Pilots say air crisis a warning

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March 14, 2000

Pilots say air crisis a 'warning'

But they insist that the problem in the skies over Philadelphia is not safety, but capacity.

By Henry J. Holcomb


The airline pilots association said that Friday's radar failure at Philadelphia International Airport offered a "scary warning" of crippling future delays if the nation's air traffic control system is not dramatically improved.

But there is little risk of a midair collision, even during a crisis such as Friday's, because commercial passenger aircraft are equipped with "so many redundancies" to track nearby planes, Capt. Paul McCarthy, safety chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association, said yesterday.

There is a looming capacity problem, McCarthy said, adding: "We've got to bring the U.S. air traffic control system into the 21st century. If we don't, we won't have the capacity the nation will need in the years just ahead."

The Federal Aviation Administration yesterday completed a preliminary investigation into what went wrong at 8:03 p.m. Friday, and also declared that there was no safety risk.

The problem on Friday was caused by failure of three circuit boards, Holly Baker, an FAA spokeswoman, said.

The backup system kicked in immediately, she said, enabling controllers to track the location of aircraft. But she said it was nearly a half hour before the alphanumeric displays that accompany each blip on the radar screens were restored.

So, controllers knew where the airplanes were, but did not know their speed, direction or altitude, she said.

As a result, they had to "slow the system down to preserve safety," delaying four arrivals and 36 departures for up to 45 minutes.

Baker said there had been no problems since Friday.

This failure, the fourth at the Philadelphia control tower in less than a year, left politicians seething.

U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) said the system "is antiquated . . . it is just a matter of time before something disastrous happens."

U.S. Rep. Robert Brady (D., Pa.) said the system "must be replaced. Our air traffic controllers shouldn't have to rely on a patchwork system. We can't keep having this happen. My two granddaughters are flying Thursday. We've got to straighten this thing out."

The pilots association and the FAA insisted yesterday that the issue is not safety, but capacity, or the number of planes the system can handle with its current technology.

McCarthy, the pilots association safety chairman, said everything on the ground could fail and pilots could still avert collisions - "there are so many redundancies built into the system."

He said the location of every aircraft within 40 miles of his plane is displayed on instruments that airliners are required to have.

"If an aircraft penetrates my safety shield, to use a 'Star Wars' term, its color changes on the display and an automated voice calls out 'Traffic, traffic,' " McCarthy said.

If the pilots of the two aircraft do nothing, their computers communicate and decide what to do, he said.

An automated voice tells one pilot to climb and the other to descend. This happens in time to require only a gentle maneuver - "the passengers won't know what has been done," McCarthy said.

A completely separate set of instruments keeps track of an airliner's location in relation to the ground and such obstructions as hills and radio towers, McCarthy said.

Carol Couchman, a technical officer for the pilots association and former air traffic controller, agreed. "There are so many systems to assure safety," she said.

But she and McCarthy said the United States was increasingly plagued by a patchwork system 20 years behind Europe's.

"Cleveland has one set of problems, New York has another. . . . Philadelphia suffers a severe capacity penalty because its air space lies under the New York City arrival and departure patterns," limiting the number of planes that can arrive and depart at peak hours, McCarthy said.

Unless the U.S. air traffic control system is upgraded into an integrated nationwide system, with reliable equipment and staffing, there won't be enough capacity to meet forecast demands, he said.


-- - (x@xxx.com), March 14, 2000


March 14, 2000

Airport chief ousted after less than year

Aviation Director Alfred Testa Jr. was escorted from his office. Street said many were unhappy with Testa's work.

By Cynthia Burton, Maria Panaritis and Clea Benson INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS

Mayor Street yesterday fired Aviation Director Alfred Testa Jr., who was hired last year after a national search.

Testa was ordered out of his office by city officials backed up by police officers after he refused a pointed request from Street on Sunday to resign.

Street said he fired Testa because he was "extremely dis-recommended. . . There are a number of people who think he has not done a good job and that he should be replaced." He would not identify Testa's detractors.

Testa said yesterday he knew of no reason for his dismissal.

"I sold a house. I gave up a good job. My wife gave up a good job. We came here," he said. "And to make the point that we were committing to the City of Philadelphia, we bought this house. I mean, we could have rented."

