WeGuideYouHomeLogo2

Congressional Testimony

Testimony of Patrick Forrey, President, National Air Traffic Controllers Association - FAA Reauthorization Act 2009 - (2/11/2009)

Introduction

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) is the exclusive representative of over 14,000 air traffic controllers 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, 500 aircraft certification professionals, agency operational support staff, regional personnel from FAA’s logistics, budget, finance, and computer specialist divisions, and agency occupational health specialists, nurses, and medical program specialists. NATCA’s mission is to preserve, promote, and improve the safety of air travel within the United States, and to serve as an advocate for air traffic controllers and other aviation safety professionals. NATCA has a long history of supporting new aviation technology, modernizing and enhancing our nation’s air traffic control system, and working to ensure that we are prepared to meet the growing demand for aviation services.

NATCA’s Recommendations for FAA Reauthorization

  1. Collective Bargaining: NATCA fully supports and endorses the provisions of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009, addressing the Federal Aviation Administration Personnel Management System. This section nullifies the imposed work rules (IWRs) and orders the FAA to return to the bargaining table to reach a mutually agreeable contract with NATCA. In order to prevent future disputes, the bill amends Title 49 to allow for, in the event of a bargaining impasse, the proposals to go through mediation and ultimately, binding arbitration.

  2. Realignment of Facilities and Services: NATCA supports the inclusion of comprehensive language in FAA Reauthorization that would ensure that all FAA realignment initiatives are considered in a collaborative environment and provide a specific operational benefit. NATCA supports the establishment of a workgroup of stakeholders, included in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009. This group must review all realignment proposals prior to the FAA beginning the realignment process and must include representatives of all of the affected bargaining units. Additionally, NATCA recommends that realignment be clearly defined.

  3. Staffing: NATCA fully supports and endorses the FAA Air Traffic Controller Staffing provision within the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009, which authorizes a scientific study of the system’s needed level for air traffic controller staffing to be conducted by an objective third party. This language would allow the FAA, Congress, and NATCA to truly assess the current risk to the National Airspace System (NAS) and set benchmarks for resolving the staffing crisis.

  4. Modernization: NATCA supports the funding levels set aside in the FAA Reauthorization of 2009 to modernize the air traffic control system. The NextGen modernization project’s start was less than expected, as the plan lacked clearly defined goals, leadership, and had begun without including stakeholders in the process. NextGen’s success is highly dependent upon a cooperative environment for the development and implementation of new and pre-existing technology.

  5. Maintenance of Air Traffic Control (ATC) Infrastructure: It is imperative that the funding of NextGen does not come at the expense of the NowGen. During the previous administration, the FAA allowed existing facilities to fall into disrepair while focusing all its energy and budget on NextGen projects. While NATCA supports the modernization of the system, we also insist upon the maintenance of the system. FAA facilities and ATC infrastructure must be maintained in a manner that ensures the safety and security of FAA personnel and allows aviation safety professionals the tools they need to do their jobs to the high standard of excellence we expect and depend on.

The State of the Air Traffic Control Workforce

NATCA and the FAA began contract negotiations in July 2005 over a successor agreement to the 2003 extension to the parties' 1998 collective bargaining agreement. The FAA unilaterally declared an impasse after only nine months of negotiations. In June of 2006, the FAA announced its unilateral imposition of work and pay rules on the air traffic controller workforce, which it ultimately implemented in September 2006. This action not only violated the FAA's legal obligation to bargain in good faith, but it also violated fundamental principles of fairness. This action, in effect, eliminated collective bargaining rights for FAA employees.

The effects of the imposed work rules have been devastating, not only to the working lives of controllers, but to the safety and integrity of the National Airspace System. Prior to the imposed work rules, NATCA officials warned that imposing work rules would result in a mass exodus of controllers from the FAA workforce and would result in dangerously low staffing levels. NATCA’s predictions have proven accurate.

