The labor union representing 60,000 pilots was not invited to participate in a study of landing procedures at Memphis International Airport, prompting concern that the FAA-selected group is "political" and too narrowly focused.
"We're having an extremely difficult time trying to talk to anyone in the FAA on this issue," said Capt. Larry Newman, spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, representing pilots at airlines in the United States and Canada.
"We believe stakeholder participation is critical to any safety risk analysis."
Tuesday, the FAA began its formal analysis of landing procedures at the Memphis air traffic control tower, talking to a variety of airport users, including Northwest Airlines and FedEx Corp.
The FAA Wednesday did not respond to written questions about what the assessment involves, how long it will last and when a decision will be made.
But Newman expects that the FAA is feeling "tremendous amount of political pressure" from perhaps as "high as the White House" to straighten the situation out.
On April 13, the agency announced that effective the following Monday, April 16, it would suspend a key landing procedure used in Memphis when the wind is out of the south.
The configuration allowed planes simultaneous access to runways 18L and 18C, which intersect with east-west Runway 27, creating a situation where planes could fly directly over each other.
According to the National Weather Service, the wind blows from the south in Memphis about 42 percent of the time.
Until the issue is resolved, the air traffic control tower has been instructed to stagger the landings.
FedEx Corp. has mounted a vigorous defense. In a letter dated April 17 to FAA Administrator Marion Blakely, it said it could cost the company 20 landings an hour during the day.
"The impact of this change to our 'absolutely, positively overnight' service cannot be understated," according to the letter signed by James Parker, senior vice president of air operations.
Newman says the FAA knows ALPA's position and is unlikely to seek its advice because it is getting pressure from users, including FedEx Corp., to find "another solution."
"But ALPA does represent over 60,000 pilots at 40 airlines in the U.S. and Canada. We have a long history of having expertise in safety risk assessments. We feel it is unusual to be not included."
Observers say the situation here puts the agency in a ticklish place. If it backs down on its mandate, it looks like it is giving in to pressure from airport users.
But internally, it is feeling pressure about how seamless its power is viewed by the industry.
For example, when the agency restructured several years ago, it intentionally consolidated regional efforts into its Washington headquarters as a way of acting more federal and avoiding what insiders say was the common practice of enforcing rules differently across the regions.
It also added a new layer of safety oversight in its air traffic control division. Before then, the air traffic operation had been "overseeing itself," Newman said.
"And a lot of these issues never surfaced or if they did, they were pushed back down," he said. "We are concerned that if the safety oversight division has to back down, it would deal a significant blow to the emerging process of oversight.
"If would be very difficult for oversight to reverse its position. So they have to figure out some kind of mitigation to achieve the same affect."
FedEx had little comment Wednesday.
"We think the process is working," said Maury Lane, spokesman, who confirmed that Paul Cassel, vice president of air operations, had appeared before the FAA inquiry team Tuesday.
-Jane Roberts: 529-2512
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