On Sept. 26, 2014, Chicago Center (ZAU) was evacuated due to a fire set in the basement by a contractor. The fire caused severe damage to communications and other equipment utilized by air traffic controllers to provide separation services in their airspace. With all personnel evacuated to the parking lot, the surrounding facilities had to step in to help clear the airspace of existing traffic and begin figuring out how they would be able to resume traffic into Chicago-O’Hare (ORD), one of the busiest airports in the world.
Contingency plans are not a new idea for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). However, no one had planned for an outage of this magnitude that would last as long as it did.
Immediately after everyone was accounted for, NATCA, FAA management, Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS), and the FAA Safety Team (FAAST) jumped into action to figure out what to do next. With the building unavailable for use to provide services, they had to look for other resources. Looking to surrounding facilities to help bring traffic back into the airspace that ZAU normally worked presented many problems.
The initial response was to utilize underlying Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facilities to bring aircraft into the core airports at a lower altitude than normal. This approach worked well but limited the amount of traffic and also burdened the airlines with extra fuel burn. There needed to be a better plan to restore the flow of traffic to the affected airspace. Eventually, controllers from neighboring centers along with ZAU controllers were able to begin using higher altitudes in the ZAU airspace they had taken control over to allow more efficiency for the airlines.
There are many challenges in divesting airspace to neighboring facilities. Whenever a center goes offline, the hosted TRACONs no longer receive flight data for aircraft taking off or landing. A group has been working closely with second level engineering to come up with ideas on how to overcome this issue. Until an automated solution is figured out, controllers will have to pass flight plans manually and also make manual handoffs. This significantly increases their workload.
Another issue is having frequencies and radar feeds rerouted to the supporting facilities. The FAA has been trying to get ahead of this problem by adding long-range radars to a national network that will allow those feeds to be brought into any facility where they are needed. This process requires that new automation software is added to En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) in all of the neighboring centers. Additionally, Harris Corporation has been installing FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI) racks in each center to allow for additional frequencies to be brought into the building during a contingency event.
After the post-event reviews for the ZAU outage, the FAA created a workgroup to come up with a plan to divest high altitude en route airspace to adjacent centers. The plans were designed very quickly at the FAA Technical Center in Atlantic City, N.J. Once they were completed, a plan was put together to make them viable. A review of all resources available at each center was completed and documented.
After the reviews had been completed, it was determined that a full time directorate would be created to address contingency operations. That resulted in the formation of the ATO Contingency Operations (ATOC) group, which was tasked with ensuring that each major facility has an operational contingency plan (OCP) that is viable given available resources.
Over the past two years, the office has been building off of the work that was done prior to it being created. With permanent staff in place to provide support for these facilities, the work began.
Since then the ATOC group has visited several centers, TRACONs, and towers to gather information on the state of their OCPs. With this information, the group has been able to develop a better format for capturing OCP data and has refined the Automated Contingency Tool (ACT2) database to better house the information that will be necessary to use during an ATC-0 event.
The plans moving forward will have members of the group working directly with each major facility to make improvements to their OCPs to ensure that if they are ever needed, everyone will know what they need to do to restore air traffic services to the affected airspace.