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Mon, Apr 16, 2007

FAA Questions Air Traffic Compliance At Memphis International

Memo Says MEM Not Complying With Separation Regs

It started with an internal FAA memo, that was published on a blog run by a past president of NATCA, according to The (Memphis) Daily News last week.

The April 2 memo originated from an internal investigation by the FAA's Air Traffic Safety Oversight Services. Director Anthony S. Ferrante issued the memo to Air Traffic Operation Terminal Services' Bruce Johnson. It was reprinted on "The Main Bang," a blog run by former NATCA president John Carr.

The issue at Memphis is how air traffic is controlled on three of the airport's four runways that are near each other. Runways 18L and 18C are parallel and run north-south, while Runway 27 runs east-west and is perpendicular to 18L and 18C.

According to the memo: "An Air Traffic Oversight Service investigation has determined that the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) is not in compliance with FAA Order 7110.65, Paragraph 3-10-4, at Memphis Air Traffic Control Tower (MEM). MEM was also unable to provide required documentation to demonstrate that the current practice of conducting simultaneous independent approaches to runways 18L, 18C and 27 was properly authorized."

When aircraft land on runway 18L or 18C from the north, they pass over Runway 27; if an airplane is on 27 or its taxiways, it creates a potential safety hazard.

Pete Sufka, an air traffic controller for the Memphis tower and president of the local NATCA chapter, is worried about controllers authorizing such an operation, especially when it appears to be in violation of FAA orders.

"The procedure, in itself, is safe, but we question the legality of it," he said. "I think the Oversight Service is also questioning the legality of it. I don't want the controllers set up in a position where they're doing something illegal, or if something goes wrong they're going to be disciplined. And I also don't want the pilots and passengers be put in a dangerous situation that doesn't have to be there."

Sufka added, "When they (aircraft) start this climb-up and gain speed, they're climbing up right into the aircraft that are landing on 18L or 18C. We've had this happen a number of times over the years, in the range of 'really, really ugly' to 'not too bad.' Two planes haven't come together because of this yet, but we're pushing our luck the more we use it."

Safety also comes into question during a go-around, when the plane quickly gains speed and altitude before making a circuitous pattern back into landing position.

A go-round could be tragedy waiting to happen for planes approaching Runway 27 when simultaneous approaches are underway on the perpendicular runways.

Air Traffic Operation Terminal Services' Bruce Johnson was unavailable for comment, while Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority president Larry Cox declined comment, deferring to the FAA. Memphis air traffic facility manager Bill Wurtz, who directed inquiries to the FAA's southern regional office in Atlanta.

Regional Public Affairs Manager Kathleen Bergen said the FAA acknowledges someone has raised concerns about the flyover procedure and the agency is investigating.

Bergen said the procedure of having airplanes land on the two runways occurs only in good weather, when wind conditions are favorable and only with smaller aircraft landing on Runway 27, such as "single engine, twin engine, small business jets, small regional jets," she said.

"That procedure has been in place for decades - I'm told back to the 1970s," Bergen said. "It's something that's been looked at and was revalidated as recently as 1999. Apparently, someone at the tower raised an issue with that procedure and elevated that concern, which generated a review by the FAA safety office in Washington."

Bergen said the procedure is safe and will continue whenever weather allows.

"At the same time, the FAA is going to take a closer look at the procedure," she said. "We're going to revalidate the procedure. We want to ensure we maintain the highest level of safety at Memphis while minimizing the impact to the users - the air carriers that come in as well as the private planes."

The revalidation process, she said, could take up to 60 days.

FMI: www.faa.gov, www.mscaa.com, http://themainbang.typepad.com/

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