Furloughs push U.S. air traffic system near "yellow" warning


By Alwyn Scott

NEW YORK, Oct 10 (Reuters) - The U.S. air traffic controlsystem is close to hitting a "yellow" alert level as people whokeep radar and other equipment running remain out on furloughsdue to the government shutdown, the head of the controllersunion said on Thursday.

Air travelers would face lengthy delays if a radar unit orother equipment broke at a major U.S. airport because no one ison duty to fix it, Paul Rinaldi, president of the National AirTraffic Controllers Association (NATCA), told Reuters in aninterview.

The system's safety has not deteriorated, Rinaldi said. But"we're getting to yellow" in facing a major disruption fromequipment failure that could foul thousands of flights,particularly if there was bad weather. Yellow indicates cautionand is not based on a risk scale used by aviation regulators.

Failure could affect big U.S. carriers such as Delta AirLines, United Airlines, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines Co and others.

"The impact will come as we continue to run this systemwithout our full team out there," he said. "We're not doingmaintenance on radar equipment" or communication equipment.

"As that breaks down, that will limit the amount ofairplanes we put in certain areas," he said.

Rinaldi's statements on the 10th day of the governmentshutdown coincided with a rally in Washington, D.C., by aviationgroups raising concern about the Federal AviationAdministration's continuing furloughs of "non-critical" staff.

The FAA said its top concern is safety and that it hascontingency plans under which "controllers and other essentialemployees will continue working in order to maintain the safetyof the national airspace system."

The nation's 14,600 air traffic controllers are workingthrough the budget crisis, but about 2,800 NATCA members,including support specialists and engineers, are not working,the union said.

"With fewer FAA employees on the job, some non-criticalinspections, registrations and certifications will take longer,"said Jean Medina, spokeswoman at Airlines for America, a tradegroup of U.S. carriers. She said the group believes safety willnot be compromised.

The furloughs also have affected the ability of planes andpilots to complete their certifications and to register aircraftsales, holding up deliveries of new planes to the market. TheFAA on Tuesday said it would begin recalling 800 of thoseworkers this week to help end the delays. Another 1,600 remainfurloughed. Overall, the agency has furloughed 15,500 workers,or about one-third of its 46,000 employees.

Rinaldi said a radar failure at John F. KennedyInternational Airport in New York could foul thousands offlights, leading to many hours of delay for passengers. He saidthe FAA likely would recall workers to fix the problem, but thetime to fix it would be much longer than normal.

Equipment failure also could close runways, or evenairports, if instrument landing systems were affected. In badweather, pilots rely on such instruments to guide them throughlow clouds to the runway.

Also, flight charts that are normally updated every month ortwo are not being altered to reflect changes in the system,meaning the charts are increasingly out of date, Rinaldi said.

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