ionsProblems in Air Traffic Control and Proposed SolutionsIn northern California this summer, the Federal Aviation Administration(FAA) unintentionally performed it’s first operational test of “free flight”;aviation without direct air traffic control.
This was an unintentionalexperiment because it was a result of a total shut-down of the Oakland Air RouteTraffic Control Center (ARTCC).Although Oakland is only the 16th busiest ARTCC, it’s responsible forthe largest block of airspace of any ATC facility; 18 million square miles. Oakland directs all upper-level flight from San Luis Obispo, California to theCalifornia/Oregon boarder, including most Pacific oceanic routes. The failurehappened at 7:13 a.
m. local time during the morning “departure push”.Controllers estimated there were 60-80 aircraft under their control when thepower died. All radar screens went dark and all radios went silent. It took 45minutes to restore radios and bring up a backup radar system. It was more thanan hour before the main radar presentations came on line.One controller described the sudden quiet in the control suite as “theloudest silence I’ve ever heard” (UPI , 1995). He went on to say there was”panic on everybody’s face” as they realized they had been rendered deaf, dumb,and blind by this catastrophic equipment failure.
It took a few minutes forcontrollers to realize the shut-down had affected the entire facility. There wasno book procedure to cover this emergency scenario, so most controllersimprovised.Controllers in adjourning Los Angeles, Salt Lake, and Seattle ARTCCs andvarious Terminal Radar Approach Controls (TRACON; the level of radar coveragebelow upper-level ARTCC radar) were asked to take control over all airspacewithin their radar coverage, and divert aircraft under their control inbound toNorthern California. Control towers in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose,Sacramento, and other airports in the area were instructed to hold all IFRdepartures on the ground.
The most difficult problem was getting notification tothe airborne flight crews. In one case, controller Mike Seko said, “We had Napatower telling high altitude aircraft Oakland Center had lost everything, and toswitch to emergency frequencies” (Seko, UPI, 1995). But most airborne aircrafton Oakland Center frequencies were in a state of “lost-comm” unless they figuredout what happened on the ground and switched to another ARTCC or TRACON.
Flight crews did their own improvising. Some pilots squawked VFR andcontinued the flight on their own. Others continued on their previously issuedclearance, while others climbed into or descended out of Class A airspacewithout a clearance.Later analysis tells us one of the biggest problems was nobody believeda prolonged outage like this could occur. Both controllers and supervisorsworked on the assumption their radar and radios would come back “any moment now”.The same thought process prevailed at Bay (Oakland) TRACON where operations wereparalyzed by the Center’s blackout.It’s impossible to say how many separation losses occurred during thehour-long episode.
Some near mid-air reports were filed, but the vast majorityof separation-loss situations will probably go unreported. After power wasrestored, and the primary radar system was returned to operation, extensive airtraffic delays, diversions, and flight cancellations persisted for many hours atBay area airports, especially departures from San Francisco International.We may never know the full aftermath of this incident. Changes will bemade as to how power is fed to ATC facilities, and how maintenance is performed.
Contingency plans will be rewritten and controllers will be trained how toimplement them. Meanwhile, controllers nation wide are brushing up on their non-radar and lost-comm procedures.After an extensive investigation, it’s now clear why the failureoccurred. One of three power sources was down for maintenance testing. Thesecond power source failed unexpectedly. When technicians tried to bring thethird power source on-line, a faulty circuit board failed in a critical powerpanel, preventing power from being restored. Oakland Center was completely dead.
This was the story of one air traffic control facility’s system failure.Don’t think this was an isolated incident though. A partial list of this yearsATC radar failures:Chicago Center lost their primary radar system when the 1970’s technology IBM9020E host computer went down for 29 hours.ASR-9 radar failure at Miami TRACON possibly due to a lighting strike. Miamiswitched to a back-up ASR-9 system at Fort Lauderdale. The Fort Lauderdalesystem then failed just as technicians at Miami brought their radar on-line.Miami failed again forcing controllers to revert to non-radar procedures.
Fort Worth Center’s host computer lost power while technicians were replacingsome related processing equipment. Back-up radar was on-line for almost threehours. All departures experienced a 60-90 minute delays.Pittsburgh TRACON briefly lost communication and radar with 38 flights in theair. Radar contact was lost for 5-8 minutes.Everyone from vacationing families to the director of the FederalAviation Administration recognizes the national air traffic control system is indesperate need of reform. Host computer systems are 20 years old, power suppliesare at times unreliable, and facilities are under-manned with over-workedcontrollers. Moral is low at facilities because of these problems.