In the two fiscal years following the imposed work rules, 2,626 air traffic controllers left the FAA workforce through attrition. This excludes the estimated 730 controllers who left the workforce through promotions or transfers. Of those that left due to attrition, less than two percent had reached the mandatory retirement age of 56. Ninety-eight percent left the FAA before mandatory retirement.

The FAA now insists that this exodus had been long anticipated and that it was the result of nothing more than an increase in retirement eligibility. This, however, is not the case. In FY2008 there were 947 retirements and 442 resignations, removals, and deaths. Three months prior to the implementation of the IWRs, the FAA predicted there would be 645 retirements and 84 resignations, removals, and deaths in FY2008, approximately half of the actual attrition level.

As NATCA has previously testified, the gap between the FAA’s prediction and the actual attrition can be attributed directly to the IWRs and the adverse work environment that those rules created. These rules removed career advancement opportunities, established new pay bands that decreased controller wages by an average of 30 percent, reduced the availability and duration of rest periods, instituted unpopular changes to the annual leave policy, and created an adverse work environment without a viable process to appeal or address managerial abuse of authority.

Veteran controllers who are eligible to retire have, because of the new pay bands, already worked their three highest salary years that will determine their pensions. Combined with the deterioration of working conditions and a more acute fear of errors due to increased workload, all incentives for experienced controllers to stay on board until their mandatory retirement age have been removed. On the other end of the spectrum, new hires are experiencing the stress and challenge of air traffic control, coupled with poor treatment from management and B-Scale wages, and are choosing to leave the FAA in favor of careers in the private sector.

One former controller summed up the sentiments of many in his resignation letter to the FAA:

Under the FAA’s new imposed work rules I cannot justify staying with the Agency… I do not feel I can continue to work in an environment that is so vindictive, or for an employer who is more worried about the bottom line rather than safety. I cannot justify staying when I can return to a company that knows how and makes it a point to take care of its employees. My take home pay will go up, my quality of life will improve and my workload will decrease.

Fatigue

The staffing shortage has created an environment conducive to high levels of fatigue among air traffic controllers, as controllers are required to work excessive amounts of overtime and work on short-staffed shifts.

At Orlando International Tower and TRACON, for example, controllers were required to work an average of 558 hours of overtime per pay period in CY2008. If divided evenly among the fully certified controllers, each controller would have to work more than 14 additional hours per pay period – cutting available rest and recovery time almost in half. While moderate amounts of overtime can be absorbed into the system without noticeable effects on performance, excessive overtime introduces fatigue into the system. In order to absorb the fatigue-inducing effects of overtime, an individual controller must have sufficient time for recovery following a long week, while the workforce must be made up of non-fatigued controllers who can provide support during the shifts themselves. With the staffing shortage such as it is, this is impossible. In addition, excessive overtime negatively affects controllers’ quality of life and interferes with home life issues such as childcare, lowering the morale of the workforce.

The alternative to excessive overtime is to work each shift without proper staffing levels.

A short-staffed shift often means controllers are afforded fewer opportunities for rest and recovery during the shift itself. They are being required to work longer on position and given shorter rest periods. Although the FAA had, until recently, limited time on position to two hours based on the results of a Civil Aeronautics Medical Institute (CAMI) study, this limitation was removed when the imposed work rules were instituted and is ignored throughout the system. At Atlanta tower (ATL), controllers report that they are given exactly 20 minutes of break time, regardless of the length of time on position or the intensity of the traffic.

Not only are controllers working longer on position, but the workload during that time has increased as well. On a short-handed shift, managers reduce the number of radar assistants (RAs), increasing the workload for the controller working radar. A controller working without an assistant is responsible not only for communication with aircraft but also coordination with other controller positions and facilities, as well as updating flight progress information. Additionally, managers may be forced to combine positions, creating greater complexity by requiring each controller to monitor greater numbers of confliction points and an increased volume of aircraft. One recent internal FAA document reported that as many as 56.3 percent of errors in Eastern En Route facilities occur when there are combined sectors, combined Radar/RA positions, or both.

