The National Air Traffic Controllers Association: Collaboration Resulting in NextGen Success, Funding Uncertainty Creates Challenges

NATCA LOGOWASHINGTON – National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi told the Senate Aviation Subcommittee today that the successful implementation of NextGen modernization, which NATCA fully supports, is underway. He said the progress has been fueled by strong and effective collaboration involving NATCA, the FAA, and other aviation stakeholders. The results, he added, are “much-needed improvements that will increase the safety and efficiency of the National Airspace System (NAS).”

Rinaldi also expressed NATCA’s concern that the progress could be undermined by the lack of stable funding for these important modernization projects. In the past year, mandatory sequestration cuts resulted in furloughs at the FAA that slowed or halted several essential NextGen projects.

“Funding uncertainty has also created a stop-and-go pace that adds cost overruns as air traffic controllers must be retrained each time a project is halted – lost time becomes lost money, and lost opportunity to reap the benefits of these modernizations,” he said.

Rinaldi’s full written testimony for the Subcommittee’s hearing, “NextGen: A Review of Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities for Improving Aviation Safety and Efficiency,” is located here

NextGen modernization will allow the FAA to meet increased capacity demand while improving the safety and efficiency of the NAS, reducing delays, and protecting the environment. NextGen projects are transforming the NAS by using new and existing technologies including satellite navigation, advanced digital communications, and enhanced connectivity between all components of the NAS.

“NATCA is proud to be involved in all aspects of the process as an essential stakeholder,” Rinaldi testified. “NATCA and the FAA both recognize that stakeholder involvement is the key to continued success to NextGen. We applaud the Committee for their efforts to ensure this collaboration through the stakeholder involvement provision in the 2012 FAA Reauthorization Act. In addition to being present on NextGen projects, NATCA is represented as a member of the RTCA, the FAA Management Advisory Council (MAC), and the NextGen Advisory Committee. Our presence, as well as that of other industry leaders, has been an important addition to the discussion on modernization.”

Other highlights of NATCA’s testimony, which provided several examples of how NextGen projects are already benefiting the NAS, include:

Houston – Optimization of Airspace & Procedures in the Metroplex (OAPM): OAPM study teams rely on current aircraft navigation capabilities to enhance airport arrival and departure paths, provide diverging departure paths to get aircraft off the ground more quickly, and add more direct, high-altitude Area Navigation (RNAV) navigation routes between metroplexes. These changes reduce fuel consumption, providing economic benefits for airlines as well as benefits for the environment.

Gulf of Mexico – Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B): ADS-B, one of the cornerstone components of NextGen, is a form of surveillance that will replace traditional radar as the primary surveillance method in the NAS. ADS-B involves the broadcast of the GPS-derived position report of an aircraft or vehicle. As this technology continues to evolve and aircraft equip with ADS-B Avionics, controllers will see an increase in surveillance coverage not provided by traditional radar sources. At this time, the FAA has completed the physical infrastructure of the ADS-B network. Additionally, they have successfully integrated ADS-B data into existing ATC automation systems, meaning that air traffic controllers can see the new ADS-B information.

Colorado – Wide Area Multilateration (WAM): WAM is an independent, cooperative surveillance technology based on the same time difference of arrival principles that are used on an airport surface. Several ground-based receiving stations listen to signals transmitted from an aircraft and then mathematically calculate its position in three dimensions. This data is transmitted to screens viewed by air traffic controllers for separation of aircraft. WAM can interface to terminal or en-route automation systems.

Phoenix – Performance Based Navigation (PBN): The development and implementation of PBN will create more defined routing for aircraft, which ultimately increases the number of aircraft that controllers can direct. These new procedures will improve the fuel efficiency for the airlines and create safer and more efficient procedures for air traffic.

Memphis – Re-Categorization of Separation Standards (RECAT): Experts in wake turbulence, safety, and risk analysis have determined that decreasing separation between similar type aircraft is as safe, or safer than, current standards and increases efficiency and capacity, meaning that like other NextGen projects, RECAT has the capacity to enhance safety, reduce delays, save fuel, and reduce aviation’s environmental impact.