The mainproblem that currently plagues the system though is who’s going to take chargeof the situation and with what reform plan. The controllers union has theirreform plan as does the FAA and the law makers in Washington. These groups fightamongst themselves to promote their reconstruction plan, but meanwhile nothing’saccomplished and the skies stay unsafe.The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) is the unionthat replaced the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO).NATCA, representingthe controller work force, supports a plan to structure theair traffic control branch of the FAA.
NATCA endorses the government corporationconcept for air traffic control because, “it goes furthest towards correctingthe FAA’s personnel, procurement, and budgetary problems” (NATCA policystatement, 1995). The union goes on to say they’ll back any legislative measurethat addresses at a minimum, the following personnel, procurement, and budgetaryconcerns:Provides for protection of retirement, benefits, and job security consistentwith applicable laws, rules, and regulations.Need for long-term leadership at the FAA.Provide the FAA with the ability to hire personnel when needed and allowindividuals to transfer to where they’re needed most, regardless of artificialhiring/managing caps.Provide the FAA with the ability to attract and retain high caliberindividuals.
Allow the FAA and its recognized unions, the ability to seek a morestreamlined and factual classification system.Provides a flexible procurement system that mitigates the effects theappropriations process has on large contracts, allows for more off-the-shelfpurchasing, and reforms the contracting appeals process.Provides some relief from the Budget Enforcement Act.Allows for increased (but reasonable) user and internal union input.NATCA actively lobbies their concerns how ATC reform should occur. JamesPoole is the Vice President of NATCA’s Great Lakes Region.
In September of thisyear, he testified before the House Committee on Transportation andInfrastructure’s Aviation Subcommittee. He presented an air traffic controlsystem that was “in a state of distress” . He went on to say the numerousequipment outages nationwide is an indicator the system is moving towardsfailure. Although he gave credit to FAA Administrator David Hinson for somereform actions (such as canceling the failed Advanced Automation System), hedebated the administrators claim the ATC system was “99.4% reliable.” Poole said,”they (the FAA) are striving to maintain user confidence in the system but theirstrategy tends to trivialize very serious system deficiencies.” (UPI, 1995)Again, Poole offered NATCA’s recommendation to Congress and the FAA on how toassist the crumbling air traffic control system:Reform the procurement policies so new technology enters the system while it’snew technology.
Provide better funding mechanisms for the FAAAuthorize and fund hiring an additional 1,500 controllers.Implement a vehicle to attract high caliber controllers at the busiestfacilities.Many NATCA controllers believe they are able to survive each day’s shiftin spite of their equipment, not because of it. It’s a known fact the technologycontained in a laptop computer outperforms the capacity of the IBM 9020E thatsupports all FAA radar facilities. NATCA goes on to the claim the digitalclarity of a cellular phone is light-years ahead of the antiquated radios nowusedto communicate. John Carr is an air traffic controller at Chicago O’HareTRACON and is that facility’s representative for NATCA. His analogy follows;”Our nation has entered the on-ramp of the information superhighway.
The FAAcan’t even get their Pinto out of the driveway”. (AP, 1995)In 1989, the Chicago System Safety and Efficiency Review recommendedthat a new TRACON be built. A new TRACON and tower at O’Hare were built and areset for commissioning in late 1996. The price for the TRACON building alone was$100 million dollars. The equipment will cost $200 million dollars. NATCAproposes though, “it’s just radios and radar”. The union reiterates the FAA hasonce again chosen to ignore their most valuable resource; the working airtraffic controller.
Carr said the transition plan to the new TRACON calls for 77controllers working six-day workweeks in order to man both facilities. This isrequired so there’s orderly training, testing, and transition. According to Carr,there are only 67 controllers, and seven of those are leaving. The staffing forthe new TRACON will be 21 controllers per shift. Using the FAA’s own StaffingStandard Plan, O’Hare TRACON should have 30 controllers per shift. Carr says,”this is woefully inadequate and we believe it does a disservice to the user”.Speaking before Congress, Carr testified to the following:I am here to tell you that without additional staffing, there will be noimprovement in service, and no decrease in delays. I can tell you that without77 controllers on board and certified by September of 1996, we can’t even beginto transition to the new facility.