Hiring Alone Is Not Enough: Inexperience and the Training Backlog

Rather than taking meaningful steps to stem the flow of experienced personnel, the FAA simply began a massive hiring effort. As a result, trainees now make up an extremely high percentage of the workforce. As of the end of FY2008, trainees (excluding CPC-ITS, previously certified controllers training on a new area or facility) accounted for nearly a quarter of the controller workforce (22 percent). This exceeds what the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation recently reported experts to consider the safe upper limit for the system. In many facilities the situation is even worse, with 48 facilities exceeding 35 percent trainees.

Staffing shortages and high trainee ratios have a direct effect on the efficiency of training itself. With so many trainees, and a small and shrinking number of Certified Professional Controllers (CPCs), there are a limited number of controllers capable of providing training, creating a backlog of trainees. At Miami Center (ZMA), for example, trainees have had to wait up to sixteen months from to receive on the job training (OJT) due to the facility’s staffing shortage.

For the first time since the 1980s, trainees are being put directly into some of the most demanding and difficult terminal facilities after completing their classroom training at Oklahoma City. These facilities include Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson Tower (ATL), Atlanta TRACON (A80), Charlotte Tower (CLT), New York TRACON (N90), Dallas-Fort Worth Tower (DFW), San Francisco Tower (SFO), Southern California TRACON (SCT), and Northern California TRACON (NCT). These higher level facilities do not have training curricula designed to teach new hires aircraft types, airline identification and other basic fundamental air traffic control knowledge and skills. In the past, terminal trainees were placed in a lower-level tower to receive initial certification and would transfer to a higher-level facility as their careers and skills advanced. The imposed work rules, however, removed financial incentives for experienced controllers to transfer to more difficult facilities because many would actually take a pay cut with such a transfer. Because retirement eligible controllers are leaving in record numbers, staffing has become critical at these terminal facilities, forcing the agency to hire trainees with no previous air traffic control experience.

Even as these trainees certify, the air traffic control system is still left staffed by individuals with little to no experience. These new hires are the future of air traffic control and have tremendous potential, but they are denied the opportunity to learn from experienced controllers and are forced to shoulder too much of the air traffic control burden at this early stage of their careers.

Since the implementation of the imposed work rules, the FAA lost more than 46,000 years of air traffic control experience through retirements alone. Nearly one third (27 percent) of air traffic controllers in the FAA have less than five years experience, and 40 air traffic control facilities have more than half of its workforce composed of individuals with less than five years experience.

Implications for FAA Reauthorization: Fair Dispute Resolution

The human factors issues facing the FAA are caused largely by the imposed work rules of 2006. These imposed work rules have precipitated the high rate of attrition, which in turn has caused understaffing, fatigue, high trainee ratios, and inexperience. It is vital to stem this flow of experienced controllers so that the system may be allowed to recover. The critical steps in this process are removing the imposed work rules and ordering the FAA to return to the bargaining table under the terms and conditions of the 2003 collective bargaining agreement to reach a mutually agreeable contract with NATCA.

The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009 would accomplish this task. It would nullify the imposed work rules and order the FAA to return to the bargaining table under the terms of the last mutually-agreed-upon contract. NATCA believes that this will reduce the rate of attrition for experienced controllers, allowing new hires the best possible opportunity to train with seasoned veterans and maintaining what is left of the experienced workforce to control air traffic while the workforce is replenished.

The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009 also amends Title 49 to include a fair dispute resolution process for FAA contract negotiations. If, during future negotiations, the parties arrive at impasse, both parties’ proposals will be sent to mediation and ultimately binding arbitration. This time-tested and fair process is used for impartial dispute resolution in workplaces throughout the country. It will ensure that the air traffic control workforce will never again find itself working under an imposed set of working conditions and pay rules.

