Problems In Air Traffic Control And Proposed Solut
ionsProblems in Air Traffic Control and Proposed Solutions
In 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 unintentional
experiment because it was a result of a total shut-down of the Oakland Air Route
Traffic Control Center (ARTCC).
Although Oakland is only the 16th busiest ARTCC, it’s responsible for
the largest block of airspace of any ATC facility; 18 million square miles.
Oakland directs all upper-level flight from San Luis Obispo, California to the
California/Oregon boarder, including most Pacific oceanic routes. The failure
happened at 7:13 a.m. local time during the morning “departure push”.
Controllers estimated there were 60-80 aircraft under their control when the
power died. All radar screens went dark and all radios went silent. It took 45
minutes to restore radios and bring up a backup radar system. It was more than
an hour before the main radar presentations came on line.
One controller described the sudden quiet in the control suite as “the
loudest 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 for
controllers to realize the shut-down had affected the entire facility. There was
no book procedure to cover this emergency scenario, so most controllers
Controllers in adjourning Los Angeles, Salt Lake, and Seattle ARTCCs and
various Terminal Radar Approach Controls (TRACON; the level of radar coverage
below upper-level ARTCC radar) were asked to take control over all airspace
within their radar coverage, and divert aircraft under their control inbound to
Northern California. Control towers in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose,
Sacramento, and other airports in the area were instructed to hold all IFR
departures on the ground. The most difficult problem was getting notification to
the airborne flight crews. In one case, controller Mike Seko said, “We had Napa
tower telling high altitude aircraft Oakland Center had lost everything, and to
switch to emergency frequencies” (Seko, UPI, 1995). But most airborne aircraft
on Oakland Center frequencies were in a state of “lost-comm” unless they figured
out what happened on the ground and switched to another ARTCC or TRACON.
Flight crews did their own improvising. Some pilots squawked VFR and
continued the flight on their own. Others continued on their previously issued
clearance, while others climbed into or descended out of Class A airspace
without a clearance.
Later analysis tells us one of the biggest problems was nobody believed
a prolonged outage like this could occur. Both controllers and supervisors
worked on the assumption their radar and radios would come back “any moment now”.
The same thought process prevailed at Bay (Oakland) TRACON where operations were
paralyzed by the Center’s blackout.
It’s impossible to say how many separation losses occurred during the
hour-long episode. Some near mid-air reports were filed, but the vast majority
of separation-loss situations will probably go unreported. After power was
restored, and the primary radar system was returned to operation, extensive air
traffic delays, diversions, and flight cancellations persisted for many hours at
Bay area airports, especially departures from San Francisco International.
We may never know the full aftermath of this incident. Changes will be
made 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 to
implement 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 failure
occurred. One of three power sources was down for maintenance testing. The
second power source failed unexpectedly. When technicians tried to bring the
third power source on-line, a faulty circuit board failed in a critical power
panel, 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 years
ATC radar failures:
Chicago Center lost their primary radar system when the 1970’s technology IBM
9020E host computer went down for 29 hours.
ASR-9 radar failure at Miami TRACON possibly due to a lighting strike. Miami
switched to a back-up ASR-9 system at Fort Lauderdale. The Fort Lauderdale
system 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 replacing
some related processing equipment. Back-up radar was on-line for almost three
hours. All departures experienced a 60-90 minute delays.
Pittsburgh TRACON briefly lost communication and radar with 38 flights in the
air. Radar contact was lost for 5-8 minutes.
Everyone from vacationing families to the director of the Federal
Aviation Administration recognizes the national air traffic control system is in
desperate need of reform. Host computer systems are 20 years old, power supplies
are at times unreliable, and facilities are under-manned with over-worked
controllers. Moral is low at facilities because of these problems. The main
problem that currently plagues the system though is who’s going to take charge
of the situation and with what reform plan. The controllers union has their
reform plan as does the FAA and the law makers in Washington. These groups fight
amongst themselves to promote their reconstruction plan, but meanwhile nothing’s
accomplished and the skies stay unsafe.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) is the union
that replaced the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO).
NATCA, representingthe controller work force, supports a plan to structure the
air traffic control branch of the FAA. NATCA endorses the government corporation
concept for air traffic control because, “it goes furthest towards correcting
the FAA’s personnel, procurement, and budgetary problems” (NATCA policy
statement, 1995). The union goes on to say they’ll back any legislative measure
that addresses at a minimum, the following personnel, procurement, and budgetary
Provides for protection of retirement, benefits, and job security consistent
with 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 allow
individuals to transfer to where they’re needed most, regardless of artificial
Provide the FAA with the ability to attract and retain high caliber
Allow the FAA and its recognized unions, the ability to seek a more
streamlined and factual classification system.
