NY/NJ/PA Airspace Redesign

ISSUE: The FAA has begun to implement a redesign of the airspace in the New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia area.  This includes changes to rules and procedures, altitudes and headings, the assignment of duties and sectors among facilities, and potential movement of employees.  Although changes will have a significant impact on both the safety of the NAS and on the working lives of controllers in the affected facilities, the agency has made these decisions unilaterally and begun implementation without input from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA).

NATCA POSITION:  The FAA should cease and desist using the disbursal headings at PHL and EWR and put the implementation of Phase II on hold.  Projects such as airspace redesign require an appropriate stakeholder review procedure such as the one which would be created if the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009 is enacted into law.  The Agency must not move forward on airspace redesign until such a procedure is established and utilized.

NATCA participation is critical to the success of any project intending to improve or change existing air traffic control rules, procedures, or technology. NATCA’s members have an intimate understanding of front-line air traffic control and are therefore uniquely qualified to provide insight into the needs of the system as well as the utility and usability of the FAA’s proposed changes.  Additionally, NATCA has the right to bargain on the impact and implementation of these changes to the air traffic control environment.


Frequently Asked Question:

Q: The FAA says it has involved controllers through its human-in-the-loop simulations and through other avenues. How does this differ from NATCA’s request?

A: The controllers who have thus far been invited to participate in these programs are hand selected by the FAA, partially for their pre-articulated support of the FAA’s position.  NATCA representatives, in contrast, will be selected by the union to represent the interests and views of the air traffic controller workforce as a whole.  They will be engaged stakeholders willing to ask challenging questions and provide alternate points of view when necessary.

Recent history has shown the danger of allowing the FAA to hand-pick collaborators and critics.  For example when reviewing the readiness of the Eclipse 500 for certification, the FAA chose to ignore the input of 15 professional engineers and listen only to the one project manager willing to agree the with the position that would allow the FAA to meet it’s pre-set and arbitrary timeline.  As a result, a potentially dangerous aircraft was allowed to be flown, without significant restrictions, in the NAS.


Background on Airspace Redesign: 

In the 1990’s, NATCA and the FAA worked together on a plan for improving the efficiency of the NAS.  Together we identified chokepoints, analyzed weaknesses in the system that contributed to the chokepoints, and developed a multilateral and comprehensive approach to improving the system.  During the Bush Administration, the FAA systematically removed NATCA from all modernization, procedural and technological improvement projects, including airspace redesign.  The FAA then began implementing a piecemeal plan for redesign without NATCA involvement.  Thus far the FAA’s plans have proven unworkable and potentially dangerous.  Phase I, which according to the FAA “did not require large scale changes,” had some serious flaws which added an unnecessary safety risk to the NAS without significantly improving efficiency.  With Phase I serving as a case study, the FAA should cease and desist implementation of Phase II until such time as NATCA has the opportunity to substantively contribute to the design and implementation of the plan.


Case Study -  Phase I: Dispersal Headings:

On December 19, 2007, misguided FAA management unilaterally implemented Phase I of airspace redesign: dispersal headings to be used for aircraft departing out of Philadelphia airport.  While the new headings were intended to improve efficiency, the FAA failed to seek collaboration from air traffic controllers, pilots and other stakeholders and therefore overlooked major pitfalls and consequences of their plan. 

Pitfalls included:

  1. The Elimination of a Margin of Safety - Small misjudgments, pilot error, or imperfect aircraft handling could have disastrous consequences in the new system.  For example, if a pilot landing on runway 27R or 9R has to abort a landing while the dispersal headings are in use, they may be faced with departure traffic coming towards them on the 268 heading. 
  2. An Environment Ripe for Miscommunication - The US Airways ALPA safety chairman, an active airline pilot, wrote: “It is now a practice where a different heading is being assigned as part of the takeoff clearance.  This practice can easily result in confusion as it is a change to the briefed departure heading.  It also occurs during a very busy time in the cockpit and possibly while only one pilot is on the radio.” 
  3. Lack of Published Procedures - The FAA implemented the dispersal before publishing official guidelines for their usage or updating Standard Instrument Departure (SID) charts to include these new headings. This forced controllers to verbally override instructions, requiring pilots to depart using unfamiliar procedures without the benefit of written instructions.
  4. Lack of Training - Neither air traffic controllers at PHL nor pilots have received meaningful training on this change in procedure.  Controllers had been briefed that a particular procedure would be used, and then on the day of implementation the agency changed the procedures and required controllers to “read and initial” the changes on the day of implementation.
  5. Failure to Comprehensively Test Changes - Notably missing from the FAA testing was testing in hot weather conditions.  Aircraft are known to perform sluggishly in hot weather and climb and turn rates often suffer as a result.