NATCA President Paul Rinaldi testimony before the House Aviation Subcommittee on “FAA Reauthorization”
House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee
Subcommittee on Aviation
Wednesday, February 9th, 2011
Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization: Stakeholders
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) is the exclusive representative of over 15,500 air traffic controllers and Alaska Flight Service Specialists serving the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Department of Defense and the private sector. In addition, NATCA represents approximately 1,200 FAA engineers, 600 traffic management coordinators, 1,600 aircraft certification professionals, agency operational support staff, regional personnel from FAA’s logistics, budget, finance, and computer specialist divisions, as well as agency occupational health specialists, nurses, and medical program specialists.
As the working men and women who make up our nation’s air traffic control system, we dedicate ourselves to furthering the public’s interest in preserving, promoting and improving safe and efficient air transportation. Our dedication is evident in our long history of supporting new technology and modernization and the enhancement of our nation’s air traffic control (ATC) system.
Controllers and other aviation safety professionals who work with the technology every day have a vested interest in implementing improvements to the air traffic control system that enable us to better meet the highest safety standards. Through collaboration with the FAA, NATCA is working to ensure that the National Airspace System (NAS) is prepared to meet the growing demand for aviation services.
NATCA is here today to discuss the importance of the expected 2011 Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization bill and provide insight and commentary regarding language and provisions that we believe should be included in the 2011 FAA Reauthorization Act.
NATCA’s priorities for the 2011 FAA Reauthorization bill are the following: First, official collaboration between the FAA and NATCA should be mandated by law. The guaranteed inclusion of NATCA’s subject matter expertise would ensure that safety and efficiency are maximized while modernizing our National Airspace System. This will positively impact NextGen programs including the consolidation and realignment of facilities and services. Second, the FAA Reauthorization bill must include language establishing a fair dispute resolution process that enables the FAA and the aviation safety professionals that it employs to resolve negotiation disputes in a way that is fair and legitimate without imposing undue burdens on Congress.
Importance of a Comprehensive FAA Reauthorization Bill
NATCA would like to thank Chairman Mica for his commitment to passing a comprehensive FAA Reauthorization bill before the current extension expires on March 31. During the past three years, the FAA has been forced to operate under a series of seventeen short-term and inherently uncertain funding extensions. A full, comprehensive reauthorization bill is essential to continue forward with critical safety, infrastructure and technology investments. Since September 2007 when the last authorization ended, NATCA has been working closely with the House and Senate – as well as with other aviation industry groups – to pass a comprehensive bill, and is hopeful that one will be enacted in the immediate future.
At its core, the FAA Reauthorization bill is about maintaining safe skies. Passage of the bill must ensure proper funding that will protect the stability of the NAS as well as provide for the professional aviation workforce that maintains it. In addition, the bill must promote a fiscally responsible roadmap to modernizations by institutionalizing stakeholder involvement in the modernization of the air traffic control system. A well-funded, efficient and safe aviation system is critical to our national economy and to the hundreds of thousands who work in this industry.
Modernization and NextGen
The relationship between the FAA and NATCA has entered into a new phase since 2009 when both parties reached an agreement on a new contract. Ratification of the 2009 contract ended three years of imposed work rules that led to unprecedented attrition rates and the negative consequences associated with a large-scale loss of experienced workers. One of the many beneficial by-products of improved labor relations is the significant increase in NATCA’s inclusion in modernization projects. NATCA’s controllers have been providing essential input into the research, development, testing, and implementation stages of NextGen modernization projects. This process relies on current, certified and proficient controllers who provide unique insight into both the needs of the air traffic control system and the functionality of modernizations.
This pre-decisional input in projects helps the FAA ensure safety and it saves both time and money. According to the waterfall model, resolving problems early in a project saves time and prevents increased costs later in the development of the project. In the life of a complex program, there are a number of steps between inception and full implementation. In earlier steps, the relative cost of fixing problems is less when done at an earlier step than in later steps. For example, waiting until the last step to resolve a problem will cost as much as 30 times more than fixing it in the first step. Thus the later a problem is identified, the higher the production costs, and the greater the possibility for delayed product launch, or poor product quality.
As the end-users of modernization technology, controllers are well situated to participate early in a project. They have unique insight into both the needs of the system and the functionality of the proposed changes, as well as the ability to identify flaws and make suggestions in development, particularly in the beginning stages.