(UPI, 1995)NATCA is just one force in the march towards ATC reform. The concernsshown at O’Hare’s facilities are shared nation-wide. As preoccupation with dailyoperations rise, inversely goes worker moral. An internal report from the FAA onNew York Center reveals staff moral is low, training is poor, and there’s ashortage of controllers. The internal review of New York Center was conductedfollowing the Center’s insistence it would be forced to limit air trafficthrough its airspace because of training and staffing shortcomings. The NATCArepresentative for New York Center said staffing still needed to be increased byat least 30%. The union representative went on to say, “the facility isscreaming for people and upper management seems oblivious to that fact. They’retrying to run the facility on a shoestring.
They’re overworking the controllersby leaps and bounds” (AP, 1995).There’s almost always more than one solution to every problem, and thequestion of how to reform the ATC system is no exception. The FAA believesrestructuring should come from within. They believe there are still recoverableparts from the current system.
The FAA also downplays many of NATCA’s concernsover airspace safety. And more time-consuming debate continues.The FAA boasts they spend the majority of their resources operating anair traffic control system that handles an average of two flights per second,every minute, every hour, 365 days a year.
In one day , the U. S. commercialaviation industry will move approximately 1.5 million passengers safely to theirdestination. Strangely enough, they’re proud of the fact they have 5,000 feweremployees than in 1991,yet air traffic has grown more than 6 percent over thelast two years.
They claim a 99.4 percent reliability rate in all theiroperations. Further disclosure reveals the FAA budget experienced a real declinefor the first time in more than a decade. A six percent drop.
That equates tosix hundred million dollars. The FAA thinks the Clinton Administration has asolution. It’s a not-for-profit, government-owned-and-operated U. S. Air TrafficServices (USATS) corporation. According to the FAA, a corporation makes goodsense. They say unlike other FAA functions, air traffic has many of thecharacteristics of a business.And it should be run like a business –financing itself through the collection of users’ fees.
The corporation would befree from government procurement and personnel rules. As an independentcorporation, itwould be able to respond rapidly to changes in the aviationindustry. It would have the financial resources to keep pace with — and takeadvantage of — advances in technology. Most importantly, it would not besubject to budget cuts or constraints, nor would it be hostage to the annualappropriations process.Transportation Secretary Pea transmitted proposed legislation to createthe United States Air Traffic Service corporation (USATS) on April 6th. On May3rd, President Clinton wrote to Senate Republican Leader Dole and House SpeakerGingrich, urging them to enact the USATS legislation now. The FAA says the “now”is critical.
They believe the proposed budgets they’re seeing would have adrastic impact on the services offeredto the American public. In remarksdelivered by FAA Deputy Adminis…
..trator Linda Hall Daschle to the ProfessionalAirways Systems Specialists, “without USATS or some other creative financingproposal, we will face reductions in our work force — including our safety workforce…cuts in programs to protect against runway incursions at smallerairports…
critical delays in weather safety programs”. (FAA World Wide Web HomePage, 1995)”This proposal was not a hasty one”, said FAA Administrator David R.Hinson, while speaking to the National Airspace System (NAS) ArchitectureMeeting. “It was the result of a thorough analysis of the need for greaterflexibility in personnel and procurement policies”. (FAA World Wide Web HomePage, 1995) In the director’s eyes, the corporation is designed to prevent anylong-term erosion in the quality of the nation’s air traffic services.
If and when the legislation is finalized (alternatives to the originalbill are being debated in Congress, and will be discussed later), there will bea one-year transition period. USATS would take over operation of the air trafficcontrol system on October 1, of the following fiscal year. The transfer ofoperating responsibility will not occur until the FAA Administrator determinedtwo things. First, all essential transition items must have been accomplished.Second, the transfer must be accomplished with no detrimental impact on systemsafety. Deputy Administrator Daschle went on to say: I think there is a broadconsensus that it’s time to change personnel and procurement rules so that theFAA can better manage for results. None of the bills introduced in Congressaddresses our acute financial situation.They all expect us to do the same jobwithout giving us the necessary funding.
It’s a little like trying to fly a 747using just two of its four engines. You can do it — but it certainly isn’t thebest way to fly. And it certainly can’t do the job for which it’s intended. (FAAWorld Wide Web Home Page, 1995)These are Administrator Hinsosn’s plans for an overhaul of theadministrative structure of the FAA.
But what’s being done right now to fix theradar outages occurring on an almost daily basis? How will they respond to theNational Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) call for the FAA to come up withsome “quick fixes” for what appears to be a pattern of avoidable failures? TheNTSB said in a news release this summer:The FAA should give controllers more training on the Center’s main back-up mode(Direct Access Radar Channel, or DARC), hire more technicians to fix the brokenequipment, and to closely monitor the short-term replacement radar system, theDisplay Channel Complex Rehost System (DCCR).(AP, 1995)The FAA’s response has been to put in “hurry-up” orders for the DCCRsystem. They’ll put in computer replacement orders for five ARTCCs.
