Miami International Airport tower flaws : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Published Monday, March 20, 2000, in the Miami Herald

Airport tower flaws emerged in 1996 FAA told before construction ALFONSO CHARDY

The air-traffic controllers union warned the Federal Aviation Administration of design flaws in the controversial new air traffic control tower at Miami International Airport two years before construction started -- but the agency refused to modify the design, federal records show.

The union first complained about the tower design in August 1996; work on the facility began in August 1998. The FAA decided last week to slow down construction work while the agency conducts an engineering review of the nearly completed $18 million tower's visibility problems.

Records examined by The Herald also show that air-traffic controllers themselves played a key role in choosing the design that their union is now fighting. But the controllers who made the selection almost four years ago were not authorized to make it because they were not familiar with the new tower's floor plan.

The union says the choice of four columns to support the roof of the tower's cab -- where controllers direct planes -- will obstruct the view of aircraft on the ground and on approach, and should be removed. Until the announcement Wednesday of the engineering review, the FAA had insisted that the tower's visibility problems could be addressed through redesign of the tower's interior equipment and furniture layout.

The FAA softened its stance after Andrew Cantwell, president of the Miami chapter of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, or NATCA, threatened to sue the FAA to stop construction. Cantwell also said that controllers will not staff the new tower when it opens in August 2001 unless the column issue is resolved.

How the FAA came to build the flawed tower is chronicled in documents the agency released recently in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Herald.

FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said her agency would not comment on the documents beyond this statement: ''NATCA participated significantly in the past in the design of the Miami International Airport tower and is currently involved in a collaborative effort with FAA management to resolve ongoing issues as detailed in the statement released [Wednesday].''


The released documents show that the new tower was designed by a joint team of FAA managers and air-traffic controllers, but when the time came to choose where to locate the roof-support columns the controller officially assigned to the design team was not available.

As a result, the task of choosing column locations fell to two controllers -- Scott Pearson and Rick Denton -- who previously had not been involved in the design process. They just happened to be on duty the day -- May 15, 1996 -- FAA managers came by the old tower to conduct a column-design demonstration.

The choices Pearson and Denton made were noted on computer printouts of the tower's floor plan, with the preferred positions carefully circled in black ink.

Denton could not be reached for comment, but Pearson said he was under the impression that day that he was just giving a ''personal opinion'' -- not participating in a crucial design session.

Cantwell said the FAA should never have accepted the choices Pearson and Denton made because neither was an authorized union representative on the design team.

Part of the problem, Cantwell said, was that Pearson and Denton made their choices from the perspective of the existing tower, which has a different orientation than the new tower.


Why the FAA chose to deal with controllers on duty instead of the official union delegate on the design team is unclear.

The union's primary delegate on the design team, Jeff Rutledge, was away on disability leave at the time. He was familiar with preliminary designs for the new tower and would have been able to spot troublesome column locations.

Rutledge was suffering from stress after witnessing a series of deadly crashes during an aircraft show in Central Florida where he was helping to direct air traffic.

In an interview, Rutledge said FAA tower project managers did not notify him or the union in advance about the column-design demonstration.

A memo dated May 15, 1996, from Bonnie Schultz, an FAA representative on the design team, said the controllers made their selections after project managers demonstrated potential locations by placing cardboard column models around the existing tower.

''Scott Pearson and Rick Denton were in the tower and represented NATCA as no other reps were available,'' Schultz's memo says. She did not return a call for comment.


NATCA officially sounded the alarm about the columns three months later. An Aug. 12, 1996, memo quotes NATCA representative Charlie Rathburn as being opposed to the column arrangement.

Rathburn's concerns were voiced during design team meetings Aug. 5-8, 1996, in Atlantic City, N.J. Rathburn and another controller, Randy Wadle, by then had replaced Rutledge as union delegates on the design team.

''One of the controllers, Charlie, questioned the location of the exterior columns,'' the memo said. ''He is concerned that the eastern and southern most column will block the line of sight to the taxi way-runway intersection that traffic must cross before the aircraft are released to ground control. This poses a perceived operational hazard for the local controller.

''He also felt that eastern and northern exterior column might block portions of an approach.''

The memo noted that Rathburn ''remained adamant in his concerns'' even after being told that Pearson and Denton had chosen the column locations.

''Since neither he nor Randy had been in the existing tower on the day that the cardboard, life-size models were placed about the tower, he felt that the on-duty controllers may have made a mistake in selecting the acceptable locations,'' the memo said. ''He continued to voice his concern. He refused to accept the judgment of either the supervisor or of the controllers who participated in the modeling exercise.''

The memo ends with a recommendation that ''appropriate changes'' in design be undertaken. But minutes of an Oct. 8, 1996, meeting show that FAA senior engineer George Johnson told Rathburn and Wadle it ''would be impossible'' to relocate the columns in the design.

Construction of the new tower -- with the columns in the positions Denton and Pearson picked -- began two years later in August 1998.

-- Martin Thompson (, March 20, 2000

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