Wednesday, August 25, 2004

FAA foot-dragging

Chicago?s hectic O?Hare International Airport and Hailey?s laid-back Friedman Memorial Airport have something in common these days.

O?Hare is forcibly reducing airline traffic be-cause of its inability to handle the volume, and Friedman could be on the brink--again!--of losing airline traffic because of a technological inability to land aircraft during marginal weather conditions.

In O?Hare?s case, the Chicago area will scarcely notice the FAA-mandated cap of 88 airline flights per hour. But in the Wood River Valley, when flights are diverted or cancelled, the economy feels it.

From winter to winter for several years, Fried-man Memorial Airport has optimistically expected its new Transponder Landing System to be up and running and certified by the Federal Aviation Ad-ministration.

Alas, the airport still is waiting on the FAA--and another winter is approaching.

Take your pick of reasons given by the FAA for the delay in certification. As recently as last week, the FAA spokesman for the Northwest region said there had been a software problem with the TLS. Airport manager Rick Baird said that was two years ago.

Another reason is that the TLS at Friedman--only one of three thus far installed--must be inte-grated into the national air traffic control system. That takes years?

And, of course, the customary lack of resources problem: The FAA must send one of its specially instrumented air navigation test aircraft to Fried-man to run landing and takeoff tests to make cer-tain the TLS is properly calibrated.

But that still doesn?t explain why the FAA all this time has indicated TLS certification was just around the corner, raising and then dashing expec-tations.

It?s not as if TLS is a surprise. It?s been around since 1991. Friedman Memorial has discussed it with the FAA since 1995, and the installation at Friedman has been tested informally by local air-craft. Two other such systems have been installed, one at Moscow-Pullman airport in northern Idaho and another at Rhinelander/Oneida County Airport in Wisconsin.

The unspoken hang-up with the FAA may be Friedman?s request for a 10-degree offset on ap-proach rather than three degrees-- that is, allowing pilots to vary from the FAA book rule and fly 10 degrees off the centerline of the TLS beam rather than three degrees--to avoid nearby terrain by a wider margin.

Since Congress funded TLS, lawmakers should be furious the FAA is stalling on an important aid to rural America airports.

Idaho?s congressional delegation should reject any further excuses from the FAA about delays in certification, and demand an end to the promises, promises, promises.

The TLS at Friedman is in and operating. All it needs is the FAA stamp of approval that it meets safety requirements.

How long and how much manpower would that really take after all this time?

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