IA - FAA probes glitch in phone-line link to jets

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Planes got close with Aurora tower in dark for hours

By Rogers Worthington Tribune staff reporter July 12, 2001 The air traffic control glitch that brought two planes uncomfortably close to one another Monday was not a brief problem but a 16-hour blackout that left controllers unable to talk directly to pilots over much of Iowa, Federal Aviation Administration officials acknowledged this week.

Now FAA officials are investigating whether long-distance telephone carriers violated their contract by failing to provide adequate backup.

The potentially dangerous situation began at 1:30 a.m. Monday when a power surge, perhaps from a lightning strike, knocked out a telephone switching facility in Davenport, Iowa.

The surge disrupted land-line connections between air traffic controllers in Aurora and four remote radio transmitters that allow controllers to speak with pilots over eastern Iowa and far western Illinois. The Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center in Aurora uses similar transmitters throughout seven states to help direct airplanes over much of the middle of the country.

To compensate for the breakdown, controllers scrambled to reroute planes in the affected area into airspace over a working transmitter. That led to 43 flight delays out of O'Hare International Airport, according to the FAA.

As workers on the ground tried to repair the system, controllers kept planes moving with a patchwork of alternatives. Shortly before 10:45 a.m. they became aware that a TWA MD-80 jetliner with 140 passengers and a small, private aircraft were heading toward each other into airspace where controllers had no communications.

The FAA reported that the two planes failed to maintain required separation. According to controllers, they were about 500 vertical feet apart and less than 4 miles apart laterally, approaching one another at a combined speed of more than 800 m.p.h.

"For us as air traffic controllers, it is inexcusable," said Don Wishowski, a representative at the Aurora facility for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "It's a helpless feeling, watching two planes basically whiff each other."

Air traffic controllers in Aurora were able to alert pilots in the two planes by having an air traffic controller in Iowa radio a business jet. That plane's pilot then radioed the jetliner directly, said FAA Great Lakes spokeswoman Liz Isham Cory. The planes moved to different altitudes.

The telephone breakdown was finally repaired about 5:30 p.m. Monday.

Controllers association representatives at the Aurora facility have filed an unsafe conditions report that will be sent to FAA headquarters in Washington, Wishowski said.

Meanwhile the FAA is trying to sort out who is responsible for the problem.

The FAA has a contract with MCI WorldCom that covers its long-distance service between the Aurora facility and the remote radio transmitters.

A spokeswoman for MCI WorldCom said Wednesday that the phone lines connecting Aurora to the four transmitters that were disabled Monday are operated by a subcontractor, Denver-based Qwest Communications.

"The issue was not on the WorldCom network," said Linda Laughlin from MCI's Tulsa headquarters. "Qwest would have to answer that question."

But Qwest Communications spokesman Bryce Hollowell said his company has no land lines between Aurora and Davenport.

"We serve Iowa. Other providers have Illinois," he said.

One FAA supervisor said the situation Monday suggested MCI had failed to provide adequate backup, as required by its contract with the FAA.

Gary Duffy, the FAA's maintenance chief for northern Illinois, said the contract calls for multiple routes for communication between Aurora and the transmitters, giving the agency two different backup options in case the main line is disrupted.

"We have telephone lines cut from construction all the time, but if we have diversity in path--redundancy--then it is transparent," Duffy said. "We're paying for diversity, and in this case it doesn't look like we had it. ... This is a big contract, a national contract."

The FAA is awaiting a report by its investigating team, as well as reports from MCI WorldCom and Qwest, Cory said.

"We're waiting to see what the companies have to say before we take any action," she said.


-- Doris (nocents@bellsouth.net), July 13, 2001

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