NATCA Participates in Aircraft Diversion Forum
Thursday, December 01, 2011

In the wake of the Oct. 29 winter storm and the events that occurred at Bradley International Airport, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt hosted a forum on Nov. 30 to find better ways to manage aircraft diversions. NATCA President Paul Rinaldi and NATCA Executive Vice President Trish Gilbert joined NATCA controllers and traffic management coordinators, airline pilots, aircraft dispatchers, airport operators, government officials and other members of the aviation community to discuss factors that influence diversion decisions and airport capacity during bad weather situations.

Administrator Babbitt reviewed the events of Oct. 29 and mentioned air traffic controllers had no knowledge as to whether the planes they handled were scheduled or diverted and they guided every airplane to a safe landing that day. Administrator Babbitt discussed several issues that multiplied the impact of the storm that day; the storm moved faster and stronger than expected, navigation equipment experienced malfunctions at several major East Coast airports due to snow buildup, leaving them unable to take diversions. Scheduled upgrades to John F. Kennedy International Airport's (JFK) navigation equipment left it unable to assist with diversions, and lack of communication among airlines resulted in the overload of diverted flights to Bradley Airport.

“If everyone had access to the whole picture, they wouldn’t have continued to send planes to Bradley,” said Administrator Babbitt.

Deputy Administrator Michael Huerta presented five recommendations on how the DOT and FAA could work with the aviation community to improve everyone’s access to the big picture.  The proposal included an FAA facilitated airport information webpage where airport operations and airlines could exchange information, FAA initiated strategic planning teleconferences (SPTs) to exchange information on diverting flights, which would involve smaller airports not usually present, modify the call sign or put diversion information in the remarks section of the data block, coordinate scheduled equipment outages, and development of airport contingency plans.  

The breakout sessions that followed were divided into three groups: airport operations, airline operations and customer experience. Each group discussed the proposed recommendations and generated several ideas including better use of the existing tools, such as Notice to Airmen (NOTAMs) and Air Traffic Control System Command Center hotlines instead of “reinventing the wheel” with the airport information webpage and SPTs.  Another group suggested compiling a list of airports that receive the most diversions and distributing to the aviation community. Community-wide improvement of communication was also a key topic.

“We need to do better and we can do so by following through on all the good recommendations put out today,” said Secretary LaHood.