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Ground radar system needed at TIA, union says

The group that represents air traffic controllers says there is a safety shortfall in Tampa.

Published November 3, 2005

TAMPA - Near midnight, Aug. 23, a Falcon jet approaching takeoff at Tampa International Airport made a wrong turn and ended up on the runway where a four-seat Cessna was preparing to land.

An air traffic controller spotted the jet in the wrong place and radioed the Cessna to pull up and circle. He earned a gift certificate from the Macaroni Grill for stopping a near disaster.

Two weeks later, a private Learjet was about to taxi onto a runway where another Cessna was to land. Again, a controller stopped the jet before the two crossed paths.

Radar keeps an eye on the skies in Tampa, but air traffic controllers need binoculars to scan the ground for planes that might be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Mistakes would be less likely if the Federal Aviation Administration bought TIA an $8.5-million airport surface detection system known as ASDE-X, which would track planes on the ground, said Tom McCormick, a controller and vice president of the Tampa branch of the National Air Traffic Control Association. Nine major airports, including Orlando, have or are being tested for the system. Miami has an earlier version. Beginning in January, 15 more major U.S. airports will get ASDE-X.

Tampa didn't make the cut.

"When humans are involved, pilots, even air traffic controllers can make mistakes," McCormick said at a news conference Wednesday.

With the busy holiday travel season approaching, McCormick's association - a union representing air traffic controllers - launched the "Fly Us Safe" public campaign to point out what it says are safety shortfalls in Tampa and at other airports. The campaign coincides with the union's ongoing contract negotiations with the FAA, which pays controllers.

But McCormick said the union isn't seeking more money. It is simply pointing out a lack of adequate technology and staffing at TIA, which would make controllers' jobs easier and traveling safer.

"The air traffic control is going to make sure your family is safe," McCormick said. "But if I'm flying out with my family, I want ASDE-X radar on the ground."

He ticked off a few deadly incidents, which ground radar could have prevented across the nation, including the 2000 collision of two planes at the Sarasota-Bradenton airport, which killed four.

The system, McCormick said, would be useful tracking all vehicles including commercial jets, which are also susceptible to what controllers call "runway incursions" or a runway mixup.

Tampa is being evaluated as a site for ASDE-X, FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said. But it wasn't a priority after federal officials studied the airport's weather patterns and its safety record.

Ground radar is especially useful on cloudy and foggy days, and Tampa gets a lot of clear days, she said. Since 2003, the FAA has recorded only two runway incursions at TIA, including an August 2003 incident when a police car crossed the end of a runway while an airplane was a half mile away from landing. The plane pulled up and the runway was cleared.

The runways also run parallel to each other, reducing the risk of collisions, she said.

"Many airports operate very safely without an ASDE system," Bergen said.

McCormick disputed the FAA's rationale, wondering how Orlando has worse weather than Tampa. He said parallel runways don't stop pilots from making wrong turns, which happens "often" at TIA, with its 250,000 landings and takeoffs a year.

Until the airport gets ASDE-X, it will continue to rely on three air traffic controllers watching the ground from the TIA control tower and eight radar personnel scanning the skies. And that's fine with some.

"I feel very safe," airport executive director Louis Miller said. "I feel fine."

Justin George can be reached at 813 226-3368 or

[Last modified November 3, 2005, 01:05:05]

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