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Rushed FAA Test of Nextgen Computer System Unsuccessful; NATCA Wants to Help Make it Work but Agency Continues to Shut Door - (10/7/2009)


CONTACTS: Doug Pincock, NATCA Salt Lake Center Facility Representative, 801-971-4078; Doug Church, NATCA National Office, 301-346-8245

SALT LAKE CITY – The Federal Aviation Administration early last Saturday morning rushed another key test of a problem-plagued and oft-delayed new computer system for the nation’s large, regional air traffic control facilities with the goal of keeping it on indefinitely at Salt Lake Center, but got a predictable and disappointing result: the system held its own during light traffic on the overnight shift and then failed when traffic volume picked up later in the morning. Only the controllers’ hard work and resourcefulness averted bigger problems, but not before the FAA’s lack of training for them on both the primary and backup computer systems became disturbingly clear.

Called En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM), the system brings with it the hope of greater flexibility, a better system for controllers and the arrival of a new “brain” for the National Airspace System that will form a cornerstone of the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System. But numerous serious bugs and related problems are the reason that ERAM currently remains without the confidence of controllers tasked with using it.

When ERAM eventually failed on Saturday morning, the backup system that kicked in caused serious problems of its own. Controllers witnessed the very serious loss of information about the aircraft they were handling on their radar scopes, forcing them to ask aircraft, basically, “who are you and where are you going?” The effect of this loss of information was felt at every FAA terminal radar facility that handles flights within the larger “umbrella” of Salt Lake Center’s airspace, which extends from the Canadian border south to almost the Arizona border, east into central Wyoming and west into central Nevada.

Additionally, the computer problems caused some flight delays. Salt Lake Center had controllers at Salt Lake TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) stop all departures that would have needed to be worked by Salt Lake Center when they reached higher altitudes, incurring about two dozen delays from Salt Lake City International Airport. And each of the five regional en route centers that border Salt Lake Center felt the effect and were given restrictions that forced them to move aircraft off of their filed route of flight. For example, this included flights headed west into both Las Vegas and Los Angeles (LAX), as worked by Denver Center.

All of these problems could have been averted – and still can be before the next test – if the FAA had included NATCA in this process and worked with the union to formulate a plan for training and contingencies. But that has not yet happened, despite the fact that Saturday’s test came just 48 hours after the start of a new contract with NATCA which the FAA has correctly hailed as a new, positive chapter in its relationship with controllers.

“The FAA has been stubbornly unwilling to collaborate with NATCA in this project’s development. And now, the FAA is finding out it is unable to successfully test and deploy this critical new computer system without the involvement of NATCA,” said NATCA Northwest Mountain Regional Vice President Jim Ullmann. “They have rushed forward to meet artificial deadlines without being fully ready for this challenge. NATCA stands ready, willing and able, as always, to help implement this system safely and effectively. All the FAA has to do is allow that to happen. We demand modernization that works and is safe.”

NATCA is asking the FAA to stop any further testing of ERAM on live traffic until both parties can reach an agreement on how to formally collaborate on this project with one another and gain the critical involvement and confidence of the controllers responsible for using this system to ensure the safety of the flying public.

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