Newark –Data Communications (DataComm): DataComm will reduce frequency congestion by allowing the controller and pilot to communicate directly via digital communication (much like a text message). It will also reduce confusion because the message will be in print form and not copied over the frequency. A majority of these messages will be integrated into the flight deck avionics to help save time and remove issues of incorrect data entry.

n  Atlanta –Equivalent Lateral Spacing Operations (ELSO): ELSO is a procedure that enables the world’s busiest airport to depart aircraft on diverging courses much closer than in the past. ELSO, developed by the Mitre Corporation in 2011, added two departure routes at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) due to an updated separation standard. The introduction of ELSO at ATL enables simultaneous and successive diverging departure operations by creating two departure tracks for each runway end during normal runway operations.

NATCA Honors Controllers For Quick Thinking And Lifesaving Decision Making At Archie League Awards

NATCA hosts annual ‘Communicating For Safety‘ convention and honors the air traffic controllers who went above and beyond durning the last year.

NATCA President Paul Rinaldi.  Image via NATCA on FLICKR, Credit Douglas Jones

NATCA President Paul Rinaldi.
Image via NATCA on FLICKR, Credit Douglas Jones

Last week I was honored to attend the National Air Traffic Controllers Association’s (NATCA) premier safety convention,  ‘Communicating For Safety’ (CFS).  The annual event drew 1,400 people from across the country.  Attendees included hundreds of  NATCA air traffic controllers, FAA management, and hundreds more from the aviation industry worldwide.

CFS is broken into two parts.  One part is a convention where NATCA, the FAA, and the aviation industry show how they are working together to make the National Airspace System more efficient and safer for everyone involved.  The second part is NATCA’s Archie League Medal of Safety Awards, which highlights some of the best lifesaving moments by NATCA controllers from across the country.

The safety convention part of CFS was as diverse as the people who attended the convention.  They had industry leaders, like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, who talked about new equipment they are designing to make it easier for controllers to interface with their radar equipment.

NATCA President Paul Rinaldi spoke at length about the political issues facing the National Airspace System.  NATCA and many other unions have been pushing back against the ‘sequester’ that is slowly starving federal organizations like the FAA.  The political gridlock in Washington is making it harder for controllers to do their jobs: major staffing shortages, cuts to equipment acquisitions budgets, and cuts to general maintenance budgets.  Politicians are putting unnecessary risk into the world’s most complex – but still the safest – air traffic system in the world.

The main focus of the CFS convention was to get real controllers together and talk openly about some of the issues facing controllers in the workforce.  These issues are the same as elsewhere in the transportation industry: including fatigue, workload-overload, complacency and distractions (i.e. cell phones and text messaging).  Controllers and managers discussed solutions to these problems.

Archie1

The Archie League Medal of Safety Awards

The Communicating for Safety convention concluded with NATCA’s annual Archie League Medal of Safety Awards banquet.  Archie League was credited as the first air traffic controller, who used two flags to signal pilots at the St. Louis Airport when it was safe to land.  NATCA honors Archie and his vision for a safer air traffic system, by highlighting some of the most dramatic, and lifesaving moments by air traffic controllers over the past year.

NATCA President Paul Rinaldi opened the awards banquet by saying, “Tonight you will laugh, you will cry, and most of all you will feel pride for your profession.”  And boy, was he right.

Watching these events unfold would make most people cringe, and vow to never fly again, until that moment where the air traffic controller comes in to save the day.  In Alaska, it was the quick thinking of the Anchorage Center controllers who used a pair of military bombers to help them make contact a lost airplane that was below their radio coverage.  In Miami, controllers averted disaster as an air carrier mistakenly taxied onto an active runway, just after another aircraft was cleared for takeoff.  In Houston, Stewart Pearcy helped guide the pilot of a single-engine Cessna 172 to safety, after the pilot was caught by a fast moving storm.

