NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

FAA Denies Radar To Small Airports

July 16, 2001

Last year, there were at least four mid-air collisions involving small planes at small but busy airports -- resulting in the death of all occupants. All the airports involved lacked radar screens, one of the simplest and oldest air-traffic control tools. The controllers, blind but for binoculars, simply couldn't see the planes.

A reliable, basic radar system can be had for as little as $25,000.

The reason these accidents occurred is that the Federal Aviation Administration had refused to let the airports install basic radar systems -- holding out, instead, for much more expensive systems that will take years to deliver.

  • Across the country, 90 airports -- handling corporate jets and small prop planes -- are in need of radar, according to the FAA's own standards.
  • A simple system, called Tardis, piggybacks off radar at airports nearby on a phone link, and only requires a PC, a high-resolution monitor and some software -- a set-up which a National Transportation Safety Board investigator describes as "as easy as hooking another television to your cable."
  • A dozen airports which have managed to get Tardis -- usually through Congressional pressure on the FAA -- report life-saving results with it.
  • The FAA plans to install new technology in bigger airports and then hand the old technology down to small airports.

But the agency's $1.57 billion program to install the new technology is already several years behind schedule, $460 million over budget and plagued with software problems, experts report. The FAA inspector general recently warned that tight scheduling of software testing may further delay it.

The NTSB has blasted the FAA for failing to get radar to busy small airports. But the agency claims that the smaller and cheaper Tardis system hasn't been certified.

To which critics respond that the only reason Tardis has not been certified is that the FAA has refused to test it.

Source: Scott McCartney, "Small Airports Covet Cheap Radar System, But the FAA Bars It," Wall Street Journal, July 16, 2001.

For WSJ text (requires subscription)


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