NATCA fully supports and endorses the dispute resolution section of the FAA Reauthorization Bill of 2009.

Realignment of Facilities and Services

Realignment – the consolidation, deconsolidation, or reorganization of FAA facilities and services – must be implemented only when such changes enhance operational services, provide continued or improved safety, support and facilitate modernization of the NAS, is cost affective, and the impact on stakeholders is addressed and mitigated. NATCA has supported realignment initiatives in the past because such plans served an operational need and were designed and implemented in a collaborative environment. During the past 20 years, the FAA has completed several successful realignments with NATCA’s full support, including the creation of combined TRACON facilities in Southern California, Northern California, and the Baltimore/Washington, D.C./Virginia (Potomac) area.

During the previous Administration, the FAA began to separate radar and tower air traffic services at several airports across the country without seeking input from stakeholders. The FAA continued to move forward on these initiatives despite serious outstanding concerns over the effect such changes would have on safety and doubts over the operational benefit. Of particular concern in these cases was the staffing shortage, loss of staffing flexibility, barriers to coordination, and the deterioration of controllers’ knowledge of operations.

At Memphis International Airport (MEM), the FAA conducted a study which found that a stand-alone TRACON at MEM would need to be staffed with 43 certified professional controllers (CPCs), while the tower would require 37. A split facility would therefore require a total of 80 CPCs. However the combined facility currently employs only 47 CPCs, less than 60 percent of what is necessary to operate a split facility. In general, split facilities require additional staffing, as there is a reduction in flexibility when the workforce is split. At Orlando International Airport (MCO), the split has left the tower with dangerous levels of inexperience; more than 50 percent of MCO tower controllers have five years of experience or less. When the facility was combined this percentage was reduced to 35 percent, which, while still very high, was less dangerous.

Additionally, controllers at combined tower/TRACON facilities must learn all aspects of operations required for safe and efficient arrivals and departures. Controllers therefore understand how their actions at one position effect the operation of adjacent positions, enabling them to optimize their performance for both safety and efficiency. When facilities are split this knowledge is lost. Not only will new trainees be denied the opportunity to train on all aspects of the operation, they will not even have the opportunity to observe operations at other sectors.

For Miami and Philadelphia, NATCA offered an alternative configuration which enabled the facility to simultaneously maintain the advantages of a combined facility while reducing training time. After congressional and public pressure forced the FAA to review this alternative configuration the FAA ultimately agreed that the proposed configuration would resolve the issues at-hand without creating additional safety risks. This sudden course correction revealed the need for a thorough and open selection and review process for FAA facility realignment initiatives.

The FAA has an obligation to involve members of Congress, the public, airport operators, pilots, controllers, and other stakeholders in the decision-making, planning, and implementation process of any agency effort that could affect the safety and efficiency of the airspace. Regrettably, the agency has chosen to exclude stakeholders from the process, ignore their concerns, and inform the public only after its decision has been made. This go-it-alone method allows the FAA to remain ignorant of authentic and substantial inadequacies in the plans.

This is why NATCA supports the inclusion of comprehensive language in FAA Reauthorization that would ensure that all FAA realignment initiatives are considered in a collaborative environment and provide a specific operational benefit. We support the section in the Reauthorization Act of 2009 that requires the establishment of a workgroup of stakeholders to review all realignment proposals prior to the FAA beginning the realignment process. Representatives of all of the affected bargaining units must be included in this workgroup and realignment must be clearly defined.

Establishing Scientific Staffing Standards

In 1998 the FAA and NATCA agreed upon the optimal number of controllers for each facility based on a scientific study that factored in time-and-motion studies, sector complexity and workload, number of operations on the 90th percentile day, and relevant non-operational activities (i.e. training, annual/sick leave). Although the number of operations is similar to that of 1998 the FAA has abandoned these standards in favor of staffing ranges concocted to conceal the severity of the controller staffing shortage.

