NATS ATC glitch and the FAA Chicago Center Fire experience may provide lessons for both

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Reminiscent of the headaches which the FAA incurred with the fire at the Chicago (Aurora) En Route Center, NATS encountered a similar airspace disaster which compelled the closure of the sectors shown above for several days. The below articles track the situation from initial occurrence to restoration to investigation. While the specific reasons why have not been determined, this incident should be instructive to the FAA and ANSPs.

The problem was initially identified as a power failure and later as a failure of a line of code used to “’bandboxing’ or the combining of sectors in the London area centre.” There was a fair amount of commentary about fault-finding with NATS, which is the privatized company which operates the UK’s ATC. The independent investigation, established by the Civil Aviation Authority, is asking the following questions:

“1. The root causes of the incident on Friday
2. NATS’ handling of that incident to minimise disruption without compromising safety
3. Whether the lessons identified in the review of the disruption in December 2013 have been fully embedded and were effective in this most recent incident
4. A review of the levels of resilience and service that should be expected across the air traffic network taking into account relevant international benchmarks
5. Further measures to avoid technology or process failures in this critical national infrastructure and reduce the impact of any unavoidable disruption.”

The results of the probe, particularly the answers to questions 3-5, will create analysis of systemic issues.

It appears that the NATS computer problem was different from the FAA’s O’Hare fire. That said, how to avoid the loss of control over airspace is common theme to both instances. For both the current ATC and the future NextGen/SESAR , the answers from this investigation may reveal some important lessons.

For example, Sen. Kirk responded to the ZAU problem with urging that the FAA follow our military approach, i.e. multiple redundancies; so that if one system fails, there is a backup. With the global movement to a space-based navigation system, are there opportunities for duplication of satellite coverage? The NATS issue appears to be in its code writing; both NextGen and SESAR will depend heavily on massive new lines of codes. How can full blown tests be created before full implementation? The DoT IG has pointed to the Catch 22 like conundrum—to test the system, a full equipage of the aircraft is needed, but the airlines will not install 100% until proof of the FAA concept is made. These are but a few of the technical issues to which the CAA Independent Investigation may find answers.

The UK and the US would be wise to share their experiences. Any good answers found in response to these two incidents may avoid any instances in which problems develop in live operations.

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