FAA studying whether to add Little Rock to Memphis radar duties

Associated Press Writer

LITTLE ROCK (AP) - Pilots planning a landing at Little Rock National Airport could someday be directed in early approach stages by air traffic controllers at Memphis, Tenn.

The Federal Aviation Administration is studying whether some of Little Rock's air traffic control work should be handled by controllers at the Memphis International Airport in Tennessee.

The terminal radar approach control - also known as TRACON - at the Little Rock airport is one of several nationwide that the FAA is considering consolidating with facilities at larger airports in nearby cities.

If any consolidations are made, "air traffic safety will not be compromised," said Roland Herwig, a spokesman for the FAA's southwest region, which covers Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

But Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said the FAA must conduct public hearings and publish criteria justifying the merger, if such a consolidation was to go forward."

We must be smart when it comes to air safety," Pryor said in a statement last week. "The employees at the Little Rock air traffic control tower provide a critical safety service to pilots, passengers and the Little Rock Air Force Base. Folks in Memphis just aren't as familiar with the airport and surrounding terrain and airspace."

Pryor, a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, sponsored amendments that were added to the Aviation Investment and Modernization Act, which will be considered later this year by the full Senate.

If such a consolidation happened, takeoffs and landings would still be handled at the Little Rock air traffic control tower, which underwent a $30 million facelift in 2000. Those upgrades came a year after American Airlines Flight 1420 crashed with 145 passengers and crew aboard. The accident killed 11 people, including the pilot, and injured 110.

Potential consolidations to airports' radar control are being considered nationwide, Herwig said. One proposal would consolidate Palm Springs airspace to the Southern California TRACON in San Diego, Calif.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has asked FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey to study any safety issues that could arise if the Palm Springs airspace is added to San Diego's.

"I am concerned that the proposed consolidation, potential staffing shortages and abbreviated training may degrade the quality and safety of the air traffic control system for this airport," Feinstein wrote in a letter to Blakey.

The FAA says consolidating TRACONs saves money. Also, such consolidations can free up space at airports, allowing for expansions, the FAA says.

"Generally, co-locating TRACONS where possible saves taxpayer money by eliminating the need for the FAA to have multiple buildings, automation systems, voice switches and all of the overhead associated with the TRACON infrastructure," according to an FAA fact sheet on the consolidations. "In some cases of co-location, the agency can provide more services to more locations with the same amount of money. In other cases, the agency can provide the same services it was providing, but at much less cost to taxpayers."

But Herwig stressed that there's "nothing even imminent" in the works for the Little Rock radar control.

Still, Pryor spokesman Michael Teague said he's concerned that a consolidation could be approved without Arkansans being aware of it.

"We're actually putting in barriers, or very high hurdles, for the FAA to approach this," Teague said. "We don't want to see anyone's safety in central Arkansas be jeopardized by a bean counter, someone who's looking to shift all this work 200 miles away."

Although the FAA has said any air traffic safety wouldn't be jeopardized by radar consolidations, Teague said the federal agency needs to provide more solid facts if some of the Little Rock tower's responsibilities are transferred to Memphis.

"They're going to have to go through a rigorous process to prove that," he said. "Prove that to us. That's what they're lacking right now."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)