ATC Disaster Contingency Plan
Without more explanation, it is a BIG STRETCH to claim that this deficiency proves that privatization is needed.
In August 2015, the Chairmen and then later, the Ranking Members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and Subcommittee on Aviation requested that the US DOT Inspector General of review the causes of recent disruptions and whether FAA possesses the ability to manage air traffic control crises that arise within the National Airspace System (NAS). Here are excerpts from that audit:
- FAA has taken steps to improve the effectiveness of its operational contingency plans; however, significant work remains to mitigate the impact of air traffic control disruptions.
- For example, in the aftermath of the Chicago Center incident, FAA updated its contingency plan policy to include goals to achieve 90 percent capacity at the top 30 airports with the most passenger activity within 24 hours, and 90 percent capacity at facilities that manage air traffic at high altitude and in the vicinity of airports within 96 hours.
- However, FAA’s air traffic facilities are not yet fully prepared to respond effectively to major system disruptions, in part because of a lack of necessary controller training for these types of emergency events.
- For example, contingency plan training has not been fully implemented at all air traffic control facilities because the plans themselves are not yet complete.
- In addition, air traffic controllers stated that refresher training on certain procedures, such as those used when radar is not available, are insufficient to maintain proficiency, limiting their ability to use them when they are needed during disruptions.
- The CHICAGO CENTER FIRE AND THE AUSTIN TOWER/TRACON FLOOD also highlighted the lack of redundancy, resiliency, and flexibility of FAA’s key air traffic control infrastructure, including communication, surveillance, automation, and flight-plan equipment.
- Many of the new technologies and capabilities that can improve FAA’s continuity of air traffic operations will not be available for years, and the overall cost and timeframe for implementing them is uncertain.
- Although FAA has established a new policy for enhancing facility operational contingency plans, 3 including new requirements for transferring airspace and air traffic control responsibilities to other facilities (i.e., airspace divestment), the Agency’s procedures for updating contingency plans remain incomplete.
- In March 2015, FAA created the Temporary Operational Contingency Office (TOCO) to coordinate the update of operational contingency plans. TOCO is taking a phased approach to manage and track the development of site-specific airspace divestment plans and procedures, starting with the facilities that manage high-altitude traffic. As a result, airspace divestment plans have only been developed for high-altitude (i.e., enroute) facilities.
- However, the divestment plans are not ready to be fully implemented because FAA has not validated the technical requirements that will be needed to support airspace divestment. This is a key step to prepare air traffic facilities to manage airspace divestment in the event of an emergency. In addition FAA does not have an effective method for sharing operational contingency plans and lessons learned from contingency incidents with other facilities or offices within the Agency or with the aviation industry.
These criticisms are well-articulated and were readily accepted by the FAA. Dealing with catastrophic interruptions of the ATC system and/or facility is an important FAA task, but the fact that it is taking it three years to fully design and implement a detailed and technologically complex contingency plan should not be shocking. NextGen is the single largest civil computer and space transformation; that challenge absorbs much of senior management’s attention.
In response to this IG analysis, the Chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., sang a familiar refrain:
“This report adds to the sea of evidence supporting the need for real reform in modernizing and managing air traffic services, and letting the FAA focus on its safety mission.”
That is to say, the Chairman is citing this report, among many from the IG, as basis for “privatizing” and/or “corporatizing” the Air Traffic Control System.
“The Inspector General’s report is another example of the FAA bureaucracy dropping the ball and failing to follow through on important contingency planning and training needed to prevent shutdowns of the Nation’s airspace,” said Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA).
“Aviation system inefficiency and delays cost passengers and the economy over $30 billion every year, but unfortunately, the FAA’s chronic inability to modernize air traffic services technology is also negatively impacting their ability to address major operational disruptions and reduce delays. This report adds to the sea of evidence supporting the need for real reform in modernizing and managing air traffic services, and letting the FAA focus on its safety mission.”