As part of its 2007 Controller Workforce Plan the FAA established staffing ranges for each air traffic control facility, which it modified slightly in 2008. Rather than basing its staffing goals on an accurate and precise scientific assessment of each facility’s requirements for safe operation, the FAA has designed these ranges in order to deliberately mislead stakeholders about the staffing crisis currently facing the air traffic control system in this country. They were also designed in order to meet specific budget goals, with regional directors identifying the number of air traffic control positions it could fund at each facility and remain within its fixed budgets. NATCA has reason to believe that the FAA’s official staffing ranges were engineered by the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) finance office, rather than the ATO safety office, based on a memo written by the workforce staffing manager, Jodi McCarthy.

The FAA attempts to justify this budget-based staffing standard by presenting a pseudo-scientific justification for its staffing numbers in its controller workforce plan. The FAA’s reasoning is based on an average of the following:

  1. Scientific Data – The FAA does not specify which study this refers to, who conducted it, or whether the study was conducted by an unbiased third party. It has thus far refused to provide NATCA with the details of the study parameters or the results.

  2. Current staffing at peer facilities – As the entire system is suffering the same staffing shortage, peer facilities will be equally understaffed. Therefore using these as a basis of comparison yields a dangerously low standard.

  3. Past staffing lows – The FAA misleadingly refers to this comparison as the past year of “highest productivity.” However, it goes on to define productivity as the highest number of operations per controller – or the year when the fewest controllers were relied upon to control the largest amount of traffic – without taking into account error rates, delays, or effect on the workforce. By using this definition of productivity the FAA is selecting a dangerously low staffing number as a standard again.

  4. Managers’ advice – The FAA misleadingly refers to this as “service unit input.” This input did not include input from NATCA and came entirely from within FAA management ranks who are under pressure to conceal the extent of the staffing shortage and assure Congress and the flying public that all is under control. Therefore this too is likely to yield a dangerously low and inaccurate estimate of needed staffing.

In the summer of 2008 the FAA acted in a way that corroborated NATCA’s claims of the invalidity of these staffing ranges by offering significant relocation incentives to controllers to transfer to many facilities throughout the country. These incentives included increases to base pay, bonuses, relocation payments, and allowed controllers to remain above the new pay bands, contrary to transfer procedure outlined in the imposed work rules. Yet in every case where such incentives were offered, current controller staffing is within – or in some cases even above – the FAA staffing ranges (See table 1). If FAA’s staffing ranges were accepted as valid it would appear as if the agency is offering lucrative incentives to transfer controllers to well-staffed, even overstaffed, facilities. The truth however, is that the facilities are indeed severely understaffed.

NATCA fully supports and endorses the language in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009 that authorizes a scientific study of the system’s air traffic controller staffing to be conducted by an objective third party. This language allows the FAA, Congress, and NATCA to truly assess the current risk to the NAS and set benchmarks for resolving the staffing crisis.

Facilities with Transfer Incentives Summer 2008
Facility Name FAC
ID
Total On
Board
Staffing
FAA
Staffing
Range
1998
Authorized
Atlanta TRACON A80 93 86-105 104
Atlanta ATCT ATL 50 42-52 55
Chicago TRACON C90 99 82-100 101
Charlotte ATCT CLT 79 68-84 74
Cincinnati ATCT CVG 78 59-73 86
Detroit TRACON D21 48 47-57 71
Spokane ATCT GEG 30 23-28 32
Green bay ATCT GRB 25 20-24 22
Greer ATCT GSP 21 16-20 18
Houston TRACON I90 77 69-85 76
Indianapolis ATCT IND 43 42-52 56
Los Angeles ATCT LAX 46 39-47 47
Milwaukee ATCT MKE 48 38-46 51
New York TRACON N90 223 176-215 270
O'Hare ATCT ORD 69 56-68 71
Norfolk ATCT ORF 42 34-42 UNK
Potomac TRACON PCT 168 151-185 211
Raleigh ATCT RDU 44 38-46 48
Roanoke ATCT ROA 26 20-24 30
South Bend IND SBN 24 20-24 24
Souther California
TRACON
SCT 221 194-237 261
Syracuse ATCT SYR 22 20-24 30
Tampa ATCT TPA 70 55-67 67
Within FAA
ranges
Above FAA
ranges

Modernization

NATCA supports the modernization of the NAS, and applauds the generous funding provided for FAA Facilities and Equipment in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009. Such funding will accelerate the implementation of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen).

