BWI's radar failures demand FAA response

Flight safety: Federal agency needs to investigate, explain airport problems.

November 06, 2001

THE FEDERAL Aviation Administration has a lot on its plate these days, but it must make room for more: Addressing BWI's radar problems is a priority.

The agency can't afford to respond to this crisis with an attitude that suggests it can't be bothered right now. A reminder to FAA officials: Proper radar function is air security.

On Sunday, BWI's main radar failed after being shut down for routine maintenance.

Planes were rerouted before the system was back on line at 4:20 a.m. yesterday.

That wasn't the airport's first trouble with radar. Just over two months ago, air traffic controllers were forced to chart aircraft the old-fashioned way -- by keeping notes on paper -- after a lightning strike to the main radar and primary backup system revealed inadequacies in the secondary backup system.

The August problem raised serious questions. Sunday's failure demands immediate answers.

Indeed, other airports have experienced radar failure. In the past two years, airports serving Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and Miami have encountered technical problems.

But the reasons for the malfunctions have been identified in most of those cases -- from power outages at Reagan National to high winds toppling an antenna at Logan International.

Here, the National Air Traffic Association's local president is right to insist that someone get to the bottom of BWI's radar problems.

State Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and the Environment, is calling for a hearing on BWI's radar problems. And so far, the federal agency has told him to forget it.

Delegate Franchot has good reason to press the issue, especially if the agency is indeed telling him that it's too busy with other matters, such as airport security, and is giving him insufficient information.

When BWI is formally declared unsafe, it's time for the FAA to investigate and explain. Mr. Franchot's hearing will give the federal agency an opportunity to tell how it's getting to the bottom of BWI's radar problems.

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