Jared Mike from Seattle Terminal Radar Approach Control safely guided a pilot through the steep mountaintops of Washington State, with precise vectors to Boeing Field, a small airport where the plane could land.  The entire time the pilot, Philip Bush, who admitted at the event that this flight “was the scariest moment in his entire life”, kept informing the controller that he could not see out front windows of the airplane because they were covered in ice.  Bush told the crowd of over 1,500 people that while he was trying to safely navigate through the mountains “it was the calming voice of Jared that helped him get through”.

Some of the presentations showed how controllers’ quick actions and professionalism during a crisis saved additional lives.

Last year Asiana flight 214 crashed at the San Francisco Airport.  Even as the tragic event unfolded, the controllers rerouted other aircraft that were on approach to the airport, and notified emergency services to get the fire equipment on the scene.

Listening to the audio replay from that day, you could hear the tears in the voice of Alexis Shirkey as she informed the surrounding air traffic facilities that the San Francisco Airport was closed due to an aircraft accident.

As the plane burst into flames, the smoke filled the sky.  Controllers in the tower watched in horror as the smoke rose and began to obscure their view of the crash site.  It was not until emergency crews arrived that the controllers in the tower knew that anyone had survived at all.

In fact, 307 passengers and crew from the Asiana flight survived the crash.  A brief moment of silence was held for the three people who lost their lives in that tragic crash.

If it was not for the quick action from this dedicated group of professionals, there is no telling how bad this could have been.  Their teamwork during this crisis showed what true professionals these men and women are.

The entire crew of the SFO Airport Tower on the tragic day.  David Caldwell, Dan Ferlito, Nicole Findlay, Russell Kipker, Dawn McMullin, Fred Naujoks, Joseph Okuda, Peter Sachs, and Alexis Shirkey Image via NATCA on FLICKR, Credit Douglas Jones

The entire crew of the SFO Airport Tower on the tragic day, in no particular order:
David Caldwell, Dan Ferlito, Nicole Findlay, Russell Kipker, Dawn McMullin, Fred Naujoks, Joseph Okuda, Peter Sachs, and Alexis Shirkey.
Image via NATCA on FLICKR, Credit Douglas Jones

The final award given at the Banquet is called the President’s Award.  This is the NATCA President’s choice for the best of the best this year.  NATCA President Paul Rinaldi had to choose between all of the dramatic life saving award winners and pick the one he thought was the best.  As you can see this was no easy task.

This year the Presidents Award went to Nunzio DiMillo from Boston’s Logan Airport.  Nunzio was working in the tower around 7pm on Sept 27th of last year.  This was a pretty typical day for Nunzio and all of the controllers at Boston Tower, with multiple aircraft looking to depart, and a line of aircraft waiting to land.

One of those aircraft waiting to depart was a Jet Blue Airlines Embraer (E)190.  The regional jet, which holds around 100 passengers, requested permission to depart and was taxing to the end of the takeoff end of the runway.  At the same time, Nunzio was working a small Cirrus (SR22) who was lining up to land, before the Jet Blue aircraft would be cleared for takeoff on the same runway.

As the Cirrus began to get closer to the runway end, Nunzio could tell something was wrong.  Nunzio a veteran controller of 23 years, quickly checked his tower radar to confirm his suspicions. The Cirrus was not lined up for the runway, but was actually about to land on the taxiway that the Jet Blue E190 was currently occupying.

Nunzio quickly told the Cirrus to ‘Go Around! Go Around!’  The Cirrus pilot did not question Nunzio; he gave the plane max power and initiated a climb.

T.R. Wood was the pilot of the Jet Blue E190 who saw the Cirrus coming at him and knew there was not much he could do to avoid it. Wood tried to maneuver the E190 off the side of the taxiway in hopes to minimize the impact with the Cirrus.  He heard the plane power up, and said as the plane passed overhead the sound from the propeller driven aircraft was “deafening”.

Wood told the crowd that his self-defense maneuver would not have saved the E190 if Nunzio had not acted.  In fact Wood talked about how his wife, and the mother of his children, was sitting right where the Cirrus would have impacted the E190.

When a complete review of the event was conducted, the Cirrus came within 30 feet of colliding with the Jet Blue aircraft.  After this event, Nunzio the consummate professional, continued to work the busy traffic session.  He worked over 90 aircraft in the hour surrounding the near disaster.

