MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Ron Carpenter and his fellow air traffic controllers were busy keeping more than 200 airplanes on course over seven states when their communication system crashed. Suddenly they couldn’t talk to pilots or call for help.
“Somebody just pulled out a cell phone,” Carpenter said. “Then everybody else says, ‘Hey, that’s not a bad idea.’ “
So at a major Federal Aviation Administration center, controllers were reduced to using their personal cell phones to ask other centers to help keep planes on course and avert disaster.
They succeeded, but now members of Congress want to know if the Memphis failure last month was an isolated breakdown or evidence of a design flaw in a $2.4 billion project to upgrade telecommunications at air-control centers and other FAA installations across the country.
The FAA blames the disruption on the failure of a major AT&T phone line, but critics say that the trouble is deeper – that the new communications network being installed lacks sufficient backups.
“It’s engineered this way, and it’s going to happen again,” said Dave Spero, a vice president of the union representing FAA technicians.
During the breakdown, 100,000 square miles of airspace were closed off for more than three hours and flights around the country were canceled, delayed or diverted, adding to the woes of a flying public already fed up with disruptions.
The FAA told a congressional subcommittee that the Memphis outage was an AT&T problem and that an investigation was under way.
FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto said the network has backup phone lines for emergencies and each center is served by more than one communications carrier.
But aviation consultant Michael Goldfarb said backup at the Memphis center was obviously insufficient.
“Wal-Mart losing its power is one thing, but for the FAA to lose power when planes are in the air is another thing,” said Goldfarb, a former FAA chief of staff.
“And to only have one line take down an air-control center, something is very wrong with that picture.”