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Latest FAA Technical Glitch Shows Folly of Agency Refusing Collaboration with Controllers - (3/10/2009)

CONTACTS:  Scott Conde, NATCA Oakland Center Facility Representative, 510-673-0237

FREMONT, Calif. – The latest in a long line of technical glitches on one of the cornerstones of the Federal Aviation Administration’s “NextGen” project – the modernization of air traffic control procedures for aircraft flying over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – recently put flight plans for two aircraft in conflict with one another. The episode highlighted again the reckless mistake of the agency moving forward on modernization without collaborating with the air traffic controllers actually using the new equipment and procedures.

The FAA on Feb. 25 installed an upgrade to its ATOP system (Advanced Technologies and Oceanic Procedures) at the Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Center, which controls millions of square miles of airspace over the Pacific Ocean. As with all of its upgrades, there was no notification given by the FAA to NATCA.

ATOP is an automated system where the computer checks any proposed clearance of an aircraft to enter an Oakland Center oceanic controller’s airspace to ensure that it is clear of potential conflicts with other aircraft.

During the March 1 midnight shift, one of Oakland Center’s dwindling number of experienced controllers noticed a problem. The machine was telling him that it was safe to issue a clearance to an aircraft that he suspected would have put it in conflict with another aircraft. Drawing on his experience, he examined the situation further without issuing the clearance. He confirmed that the system was faulty and did not issue the clearance.

The controller notified local FAA management of the problem and, typical of FAA management, the local official took no formal action to address it. The response from management was as startling as it was useless: they advised controllers to be "extra careful.”

“This incident calls to light the failure in the NextGen System and highlights both the need for the agency to work with controllers when implementing new technology and the urgency to retain experienced controllers to catch this type of error,” said NATCA Oakland Center Facility Representative Scott Conde. “We are calling on the agency to initiate immediate negotiations to establish a national catastrophic failure plan for ATOP. The FAA claims that there is no way to know how many planes came too close together over the four-day period after its upgrade install and this is a big problem for the flying public that travels over the ocean and relies on us to keep them safe.”

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