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AGING FACILITIES ENDANGER FLIERS, AIR CONTROLLERS SAY

Air traffic controllers told Congress on Tuesday that poor maintenance of their aging workplaces has hampered and harmed them and could endanger the flying public.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which employs the controllers, has not given priority to maintaining and preserving air traffic control facilities, said Patrick Forrey, president of the controllers' union.

"The resulting environmental conditions have jeopardized the safety of workers as well as the effectiveness of the equipment they use - both of which can negatively impact the safety of the air traffic system," Forrey testified before the House aviation subcommittee.

"We recognize that we have a backlog of maintenance and repair," said Bruce Johnson, FAA's vice president of terminal services. "And we are taking steps to reduce that backlog."

Some FAA facilities "have aged to the point where the responsible thing to do is replace them," Johnson said. They "have so many issues that to repair and remediate them indefinitely would be financially unsound."

He said this is particularly true because the agency is moving to replace its land-based radar control system with a satellite-based system, called NextGen. The new control system will allow planes to fly closer together, opening room for more planes in the nation's saturated air space.

"That's nonsense," said Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation Committee. "The FAA can't hide behind modernization that's going to take years. They need to fix these facilities now."

Problems were reported in a survey by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association of its field representatives at the nation's 314 airport towers and traffic and radar control centers. Responses were obtained from 220 sites.

According to Forrey:

- Seventy-five reported water leaks, including six with frequent leaks directly over controllers or equipment.

- Operations have been interrupted and some controllers taken ill from fumes in their workplace, including poisonous carbon monoxide at the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control in April.

Of the 220 facilities reporting, 62 rated their conditions poor.

Tampa International Airport director Louis Miller said he hasn't heard concerns from FAA managers or controllers about conditions of the control tower, which dates to 1971.

Times staff writer Steve Huettel contributed to this report.

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