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Aircraft Tracking System Faulty, John Wayne Airport Controllers Contend

November 19, 1998|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A new radar system to guide aircraft in and out of Southern California is faulty and is compromising the safety of thousands of flights, a local union for air traffic controllers at John Wayne Airport contended Wednesday.

As often as 25 times an hour, aircraft shown as blips on John Wayne computer radar screens appear without critical information such as speed, altitude and direction, said Howard Rifas, president of the local chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn.

Sometimes, these so-called data blocks are delayed or never appear, he said. Under the old radar system, he said, the data blocks showed up almost instantly.

"We make split-second, critical decisions hundreds of times an hour," said Rifas, a controller for 11 years. "When the information is two to three seconds behind, or doesn't show up at all, that matters a lot."

The Federal Aviation Administration has steadfastly denied that safety has been compromised by problems with the new computer system, which it installed Sept. 14. Spokesman Tim Pile, though, said he couldn't respond Wednesday to the union's contentions.

The local's concern follows a complaint the national union filed last week with the FAA after a glitch shut down the main computer system at the Miramar tracking facility in San Diego County for 11 minutes.

The facility, called TRACON for Terminal Radar Approach Control, operated on a backup system, and aircraft departing or arriving Southern California airports were not delayed more than 15 minutes, Pile said.

Even so, there are widespread reports of problems. Troubles with the new system installed at the Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport prompted controllers there to revert to the old radar system earlier this month, said Dennis McGee, a union official in Dallas. Pile confirmed that the switch was made.

TRACON is the busiest tracking facility in the world, handling nearly 2.5 million takeoffs and landings a year. The system provides information for controllers at John Wayne, Los Angeles International, Long Beach, Burbank, Van Nuys and Ontario International airports and San Diego's Lindbergh Field.

Controllers at John Wayne have been keeping track of problems with the new radar system.

In one instance last month, Rifas said, a controller allowed an aircraft to depart too close to another jet that was traveling slower than anticipated. The computer screen failed to show the first aircraft's speed before the second plane was cleared for takeoff, he said.

Rifas said controllers met several weeks ago with local FAA manager Jeffrey Thorstenson to ask that the agency fix its computer software or upgrade the speed of its data processing equipment.

Thorstenson couldn't be reached late Wednesday for comment.

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