Collaborative Forum Creates Smoother Path to ERAM
Thursday, February 07, 2013

(NOTE: This article was produced by FAA Communications, with participation from NATCA.)

En Route centers across the nation are making great progress in their transition toward an upgraded automation system, and the collaborative steering committee guiding that transition is a big reason why.

The move to En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM), the platform that will replace the legacy Host computer system and its backup, began at Salt Lake City Center and Seattle Center in 2008. But the FAA briefly paused deployments in 2011 to address software issues with the technology.

“That’s a discussion that really can only be had with the multiple stakeholders in the room,” said Jim Linney, the deputy director of Air Traffic Systems and former ERAM program manager.

In 2011 the ERAM Steering Committee was chartered by the FAA and its NATCA partners within the ERAM Program. Its purpose is to foster collaboration among everyone taking part in the ERAM transition and to help en route centers learn from each other’s experiences with the technology, which processes flight radar data, provides communications and generates display data for air traffic controllers.

The committee includes controllers, site managers, Technical Operations specialists, labor representatives, air traffic management, the Program Management Organization and other key program stakeholders. The members gathered Jan. 10 at FAA headquarters in Washington for their latest all-day session.

“This has been such a high-profile project for the whole agency,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told the ERAM Steering Committee. He said the committee has helped the FAA be both responsible and flexible in implementing ERAM, which will be the new heart of the air traffic control system.

Huerta touted the recent technological momentum at the en route centers. “We have the whole Western U.S. that is operating on ERAM,” he said. Thirteen of the 20 centers in the contiguous United States have achieved initial operating capability, he added, with most of those milestones coming in the last 15 months. Cleveland Center joined the list on Jan. 13.

Huerta attributed the string of successes in part to lessons the ATO has learned from the steering committee, which pulled together key players to get ahead of problems. “At the end of the day, [ERAM is] all about the people, and it has to work for the people,” he said.

As director of Western En Route and Oceanic Operations, Steve Osterdahl has actively managed early ERAM integration and operations. He said the steering committee helps everyone involved see what’s coming, and it gives them a forum to voice concerns and hear about solutions to common problems.

At each committee meeting, officials from various centers outline the steps they have taken to implement ERAM and discuss the challenges they have faced – and have overcome. The most recent meeting in Washington featured reports from these centers: Albuquerque, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Memphis, Minneapolis, New York, Oakland and Washington.

An FAA-NATCA Article 48 collaborative work group facilitates the steering committee, compiles reports about the issues discussed at the meetings, works on the issues in between meetings, and integrates lessons learned into processes and best practices.

“People get action items out of this,” Osterdahl said.

Linney said one action item that emerged in the Jan. 10 meeting is the need to engage front line managers and facility points of contact in addressing issues that surface after ERAM deployment. “We don’t want the dialogue to stop” or operational facilities to think they are on their own, he said.

Osterdahl said the committee had a rocky start because collaboration around ERAM had not existed until then. “Nobody was on board with what was happening.”

But as participants see the process work, they become more optimistic and engaged. “People will change from skeptics to huge advocates in just a few meetings,” Osterdahl said.

NATCA Southern Regional Vice President Victor Santore said the decision to bring labor and management together has quickened the rollout of ERAM technology.

“You needed air traffic controllers’ eyes on this because they’re the end users,” he said.

At a break in the recent session, Santore said that while the conversation can be repetitive at times, the repetition helps the stakeholders discover new problems and then find fixes for them. “This just allows people to go back to their facilities with the right understanding,” he said.

ATO Deputy Chief Operating Officer Teri Bristol observed part of the meeting at headquarters. “Thank you for your focus and dedication,” she told the steering committee members. “This program is so foundational to everything we’re doing in the agency.”