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Radar Outages at Two of the Country's Busiest Control Facilities Highlight More Issues With Faulty FAA Equipment - (9/17/2008)

CONTACTS:  Melvin Davis, Southern California TRACON, 858-243-2921; Steven Wallace, Miami Center, 954-401-1348; NATCA National Office, Alexandra Caldwell, 202-220-9813, acaldwell@natcadc.org 

SAN DIEGO/MIAMI – Since Sunday there have been two significant operational failures at two of the country’s busiest air traffic control facilities – Southern California TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) and Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center.    

Southern California TRACON, which controls the country’s busiest terminal airspace and responsible for all arriving and departing flights into and out of the Southern California area (including LAX and John Wayne Airport), experienced a loss of both radar and radio due to an FTI outage (FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure).  

The outage at Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center, responsible for 400,000 miles of airspace and much of the air traffic going to and from the United States, the Bahamas, Caribbean and Central and South America, was due to a communication line interruption.  

 The outage at Southern California TRACON is one of eight very similar failures this year, four of which have occurred in the last month.  Said NATCA President Patrick Forrey:  “The FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure is much like the agency itself: unreliable and frustrating.  How many massive outages do the National Airspace System and the flying pubic have to suffer from until the agency realizes that this system isn’t working?  Controllers have had no involvement in the development of FTI in recent years and until the FAA realizes that the best way to modernize our crumbling system is to involve the controller workforce the flying public will continue to be at risk.”   

Monday’s outage at Miami Center was similar to a communications failure that occurred in March 2008 but was much broader in scope.  Added Forrey, “This type of incident, where controllers essentially lose both their eyes and ears, is rare.  Much of the training for these types of events is no longer conducted – had it not been for the seasoned controllers working on position at the time of the incident many would have been in danger, another reason why veteran controllers are so desperately needed.”     


At approximately 3:17 P.M. PDT on Sunday frequencies for the Burbank area, part of Southern California TRACON’s jurisdiction, went out and didn’t return until 4:15 P.M. When the outage occurred the backup lines didn’t kick in, leaving the controllers without radar or radio. 

Due to the large scale of the outage a ground stop was ordered for Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center and all Centers that immediately surround LA Center (Seattle Center, Albuquerque Center and Denver Center), thereby instructing any aircraft required to travel through said airspace to divert or hold if not already in the air. 

To cope with the crippling outage the controllers had to switch one radar frequency designated for Los Angeles approach to Burbank, working all of Burbank’s airspace on one frequency where there would normally be upwards of five or more.  

With the LA approach radar being farther away and not as accurate a view of Burbank’s airspace operations were done with less accuracy. 

At 3:56 P.M. the normal spacing between aircraft was increased ten times the normal amount to 30 miles for all traffic landing at Burbank or Van Nuys, eventually being decreased to 20 miles in trail before the frequency came back on.     



At approximately 11:30 A.M. EDT on Monday a communication line interruption caused Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center to lose radar and frequency coverage for an area from Freeport, Bahamas extending to San Juan, Puerto Rico for approximately 30 minutes. 

The Center also lost radar feeds from four radar sites in the Bahamas (Nassau, Grand Turk and George Town) and Guantanamo Cuba.  

At the same time, radio frequencies for those same areas were lost as well. All flights into this area over the Bahamas were rerouted by facilities such as New York Center and San Juan Center, in addition to many foreign facilities such as Santa Domingo Center, Havana Center and Port Au Prince Center.  

All aircraft headed towards the outage area and not already in the air were held on the ground. Controllers were working approximately 45 aircraft at the time of the incident.  Fortunately, there were many experienced air traffic controllers working that had seen this type of outage before in their careers.  

They quickly tried their best to use radio relays through other unaffected facilities in order to issue critical instructions to pilots that they could no longer see and hear. 

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