Our support of NextGen is not without conditions, however. Thus far, NATCA, like much of the industry community, has been disappointed by the FAA’s lack of clear direction for NextGen plans as well as the FAA’s continued exclusion of stakeholders from the planning and implementation of new technologies. NextGen will only be successful if it is done with complete participation and agreement from government, labor and industry groups from development through implementation. For example the technological initiatives of NextGen require extensive testing and NATCA members, with their current front-line experience, would be able to provide valuable contributions and insight during the testing phase.

During the late 1990s and into the early part of this decade, the FAA completed more than 7,100 projects to install and integrate new facilities, systems and equipment into the NAS. In addition, more than 10,000 hardware and software upgrades were completed. NATCA had representatives on over 70 modernization and procedure development projects. Under the Bush Administration, the FAA routinely avoided collaboration with NATCA on key issues and initiatives related to modernization and ultimately terminated the successful Controller Liaison Program, under which controllers provided crucial insight and guidance for the development and implementation of some of the most effective technological and procedural advancements including: Advanced Technologies and Oceanic Procedures (ATOP), Display System Replacement (DSR), User Request Evaluation Tool (URET), Voice Switching, Control System (VSCS), Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (DRVSM), and Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS).

NATCA believes that the success of NextGen is dependent on this level of controller involvement. It is our hope that after the imposed work rules are removed and NATCA and the FAA reach a mutually agreeable collective bargaining agreement we can again return to an era of cooperation and collaboration that will best serve the needs of the NAS and the flying public.

Maintenance of Air Traffic Control Infrastructure

While NATCA supports the upgrade of air traffic control technology, it is imperative that the funding of NextGen not come at the expense of NowGen. During the previous administration, FAA facilities were allowed to fall into disrepair while the FAA pursued its ill-defined modernization goals.

According to a recent report by the Department of Transportation Inspector General, 59 percent of FAA facilities are beyond their 30-year design life. All en route centers are over 40 years old and falling into disrepair. Certain terminal facilities are also falling into unacceptable levels of disrepair – putting the health and safety of FAA employees at risk. For example, inspectors have confirmed the presence at Detroit Metropolitan Airport Tower and TRACON of stachybotrys, a toxic form of mold believed to be a contributory factor in health problems experienced by controllers at the facility (including cases of occupational asthma, as well as seven cancer diagnoses during the past six years.)

This level of deterioration is unacceptable. The FAA must repair and maintain existing air traffic control facilities in a manner that ensures the safety and security of FAA personnel and allows aviation safety professionals the tools they need to do their jobs to the high standard of excellence we expect and depend on.

Conclusion

NATCA commends the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for its demonstrated understanding of the important issues facing the nation’s aviation infrastructure as well as its efforts to quickly and thoroughly address these critical topics. NATCA is pleased with the bill’s approach to collective bargaining and dispute resolution at the FAA, as well as its attempts to ensure stakeholder inclusion in realignment efforts. We also fully support the authorization of a scientific staffing standard established by an unbiased third party. We are pleased with the level of funding for modernization, and urge the FAA not to neglect the maintenance of existing infrastructure while planning for the future. In NATCA’s view, the FAA Reauthorization Bill of 2009 is comprehensive and addresses many of the most important aviation issues, and we fully supports the bill’s swift passage.


[1] Based on payroll data provided to NATCA from the FAA.

[2] Based on the “A Plan for the Future 2006-2015: The Federal Aviation Administration’s 10-Year Strategy for the Air Traffic Control Workforce” June 2006.

