Controllers, FAA At Odds Over Radio Use

Monday, April 30th 2007, 4:59 pm
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ An eight month-old Federal Aviation Administration ban on radios in air traffic control towers could put lives at risk when severe weather bears down on airports, a national labor union says.

At issue is a contract with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association implemented in September by the FAA that removed AM/FM radios from tower work areas to prevent them from becoming a distraction to controllers.

But taking the radios means controllers lose a key asset they use to monitor the funnel clouds of a tornado and relay that information to pilots in the air, the air traffic controllers association says.

The FAA said the controllers already have a ``large amount of weather information'' in the tower.

Controllers receive information about precipitation and wind patterns from equipment available in the tower, but cannot hear tornado alerts the National Weather Service is putting out to the public, according to the union.

The FAA allows radios and TVs in the break rooms, but those are often out of earshot to controllers, the union says.

``These folks are sitting ducks,'' said Doug Church, a spokesman for the union, which represents 14,500 air traffic controllers nationwide. ``It's about punishing controllers; there is no distraction to a work environment that has a regular radio on.''

Since the ban, the union says there have been at least a half-dozen near miss ``tornado vs. tower events,'' including Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Denver.

Last week, a funnel cloud was spotted about a mile northeast of Tulsa International Airport's FAA Tulsa Tower, said Scott Keller, the controllers association representative here. Keller said the only way controllers found out about the funnel, which eventually petered out, was from an employee's wife who phoned the tower to warn them.

Keller, with 30 years of air traffic controller experience, said taking away the AM/FM radios was a way for the FAA to ``belittle'' controllers and wants the agency to compromise and install weather-band radios in the towers.

``It does help me with reporting to pilots and our own safety,'' Keller said. ``There's hundreds of times those reports have helped me tell pilots there's a funnel cloud.''

In a statement, the FAA said that ``controllers have a large amount of weather information in the tower, as they regularly relay that information to pilots.

``The resources available to them include regular reports from human weather observers in the field, automated observing equipment and the National Weather Service,'' the statement said.