Seattle’s Big Blow A Matter Of Perception

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While a union spokesman described a “state of panic” in air traffic control facilities in Seattle Dec. 15 during a record storm that interrupted power, the FAA was patting itself on the back for a system that functioned “almost uninterrupted thanks to ingenious coast-to-coast ATO teamwork and a new organization-wide contingency plan.” These notably divergent points of view grew from the system’s experience with one of the worst storms ever to blow through the Pacific Northwest. When power went out to the Seattle terminal radar approach control center (TRACON), an emergency generator kicked in as planned. But the generator failed 16 hours later, leaving the TRACON on battery power. Before the batteries faded, the decision was made to move TRACON controllers to the Sea-Tac tower and an air route traffic control center (ARTCC) 25 miles away. According to local rep for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association Dan Olson, that’s where things fell apart. "We had controllers escorted by police in police vehicles to the center because we didn't know. It was a state of panic," Olson told KOMO-TV. He said the controllers were then put in front of consoles that they were unfamiliar with because ARTCCs use different systems. But the FAA noted that despite the need to abandon the TRACON, flights were disrupted only for about an hour during the whole ordeal, although some might have been delayed because they were spaced farther apart for safety. FAA spokesman Mike Fergus told KOMO-TV that the system worked. "It comes down to what are enough levels of backup," he said. "We had three levels and that was sufficient." Normal power was restored after about 24 hours.