[3] Employee resigned from Albuquerque ARTCC, in October 2006.

[4] According to NATCA records, there were 38 certified professional controllers (CPCs) at MCO.

[5] Weekly En Route (FY 08) Report May 30, 2008 Eastern Facilities, Federal Aviation Administration.

[6] Statement made by Calvin L. Scovel II, Inspector General, US Department of Transportation before the Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies. April 17, 2008. “Key Safety and Modernization Challenges Facing the Federal Aviation Administration.”

[7] Interview with facility representative from ZMA.

[8] Calculation assumes 25 years experience for every retiree. Twenty-five years of services is the minimum for retirement eligibility for most air traffic controllers.

[9] FAA Document “Needs Comparison for 4 Splits: MTP Comparison for the 4 Splits”

[10] Based on Payroll data provided to NATCA from the FAA. This data is current as of the end of FY 2008.

[11] According to the FAA’s OPSNET database there were 45,394,027 instrument operations in FY2007 compared to 48,985,472 in FY1998 (93%).

[12] Letter from FAA Regional Administrator Christopher R. Blum, Central Region, to Congressman Dennis Moore. February 22, 2006.

[13] Untitled memo from Jodi S. McCarthy, ATO-T Finance, Manager, Workforce Staffing. Received February 28, 2007 on the topic of the staffing ranges featured in the 2007 Controller Workforce Plan.

[14] Transfer incentives identified on the FAA career opportunities website http://jobs.faa.gov/.

[15] Staffing based on payroll information provided to NATCA by the FAA. Total on-board staffing includes both CPCs and Trainees.

[16] Federal Aviation Administration “A Plan for the Future: The Federal Aviation Administration’s 10-year Strategy for the Air Traffic Control Workforce 2008-2017”

[17] National Air Traffic Controllers Association 2002 Air Traffic Modernization Tools.

Testimony of Controller Patrick Harten, US Airways Flight 1549 - (2/24/2009)

Testimony by Patrick Harten, Air Traffic Controller, Before the Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation

US Airways Flight 1549 Accident

February 24, 2009


Good morning Chairman Costello and Ranking Member Petri. My name is Patrick Harten.

I have been an air traffic controller at the N.Y. TRACON and a proud member of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association for the past 10 years.

While January 15, 2009 is forever etched in my memory, it began unremarkably. I arrived at work at 12:30 p.m. to begin my eight-hour shift.

At 3:12 p.m., I was assigned to work the LaGuardia (LGA) departure RADAR position. This position handles all departures from LGA airport.

At 3:25 p.m., the LGA tower controller advised me that Cactus 1549 was the next departure rolling for takeoff. Just for clarification, Cactus is the call sign for US Airways.

It was a routine westbound departure off of Runway 4 traveling due north on a 360 degree heading and climbing to 5,000 feet.

I instructed Cactus to climb to 15,000 and turned my attention to give instructions to another aircraft under my control.

I then turned back to Cactus 1549 and instructed him to turn left to heading 270, heading the aircraft towards its destination. That is when the captain advised me that they suffered a bird strike, lost thrust in both engines, and needed to return to LGA for an emergency landing.

When a pilot tells a controller he needs to make an emergency landing, the controller must act quickly and decisively.

I made a split-second decision to offer him Runway 13, which was the closest runway to his current position, and turned him left at a 220 heading so he could return to the airport.

I then immediately contacted LGA tower to ask them to stop departures and clear the runways for an emergency return.

While I have worked 10 or 12 emergencies over the course of my career, I have never worked an aircraft with zero thrust capabilities. I understood how grave this situation was.

After I gave him his instructions, the captain very calmly stated: "We’re unable."

I quickly vectored an aircraft that was still in my airspace and then gave 1549 a second option: land on LGA Runway 31.

Again the captain said, "Unable."

