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Safety in the skies // TAMPA'S RADAR

Just three weeks ago, FAA officials downplayed the concerns of air traffic controllers that a new radar system at Tampa International Airport was not as reliable as the flying public deserves. Wednesday night the radar was out for 94 worrisome minutes and their warnings seemed prophetic.

"It was damn scary," said Pat McCormick, vice president of the traffic controllers union.

Those are not reassuring words at a time when public confidence in the airline industry and the FAA in particular has been shaken by the May 11 crash of ValuJet Flight 592 in the Everglades and questions about the FAA's ability to ensure safety. Flying may still be safer than driving a car, but these kinds of incidents undermine the faith people need before they walk onto a plane and put their lives in the hands of people they don't know.

The FAA now says the problem was not related to bad weather but was a technical glitch. Part of the problem is the ASR-9 system itself. It has a track record of unreliability in airports across the country. It provides more comprehensive data than the old system, but it also has more problems.

"It seems to be one problem after another," said Joe Formoso, president of the Tampa controllers union. Whatever caused Wednesday's shutdown, he said, "the fact of the matter is our old radar did not go down as often."

Flight controllers say they would feel more secure if the radar system had an uninterrupted power supply, lightning protection and better backup. Those are hardly unreasonable demands, but the FAA says the costs are prohibitive. The power supply alone could cost $800,000.

But the costs seem low compared to the alternative. One misstep could cost lives and millions of dollars. It is important that the FAA not overreact, but it is equally important that it not exhibit the kind of reflexive defensiveness that government bureaucracies are known for. It is time someone other than the FAA took a comprehensive look at the problem.