Click here to watch the video replay of Nunzio’s dramatic save.

Left to right: NATCA Executive VP Patricia Gilbert, Capt T.R. Wood, Nunzio Dimillo, NATCA President Paul Rinaldi. Credit: Douglas Jones

Left to right: NATCA Executive VP Patricia Gilbert, Capt T.R. Wood, Nunzio DiMllo, NATCA President Paul Rinaldi.
Credit: Douglas Jones

(You can see Nunzio’s acceptance speech of the Presidents Award and hear the full story from Capt Wood by clicking here.)

All of these controllers got up and accepted their awards, most of which had similar acceptance speeches.  They all thanked their co-workers, because air traffic controllers are part of a team.  They rely on each other, and they help each other in times of crisis.   They other thing they all said was, “I was just doing my job.”  Every one of these controllers went above and beyond to ensure the safety of these pilots and passengers – and all they can say is, “I was just doing my job.”

(You can view all of the award winners acceptance speeches and the video replays of their award winning events thanks to NATCA, here.)

As a member of the flying public, I would like to thank all the members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association for their hard work and dedication to make air travel the safest form of transportation in the world.

NATCA, thank you for all you do!

 

What Do You Mean My Flight Is Canceled Due To SEQUESTRATION???

The newsrooms are a buzz with the information that was just released from the Federal Aviation Administration on the potential impacts of the Sequestration.   Sequestration is the name given to the draconian cuts that are going to rip apart the government and our economy at the same time.

Today Department of Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, released a letter to the aviation community highlighting the impacts.

1.  Furloughs of 11-22 days between April and Oct 1st for all 47,000 FAA Employees.

2. Eliminate midshifts at 60 towers across the country

3. Close over 100 air traffic control towers (link to potential closure list)

4. Reduce preventative maintenance and equipment provisioning and support for all National Airspace System equipment.

These impacts will create massive delays for air travelers, and any business that relies on aviation to move their people or product.  Aviation contributes $1.3 Trillion to the national economy.  With over 70,000 operations every single day and 130 million operations annually, the FAA oversees all of them.

Sec. Lahood also points out that flights to the major airports,  JFK, IAD, SFO, LAX could see delays of 90 minutes or more durning peak times.   Those delays will only create more waves throughout the system as gridlock sets in.

The President of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Paul Rinaldi, had this to say after hearing the news.

“Today’s announcement from the FAA unfortunately confirms the concerns we have been warning about for months – sequestration will significantly and perhaps permanently undermine the capacity of the National Airspace System. The fact that they will not just be furloughing critical FAA personnel but closing air traffic control towers means the system will be even more compromised than anticipated. We share the FAA’s commitment to preserving the safety of the system despite these draconian cuts. Safety is always the top priority of air traffic controllers, but the reality is this – safety will be preserved at the expense of operations across the country. Once towers are closed, the airports they serve may be next. Additionally, we believe the delay estimates provided by the FAA are conservative and the potential for disruptions could be much higher.

“Every one of these actions by the FAA will have an impact far beyond inconveniencing travelers. Local economies will be diminished, military exercises will be cancelled and jobs will be lost. There’s no telling how long these effects will be felt because many of these service reductions may not be reversed. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association continues to urge the nation’s policy-makers to find a solution that prevents or mitigates the impact of sequestration in a way that does not diminish the world’s safest and most efficient national airspace system.”

These 47,000 FAA Employees are real people.  They have families, children, and mortgages.   Like many Americans, they probably cannot afford to be forced out of work for an entire month without pay.  Yet this is what Congress is forcing them to do.

We must take action now to stop these draconian cuts from every happening.   Call your elected Representative and tell them to stop this now!  Call your Senator.  Call the White House.  Tell them all that these cuts are hurting hard working families throughout the country.  Tell them how these cuts are going to directly effect you.

Congress created these Sequestration cuts and they can take them away.  It is time to stop playing chicken with our economy and the lives of millions of federal employees and their families.  End the sequestration now, while you still can!