Air traffic controllers at the Oakland and San Jose international airports are crying foul over a decision by the Federal Aviation Administration to indefinitely halt installation of new ground radar systems at the airports to prevent planes from colliding on the ground.
The FAA had indicated it planned to install the Airport Surface Detection Equipment, or ASDE-X, devices in Oakland and San Jose to help controllers orchestrate what during busy hours can be a dizzying array of plane movements on the ground.
But an FAA spokesman confirmed that an agency panel has decided to move the airports off a list of facilities slated to get the technology in the near future. FAA spokesman Donn Walker said the decision does not mean Oakland and San Jose will not eventually get the devices, only that the panel deemed technology upgrades at other airports to be of more pressing importance.
One of the main reasons Oakland and San Jose were moved down the list, Walker said, was that both airports have excellent safety records in terms of guarding against so-called runway incursions, when two planes move at the same time onto what is supposed to be an exclusive takeoff and landing zone.
San Francisco International Airport is equipped with ground radar similar to ASDE-X, Walker said, but it has also recorded 13 runway incursions since 2001, compared to six in San Jose and only three in Oakland.
But air traffic controllers in Oakland and San Jose say fog and physical challenges make the ASDE-X devices needed additions to their ground-safety arsenal.
"We need this equipment," said Lester Scott, an air traffic controller at Oakland International Airport for the past 12 years. "Don't get me wrong, we have an excellent safety record at this airport and I'm sure that will continue. But the problems this equipment is designed to overcome are all right here, and it doesn't make sense not to give it to us."
ASDE-X devices, which cost about $3 million each, use an advanced radar system and transponders mounted on planes to closely monitor the aircraft as they move about an airport's runways and taxiways.
The precision afforded by the devices help controllers maintain strict separation zones -- often 5,000 feet -- that airports enforce in the "movement areas" where planes takeoff and land, and taxi to and from the terminals.
Air traffic controllers are trained to orchestrate ground traffic by eyesight while stationed in towers above movement areas. But as Scott and other controllers pointed out, dense fog that can sometimes descend on the Bay Area makes it impossible to maintain ground safety by eyesight alone.
Elise Streed, an air traffic controller in San Jose, said a recent project to lengthen Mineta's two main runways by nearly 50 percent presents a physical challenge that makes ASDE-X needed at her airport more than ever.
"But the FAA is telling us we don't need it, even though we can't see the ends of two of our runways (from the tower)," she said.
The catastrophic potential of runway incursions is best illustrated by a 1977 crash in Tenerife in the Canary Islands. In one of the worst crashes in aviation history, a KLM 747 taking off in dense fog slammed into a taxiing Pan Am 747, killing 583 passengers and crew.
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