This testimony will report on several examples of successful collaboration between NATCA and the FAA, as well as projects where lack of controller involvement has led to cost overruns or delays. For example, in the En Route Automation Modernization project (ERAM), NATCA was not involved from the beginning stages, resulting in cost overruns. Current NATCA engagement is helping put ERAM back on track. NATCA is also participating in the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) National Team, which is assisting in an eventual rollout of ADS-B, technology critical for the realization of NextGen. The agency and NATCA are also collaborating on improving training for newly hired controllers and recurrent training for our certified workforce.
ERAM: Last year, NATCA representatives joined the FAA to work on the testing, training and deployment of the En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) project, an FAA program designed to allow faster processing of en route requests and in flight route changes. The ERAM system will replace the Host system, which is the mainframe computer processor that provides data to display terminals. Unlike Host, ERAM is a network of computers that will be able to handle a significantly larger volume of data and provide more seamless backup. This switch is critical to the success of many NextGen capabilities.
Early involvement from the front line workforce not only keeps the system safe by ensuring equipment is ready and reliable, but will also save the American taxpayer money. In April 2010, Calvin L. Scovel III, Department of Transportation Inspector General, testified to Congress that more than 200 problems with ERAM were costing taxpayers $14 million a month to fix. Delays in the $2.1 billion project could have a “cascading effect” that could delay progress on other modernization efforts. Since October of 2009, controllers have become fully engaged and are working aggressively to assist the FAA in fixing those problems, robustly testing the software, training the workforce and improving the lines of communication within the Agency to ensure that issues are shared daily and addressed efficiently and effectively. Controller involvement is helping get this important program back on track as well as ensuring that costly problems are discovered and addressed as early as possible.
ADS-B: NATCA is also collaborating with the FAA to facilitate the eventual implementation of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), which is technology that provides better surveillance of aircraft. It also has capabilities to allow aircraft to see each other’s precise flight information. Once ADS-B is implemented, the government will see cost savings thanks to a reduced need for radar systems. Airspace safety will also be enhanced by a reduction in areas that lack radar coverage. Since August of 2010, NATCA has been a contributing member of the ADS-B National Team, working to establish procedures and training to ensure a smooth rollout of ADS-B implementation beginning in 2013. NATCA has also been involved in the ADS-B Rulemaking Committee (ARC), a group made up of industry and government officials to establish equipage and procedural regulations. NATCA’s input has been essential for a 2013 rollout.
Training: Between 2005 and 2009 the FAA hired more than 5,000 controllers to replace those who had retired. As a result, training has become a very high priority to ensure the continued safety of the air traffic system. In April 2010, a DOT OIG report found several impediments to successful screening, placement, and initial training of newly hired trainees. One issue is that the FAA screening does not sufficiently evaluate aptitude in its screening tests. In an effort to improve screening, NATCA has been working with the Office of the ATO Vice President of Training on the Air Traffic Selection and Training (AT-SAT) initiative to develop a better method for evaluating candidates’ aptitude. This initiative will improve the placement process for newly hired controllers by placing them at facilities appropriate for their aptitude, which will result in reduced training time to a fully certified air traffic controller.
NATCA has also been supportive in redesigning the Oklahoma City training curriculum with a stronger focus on basic air traffic control fundamentals and emphasis on knowledge-retention. NATCA is also working with the FAA on training initiatives such as the Tower Simulation System (TSS) and SimFast. SimFast is a new training aid for radar facilities that did not have the ability to provide simulation for their training in the operational area. SimFast should vastly reduce the training period for newly hired air traffic controllers. Also, as suggested by the 2010 report, NATCA and the FAA are working on re-designing the en route training at the Oklahoma City Academy. NATCA’s participation is resulting in faster than normal deployment.
STARS: The impact of a lack of pre-decisional involvement can be seen in the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) project. In 2004, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report criticized the development and implementation of STARS because of the lack of front-end collaboration which contributed to the system being delayed by three years with a cost increase of $500 million.
As custodians of aviation safety, we ask that this committee heed the lesson from these projects and codify into law a process that includes NATCA subject matter experts at the inception of any modernization project to ensure delivery of superior products that are on-time and on-budget. As the primary users of the ATC system, NATCA’s members are uniquely positioned to recognize the needs and shortcomings of the current and future systems.
Modernization and NextGen: Airspace
NATCA and the FAA are working together on several projects aimed at improving efficiencies via airspace redesign and procedures.