As director of aviation, Testa oversaw general operations at Philadelphia International Airport but had no jurisdiction over the radar tracking system that malfunctioned Friday night. That system is under the control of the Federal Aviation Administration.

His firing is the fourth such messy dismissal of a public servant by Street since he took office Jan. 3.

Testa, 58, had been the unanimous choice of the the city's Airport Advisory Board when he was hired last year. Members reached yesterday said they were stunned by his dismissal.

"I find him to be very straightforward, very honest in expressing his opinions, and very visionary," said City Councilman James F. Kenney, a board member.

"This is an administration that doesn't have a commerce director or a finance director or a recreation commissioner or a streets commissioner yet, and they're firing the aviation director."

He called the manner of Testa's dismissal "humiliating, and it's wrong. . . . You do not send uniformed police officers to remove a public servant."

Asked about the use of police to remove Testa from his office, Street said: "We attempted to treat him with respect and with dignity. He chose to make an issue out of it, and that's unfortunate."

Testa said the first inkling that his position was in jeopardy came when he was called to a 5 p.m. meeting Sunday with Street's chief of staff, Stephanie Franklin-Suber.

At the meeting in Franklin-Suber's City Hall office, Testa was told to submit his resignation, according to Street's director of communications, Barbara Grant.

Testa agreed, but by yesterday had had a change of heart and reported to his office at the International Airport as usual, he said.

Yesterday afternoon, Testa was confronted at his office by Shawn Fordham, a deputy to Franklin-Suber, two lawyers from the City Solicitor's Office, and a handful of police officers, including Lt. Richard Ross, head of the mayor's security team, and Capt. John McArthur of the airport police.

They handed him a letter from Franklin-Suber demanding his resignation.

"You shall either, by 1:30 p.m. today, submit your letter of resignation to Mayor John F. Street, effective March 24, 2000, or in the absence of receipt of such letter, your employment with the city of Philadelphia shall be terminated as of 2 p.m. today, March 13, 2000," the letter read. "If your employment is terminated (because of the absence of a letter of resignation) appropriate police and/or security personnel will insure that you have vacated your office and the airport by 2 p.m. today."

Franklin-Suber's letter ended thus: "Let me emphasize that the immediate submission of your resignation will, in my opinion, prove to be in your personal and professional best interests."

Franklin-Suber said she involved the police because "when someone indicates that they're not going to be cooperative, that they're going to cause trouble and create a disruption, it's important - when it's a situation, in a location like the airport - that you take appropriate measures."

She said Testa agreed to resign Sunday but "got his lawyers on the phone and decided he was not going to cooperate, so we escorted him out. He was not led out, and he was not handcuffed."

Testa has hired the law firm of Richard Sprague to represent his interests. He would not say what action he might take.

After removing Testa, Street issued a news release saying he had appointed Charles Isdell, the city's deputy aviation director, as acting director. Grant said the city would begin a national search for a new director.

Testa's awkward firing follows three similar dismissals since Street took office Jan. 3.

On Jan. 4, Street said he would not reappoint Michael Karp to the Board of Education, calling him "disruptive."

On Jan. 29, he fired his first communications director, Ken Snyder, with a news release, saying Snyder did not get along with Franklin-Suber and used foul language.

On Feb. 23, his secretary of education told another school board member, Jacques Lurie, that he should withdraw his name from consideration for a reappointment to the board or quit a race for state representative in the Northeast. Lurie was not reappointed.

Lurie and Karp had ties to State Sen. Vincent Fumo, the powerful South Philadelphia Democrat. When Fumo asked Street why he did not reappoint Lurie to the school board, Street told him it was because Fumo hired Snyder after Street fired him.

Testa, former director of the Manchester Airport in New Hampshire, had been aggressively recruited by former Mayor Edward G. Rendell. Rendell would not comment yesterday.

Testa was the city's fourth aviation director since 1993.

A Rhode Island native, Testa started at Philadelphia Airport on April 5, 1999, at an annual salary of $150,000. His wife, Kathryn, quit her job as an administrative aide to the mayor of Manchester to come to Philadelphia.

At the time of his hiring, Testa said he expected this to be his last job before retirement.

"I'm confident in my ability," he said then. "I hope the next mayor will look at my job accomplishments. And the history here is that it's not a political job."

-- - (x@xxx.com), March 14, 2000.

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