The ancientIBM 9020Es that run Center radar and tracking systems are based on 70stechnology. They’ve been slated for replacement since the mid 80s. But becauseof FAA mismanagement and difficulties in procurement, the equipment buys havebeen stalled. FAA chief Hinson said the FAA will proceed with DCCR purchases toreplace host processors at Chicago, New York, Washington, and Fort Worth centers.The DCCR system was put into motion faster than originally planned because ofanother failed FAA reform plan, the Advanced Automation Project. The idea was toalmost totally automate the nations air traffic system with a series of groundbased computers transmitting navigational instructions ensuring properseparation to airborne aircraft equipped with receivers that would interpret thesignals and adjust the aircraft’s flight path. There would have been very littlehuman involvement in routine separation.
As is the recent track record of theFAA, the automated ATC system has been completely bogged down in contracting,procurement, and budget dilemmas.The cost of buying and installing the five systems is estimated at $65million dollars. The first system won’t go on-line until early 1997, at ChicagoCenter. The other four systems, according to the FAA schedule, will follow atthe rate of one a month.The equipment, procurement, and budget problems the FAA experiencesisn’t confined to the air traffic control system. The entire agency is boggeddown in a maze of government over-control.
The FAA’s procurement of theAutomated Surface Observing System (SOS) parallels equipment problems in recenthistory.SOS is deigned to replace on-airport weather observers. Equipment issupposed to detect weather phenomena critical to aviation, then transmit it toair traffic controllers, pilots, and other concerned agencies.
The FAA inconjunction with the National Weather Service and the Department of Defensemanages the program. During the last year, over 480 SOS systems have beeninstalled, but only 42 systems are commissioned for aviation and weather systemuse. At 30 of those 42 sites, SOS is used by air traffic controllers to ensurecompliance with aviation standards and Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR). AirTraffic controllers, pilots, and weather observers have raised serious concernsabout SOS. They say the equipment doesn’t observe and report some of the mostbasic weather conditions (e.g. thunderstorms, cloud layers above, 12,000 feet,drizzle).
Since human observers report every weather element, the loss of theseconditions in weather reports is directly attributed to SOS. The system doesn’teven correctly report the most basic weather condition;wind speed anddirection. It’s reported the wind sensors freeze in cold weather.A loss of timely and accurate weather reporting would be devastating tothe aviation industry. There have been too numerous aviation accidents caused byunreported or undetected weather conditions. Controllers and pilots alike agreethat SOS represents a serious degradation of service to the aviation community.They call for an immediate return to manned observation stations untilimprovements are made to the automated style of weather reporting.
How could the FAA and other national agencies miss these systemdeficiencies? Even with all the criticism coming from every corners of theaviation environment, contractors continue to install and commission SOS.Unbelievable.The reform of the nation’s air traffic control system is not just oneplan laid out by one person or group. On Capitol Hill,where the final formulawill be decided on, there are several bills before various House and Senatecommittees. Some call for an air traffic control structure that’s totallyseparate from the federal government, another calls for the government to run aquasi-independent ATC system, plan.
Whatever the outcome is, the desire isbasically the same; eliminate the government procurement nightmare and allowmoney to flow into the equipment buyers hands.A bill to separate the Federal Aviation Administration from theDepartment of Transportationhas already won support from the HouseTransportation subcommittee. In a rare showing of bipartisan politics, thesubcommittee unanimously passed the measure and sent it up to the full committee.
The legislation would make the FAA an independent agency, free to set up it’sown rules for personnel moves and procurement. The organization would be exemptfrom federal budget restraints, and have total authority to spend it’s portionof the Aviation Trust Fund as it saw fit. Representative James Oberstar, authorof the bill said, “Today is the day when we begin to unscramble the egg that wasscrambled in 1966 when nearly a dozen federal agencies were combined into theDOT. It worked for some agencies, but not for the FAA”.
(AP, 1995) The bill hasalmost total backing from the aviation community, but is opposed by the Clintonadministration. As discussed earlier, the Clinton Administration is fully behindthe formation of the United States Air Traffic Service corporation which wouldtotal privatize ATC services. .Another bill circulating is sponsored by Senator John McCain. His billwould make the FAA a quasi-independent agency financed largely through user fees.Obviously, this legislation has almost no support from those who would be forcedto finance the majority of the system; aircraft owners, pilots and the generalaviation community. They are afraid they would be obliged to provide the revenueto fund the reformed FAA. Fee structure would be based on aircraft performance.
