ATSAP Clears Up Albuquerque Call Sign Confusion
Friday, March 16, 2012

Editor’s Note: This is the first in what will be a series of articles about success stories from the Air Traffic Safety Action Program (ATSAP). It is a joint article from NATCA and the FAA and being distributed for both NATCA and ATO employee readerships.

Andreas Sanchez (left), Matt Abeyta (middle), and Molly Maxton (right)

The Air Traffic Safety Action Program (ATSAP) worked as intended at Albuquerque ATCT (ABQ), where controllers helped make a risky situation safer before a serious accident occurred.

Through ATSAP reports, which are voluntary and non-punitive, controllers raised awareness of a safety issue with airport-vehicle call signs.

Drivers were assigned call signs based on the city department they worked for, and the numbers also served as their employee identifications. For example, electricians’ call signs all began with 43, so one electrician might be 43-1 and another might be 43-2.

Andreas Sanchez, ABQ facility representative, said because the numbers were based on departments, they could be very similar with two call signs sometimes consisting of the same numbers in a different order.

Controllers realized the numbers needed to be more distinct when they were faced with an incident last year that affected the City of Albuquerque, which operates the airport. Drivers with the call signs 43-2 and 42-3 were both waiting to cross a runway at different intersections. A controller cleared one to cross the runway, and the other started to move. The controller had to stop the driver before he entered the path of a landing airplane. An ATSAP report was filed, and the incident was brought to the attention of city officials.

Bob White, air traffic manager at Albuquerque Tower/TRACON, alerted ABQ airport managers that controllers were aware of the problem. An ATSAP report was filed that highlighted the identified safety risk and the urgent need for the city to make a change.

Previously the city had resisted the change because of the logistics involved in revising the employee ID number system.

Although the city tried to revise the set of numbers several years ago, the adjustment didn’t solve the problem, White said. The city didn’t include FAA representatives in the process and since controllers didn’t see the logic in the new system, it lost momentum and was eventually abandoned, Sanchez said.

This time the approach was different.

White, Sanchez, front line manager Matt Abeyta and controller Molly Maxton, with support from the ATSAP event review committee, held a series of meetings with the appropriate city authorities. They suggested possible fixes, and the city officials tweaked the suggestions to suit the city’s needs.

“The biggest reason for the success is because so many people who could have been affected were sitting there when we had the meetings,” Sanchez said. “Any problem that could have arisen, that person was there and we could resolve it as a group.”

City drivers now use simple numbers without dashes as their call signs, for example, Airfield 1 or Airfield 2 (still using old numbers as their city IDs).

Sanchez said the new system is simple, easy to understand and most importantly, safer.

“It works great,” Sanchez said. “It’s very simple. It's just a standard number like you’ve used your whole life.”

He said there’s no longer a worry that Airfield 42-3 will take a clearance given to Airfield 43-2.

“Now if I say Airfield 12 or Airfield 15, you know exactly who I’m speaking to.”