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A flare for consolidations

California offers warning signs as Pueblo prepares to cede some air-traffic control


Across the country, various citizens, politicians and union air traffic controllers are waging mini-wars against the Federal Aviation Administration over mergers that they say compromise safety and service.

So far, they are losing. But that may be changing.

More and more airports are having the portion of their service referred to as TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) relocated to mega-facilities. The moves are possible because TRACON controllers look at radar screens not the sky to guide planes that are near an airport. (Tower controllers, which help planes land and take-off, are window-dependent and have stayed in airport facilities.)

The FAA says the consolidations can simplify staffing problems and technology upgrades, and, in some cases, save money. So Palm Springs merged with Southern California TRACON; Boise, Idaho, is poised to merge with Salt Lake City; and in the fall, Pueblo's scheduled to see its approach control relocate to Denver.

But many say the consolidations mean planes get worse service and see increased risks. Many larger TRACONs, Denver included, are understaffed, and already-strapped controllers will need time to train before they can take on management of a new airspace. There also are concerns that faraway controllers will lack knowledge unique geography, weather patterns, landmarks, hazards of the area they control.

Then there are technical difficulties that can arise when a new system is installed. Just look at California.

Hamid Ghaffari is a representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), which is currently in a labor dispute with the FAA. He says the Palm Springs merger with San Diego has been rife with problems. Radio connections, which allow controllers to communicate with planes, have experienced interruptions and even failed. Radar functions have gone out at least seven times, including on the day after the merger. Those initial failures outraged U.S. Rep. Mary Bono Mack, who had opposed the merger, along with U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer from California's congressional delegation.

"Less than 48 hrs. [sic] after relocating TRACON operations from Palm Springs to the regional center in San Diego, the system went down," Bono Mack said in a statement. "Quite simply, the FAA blew it. They had a chance to prove to skeptics that this consolidation would increase efficiencies and instead they are inconveniencing the flying public."

Bono Mack and several colleagues added an amendment to House Bill 3074, which passed in 2007, banning TRACON mergers until October. Bono Mack is currently co-sponsoring House Bill 2443, which would extend the ban until January 2009. It's still sitting in the House. The Senate is also considering the merger issue in its FAA reauthorization bill, though the Bush administration is opposed to legislation that would impede consolidations.

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor concedes there were "a few glitches" during the Palm Springs transfer having to do with data lines, but adds the system is working fine now, and that the merger was not a problem. He notes that the Southern California facility handles more than two dozen airports.

"You should take NATCA's complaints with a grain of salt," he said.

Yet mergers continue to be contested. In a fierce battle in Idaho, U.S. Sen. Larry Craig tried to prevent the merger of Boise TRACON with Salt Lake City, and threatened to pass legislation to stop it. At this point, the plan is still in place.

Pueblo finds itself in a similar spot. Despite vocal opposition to the merger from U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar and U.S. Reps. John Salazar, Ed Perlmutter, Mark Udall, Diana DeGette and Marilyn Musgrave, as well as from controllers, consolidation appears to be moving forward.

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