Commercial and business jets would be charged for ATC services based on theabove. Opponents to this measure ask, “If we want a higher altitude, will thecontroller ask for a major credit card?” (AP, 1995)FAA Administrator David Hinson has praised this bill saying it would”give the FAA greater flexibility in purchasing and managing personnel”. TheMcCain bill is seen as a compromise to the administration’s efforts, but stillrelies heavily on user fees.
Representative Jim Lightfoot has proposed to reform the FAA from within.Along with Representative John Duncan (head of the House Aviation Subcommittee),their bill would give the FAA independent-agency status, removing it from theDepartment of Transportation. Lightfoot said, “our legislation will streamlinethe FAA, reform the costly and often delayed rule-making process, and increaseaviation safety.” The legislation is seen by some as an attempt to counter theUSATS proposal by President Clinton. It also appears many aircraft owners andpilots support this reform action.There is quite an array of legislation proposed to reform our nation’saging, outdated air traffic control system. One has to suppose each effort hasthe good of the consumer in mind as time ticks by without any changes.The following is an editorial that appeared in the September 4, 1995edition of the Federal Times.
It was written by a controller at Denver Center:Last year, air travelers flew 520 billion miles within the U.S. airtraffic control system. This year that system seems to be falling apart. Eachtime an air traffic control center’s radar shuts down, every traveler blinks andgulps. When air traffic controllers hand out scary literature in airports andair traffic control outages are separated by days instead of years, it’s timefor some serious attention to the system. That being the case, you’d think we’dhave invested time, talent cash in the best darn air traffic control system theworld had ever seen.
Instead we’re limping along with computers whose vacuumtubes are the butt of jokes on late-night television shows. Too often, ourcontrollers are silenced and blinded by technical failures — 11 since lastSeptember. Glitches force controllers to pass planes between centers viatelephone. Now even backup systems have started to fail. As it has tried toupdate its now 30-year-old machinery, the Federal Aviation Administration hasbecome a budget ary black hole. A May General Accounting Office review foundmodernization contract completion dates slipping and sliding as costs mount.Congress has wrung a pledge from FAA for an interim fix in 1997 at five of 20big centers, with the other 15 to be upgraded by 1998. That’s a small start, butlittle solace to fliers.
It’s time for legislators and aviation administratorsto call a halt to this Russian roulette in the skies. Quit waiting for accidentsand outcry to prod action. Get the equipment tested, functioning and in place.Staff towers and centers to match the growing number of planes. Breathe harddown the necks of the officials responsible until it gets done and done right.Get us the system we deserve and have paid for.
Do it now.(World Wide Web, FAA Homepage, 1995)The Oakland Center nightmare could have caused the largest loss of lifefrom an aviation-related accident. There literally could have been bodies andairplane wreckage falling from the skies throughout Northern California. Butthankfully, it didn’t happen. The day was saved by every controller workingwestern America’s airspace that day. The day was saved by pilots that followedpreviously assigned clearances, and those that were worthy enough aviators toweave their way through uncontrolled, but not uncrowded airspace.
Everyone’s got an opinion. In this case, everyone knows the best way tofix the crumbling airways. NATCA wants the FAA structures as a corporation wouldbe.
But the union goes on to say they’ll support any legislation that meetstheir laundry list of concerns. The FAA wants to restructure the system fromwithin. The also support the notion of freeing their agency from the procurement,budgeting, and hiring stranglehold they’re under from the federal government.And then our nation’s lawmakers got involved. There are approximately fivevariations the basic reform bill making their way around Capitol Hill. There’s aplan to totally privatize the FAA, another to partly privatize it, another torework it from within, and a few other variations of those. Legislators havetheir own reasons to support certain bills; is our safety one of them?The Federal Times editorial sums up an everyday controllers concern.
He’s the one working with that aged computer equipment, he’s the one working theunnecessarily long shifts, he’s the one scared every day his screen will go darkduring the morning rush hour. I would be inclined to listen very closely to hisconcerns and follow his recommendations towards a solution.The FAA’s Quality statement declares the agency as an organization dedicated to “eliminating barriers, improving communication, providingadditional opportunities for training, and constantly encouraging all personnelto seek ways to improve”. The FAA is proud of its Quality activities becausethey “foster such initiatives as continuous improvement of work processes,empowerment of employees, partnering of labor and management, and re-engineering”.
(World Wide Web FAA Home-page, 1995) These are very lofty goalsthat always require improvement. But will disaster strike before their processesgets us a new ATC system?