The Federal Aviation Administration is testing software at Memphis International Airport that it hopes will eliminate potential safety issues common here when the wind is out of the south.
When two planes are approaching perpendicular runways, the software shows the air traffic controller a ghost image of the second plane in real time, giving the controller time to stagger the landings by spacing the planes before they reach the runways.
"It is one of the tools we are testing in Memphis, and the result will depend on what we find in the safety risk assessment," said Kathleen Bergen, FAA spokeswoman.
"We hope to have more information later in the week."
The FAA uses the software, called converging runway display aid, or CRDA, at airports with perpendicular runways, including those in St. Louis, Philadelphia and Detroit.
Because it allows controllers to stagger landings, planes run less of a risk of flying over each other on approach, which happened here in mid-February when a Mesaba Airlines turboprop flight preparing to land on east-west Runway 27 aborted its landing and came within a mile of the path of a Northwest DC9 on north-south Runway 18.
About a month later - on Friday, April 13 - the FAA said it was halting the landing pattern, effective the following Monday, while it studied the operation.
FedEx immediately complained in a letter to FAA Administrator Marion Blakely, saying the action was taken without a formal review and that it would cost FedEx nearly 23 percent efficiency because it reduced daytime landings from 88 to 68 an hour.
"We're continuing to work with the FAA on the safety assessment. Quantifying the impact would be inappropriate at this time," said Maury Lane, FedEx spokesman.
"We look forward to being able to operate the airport in the same configuration we've flown for at least 20 years."
For years, controllers and pilots were directed to land planes simultaneously on the two runways when the wind was out of the south. Although they said they complained about the risks, they were told a waiver existed that made the operation legal.
According to the National Weather Service, the wind in Memphis is out of the south more than 42 percent of the year.
Controller Pete Sufka says CRDA will give controllers a "fighting chance" of staggering the flights.
"If we use this tool as it is designed, the aircraft will be properly staggered so if one plane has to go around, they shouldn't be on a collision course.
"But I have misgivings about how they are going to train the controllers how to use this stuff. If it is typical, it won't be very thorough," said Sufka, who is also president of the local controllers' union.
His worry is that the software doesn't take into account wake turbulence issues that a small plane on Runway 27 would face if it had to abort its landing while heavy aircraft were landing on Runway 18L.
About 75 percent of FedEx parcel flights out of Memphis are heavy aircraft.
"My hesitation is also that I have never worked with CRDA. There is going to be hesitancy because it is going to be a new thing," he said.
CRDA will not restore all lost capacity because the planes that used to land simultaneously would be spaced for staggered landings.
Last week, FAA regional administrator Doug Murphy said even with the reduced capacity, the Memphis tower was reporting almost no delays.
"Things are running smoothly and on time."
-Jane Roberts: 529-2512
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