“For too long the FAA has been reactive rather than proactive in identifying and mitigating potential problems,” said Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ). “This attitude has significant economic costs to consumers, the aviation industry and the federal government. This GAO report underscores the systemic issues at FAA and reinforces the changes the Aviation Subcommittee has been pushing the agency to make.”
Shuster and LoBiondo initiated the IG report in August 2015.
The IG report highlighted the impacts of such system disruptions. For example, the Chicago Center fire resulted in thousands of flight delays or cancellations at Chicago O’Hare and Midway Airports and over $350 million in reported associated costs.
“The FAA’s decades-long inability to modernize its outdated technology and struggles in managing significant system failures are on full display again,” Shuster added. “When the Chicago Center fire happened, the FAA clearly wasn’t prepared to deal with such a major system disruption, and it’s unacceptable that well over two years later, it appears the FAA still isn’t ready.”
Several additional highlights from the Inspector General’s report, which is available in full here:
“The Chicago Center fire and the Austin tower/TRACON flood also highlighted the lack of redundancy, resiliency, and flexibility of FAA’s key air traffic control infrastructure, including communication, surveillance, automation, and flight-plan equipment.” page 2
“FAA plans to introduce several capabilities through Next Generation Air Transportation Systems (NextGen) that are designed to improve critical communications, surveillance, and the distribution of flight data. The implementation of several NextGen technologies is expected to enable FAA to improve the continuity of air traffic operations during emergency events.… Many of these capabilities will not be available for years, and the overall cost and timeframe for implementing them is uncertain.” page 10
“In response to the Chicago Center fire, FAA planned to initiate a comprehensive evaluation of how planned NextGen capabilities could enhance the resiliency and continuity of NAS operations for all air traffic services…. However, the evaluation, which was due in March 2016, has not been completed. In fact, TOCO [Temporary Operational Contingency Office] officials stated in June 2016 that they have been unable to set up meetings with the various NextGen program officials to discuss the role of NextGen in mitigating the impact of future ATC-Zero events.” page 11
Ranking Member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, DeFazio (D-OR) and Ranking Member of the House Subcommittee on Aviation, Larsen (D-WA) replied the following counter-argument:
“U.S. airspace is the busiest and most complex in the world, and the FAA must continue to ensure that air navigation services are safe and efficient for our airspace users. Strong contingency plans and internal controls are vital to recovery from large-scale disruptions to air traffic services, regardless of the cause. Today’s IG recommendations get at just this, and will result in improved FAA policies and procedures, and an overall safer system.Ranking Member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, DeFazio (D-OR) and Ranking Member of the House Subcommittee on Aviation, Larsen (D-WA) replied the following counter-argument:
Republicans proposed last year to privatize air traffic control services and place them under the control of an airline dominated board. While the FAA operated the system every day in 2016 without any widespread glitches, it was the airlines that failed to manage their own IT systems, with large-scale disruptions on at least 15 occasions. This resulted in the cancellation or delay of thousands of flights, and the stranding of tens of thousands of passengers. For that and many other reasons, we remain unconvinced that privatizing the air traffic control system would lead to improvement. We commend the FAA for owning today’s IG recommendations and its willingness to complete the actions necessary to implement them this year.”
Politics aside, the ATC system is complex; there is a need for a realistic contingency plan; and the FAA acknowledged that it still has work to do in order to be prepared for potential scenarios. Without more explanation, it is a BIG STRETCH to claim that this deficiency proves that privatization is needed. Even the IG, which is a frequent critic of the FAA, did not castigate the FAA for its status on this report.
Neither the IG nor the Chairman alleged
- that the FAA was without people competent to design such a contingency plan
- that the design of the plan was deficient, or even
- that the FAA had ignored the issue.
The repeated complaint was that the plan was not in place. One might translate that to mean that the FAA is very busy working to complete a number of competing challenges. It was clear that the FAA learned from its experiences, had formulated some interim solutions, is consciously incorporating some of the technological fixes in NextGen and may not be expediting training the field on a full plan as NextGen is being designed/implemented.