Radar program delayed for S.F. Airport

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Published Saturday, Dec. 30, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News


A planned December launch of a ground radar system at San Francisco International Airport designed to prevent collisions like the one that killed 81 people in Taiwan in October has been delayed indefinitely because bugs were found in the system this fall.

During November tests, the radar program began tracking phantom flights and sounding false collision alarms.

``The alarm would go off and we'd look out there and there would be no plane in sight,'' said Rick Davis, an air traffic controller at San Francisco International and spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Controllers in San Francisco and in Detroit have been testing the government's Airport Movement Area Safety System, or AMASS, on and off for nearly a year. The system should someday electronically track the location of aircraft on runways and taxiways, as well as sound alerts when an aircraft is on a collision course with another plane or object.

The system could prove extremely useful at San Francisco International, where fog often blankets the airport's runways and forces controllers to rely on navigation equipment rather than sight to guide planes on and off runways.

Delaying the program's rollout at San Francisco International is yet another setback for AMASS, which is already more than a year behind schedule.

Still, air traffic controllers say they are pleased the Federal Aviation Administration is being cautious with the new program. Some even say it even signals a new way of doing business within the federal agency charged with safeguarding the aviation industry.

``To have them put a system in place and then pull it out is a great step forward,'' Davis said. ``In the past, they would have left it in place and tried to work out the problems while we used it. I'm pleased they are being cautious.''

The FAA had hoped to flip the switch at San Francisco International earlier this month and quickly expand the system to all major U.S. airports over the next five years at a cost of $90 million.

Now they say testing will resume in March and there is no set schedule for bringing the system on line.

``It just didn't do very well,'' said Jerry Snyder, FAA spokesman. ``It threw out some false images that gave our controllers a scare.''

The FAA's case for a ground radar system at major U.S. airports was bolstered in October when a Singapore Airlines flight barreled into construction equipment during takeoff in Taiwan. The ensuing fire killed 81 people, but it wasn't the worst ground collision on record. That distinction belongs to a 1977 collision of two 747s that killed 582 people at an airport in the Canary Islands.

The threat of ground collisions has increased dramatically, according to FAA officials, principally because of the growth in air traffic. They point to the growing number of runway ``incursions,'' or times when planes or other vehicles like luggage trucks or fueling trucks come in danger of colliding with planes on the ground. Between 1993 and 1999, such incidents increased 75 percent. Last year, a record 327 were recorded at U.S. airports.

The FAA predicts that without AMASS or some other type of ground radar system, 15 fatal runway collisions will occur in the next 20 years in the United States, and statistically, three of those would be collisions between two loaded airliners.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), December 30, 2000

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