Controller: power outage caused "state of panic"

Controller: power outage caused "state of panic"
It may have been a simple generator failure, but Friday night's hour-long shutdown of aircraft departing and arriving from Sea-Tac Airport is indicative of a much bigger issue, says the head of the local chapter of the air traffic controllers union.

Last week's wind storm caused a power outage at Seattle's TRACON, the two-year-old FAA operated facility located just west of the airport. Also known as terminal approach control, the facility houses the radar and flight controllers who stagger incoming and outgoing flights to and from Sea-Tac Airport.

As designed, a backup generator immediately kicked on when commercial power failed during the windstorm, said FAA spokesman Mike Fergus. But after running for a few hours, the generator broke down. An actuator on the generator had failed.

"The closest part was in Boston and it was immediately put on a plane," says Fergus. A backup battery system kicked in when the generator failed and the facility continued with its operation.

"Nobody knew how long the battery system was going to last," says Dan Olson, an veteran air traffic controller who works inside TRACON and serves as president of the local chapter of National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union that represents air traffic controllers.

FAA managers then decided to shut down all incoming and outgoing flights to Sea-Tac for nearly an hour so controllers familiar with departures and arrivals could be moved to the FAA's regional control facility in Auburn and to the control tower at the airport.

"We had controllers escorted by police in police vehicles to the center because we didn't know. It was a state of panic," says Olson.

Olson says the approach controllers were then working with regional radar equipment they had not been trained on. The regional radar is designed to spot aircraft up to 250 miles away and sweeps at a much slower rate than the local approach radar that controllers normally use.

The local approach radar sweeps much faster and is designed in greater detail anything close to the airport. As a safety measure, flights were staggered further apart Friday night to allow for the unusual event.

According to Olson it was not the first time there have been issues involving the fairly new TRACON building and its systems.

"We have parts of our radar that have been logged unusable, unsatisfactory for two and a half years. But they refused to fix it," he said.

FAA spokesman Fergus says the safety of the traveling pubic was never compromised on Friday, and there is a reliable backup plan for power problems at TRACON and those procedures were followed.

"It comes down to what are enough levels of backup," he said. "We had three levels and that was sufficient."

But Olson called the FAA's three-level back up plan "worthless."

"We had controllers working on equipment they were unfamiliar with, traffic levels were higher than they should have been. It was a very big safety concern," Olson said.

Olson says his claims are not related to any ongoing negotiation between air traffic controller's union and the FAA. Commercial power was restored the TRACON on Saturday, about 24 hours after the controllers had moved. Operations are now back to normal with controllers back at their familiar screens at TRACON.