NATCA Well Represented at Key NextGen Conference
Thursday, April 26, 2012

NATCA was very well represented this week at a key annual NextGen conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Aviation Week magazine. The event is called “NextGen Ahead - Moving NextGen Forward in Tough Times: Quantifying NowGen Benefits for NextGen Advancement.” NATCA had three of its top NextGen and international representatives participate in separate panels that reaffirmed the union’s strong commitment to modernization and cementing a collaborative working relationship with the FAA.

Here is a synopsis of each of the three panels that included NATCA participation:

Training, Culture and Change – How to Make it Happen
Mel Davis (SCT), NATCA National NextGen Representative

Mel Davis

This panel explored how the FAA could change the current culture to enable a full NextGen implementation from gate to gate, and also probed the involvement of the controller and pilot workforces in embracing initiatives towards operational excellence and proper training and equipment.

The most important headline delivered by Davis was his response to a question from the panel’s moderator Steve Fulton, Technical Fellow for GE Aviation of whether the move to NextGen and implementation of more automation in the facilities will mean a decreased need for controllers and probable job losses in the future.

“No,” Davis said emphatically. He reported that the research and development shops for aircraft manufacturers have moved away from a “self-separation scenario” that once was a part of their vision for the future. “Those (ATC) tasks have got to be delegated from someone, and that will continue to be me (the controller).”

“From a jobs perspective, we feel comfortable,” Davis added. “We’ve seen a productivity increase. We are significantly more productive than our counterparts around the world.”

Fellow panelist Capt. David Newton, Sr. Manager, NextGen/Airspace for Southwest Airlines back up Davis's assertion.

“When we automate the cockpit, nobody says, ‘we need fewer pilots.’ But when we talk about automating the air traffic control system, people say, ‘we need fewer controllers.’ I don’t get that.”

Davis led off the panel by affirming NATCA’s commitment to modernization, NextGen and collaboration. Just the fact that Davis was invited to participate, he says, speaks volumes in exemplifying what is most important to controllers in the collaborative process.

“It’s important to us that we’re relevant, providing value and moving the ball forward,” he said.

Davis made a key point when he addressed the description that some have given to NextGen as technology that will decrease controllers’ workload.

“Instead of saying, ‘decreased workload,’ I like to say, ‘increased productivity.”

Optimization of the Airspace and Procedures in the Metroplex (OAPM)
Jim Davis (PCT), NATCA Airspace Representative

Jim Davis

The collaboration between the FAA, NATCA, the pilots and airlines took center stage during this important panel that publicized the great progress made thus far in the OAPM project. The FAA and NATCA have staged many public events in Atlanta, Northern California and Houston, led by Acting Administrator Michael Huerta and the respective local NATCA reps. These events have received significant public and internal attention. The participants of the panel, however, noted that the work behind the scenes is equally rewarding and encouraging. The panel included Dennis Roberts, the FAA’s Director of Airspace Service, Capt. Brian Townsend, Flight Technical Operations for US Airways and NATCA’s Jim Davis, NATCA Airspace Representative.

Davis said the key thus far is that “we really are learning from our mistakes. We are taking the time to learn and correct them.”

Davis praised the collaboration involved. “We’ve been involved from the beginning. How we’ve improved the process has been an incredible transformation. It’s a credit to Dennis to allow us to make changes. It really benefits air traffic controllers. It’s not something we can quantify in a dollar amount saved or in gallons of fuel saved. But it is something we can quantify in repeatable, predictable flight paths. And that’s important when I know where my aircraft will be, for my job of separating them.”

Davis said the culture change occurring in this program is evident and growing.

“When I started my career, I didn’t think about how much fuel was saved as we worked airplanes. Now, we do think about those things. We’re all in this together. Something that is an airline benefit is our benefit too. We’re all partners.”

“It is a culture change, a significant way of controlling traffic,” Townsend added. “Air traffic controllers that are embracing this change are finding that it doesn’t take long to get on board.”

Townsend also gave special recognition to NATCA’s representatives on the project. “The commitment of the Article 48 reps on the team really makes a difference for us.”

Roberts said that the next steps include a study team kickoff in South Florida later this year, and a design and implementation initiative in Southern California.

“Collaboration isn’t easy but it’s very, very valuable,” he said. “We’re working on some very tough issues but through collaboration we have been able to tackle these tough issues. We are collaborating to come up with a much better product in the end.”

Roberts continued by saying “we are on track, on target and on schedule.” To which Davis responded, “When is the last time you heard of an FAA program meeting its target date? We have and that is an important point.”

International Collaboration
Dr. Ruth Stilwell (ZMA), former NATCA EVP (2000-2006); currently the Representative to ICAO for IFATCA (International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers’ Associations)

Ruth Stilwell

The panel focused heavily on international interoperability, with emphasis on such topics as FAA/Eurocontrol coordination on air traffic management procedures and ICAO block upgrade programs and their application in the U.S. and Europe.

Stilwell said global harmonization of air traffic procedures has been a key goal for IFATCA since its founding 50 years ago. Shared borders and interoperability have always existed in air traffic control. In many regions, she said, interoperability means a phone call and manual procedures, but as technology has allowed us to automate those interactions, air traffic controllers have increased productivity around the globe.

“There is no question that new technologies and automation can deliver improvements to how we operate the system,” she said.

Stilwell made the point that the U.S. airspace borders dozens of different ATC service providers. She said our system even interfaces well across borders with countries where the US may not have strong political alliances, like Cuba.

“Maximum efficiency is capped by the efficiency of your neighbors,” Stilwell said. “We have achieved great productivity gains; both air traffic controllers and also through our modernization efforts. We now have automated exchanges with our bordering airspace neighbors. If it’s working, it can free up controllers to separate airplanes.”

If not, Stilwell said, the system then reverts to manual procedures. She added that any controller that has worked during a system outage using backed up systems and procedures has experienced first hand how much a system relies on technology to maintain peak operational efficiency.

Echoing Stilwell’s message was fellow panelist Capt. Don Wykoff, the President of the International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Associations. Wykoff said that if the interoperability of systems is not there, “it’s left to the crew and the controller to figure this thing out.”

Wykoff, speaking for the flight deck side of the intersection between human factors and automation, said, “we should be encouraging hand flying (the aircraft).” He then asked, “What happens if (the automation on board the aircraft) does not work? Can we train for those situations?” Wykoff theorized that perhaps the goal of a fully automated NextGen ATC world – a “100 percent solution to our issues” – is “not attainable,” and suggested that perhaps we “maybe back off a bit from that.”

As we move to a truly global plan for air navigation, Stilwell continued, it’s critical to look at the system as a global network and recognize that each system’s ability to reach peak efficiency is tied to the capacity and stability of its neighbors. In this way, she added, global block upgrades and investing in global harmonization is not an altruistic exercise but rather is in the self-interest of both NextGen and Europe’s SESAR future system.

When asked a question about modernization and procedures, Stilwell focused on the U.S. system as it transitions to NextGen. Stilwell remarked, “Technology will outpace procedures, and that’s OK – a little bit. What we don’t want to do is have this capability but our policies don’t take advantage of it.”

Stilwell used separation standards as an example, questioning the continued usage of established separation standards – particularly in the en route environment – when technology provides at least the start of a discussion to base new standards on something much more modern. The question that needs to be asked, she said, is, “are we getting full advantage of what we have today? We get very comfortable (with no changes to separation standards) but in order to achieve peak efficiency, capacity efficiency and fuel efficiency, maybe we should look at this.”