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A Modern Bermuda Triangle: FAA Lacks a Contingency Plan for Radar Outage, Causing Delays and Fuel Waste - (6/26/2008)

CONTACTS:  New York Center Facility Representative Julio Henriques, 631-786-3838; New York Center Oceanic Representative Pat McDonough; 631-312-0935; NATCA National Office, Alexandra Caldwell, 202-220-9813, acaldwell@natcadc.org

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Because of yet another ill-advised move by the FAA and a radar outage at Bermuda airport, controllers at New York Air Route Traffic Control Center are left to develop contingency plans to guide aircraft into and out of Bermuda’s airspace while aircraft traveling to and through the airspace face delays. 

Handling Bermuda airspace traffic is New York Center, which runs the Bermuda airspace all the way through approach – Bermuda tower only handles arrivals and departures.  Controllers at the New York facility safely guide aircraft in the 180 miles of airspace surrounding the island, including traffic from Europe passing through to Central and South America.

Over a month ago the radar at Bermuda failed, leaving only the backup system running.  On June 23rd the backup radar for Bermuda failed and, as a result, over 125 aircraft (that were already airborne) had to be rerouted around Bermuda’s airspace.  As of now the radar is still out and at least 500 aircraft have been negatively impacted by the outage.  With the radar still out the delays, as well as the frustration of controllers at New York Center, are increasing

Making matters worse, on June 5, 2008 the FAA installed WATRS Plus (West Atlantic Route System) – which essentially changed all routes taken during an aircraft’s approach into and out of Bermuda airport.  As a result of this change 15 years of reference materials for the airspace used for non-radar contingencies (cases in which the radar fails) were removed and were not replaced.  Briefings never took place and the controllers at New York Center that are in charge of the Bermuda airspace are still waiting for contingency procedures to be developed despite their writing countless letters demanding a plan.

Said New York Center Facility Representative Julio Henriques:  "Management’s contingency plan in this case, as it always is, was to keep their fingers crossed and hope that a failure didn’t occur."

The Bermuda radar is a known unreliable piece of equipment and rather than move up the replacement date from August to before or during the WATRS Plus installation the FAA chose to take their chances on its performance despite the fact that no contingency plans are in place for the WATRS Plus system. 

"The question here is why the FAA allowed these changes to move forward, knowing that the controllers were not properly trained or prepared," said Henriques.

When the radar failed in the past there was a specific set of rules to follow.  Now, without the proper tools or reference books to work the airspace in case of a radar outage, the controllers are left to guide planes using common sense and communication with pilots – tools that are useful but not nearly adequate in safely directing air traffic. 

"By not establishing a contingency plan the FAA is taking a major risk – common sense can only be used for so long to work this system, with that being used as the chief tool in guiding planes it’s only a matter of time until a fatal accident will occur," said Henriques.

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