Provides a flexible procurement system that mitigates the effects the
appropriations process has on large contracts, allows for more off-the-shelf
purchasing, 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. James
Poole is the Vice President of NATCA’s Great Lakes Region. In September of this
year, he testified before the House Committee on Transportation and
Infrastructure’s Aviation Subcommittee. He presented an air traffic control
system that was “in a state of distress” . He went on to say the numerous
equipment outages nationwide is an indicator the system is moving towards
failure. Although he gave credit to FAA Administrator David Hinson for some
reform actions (such as canceling the failed Advanced Automation System), he
debated 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 their
strategy tends to trivialize very serious system deficiencies.” (UPI, 1995)
Again, Poole offered NATCA’s recommendation to Congress and the FAA on how to
assist the crumbling air traffic control system:
Reform the procurement policies so new technology enters the system while it’s
Provide better funding mechanisms for the FAA
Authorize and fund hiring an additional 1,500 controllers.
Implement a vehicle to attract high caliber controllers at the busiest
Many NATCA controllers believe they are able to survive each day’s shift
in spite of their equipment, not because of it. It’s a known fact the technology
contained in a laptop computer outperforms the capacity of the IBM 9020E that
supports all FAA radar facilities. NATCA goes on to the claim the digital
clarity of a cellular phone is light-years ahead of the antiquated radios now
usedto communicate. John Carr is an air traffic controller at Chicago O’Hare
TRACON and is that facility’s representative for NATCA. His analogy follows;
“Our nation has entered the on-ramp of the information superhighway. The FAA
can’t even get their Pinto out of the driveway”. (AP, 1995)
In 1989, the Chicago System Safety and Efficiency Review recommended
that a new TRACON be built. A new TRACON and tower at O’Hare were built and are
set for commissioning in late 1996. The price for the TRACON building alone was
$100 million dollars. The equipment will cost $200 million dollars. NATCA
proposes though, “it’s just radios and radar”. The union reiterates the FAA has
once again chosen to ignore their most valuable resource; the working air
traffic controller. Carr said the transition plan to the new TRACON calls for 77
controllers working six-day workweeks in order to man both facilities. This is
required so there’s orderly training, testing, and transition. According to Carr,
there are only 67 controllers, and seven of those are leaving. The staffing for
the new TRACON will be 21 controllers per shift. Using the FAA’s own Staffing
Standard 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 no
improvement in service, and no decrease in delays. I can tell you that without
77 controllers on board and certified by September of 1996, we can’t even begin
to transition to the new facility. (UPI, 1995)
NATCA is just one force in the march towards ATC reform. The concerns
shown at O’Hare’s facilities are shared nation-wide. As preoccupation with daily
operations rise, inversely goes worker moral. An internal report from the FAA on
New York Center reveals staff moral is low, training is poor, and there’s a
shortage of controllers. The internal review of New York Center was conducted
following the Center’s insistence it would be forced to limit air traffic
through its airspace because of training and staffing shortcomings. The NATCA
representative for New York Center said staffing still needed to be increased by
at least 30%. The union representative went on to say, “the facility is
screaming for people and upper management seems oblivious to that fact. They’re
trying to run the facility on a shoestring. They’re overworking the controllers
by leaps and bounds” (AP, 1995).
There’s almost always more than one solution to every problem, and the
question of how to reform the ATC system is no exception. The FAA believes
restructuring should come from within. They believe there are still recoverable
parts from the current system. The FAA also downplays many of NATCA’s concerns
over airspace safety. And more time-consuming debate continues.
The FAA boasts they spend the majority of their resources operating an
air 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. commercial
aviation industry will move approximately 1.5 million passengers safely to their
destination. Strangely enough, they’re proud of the fact they have 5,000 fewer
employees than in 1991,yet air traffic has grown more than 6 percent over the
last two years. They claim a 99.4 percent reliability rate in all their
operations. Further disclosure reveals the FAA budget experienced a real decline
for the first time in more than a decade. A six percent drop. That equates to
six hundred million dollars. The FAA thinks the Clinton Administration has a
solution. It’s a not-for-profit, government-owned-and-operated U. S. Air Traffic
Services (USATS) corporation. According to the FAA, a corporation makes good
sense. They say unlike other FAA functions, air traffic has many of the
characteristics of a business.And it should be run like a business —
financing itself through the collection of users’ fees. The corporation would be
free from government procurement and personnel rules. As an independent
corporation, itwould be able to respond rapidly to changes in the aviation
industry. It would have the financial resources to keep pace with — and take
advantage of — advances in technology. Most importantly, it would not be
subject to budget cuts or constraints, nor would it be hostage to the annual
Transportation Secretary Pea transmitted proposed legislation to create
the United States Air Traffic Service corporation (USATS) on April 6th. On May
3rd, President Clinton wrote to Senate Republican Leader Dole and House Speaker
Gingrich, 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 a
drastic impact on the services offeredto the American public. In remarks
delivered by FAA Deputy Adminis…..trator Linda Hall Daschle to the Professional
Airways Systems Specialists, “without USATS or some other creative financing
proposal, we will face reductions in our work force — including our safety work
force…cuts in programs to protect against runway incursions at smaller
airports…critical delays in weather safety programs”. (FAA World Wide Web Home
“This proposal was not a hasty one”, said FAA Administrator David R.
