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Airport could lose controllers



Published: Fri, February 5, 2010 @ 12:00 a.m.

The FAA considers plan to remove radar from Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport controllers in the next five years.

VIENNA — The Federal Aviation Administration is proposing to move the work of some air traffic controllers at the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport in about five years.

Though no decision has been made, the proposal would also move the work of some controllers at the Toledo Express Airport, Akron-Canton Regional Airport and Mansfield Lahm Regional Airport to Cleveland, the FAA says.

Elizabeth Isham Cory, FAA spokesperson, said the FAA has proposed a modernization of its air-traffic control operations that would use a satellite and GPS-based system of tracking aircraft that would be housed at Hopkins. It would replace the radar facilities, known as TRACONS (Terminal Radar Approach Control facilities) used at the four northern Ohio airports.

The existing radar systems — including one installed at the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport within the past four years — would remain as a backup system after the work was moved to Cleveland, Cory said.

The new technology, called NextGen, will enable the aviation industry to keep up with the demand for air service, improve information available to pilots and controllers regarding aircraft position and weather, reduce fuel consumption and avoid flight delays, the FAA says.

Cory said the soonest the new Cleveland TRACON would be ready for use would be 2015. It would not reduce the number of air traffic controllers needed, but it would result in controllers being assigned to Cleveland instead of Vienna, she said. She didn’t know how many jobs would be moved.

The four airports would retain air traffic controllers in each airport’s control tower, but such controllers can only monitor air traffic for about five miles, according to the FAA.

Traffic that is five to 40 miles away is handled by the TRACON. A high-altitude control center in Oberlin, Ohio, controls air traffic that is more than 40 miles from the local airport and handles traffic in portions of seven states.

Alexandra Caldwell, a spokesperson for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, however, says the move might also have drawbacks for local pilots because controllers would be an hour away from Vienna and possibly less familiar with the Mahoning Valley terrain.

There have been numerous examples of air traffic controllers helping pilots land their aircraft after a mechanical or radio malfunction that required the controller to use his local knowledge to find a safe place to land, Caldwell said, such as on a highway.

More than anything, however, Caldwell said the union is unhappy that the FAA has not discussed the proposal with the controllers. The union has established a Web page that encourages users to contact legislators to voice their concerns. It is www.localairportsmatter.com.

During the process of moving most air traffic control operations from Dayton International Airport to Columbus, taking effect this June, the FAA told controllers and pilots almost nothing, Caldwell said.

The changeover was not well received in places like Palm Springs, Calif, and Pueblo, Colo., Caldwell said, because of the inexperience of the air traffic controllers, Caldwell said.

Cory said the FAA has every intention of discussing the proposal with the controllers’ union. “Of course [they] will have a place at the table,” she said.

Darryl Stinson, who runs the local air traffic control tower, did not return a call seeking comment. The local tower had 20 controllers working there in 2006, but Caldwell said she didn’t know how many are there now.

Scott Lynn, the current chairman of the board of the Western Reserve Port Authority, which runs the airport, and John Masternick, former chairman, did not return phone calls seeking comment. Master Sgt. Bob Barko Jr., superintendent of public affairs at the Youngstown Air Reserve Station, said the station would have no comment on the matter until today.

Chris Dancy, spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, headquartered in Frederick, Md., said he, too, believes it’s important for the FAA to be as “inclusive and transparent as possible” in its discussions about the plan but says he doesn’t believe the change will adversely affect safety.

The change worked well when it occurred in Virginia about 10 years ago, consolidating the air traffic control operations in Baltimore, Richmond and the two airports in Washington, D.C. at a location in Warrenton, Va., an hour west of Washington, D.C., Dancy said.

The new administrator of the FAA, Randy Babbitt, has demonstrated that safety is his first priority, Dancy said, so he doubts that such a consolidation will harm safety in Ohio. “Local knowledge is helpful, but the FAA has consolidated [in Virginia] without a reduction in safety, but it’s too early to tell what effect this will have,” he said.

runyan@vindy.com


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