From the Associated Press:
Utah’s two U.S. senators are urging the Federal Aviation Administration to hold off testing a new computer system at a Salt Lake City air traffic control center that guides planes across portions of eight states.
Republican Sens. Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch wrote FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt on June 11, asking him to delay a test of the new system at the Salt Lake Air Route Traffic Control Center. [..] “Safety concerns demand that ERAM (the computer system) not be implemented until it meets and exceeds the standards of reliability and stability of the system it replaces,” the senators wrote.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency has a meeting scheduled for Tuesday with the union representing air traffic controllers to discuss the test. She said agency officials still have confidence the test can take place as planned.
The test is scheduled from midnight to 4 a.m. on June 18, said Doug Pincock, an air traffic controller [and NATCA rep — ed.] in Salt Lake City. During that period the main computer system that the control center has used for nearly two decades will be switched off and the new system, known as En route Automation Modernization, will be switched on, Pincock said.
Further information: NATCA’s press release; FAA ERAM fact sheet; Text of letter to Randy Babbitt from Sens. Bennett and Hatch.
The Dallas Morning News had a catch-all, general interest article about the status of NextGen. Here are some quotes:
Aviation consultant Michael Boyd: “Capt. Babbitt isn’t going to run the FAA – it is going to run him. I have no confidence this is going to work. The public is simply being bamboozled by the FAA about how this is working.”
NATCA spokesman Doug Church: “The new administration seems to want to include input from all the stakeholders. We’re quite hopeful about NextGen.”
Southwest Airlines EVP Ron Rocks: “We need the will to get this done. We need what they’re calling a World War II plan in Washington. We won that war in three or four years – that’s what we need for NextGen.”
The FAA’s Hank Krawkowski testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Safety, Operations, and Security today, and summarized the last year’s worth of movement on ATC issues as well as the development of NextGen planning. One of the more interesting portions of Krakowski’s prepared remarks came at the very end, where he specifically addressed the labor dispute between the FAA and the National Association of Air Traffic Controllers:
I know that this Committee has always been interested in how FAA has interacted with our labor unions, and I would like to address that briefly. In his confirmation hearing before this Committee, Secretary LaHood made it very clear that resolving labor disputes was one of his top priorities for the FAA, and that he was seeking to fill the FAA Administrator position with someone who had the people skills to resolve our outstanding issues with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). As someone who has sat on both sides of the labor debate, I fully support the Secretary’s priority on this.
Our controllers, indeed, our entire workforce, are our most valuable assets in ensuring the safety of the traveling public. As such, we have included controllers in all phases of NextGen so far. Controller input has come from individual controllers who have been invited to participate in NextGen development, though they were not participating as official NATCA representatives. NATCA does have a seat on the NextGen Management Board, the governance structure that we originally put in place as our framework for achieving NextGen. I look forward to moving ahead towards a resolution of our differences. These have been challenging times for us, and I want to commend all the hard work that has occurred on both sides.
The full transcript is available here.
The National Association of Air Traffic Controllers issued a press release this week, calling on the new administration to reevaluate the Advanced Technologies for Oceanic Procedures system. ATOP allows aircraft to transmit location coordinates across long distances in an automated fashion, but the implimentation is somewhat controversial because airlines are allowed to set their own policies about how frequently updates are sent to controllers. NATCA is worried that controllers could be disciplined or fired, even when separation data from aircraft is inadequate. ATOP is used at all three of the FAA’s oceanic centers: Ronkonkoma NY, Oakland CA, and Anchorage AK.
The re-routing of four flights over North Carolina and Georgia is being investigated due to union allegations that an FAA manager ordered the move in violation of federal rules. The incident, which occurred at Jacksonville Center late last week, was first made public by NATCA (press release here) and later picked up by the AP. Union reps say the aircraft — a Delta Airlines B757, a Virgin Atlantic B747 and two Southwest Airlines B737s — were ordered to fly out of their way so that a trainee could demonstrate his capabilities during a so-called “skills check.” An FAA spokeswoman says the agency is looking into the incident.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has issued a press reelase reporting two ATC outages in recent days. The first occurred on Sunday at the Southern California TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control), which apparently experienced a loss of radar and radio functionality. Details per NATCA:
- At approximately 3:17 P.M. PDT on Sunday frequencies for the Burbank area, part of Southern California TRACON’s jurisdiction, went out and didn’t return until 4:15 P.M.
- When the outage occurred the backup lines didn’t kick in, leaving the controllers without radar or radio.
- Due to the large scale of the outage a ground stop was ordered for Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center and all Centers that immediately surround LA Center (Seattle Center, Albuquerque Center and Denver Center), thereby instructing any aircraft required to travel through said airspace to divert or hold if not already in the air.
- To cope with the crippling outage the controllers had to switch one radar frequency designated for Los Angeles approach to Burbank, working all of Burbank’s airspace on one frequency where there would normally be upwards of five or more. With the LA approach radar being farther away and not as accurate a view of Burbank’s airspace operations were done with less accuracy.
- At 3:56 P.M. the normal spacing between aircraft was increased ten times the normal amount to 30 miles for all traffic landing at Burbank or Van Nuys, eventually being decreased to 20 miles in trail before the frequency came back on.
The second incident happened at Miami Center on Monday, where controllers lost radar and frequency coverage for 30 minutes between the Bahamas and Puerto Rico.
- The Center also lost radar feeds from four radar sites in the Bahamas (Nassau, Grand Turk and George Town) and Guantanamo Cuba. At the same time, radio frequencies for those same areas were lost as well.
- All flights into this area over the Bahamas were rerouted by facilities such as New York Center and San Juan Center, in addition to many foreign facilities such as Santa Domingo Center, Havana Center and Port Au Prince Center.
- All aircraft headed towards the outage area and not already in the air were held on the ground.
- Controllers were working approximately 45 aircraft at the time of the incident. [..]
As I mentioned earlier, Acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell took questions about air traffic control and NextGen issues at last week’s AirVenture event. While a transcript isn’t available, AIN Online did have some additional quotes and insight in their report from Oshkosh. Sturgell characterized the nation’s ATC system as being:
in a “transition” phase as controllers hired in the wake of the 1981 Patco strike retire. […] He said that the agency is replacing the retiring controllers through aggressive hiring–at a rate of 1,800 controllers per year–and training.
The agency’s ongoing contract dispute with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union (Natca) should be kept in perspective, he noted. “We value this work force,” Sturgell said, adding that the FAA had placed a $70 million settlement issue “on the table.”
Sturgell charged that Natca’s contract demands, if applied retroactively, would cost more than $1 billion and that, overall, controller workload has decreased significantly since 2000 in terms of the number of operations handled by an average controller.
He also said that new technology could further lighten future controller workload. That technology includes ADS-B and WAAS. Sturgell noted that ADS-B would be up and running at select South Florida airports by the end of the summer.
[Kudos to AIN’s Mark Huber for his reporting.]