Hinson, while speaking to the National Airspace System (NAS) Architecture
Meeting. “It was the result of a thorough analysis of the need for greater
flexibility in personnel and procurement policies”. (FAA World Wide Web Home
Page, 1995) In the director’s eyes, the corporation is designed to prevent any
long-term erosion in the quality of the nation’s air traffic services.
If and when the legislation is finalized (alternatives to the original
bill are being debated in Congress, and will be discussed later), there will be
a one-year transition period. USATS would take over operation of the air traffic
control system on October 1, of the following fiscal year. The transfer of
operating responsibility will not occur until the FAA Administrator determined
two things. First, all essential transition items must have been accomplished.
Second, the transfer must be accomplished with no detrimental impact on system
safety. Deputy Administrator Daschle went on to say: I think there is a broad
consensus that it’s time to change personnel and procurement rules so that the
FAA can better manage for results. None of the bills introduced in Congress
addresses our acute financial situation.They all expect us to do the same job
without giving us the necessary funding. It’s a little like trying to fly a 747
using just two of its four engines. You can do it — but it certainly isn’t the
best way to fly. And it certainly can’t do the job for which it’s intended. (FAA
World Wide Web Home Page, 1995)
These are Administrator Hinsosn’s plans for an overhaul of the
administrative structure of the FAA. But what’s being done right now to fix the
radar outages occurring on an almost daily basis? How will they respond to the
National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) call for the FAA to come up with
some “quick fixes” for what appears to be a pattern of avoidable failures? The
NTSB 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 broken
equipment, and to closely monitor the short-term replacement radar system, the
Display Channel Complex Rehost System (DCCR).(AP, 1995)
The FAA’s response has been to put in “hurry-up” orders for the DCCR
system. They’ll put in computer replacement orders for five ARTCCs. The ancient
IBM 9020Es that run Center radar and tracking systems are based on 70s
technology. They’ve been slated for replacement since the mid 80s. But because
of FAA mismanagement and difficulties in procurement, the equipment buys have
been stalled. FAA chief Hinson said the FAA will proceed with DCCR purchases to
replace host processors at Chicago, New York, Washington, and Fort Worth centers.
The DCCR system was put into motion faster than originally planned because of
another failed FAA reform plan, the Advanced Automation Project. The idea was to
almost totally automate the nations air traffic system with a series of ground
based computers transmitting navigational instructions ensuring proper
separation to airborne aircraft equipped with receivers that would interpret the
signals and adjust the aircraft’s flight path. There would have been very little
human involvement in routine separation. As is the recent track record of the
FAA, 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 $65
million dollars. The first system won’t go on-line until early 1997, at Chicago
Center. The other four systems, according to the FAA schedule, will follow at
the rate of one a month.
The equipment, procurement, and budget problems the FAA experiences
isn’t confined to the air traffic control system. The entire agency is bogged
down in a maze of government over-control. The FAA’s procurement of the
Automated Surface Observing System (SOS) parallels equipment problems in recent
SOS is deigned to replace on-airport weather observers. Equipment is
supposed to detect weather phenomena critical to aviation, then transmit it to
air traffic controllers, pilots, and other concerned agencies. The FAA in
conjunction with the National Weather Service and the Department of Defense
manages the program. During the last year, over 480 SOS systems have been
installed, but only 42 systems are commissioned for aviation and weather system
use. At 30 of those 42 sites, SOS is used by air traffic controllers to ensure
compliance with aviation standards and Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR). Air
Traffic controllers, pilots, and weather observers have raised serious concerns
about SOS. They say the equipment doesn’t observe and report some of the most
basic weather conditions (e.g. thunderstorms, cloud layers above, 12,000 feet,
drizzle). Since human observers report every weather element, the loss of these
conditions in weather reports is directly attributed to SOS. The system doesn’t
even correctly report the most basic weather condition;wind speed and
direction. It’s reported the wind sensors freeze in cold weather.
A loss of timely and accurate weather reporting would be devastating to
the aviation industry. There have been too numerous aviation accidents caused by
unreported or undetected weather conditions. Controllers and pilots alike agree
that SOS represents a serious degradation of service to the aviation community.
They call for an immediate return to manned observation stations until
improvements are made to the automated style of weather reporting.
How could the FAA and other national agencies miss these system
deficiencies? Even with all the criticism coming from every corners of the
aviation environment, contractors continue to install and commission SOS.
