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Persistent Radar Woes at Busy Denver Facility Jeopardize Safety - (3/27/2006)

CONTACT: Paul Vitale, 303-885-3748

DENVER – While the Federal Aviation Administration snubs the Denver Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility by denying it a modernized radar display system, the antiquated system in use continues to experience frequent reliability problems, including a failure recently that resulted in a close call in the skies above Denver that jeopardized safety.

During a busy morning traffic push last month, the primary radar system failed. Denver has two radar systems; Irondale, which is located on the airport, and Platteville, which is located 20 miles north of Denver International Airport. The Irondale site failed and is the primary site used by all but one sector of airspace at Denver TRACON.

When the radar failed for a period of 3-5 minutes, controllers were monitoring a corporate jet descending into Jefferson County Airport and a BA46 airliner which had just departed westbound from DIA. Shortly after, another aircraft, an air taxi DH8, departed to the west from DIA. Without radar, controllers were helpless to prevent what happened next; the BA46 and the corporate jet came within 1.2 miles and 400 feet. Both aircraft received an alert from their on-board collision avoidance system. The BA46 descended and the corporate jet climbed. But in climbing, the corporate jet came within two miles laterally and 200 feet vertically from the DH8.

“This is a clear indication of the importance of modernizing the air traffic control system,” said Paul Vitale, Denver TRACON facility representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “Our facility cannot wait for the red tape to clear or for a major accident over the skies of Denver.”

Denver is one of four major TRACONs around the country that use 1970s radar displays called Full Digital ARTS Displays (FDAD). The TRACONs in Denver, Chicago, Minneapolis and St. Louis continue to wait indefinitely to receive a system called Common ARTS Color Displays (ACDs). Replacing the aging FDADs with ACDs is the quickest and most cost-effective way to resolve this issue.

FDADs have caused numerous reliability problems, including workstation lock-ups, failed network communications and equipment failures. FDAD displays limit the addition of software upgrades including safety-related improvements recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board. Additionally, a 2004 report by the Department of Transportation Inspector General said that “the conditions of the aging displays at the remaining four large sites (Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, St. Louis) has become critical.”

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives appropriations report noted that the FAA had deferred action on replacing these aging displays for too long. Yet the agency continues to remain silent and inactive on this issue. It has not announced any modernization plans for these displays at the aforementioned four TRACON locations.

“There is no sign that these malfunctioning, outdated displays could be on their way out to the trash dumpster where they belong,” Vitale said. “It is time for action. No more stalling. We need the ACDs in here right away.”

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