Air-brained idea? 

Controllers, politicians question logic of moving Pueblo's busy approach control to Denver

Tower controllers would remain at Pueblos airport under - the FAAs latest plan, but the approach controllers would - relocate to Denver. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • Tower controllers would remain at Pueblos airport under the FAAs latest plan, but the approach controllers would relocate to Denver.

Chances are, you've never been to Pueblo Memorial Airport.

The facility to the south handles some commercial flights, but its specialty is training. Pilots-in-the-making flock to Pueblo's runways, including Air Force trainees.

Air traffic controllers there help trainees do "touch-and-goes" (repeated cycles of taking off and landing) or send them on training missions. Hundreds of planes take off or land in Pueblo daily the total came to 1,300 in one day earlier this week and traffic is increasing as the Air Force steps up its training regime there, says Pueblo controller and union representative Bryan Sanford.

The traffic has posed a problem for controllers, who have been short-staffed due to an unprecedented wave of retirements across the nation (see "Turbulence ahead," cover story, Aug. 2). But now, people like Sanford say Pueblo is facing a more immediate threat: the relocation of some of its functions to Denver.

"It's going to be less safe," says Sanford. "It's going to be less efficient. It's going to be more expensive."

Surprise changes

Controllers in Denver and Pueblo are irked about the move, which will likely take place in late fall. U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar and U.S. Reps. John Salazar, Ed Perlmutter, Mark Udall, Diana DeGette and Marilyn Musgrave have sent letters to the acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration questioning the wisdom and necessity of the move. (Sen. Salazar's office says he has yet to receive answers to his questions.)

They're also ticked that the FAA apparently OK'd the relocation before a public meeting that was supposed to allow citizens a chance for input.

Retired Denver controller Mike Coulter says this is the way the FAA's consolidated, and sometimes privatized, air traffic control around the country.

"They don't listen to anybody," he says. "It's just lip service. They're going to move forward unless Congress says, "No, you're not.'"

The FAA, meanwhile, says services won't change, and that it doesn't understand what all the fuss is about.

To understand the debate, you must first understand some basics of air traffic control. In Pueblo, controllers work complementary positions. "Tower controllers" watch planes in the immediate area of the airport, helping them land and take off, and making sure they don't collide. They must view planes out a window as well as on a radar screen. "Approach controllers" don't need the windows. They use radar to track planes as they come in from afar.

Under the FAA's plans, approach controllers will move to Denver, while tower controllers stay put. The FAA reasons that with the right technology, approach control need not be location-specific.

FAA district manager and Denver TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) manager Steve Stcynske says similar moves have taken place across the country. Eventually, he says, Denver International Airport will swallow approach control for the whole state; Colorado Springs approach control is likely next.

Stcynske says this allows controllers-in-training to graduate from small airports to big airports without having to physically move to another city. It will save the FAA money on management and maintenance staff (though an October 2007 FAA report found little cost difference between moving approach control and improving Pueblo's current facility).

And it ensures that controllers work in a state-of-the-art facility with new equipment, something the FAA won't provide in Pueblo.

But controllers say the reorganization has many drawbacks:

DIA is already understaffed, with controllers working six-day weeks, and the FAA won't transfer any controllers from understaffed Pueblo.

Engineers consider the move rushed, and have said safety could be compromised during equipment installation.

Consolidating approach control will mean fewer backup systems in the event DIA is incapacitated by natural or human disasters.

DIA controllers won't know Pueblo well enough to guide lost or endangered planes back to the airport using landmarks.

Tower controllers will have less vital information, such as each plane's identifying code, on their radar screens. The FAA wants tower controllers to keep track of that information on paper strips, something Sanford says is archaic.

Sanford says the FAA also plans a reduction in service. Approach controllers would give less guidance to planes, making tower controllers' jobs tougher. Stcynske disputes this claim.

Report unfinished

Stcynske says risks have been blown out of proportion, though he acknowledges a safety risk management report on the relocation is not yet complete. The new system will operate much like other systems throughout the country, and staffing problems, he says, will be solved over the summer by hiring about 15 more people.

Denver controller and union representative Dave Riley says all that's not enough.

"I don't think they get it," he says.

Riley says controllers will have to learn the unique traffic patterns of Pueblo a task for which they will receive only two days of training. When new trainees start, already-strapped controllers will be forced to handle traffic and train the newbies, most of whom will probably fail the challenging program anyway.

When traffic gets to be too much, Riley says, they'll hand over Pueblo's approach control to the Denver Center, a separate facility that handles planes while they're en route, outside the range of airport controllers in a multi-state region. The Denver Center already handles Pueblo's late-night traffic but isn't equipped to steer its bustling day traffic, and would have to mandate the airport reduce its activity.



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