FAA-NATCA Collaboration

Divided We Fall

Examining the Crucial Need to Revive FAA-NATCA Collaboration

ISSUE: Over the past year, the FAA has actively transitioned away from a successful, collaborative partnership the Agency had with controllers and has instead acted to exclude air traffic controllers from participating in technology and safety programs.  This past June, the Agency unilaterally ended a program of controller input that had been credited for a host of important innovations, from the en route modernization program to runway safety technology like Airport Surface Detection Equipment.  The FAA’s decision to terminate the liaison program occurred despite the fact that the program had routinely demonstrated success and had been commended by FAA management officials.


The National Air Traffic Controllers Association believes that a collaborative relationship between America’s air traffic controllers and the FAA is imperative in the development and implementation of safety and technology programs for the National Airspace System.  The Agency’s unilateral decision to end controller input into safety and technology programs is just the latest attack on the previously productive partnership between air traffic controllers and the FAA. 


Air traffic controllers know the aviation system best: its strengths, weaknesses and the steps that need to be taken to improve safety. But in recent years the FAA has established a disturbing pattern: while FAA officials publicly state the desire for controllers input and cooperation, they consistently shun controller input and counsel. 

Recently the FAA celebrated the six-month anniversary for the beginning of service of  Domestic Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (DVRSM), which was made possible by the partnership the FAA had with the air traffic controllers.  ASDE-X (Airport Surface Detection Equipment – Model X) was a modernization project the air traffic controllers brought to the FAA, which is a key instrument in mitigating runway incursions according to the NTSB.  Recently, Russ Chew praised the collaborative efforts of the air traffic controllers, technicians, union and management that worked together successfully implementing ATOP (Advanced Technologies and Oceanic Procedures) at New York Center.  DVRSM, ASDE-X and ATOP are just a few of the many examples of how important it is to have collaboration between the FAA and the air traffic controllers. 


GAO - In a June 2005 report, the General Accounting Office criticized the FAA for not involving air traffic controllers in the deployment of important new systems. In “National Airspace System: FAA Has Made Progress But Continues to Face Challenges in Acquiring Major Air Traffic Control Systems” the GAO concluded that the FAA’s refusal to work with air traffic controllers on the approval and development process for system acquisition “contributed to the inability of four of the 16 major system acquisitions to meet their cost, schedule, and/or performance targets.” The report found that the FAA had failed to sufficiently involve air traffic controllers in the deployment of the Local Area Augmentation System (LAAS), a system that helps aircraft on the final phases of flight. It also found that the agency was responsible for failures to include air traffic controllers on the implementation of the STARS system, a much-needed technology to help manage terminal area airspace. Finally, the report also noted failures in the deployment of WAAS, an important system that would have brought the advantage of GPS to air traffic control.

In the same June 2005 report, the GAO repeated its call for greater involvement of air traffic controllers, saying “As we reported in November 2004, FAA needs to take additional steps to ensure the continued and active involvement of the stakeholders in certifying new ATC system acquisitions….Given the importance of stakeholder involvement in the development and deployment of new ATC systems, their continued involvement in ATC modernization efforts will be important to help avoid the types of problems that led to cost growth and delays for STARS.”

According to the FAA itself, the agency’s failure to involve controllers and maintenance technicians prior to the deployment of STARS delayed the system’s deployment five years and increased the cost to the taxpayer by $500 million. Because of the agency’s refusal to listen to air traffic controllers, STARS will only been deployed at 47 of the 172 facilities originally planned. As the GAO says in the latest report the “FAA had compressed the original development and testing schedule from 32 to 25 months, leaving only limited time for human factors evaluations. Allowing insufficient time to involve stakeholders, FAA and the contractor had to restructure the contract to address technicians’ and controllers’ concerns, including an inconsistency in visual warning alarms and color codes between the old and new systems.” 

According to the GAO report, the FAA’s failure to enlist the technical expertise of air traffic controllers cost taxpayers billions of dollars deploying the WAAS system – a GPS-based navigation and landing system providing precision guidance to aircraft in all phases of flight.The agency’s actions resulted in unplanned work and contributed to the rise in WAAS’ cost from the original estimate of $509 million in 1994 to $2.036 billion in 2005, and a six-year extension in its commissioning date.

Liaisons - On June 28, 2005, the FAA unexpectedly and summarily abolished a vital program designed to ensure better safety in the skies. Announcing its intention to shut down the program through a terse 79-word fax, the agency sent home the remaining nine controllers from an original group of 30 who had been working on important safety and technical projects. The group had been responsible for a host of important innovations, from the en route modernization program to runway safety technology like Airport Surface Detection Equipment. Even FAA management officials agree that the program was working, previously describing it as “an integral part in getting many projects deployed” and “an asset to the program.”  Since the FAA chose to eliminate a very important partnership (liaisons) the chance of successfully implementing new equipment within cost and time schedules will most assuredly be impaired.

Staffing - Controllers are bearing the brunt of a serious staffing crisis and have been begging the FAA to listen to their concerns. But in December 2004, the FAA released its long awaited staffing report, “A Plan for the Future: The Federal Aviation Administration’s 10-year Strategy for the Air Traffic Control Workforce,” without involving NATCA or allowing it to see the report before it was publicly released. Despite the long effort and expended resources, the earlier study came to the same conclusion as the NATCA and GAO reports on the topic.