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Problems in airt raffic control and proposed solutions

Problems 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 improvised.

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, representing the 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 concerns:

· 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 hiring/managing caps.

· Provide the FAA with the ability to attract and retain high caliber individuals.

· 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 new technology.

· 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 facilities.

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 used to 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, it would 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 appropriations process.

Transportation Secretary Peña 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 offered to the American public. In remarks delivered by FAA Deputy Administrator 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 Page, 1995)

"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 history.

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. Unbelievable.

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 Transportation has 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 budgetary 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?

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