The reform of the nation’s air traffic control system is not just one
plan laid out by one person or group. On Capitol Hill,where the final formula
will be decided on, there are several bills before various House and Senate
committees. Some call for an air traffic control structure that’s totally
separate from the federal government, another calls for the government to run a
quasi-independent ATC system, plan. Whatever the outcome is, the desire is
basically the same; eliminate the government procurement nightmare and allow
money to flow into the equipment buyers hands.
A bill to separate the Federal Aviation Administration from the
Department of Transportationhas already won support from the House
Transportation subcommittee. In a rare showing of bipartisan politics, the
subcommittee 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’s
own rules for personnel moves and procurement. The organization would be exempt
from federal budget restraints, and have total authority to spend it’s portion
of the Aviation Trust Fund as it saw fit. Representative James Oberstar, author
of the bill said, “Today is the day when we begin to unscramble the egg that was
scrambled in 1966 when nearly a dozen federal agencies were combined into the
DOT. It worked for some agencies, but not for the FAA”. (AP, 1995) The bill has
almost total backing from the aviation community, but is opposed by the Clinton
administration. As discussed earlier, the Clinton Administration is fully behind
the formation of the United States Air Traffic Service corporation which would
total privatize ATC services. .
Another bill circulating is sponsored by Senator John McCain. His bill
would make the FAA a quasi-independent agency financed largely through user fees.
Obviously, this legislation has almost no support from those who would be forced
to finance the majority of the system; aircraft owners, pilots and the general
aviation community. They are afraid they would be obliged to provide the revenue
to fund the reformed FAA. Fee structure would be based on aircraft performance.
Commercial and business jets would be charged for ATC services based on the
above. Opponents to this measure ask, “If we want a higher altitude, will the
controller 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”. The
McCain bill is seen as a compromise to the administration’s efforts, but still
relies 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 the
Department of Transportation. Lightfoot said, “our legislation will streamline
the FAA, reform the costly and often delayed rule-making process, and increase
aviation safety.” The legislation is seen by some as an attempt to counter the
USATS proposal by President Clinton. It also appears many aircraft owners and
pilots support this reform action.
There is quite an array of legislation proposed to reform our nation’s
aging, outdated air traffic control system. One has to suppose each effort has
the good of the consumer in mind as time ticks by without any changes.
The following is an editorial that appeared in the September 4, 1995
edition 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. air
traffic control system. This year that system seems to be falling apart. Each
time an air traffic control center’s radar shuts down, every traveler blinks and
gulps. When air traffic controllers hand out scary literature in airports and
air traffic control outages are separated by days instead of years, it’s time
for some serious attention to the system. That being the case, you’d think we’d
have invested time, talent cash in the best darn air traffic control system the
world had ever seen. Instead we’re limping along with computers whose vacuum
tubes are the butt of jokes on late-night television shows. Too often, our
controllers are silenced and blinded by technical failures — 11 since last
September. Glitches force controllers to pass planes between centers via
telephone. Now even backup systems have started to fail. As it has tried to
update its now 30-year-old machinery, the Federal Aviation Administration has
become a budget ary black hole. A May General Accounting Office review found
modernization 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 20
big centers, with the other 15 to be upgraded by 1998. That’s a small start, but
little solace to fliers. It’s time for legislators and aviation administrators
to call a halt to this Russian roulette in the skies. Quit waiting for accidents
and outcry to prod action. Get the equipment tested, functioning and in place.
Staff towers and centers to match the growing number of planes. Breathe hard
down 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 life
from an aviation-related accident. There literally could have been bodies and
airplane wreckage falling from the skies throughout Northern California. But
thankfully, it didn’t happen. The day was saved by every controller working
western America’s airspace that day. The day was saved by pilots that followed
previously assigned clearances, and those that were worthy enough aviators to
weave their way through uncontrolled, but not uncrowded airspace.
Everyone’s got an opinion. In this case, everyone knows the best way to
fix the crumbling airways. NATCA wants the FAA structures as a corporation would
be. But the union goes on to say they’ll support any legislation that meets
their laundry list of concerns. The FAA wants to restructure the system from
within. 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 five
variations the basic reform bill making their way around Capitol Hill. There’s a
plan to totally privatize the FAA, another to partly privatize it, another to
rework it from within, and a few other variations of those. Legislators have
their 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 the
unnecessarily long shifts, he’s the one scared every day his screen will go dark
during the morning rush hour. I would be inclined to listen very closely to his
concerns and follow his recommendations towards a solution.
The FAA’s Quality statement declares the agency as an organization
dedicated to “eliminating barriers, improving communication, providing
additional opportunities for training, and constantly encouraging all personnel
to seek ways to improve”. The FAA is proud of its Quality activities because
they “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 goals
that always require improvement. But will disaster strike before their processes
gets us a new ATC system?