Metroplex: The 2009 RTCA Task Force 5 Report addressed the need to improve the efficiency of metroplexes, areas in which multiple airports are located within a small geographic area. The recommendation specifically addressed deconflicting airports and otherwise improving efficiency into, out of, and through metroplexes. Deconflicting involves ensuring that traffic flowing into and out of major traffic areas does not share a common route (e.g. High traffic volume out of Dulles International may cause delays at National Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Airport. If the routes are deconflicted, National and Baltimore would not be affected by Dulles traffic). The FAA’s response to this recommendation has been to implement a program that will eventually study 21 metroplexes identified as having the greatest potential for improvement. The first study teams with NATCA representatives began with Washington, D.C. and Dallas/Fort Worth, identifying factors that inhibit metroplex efficiency and conducting comprehensive research to determine how to improve the flow of aircraft to and from the airports in each metroplex. At this time, initial work has been completed on D.C. and Dallas, and work has just begun in Charlotte, N.C. The two study teams reported in November 2010 a potential savings of $40 million annually for D.C. and Dallas if implemented.
This comprehensive approach to airspace redesign is the most effective way to address metroplex efficiency. NATCA and the FAA are in agreement that the current route structure is outdated and in need of redesign. Many of the existing routes were designed for aircraft that left the fleet 15 years ago and had higher fuel flow and navigational systems less likely to keep the aircraft on course. Today’s aircraft operate differently, providing enhanced performance with less fuel usage, allowing aircraft to climb at better rates. Routes must be optimized in order to accommodate the current fleet and allow the FAA to maintain capacity while finding significant reductions in fuel and noise. The last effort to redesign airspace, which did not significantly engage NATCA’s controllers, was focused on individual airports, with each retaining its own funding restricted to that airport. NATCA recognizes that such an approach limited innovation and pushed problems into other airspace instead of resolving them comprehensively – because airspace is interconnected, redesigning an entire metroplex will address multiple factors at once.
NY/NJ/PHL: The FAA and NATCA are also working together on the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia Metropolitan Area Airspace Project, which was initiated to increase the efficiency and reliability of the airspace structure and to reduce delays while increasing safety. The FAA estimates that the redesign will result in over $300 million in savings and a 20 percent reduction in delays within the NY/NJ/PHL metropolitan areas. As of spring 2010, implementation of the airspace redesign had been delayed, but with collaboration in October and November 2010, representatives from the three facilities met to review, assess and refine the design for the airspace redesign efforts to improve efficiency, providing recommendations to get the project back on track. The FAA lead on the workgroup, Robert Novia, thanked them, stating “In keeping with the Art[icle] 48 agreement… the team reviewed, assessed and successfully refined Stage 2A. We now have a product that is feasible given today’s operational environment… The successful outcome is an important milestone for our new collaborative process.”
Collaborative Decision Making Process: This is a formalized structure that allows representatives from the FAA and NATCA to work together to solve technological, procedural, and airspace issues at the local, regional, and national level. There is a shared belief that in order to create a sustainable relationship and affect positive change, both parties need to assemble leaders at all levels as well as incorporate an operational perspective on issues from employees at every level. The development of the Process exists under the oversight umbrella of the Collaborative Steering Committee, which consists of senior leadership from both parties. More specific responsibility rests with the Collaborative Work Group, which is responsible for enabling efforts at the facility level to resolve such issues. Decisions made at the facility level create viable products, shorten delivery time and reduce the need for costly late-stage refinement or retro-fitting. Ultimately, this process will result in more effective, more efficient changes in the system that will yield tangible benefits for all stakeholders.
Both the FAA and NATCA are encouraged by early results of this process. At Boston’s Logan Tower, NATCA and management representatives worked with their counterparts at Boston Consolidated TRACON (A90) to write a new letter of agreement (LOA) addressing how to handle new Area Navigation (RNAV) departure procedures. In a joint FAA-NATCA statement for FAA employees in December 2010, the FAA management representative commented that with controller participation in the process, they were creating better products in a shorter period of time than usually required to reach such an agreement.
Realignment of Facilities and Services
NATCA and the FAA have been working together to identify instances where realignment is the best option for increasing the safety and efficiency of our NAS. In these cases, consideration must be given to two issues: First, the realignment project must be initiated for the right reasons, which is to say that they may be implemented only when such changes enhance operational services, provide continued or improved safety, support and facilitate modernization of the NAS, are cost effective, and address and mitigate the impact on stakeholders. Second, the changes must be implemented appropriately and in a way that minimizes risk to the NAS and negative impact on the workforce.
