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As Memphis Controllers Protest FAA Split Facility Plan, NATCA Fights for Safety on Capital Hill, Urging Passage of FAA Bill - (5/13/2009)

CONTACT:  Doug Church, 301-346-8245

WASHINGTON – At the same time as air traffic controllers picketed Wednesday afternoon outside the terminal at Memphis International Airport to protest the FAA’s rushed and flawed decision to split radar operations from the tower next month, NATCA President Patrick Forrey told the Senate Aviation Subcommittee that an FAA Reauthorization bill is urgently needed to establish a process for reviewing such realignments of FAA facilities and create a collaborative relationship between the FAA and NATCA to work on these types of important safety issues.

The FAA, testified Forrey, is “moving forward on ad hoc air traffic control facility and service realignment efforts without a comprehensive review procedure to determine whether the realignment provides an operational benefit to users, increases safety and efficiency, and/or saves the taxpayer money. FAA Reauthorization is needed to provide that review procedure and compel the Agency to subject all current realignment efforts to this needed layer of oversight, accountability and transparency. Just as with technological development, realignment efforts completed in a collaborative environment will ensure benefits are realized rather than squandered.”

Forrey made it clear that NATCA remains completely committed to the safety and efficiency of the NAS and recognizes technology has the potential to improve safety, expand capacity, and increase efficiency. Therefore, he said, NATCA supports the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). But, he added, “NATCA believes that the ultimate success of NextGen is dependent upon collaboration between the union and the FAA. Currently, the FAA is prohibiting any meaningful level of collaboration with NATCA, allowing key NextGen modernization projects, airspace redesign and changes to air traffic control procedures to move forward despite serious outstanding flaws and unmitigated safety risks. The Department of Transportation Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office have both testified before Congress that stakeholder involvement prevents cost overruns and prevents project delays.”

As an example, Forrey cited the FAA’s troubled ERAM (En Route Automation Modernization) program. ERAM is the replacement of the Host computer system that is the backbone of the regional en route centers and their ability to communicate not only with aircraft but with surrounding FAA facilities. The essence of safe, efficient air traffic control is the smooth transfer of the control of flights as they move to their destinations. However, said Forrey, while NATCA supports ERAM as a good concept and necessary for the future of air traffic control, the FAA has proceeded thus far without NATCA involvement and, thus, has encountered problems and NATCA “confidence is low in the product in its current state.”

“ERAM testing has yielded more than 40,000 problem reports, over 100 of which are considered to be Initial Operating Capability (IOC) critical, meaning they must be resolved prior to deploying the system for use with live traffic,” Forrey said. “Earlier this year, officials on the ERAM team disclosed that ERAM had yet to remain stable and functional for a full 24 hours of continuous operational testing, and when it was field tested earlier this month, the test failed miserably. Additionally, air traffic controllers have come across significant problems with the human interface of ERAM as they found the new formats cumbersome, confusing, and difficult to navigate.

“NATCA is very concerned about the risk to the NAS if ERAM is implemented before these problems are comprehensively addressed. Short-term, piecemeal fixes or workarounds are unacceptable. ERAM must be deployed only when the technology is stable and fully functional because failure of ERAM, particularly during peak traffic hours, would create extreme confusion and put the safety of the flying public at risk.”

To read Forrey’s full written testimony, please click here.

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