Controllers slam radar system outages

With new replacement systems still two years away, radar screens at a major air traffic control center in New England are blanking out at an increasing rate, forcing a shift to backup systems that are not always online and increasing the likelihood of midair collisions.

Additionally, controllers charge, the center does not have enough technicians available to fix the system, originally installed in 1972.

The antiquated Computer Display Channel (CDC) displays the position of aircraft flying at high altitudes. CDC is slated to be replaced with a new system, called the Display System Replacement (DSR), which is being rolled out to the nation's 21 en route centers.

But the New Hampshire-based Boston Center, which tracks planes in New England and as far south as the New York City area, is not scheduled to receive DSR for two years, and controllers there say outages are increasing and are compromising safety.

"Since last September we have had over 100 unplanned radar outages," said William Johannes, president of the Boston Center's local National Air Traffic Controllers Association union. "In April and May alone we have had over 50. I don't think we are that unique. The system is just as old everywhere."

Intermittent Outages

Typically when an outage occurs, the radar system switches over to a backup system. However, the backup system has been down 16 times since September 1997, primarily for scheduled maintenance, Johannes said. "This increases the likelihood of midair collisions," he said. "With radar, planes can run as close as five miles apart. But without radar, that goes to 80 miles."

The Federal Aviation Administration acknowledges that in some cases radar screens freeze up, interrupting the flow of data that is fed to the controllers. However, the interruptions never occur for long periods of time but rather on an intermittent basis, and they never compromise safety, an FAA spokesman said. A backup system kicks in when a failure occurs in the primary system, and controllers can follow other procedures if the backup system is unavailable, he said.

The FAA last month formed a team of technicians and managers to fix problems associated with the CDC in the Boston Center. As a result, the system "has been running clean for the past two to three weeks," the FAA spokesman said.

However, Johannes said the Boston Center experienced five outages June 18.

Also hampering air traffic controllers is the dwindling number of technicians assigned to fix the system when it goes down, Johannes said. Two years ago, seven radar technicians worked at the center; now only four are employed there.

Ed Dressell, a representative for the Professional Airways System Specialists' systems management office, which is the union representing the technicians, said four technicians cannot stay on top of all the maintenance at the center.

"Four bodies is not enough to cover [the center] seven days a week, 24 hours a day, as is required," Dressell said. The FAA maintains that there is adequate staffing at the center.

The technician shortage causes worker burnout and compromises safety, he added. "Other centers are either as bad as we are or even worse."

Officials at other en route centers could not be reached for comment.

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