Lessons from the FAA Aurora Air Traffic Control Center Fire

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Jon Hilkevitch is a highly regarded transportation writer for The Chicago Tribune; he has learned his craft covering the Second City’s major role as an air and rail hub. His article (below) captures much of the relevant facts concerning the suicide fire at the Aurora Air Route ATC facility, known by controllers as ZAU. The report covers two themes (questioning of the capability of NextGen to respond and the call for Congressional oversight of security versus system design), which deserve a few additional thoughts. By looking at the event carefully, there may be valuable lessons for the future.

Mr. Hilkevitch questions the proposition expressed by Administrator Huerta that under the future satellite based navigational system the technology would allow another facility to “reach into Chicago Center’s airspace and take control of all of the radios used to control aircraft there.” The writer summarizes the critique of that premise in the following paragraph:

“They cite factors such as the complexities of moving airplanes through distinct areas of congested airspace where customized rules and procedures mastered by local controllers are in effect, as well as the sheer task of processing and transmitting voluminous amounts of flight data to other FAA facilities, which already have a full workload, the experts said.”

That analysis presumes that today’s ATC architecture will be the foundation for the future system. It is correct that the current airspace is cut into complex blocks and laced with even more complicated “routes” in the sky based on individual headings, varying altitudes and specific radio frequencies. The air map of the future will not be preordained; the airspace will have no metes and bounds. Pilots will enter intended flight paths into the central computer. Then the satellite navigation system will guide that aircraft plus onboard transmitters on all aircraft will provide separation between and among all the planes in the system. All airspace will be essentially homogeneous; so controllers from another facility will be able to assume the duties of the ARTCC which is down. Additional controllers may be needed, but the technology should allow the transfer seamlessly.

The second aspect of Mr. Hilkevitch’s review of the ZAU incident involves the call of Senators Durbin and Kirk for Congressional hearing on the situation. While it is irrefutable that more can and should be done to preclude a repetition of this destruction of the system, it is axiomatic that a “Department of Defense philosophy”, as suggested by Senator Kirk would increase the cost of installing NextGen and of maintaining the ATC system in the future. An examination of the facts demonstrates the degree of difficulty of a DoD or any added security approach.

What happened at ZAU? Equipment is being installed there and at many other ARTCCs, TRACONs and towers to prepare for the new technology of NextGen. The work is being done by an outside contractor, which is highly qualified and has successfully implemented its work orders at other facilities. The employee in question had worked for the contractor for a number of years and it appears that there were no warning signs. The damage he inflicted was not accomplished by tools which a security search would have interdicted. Preliminary accounts seem to say that his action was a reaction to his being transferred to Hawai’i. It is not evident that a “supervisor” could have prevented this sudden violent act. While it is early to jump to any conclusions, it would appear that this was a random act of unanticipated, unavoidable destruction.

If there is a question of merit, it may be why there was not an independent, redundant line that would have replaced the one attacked by this contract worker? Many of the ATC systems are designed with duplication of critical infrastructure elements; perhaps a similar second juncture should be included in future design.

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