NATCA: Radio Ban Threatens Safety

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According to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), the FAA's decision in early September to ban "commercial" AM/FM radios and cellphones from ATC facilities placed Daytona Beach Airport (Fla.) controllers -- as well the crew and passengers aboard a landing Comair regional jet -- in "extreme danger" last Monday. One of the two tornadoes that ripped apart Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's on-airport campus came within 150 yards of the ATC tower on Christmas afternoon, and without an emergency weather radio the six controllers in the facility had no forewarning, NATCA said. FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen confirmed that the agency in September banned, and removed, "commercial" radios in ATC facilities because "most were tuned to music stations during tours by FAA officials, which is a distraction to on-duty controllers." She also verified the cellphone ban.

Bergen insisted that emergency weather radios have not been banned, but NATCA believes otherwise. The truth might lie somewhere in between, as many emergency weather radios are also able to tune regular AM/FM stations. Two days after the tornado hit, the FAA installed an emergency weather radio in the DAB tower cab, but Bergen was unable to say how many other ATC facilities, if any, have the low-cost equipment that can be found at many retail outlets. The FAA spokeswoman told AVweb that controllers do have weather overlays on their radar screens, but both NATCA and the FAA said this provides only precipitation, not tornado, information. Lacking any idea of the lurking danger, controllers did not issue a tornado warning to Comair Flight 580, which landed minutes after the twister tore through the airport. NATCA says it was the Comair crew that first alerted controllers of the damage to Embry-Riddle's campus near Runway 25R.