News Article - March 05, 2008

  Responding to harsh criticism from air-traffic controllers and members of Congress, federal officials say new takeoff procedures from Philadelphia International Airport not only are safe, but also are helping to reduce flight delays. And at least two independent air-traffic experts, in interviews, supported the Federal Aviation Administration's assertion that its new flight plan is at least as safe as the previous system.

   In recent weeks, three members of Congress from the region and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union have said that the FAA's new procedures may diminish safety margins because they could require pilots and controllers to change their planned flight path just before takeoff. They backed up the criticism with a statement of concern from the pilots' union's safety representative at US Airways Group Inc.

   The safety concerns arose amid an intense dispute over aircraft noise. Residents of some communities in Delaware County and South Jersey have complained of higher levels of noise since the FAA began using the new paths in mid-December. Speaking about safety, Steve Kelley, the FAA's manager of the program, which is designed to ease chronic air-traffic congestion in the Philadelphia and New York areas, said in an interview last week that there was no reason to believe the procedures were unsafe. "Safety is an absolute in this design process," Kelley said. "I believe everything we're doing is working toward improving safety."

   The polar-opposite assertions by FAA managers and the controllers' group are impossible to separate from a bitter and protracted contract dispute between the union and the agency. When the two could not agree on a new contract last year, the Bush administration imposed a new agreement on the union that its leaders say has reduced controller staffing to dangerously low levels. The union says the agency is run by "my way or the highway" managers who intimidate union members and stifle whistle-blowers - allegations that FAA officials adamantly deny.

   The new takeoff procedures involve changes to an automated system used for more than 20 years to give pilots a standard takeoff path before pushing back from a Philadelphia International gate. The standard path, based on a compass heading of 255 degrees, requires pilots to follow the Delaware River to an altitude of about 3,000 feet before making a turn. This departure path, still in use for most flights, has been used when planes take off to the west, which they do about 70 percent of the time at Philadelphia International.

   Now, from 10 a.m. to noon and 2 to 7 p.m., pilots may be given new paths on the runway as they receive clearance for departure after they push back from the terminal but before takeoff. They may be told to make slight turns to the right or left just after takeoff. That takes them over areas of central Delaware County or Gloucester County that have not heard much aircraft noise in the past.

   A US Airways pilot and a former controller, who now teaches air-traffic management, concurred with the FAA's view about safety. They said it did not appear that what pilots and controllers had to do was unusual or confusing. "It does not erode any margin of safety," said Jack Hildebrand, a US Airways captain on Airbus A320 jets, based in Philadelphia, who has flown for the airline for 23 years. "It's not an abnormal procedure at all."

   Sid McGuirk, an associate professor and head of the air-traffic management program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., said he believed "pilots are pretty bright people" and should not be confused. "New headings are assigned by air-traffic controllers all the time," said McGuirk, who was a controller for 35 years.

   But other pilots and the controllers' union say the FAA should have done more when it started using the new procedures to let pilots know they could receive a "non-standard" departure heading. Dan Sicchio, the safety chairman for the US Airways chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association union, said in a statement issued by the controllers' union that assigning a different heading as part of the takeoff clearance "can easily result in confusion. It also occurs during a very busy time in the cockpit, and possibly while only one pilot is on the radio," he said.

   The statement by the controllers' union drew support from Reps. Joe Sestak (D., Pa.) and Rob Andrews (D., N.J.), who have been critical of virtually every aspect of the airspace-redesign plan. Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) separately has criticized the FAA for the way it has implemented similar takeoff procedures at Newark Liberty International Airport.

   Don Chapman, the spokesman for the Philadelphia chapter of the controllers' union, said he and others had documented "numerous incidents" in which pilots did not understand last-minute instructions. That has led to flights heading slightly off course, potentially causing them to come too close to other aircraft, he said. "We have evidence that's proof positive we have a problem we didn't have before," Chapman said.

   However, FAA spokesman Jim Peters said last week that the manager of the Philadelphia control tower had not received any reports from controllers of instances when pilots had been confused. Kelley, who is a pilot, acknowledged there always was a chance of miscommunication when controllers and pilots were following new procedures. But, he said, "this is not anything, in my opinion, that jeopardizes safety."

   On delays, Kelley said more information was needed from the airlines before the FAA could say definitively that Philadelphia departure delays were down 15 percent primarily because of the new procedures. But the indications were strong. The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported today that Philadelphia International and the three New York-area airports in January were not - for the first time in years - in their traditional place at the bottom of the list of the most delay-prone airports. "We have noticed a reduction in delays," Kelley said of Philadelphia. "The assessment is pretty positive."

Source - Philadelphia Inquirer