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “We were so busy working our flights and trying to manage the situation that there was little time to take care of routine, but essential work. Instead what you had were controllers finding a flight in their airspace and having to find out from the previous controller where that flight was and where it was going. It definitely slowed the system and we couldn’t work as many planes as quickly as we usually do. Controllers did a remarkable job to keep the system together.”

The failure also affected the center’s User Request Evaluation Tool (URET), which is an electronic flight data display that provides an effective means of managing flight information in each individual sector of airspace. The transition from paper strips to a purely automated system makes recovery from an automation failure even more difficult. In addition to providing flight information, URET provides an additional safety layer and continuously checks for possible conflicts of flight paths and allows controllers to evaluate resolutions to those conflicts or pilot requests before they are issued as instructions. Without URET on Sunday, however, controllers scrambled to find paper and pencil to compensate for the automation's failure.

Blankenship said dwindling numbers of controllers at the facility make him concerned about the ability of the Federal Aviation Administration to weather future equipment problems without putting passenger safety at risk..

The FAA-authorized staffing level is 397. But currently, the facility has 354 controllers, of which only 300 are fully certified. The agency has publicly touted a recent hiring blitz but, in fact, has hired just eight controllers for Kansas City Center this year. Unfortunately, during the same period, 18 controllers have left, leaving the facility with a net loss of 10 controllers.

“We are concerned because the situation here will get much worse before it gets better,” Blankenship said.

Frequent air travelers or concerned citizens can get more information on FAA staffing shortages and modernization problems, or lodge a complaint by calling 1-800-FLY US SAFE or visit www.flyussafe.com.

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