Realignment: As noted in the DOT IG’s June 2010 report, the FAA’s decision-making process for determining where and when to realign air traffic control facilities was “flawed.” The report also called into question agency cost estimates, stating that, “while FAA understated costs to relocate the TRACON, FAA overstated investment costs to keep the TRACON at Boise.” In addition, the report found that “approximately $7.4 billion (or 89 percent) of FAA projected investment costs for keeping the TRACON in Boise, Idaho, were questionable.”
NATCA’s position has consistently been that a comprehensive and inclusive review process is a prerequisite for ATC facility and service realignments. The IG’s findings made it clear that a new process was needed to properly review plans to realign our air traffic control infrastructure. That process is now in place with NATCA and the FAA working jointly to transform our ATC infrastructure and provide modern facilities that will accommodate the capabilities of NextGen. In 2010, the Collaborative Working Group facilitated the consolidation of the radar facility in Rome, N.Y. to Syracuse, N.Y. The Group also worked to incorporate the Reno, Nev. TRACON airspace into the Northern California TRACON.
Fair Dispute Resolution Process
NATCA’s highest priority is seeing fair dispute resolution process language included in the 2011 FAA Reauthorization bill. NATCA and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle acknowledge the importance of having language that creates a fair process. Such a process will allow both sides to maintain confidence in the legitimacy of the outcome. A fair process allows controllers to have ownership and commitment to progress and solutions. NATCA supported the language and provisions of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009 that addressed the FAA Personnel Management System. That language instructs that if the parties are unable to reach agreement on their own, they will employ mediation and then, if necessary, binding arbitration. That language garnered bi-partisan support in the 111th Congress, passing 277 to 136 in the House, and passing unanimously in the Senate, with a vote of 93 to zero.
A fair dispute resolution process is critical to the stability of the aviation safety workforce and such a process must be codified in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2011 to ensure that our current collaboration and safety-culture continues unhindered by labor disputes. If the parties cannot reach agreement on their own, any assistance should be provided by trained labor professionals so that both the FAA and NATCA are confident that a binding arbitration decision, even if it does not contain exactly what either party hoped for, has been fairly reached.
NATCA, the FAA, and the aviation community in general have learned vital lessons about the importance of a contract that is regarded as valid by both parties. A flawed dispute resolution process allowed work rules to be unilaterally imposed on the air traffic controller workforce from 2006 until 2009, leading to numerous problems. This situation directly contributed to unprecedented attrition, which led to understaffing and fatigue issues that threatened the safety of the national airspace system. Fatigue is a serious health and safety issue identified by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Inspector General (IG), GAO, and others. The attrition also led to a loss of experience and expertise that has yet to be reversed as high numbers of trainees are still in the process of becoming fully certified professional controllers. This situation also poses a safety risk. A Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI) study found that those with less than five years of experience after fully certification are more prone to operational errors (OE). Fatigue has been similarly linked to errors. NATCA and the FAA have moved forward together to rebuild their relationship, to mend the damage, and begin to make progress on shared goals of increasing safety and efficiency, as well as modernization of the system while reducing costs.
Good relations between the FAA and its employees help to ensure the stability of the controller workforce and that NATCA remains an integral part of NextGen development and implementation. More importantly for this panel, however, is that the adoption of a fair dispute resolution provision will ensure that future contract disputes remain at the FAA rather than being dragged into the halls of Congress. As we saw in 2006, asking Congress to serve as the arbiters of the process was a burden on a Congress with countless other responsibilities and duties. It is unreasonable to expect members to spend time and energy resolving these disputes, particularly when a successful impartial dispute resolution process is preferred by everyone involved.
In closing, NATCA supports the swift passage of a comprehensive FAA Reauthorization bill that will help our frontline workforce make the world’s safest skies even safer. The timely delivery of essential NextGen modernizations is a top priority.
NATCA strongly supports language that addresses a fair dispute resolution process for the FAA. This process is essential to guarantee that the FAA and NATCA continue to work together toward mutually shared goals in an atmosphere of collaboration.
NATCA strongly supports including language that addresses the collaboration between the FAA and NATCA. The guaranteed inclusion of NATCA’s subject matter expertise would ensure that safety and efficiency are maximized while modernizing our National Airspace System. This collaboration will positively impact NextGen programs and the consolidation and realignment of facilities and services.
Mr. Chairman, thank you again for the opportunity to testify and I look forward to answering any questions the committee members may have.