New Memphis Landing Rules May Force FedEx to Shift Flights

Apr. 19 -- Changes this week in landing procedures at Memphis International Airport have reduced airfield capacity, upsetting FedEx Corp. and others that need multiple runaways to maximize efficiency.

In a letter to the FAA this week, FedEx expressed concern that the change will reduce its efficiency, and asked the FAA to amend the decision.

Both FedEx and the FAA refused to release copies of the letter. The FAA said it was not its policy to release letters before it had responded to the sender.

"I have not seen the letter. I do not have a copy of it," said Laura Brown, FAA spokeswoman in Washington.

In the meantime, FAA officials are planning a meeting in Memphis Monday to assess the situation, according to agency spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen.

"We will be conducting safety assessments, reviewing the suspended procedure and alternatives to minimize the impact on airport capacity."

The meeting, she said, was scheduled before the FAA decision late last week to suspend a landing procedure that allowed multiple planes simultaneous access to intersecting runways.

Under the old rules, planes landing on east-west runway 27 or north-south runway 18 could approach the airfield simultaneously, creating a situation in which planes occasionally would be forced to fly over each other.

As of Monday, air traffic controllers have been directed to stagger incoming planes when the wind conditions dictate use of runways 27 and 18.

"It has to reduce capacity," said Larry Cox, president and chief executive of Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority. "If FedEx can't land as many planes here, they will have to move some operations to another hub."

Although air traffic controllers and pilots have complained about the situation for years, FedEx says the pattern is safe and was used so frequently, it had became a routine part of its hub operation.

"We've landed in this configuration for over two decades and know it is safe," said Maury Lane, FedEx spokesman. "However, we are working on contingency plans to minimize customer impact from this surprising decision and hope to resume normal operations as quickly as possible."

According to 40-year historical averages from the National Weather Service, winds in Memphis are out of the southwest nearly 50 percent of the time in April, May, June and July.

The FAA says the flight pattern was used 17 percent of the time in Memphis. It has not been able to determine the loss of airfield capacity because winds early this week had been out of the north.

Concern about the situation is not new, Cox said.

"There's been discussion internally about the procedure. This is not the first time."

Pilots and air traffic controllers say that when they questioned the procedure, they were told the Memphis tower had received a waiver from the FAA that permitted the operation.

The situation came to the FAA's attention after an incident Feb. 18 in Memphis when the tower had to intervene in an incident involving a Northwest DC-9 and Mesaba Airlines' turboprop coming in close together for landing.

"This is the first time we've gotten somebody to look at it from a safety standpoint and from a regulation standpoint," said Peter Sufka, head of the local air traffic controllers union. "Our runway 27 procedure is not in compliance."

He says the change will have little effect on FedEx, adding "only five to 10 minutes to their entire arrival push.

"I don't see the impact it is going to have unless the carriers are planning on changing their flight schedule in and out."

Lane would not comment on specific delays, but said FedEx looks forward to receiving the FAA's safety assessment.

"We believe the agency should allow this pattern to continue to operate safely as it has in the past."

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