Md. delegation calls for probe into BWI radar failures

November 07, 2001|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Maryland's congressional delegation called yesterday for an immediate investigation into recent radar failures at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and asked federal aviation officials to outline their plans to correct the problems.

In a letter to Federal Aviation Administrator Jane F. Garvey, the state's two senators and four of its congressmen wrote: "The radar equipment outages have not only disrupted flight operations at BWI, but may have the potential of compromising safety."

They added: "We urge you to immediately undertake a thorough investigation of this matter to provide us with a report on steps the FAA intends to take to correct these equipment failures."

Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, and Reps. Steny H. Hoyer, Benjamin L. Cardin, Elijah E. Cummings and Wayne T. Gilchrest signed the letter.

FAA officials in Washington did not return calls. An aide to Sarbanes said the senator discussed the matter with Garvey yesterday.

"She said she would give it a lot of attention," said aide Charlie Stek. "Judging by the number of delegation members who signed, it's a priority they want the FAA to address."

Frank Hatfield, air traffic division manager for the FAA's Eastern Region, said technicians were working yesterday to compile data recorded during the outages.

"I have no reason to disagree or take exception with the controllers," Hatfield said. But, he added, so far he has seen no evidence of planes disappearing from radar scopes for extended periods, as described by air traffic controllers and recorded in logs.

Hatfield and other FAA officials are scheduled to meet with congressional staff this morning.

Since late August, the system has failed twice, according to FAA records and interviews with air traffic controllers.

The first incident occurred after lightning knocked out primary radar and the first backup system on Aug. 30. During a 27-hour period, controllers said, hundreds of planes disappeared from their scopes as a secondary backup system malfunctioned. Administrators permitted air traffic to continue at almost normal levels.

Last weekend, the problems recurred after technicians shut down the main radar for routine maintenance and were unable to restart it. Between late Saturday night and about 4:30 a.m. Monday, they relied on the two backup systems, both of which malfunctioned, controllers say.

The FAA restricted BWI airspace, permitting only planes flying to and from the airport to enter, rerouting others, and extending space required between planes in the airspace as a precaution.

On Monday, the FAA "politely declined" a request to testify on the issue during a General Assembly subcommittee hearing Nov. 20. A spokesman said that it was against agency policy to testify at state-level hearings.

But Hatfield said yesterday a compromise had been arranged. He said he will appear before legislators to answer questions publicly before the hearing.

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