I then asked the captain what he needed to do to land safely. At this point, my job was to coordinate and arrange for the pilot to be able to do whatever was necessary.

The pilot told me that he could not land on any runway at LGA, but asked if he could land in New Jersey and suggested Teterboro.

I had experienced working traffic into TEB from my time working in the EWR sector and after coordinating with the controllers in TEB, we were able to determine that Runway 1 was the best option. It was the arrival runway, and clearing it for an emergency landing would be easier and faster. It also meant that 1549 would be landing into the wind, which could have assisted the pilot in making a safe landing. I called TEB and explained the situation. The controller at TEB reacted quickly and prepared Runway 1 for the emergency landing.

I then instructed the captain to turn right on a 280 heading to land on Runway 1.

The captain replied: "We can’t do it."

I replied immediately, "Which runway would you like at Teterboro?"

The captain replied: "We’re gonna be in the Hudson."

I asked him to repeat himself, even though I heard him just fine. I simply could not wrap my mind around those words. People don’t survive landings on the Hudson River; I thought it was his own death sentence. I believed, at that moment, I was going to be the last person to talk to anyone on that plane alive.

I then lost radio contact with 1549, and the target disappeared from my radar screen as he dropped below the tops of the New York City skyscrapers. I was in shock. I was sure the plane had gone down.

Less than a minute later, 1549 flickered back onto my radar scope. The aircraft was at a very low altitude, but its return to radar coverage meant that there was a possibility 1549 had regained the use of one of its engines.

Grasping at that tiny glimmer of hope, I told 1549 that it could land at EWR seven miles away on Runway 29, but I received no response. I then lost radar contact again, this time for good.

I was relieved from my position a few minutes later, as soon as it was possible. I was in no position to continue to work air traffic. It was the lowest low I had ever felt. I wanted to talk to my wife. But I knew if I tried to speak or even heard her voice, I would fall apart completely.

I settled for a hasty text message: "Had a crash. Not ok. Can’t talk now." When I got home, she told me she thought I had been in a car accident. Truth was I felt like I’d been hit by a bus.

It took six hours before I could leave the facility. I had to review the tapes, fill out paperwork, and make an official statement.

It may sound strange, but for me the hardest and most traumatic part of the entire event was when it was over.

During the emergency itself, I was hyper-focused. I had no choice but to think and act quickly, and remain calm. But when it was over, it hit me hard. It felt like hours before I learned about the heroic water landing that Captain Sullenberger and his crew had managed. Even after I learned the truth, I could not shake the image of tragedy in my mind. Every time I saw the survivors on the television, I imagined grieving widows.

It has taken over a month for me to be able to see that I did a good job; I was flexible and responsive, I listened to what the pilot said and made sure to give him the tools he needed. I stayed calm and in control.

I return to work this week, and while it may take time for me to regain my old confidence; I know I will get there. I would like to end by personally recognizing the captain and crew of flight 1549 for their professionalism, skill, and heroic efforts that day. I also would like to recognize the professionalism of the other controllers who helped clear the skies and the runways for 1549, as well as the engineers, who helped ensure that the aircraft itself could survive the landing in the Hudson and that those inside would be safe.

Finally, I want to thank my wife, Regina. She has been my rock these past few weeks — as she always has and always will be. I couldn’t have survived this without her.

Thank you Mr. Chairman. I am prepared to answer any questions you have.

Safety & Technology Director Dale Wright Testifies on NextGen Before the Senate Aviation Subcommittee - (3/25/2009)

Introduction

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) is the exclusive representative of more than 15,000 air traffic controllers 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, 500 aircraft certification professionals, agency operational support staff, regional personnel from FAA’s logistics, budget, finance, and computer specialist divisions, and agency occupational health specialists, nurses, and medical program specialists. NATCA’s mission is to preserve, promote, and improve the safety of air travel within the United States, and to serve as an advocate for air traffic controllers and other aviation safety professionals. NATCA has a long history of supporting new aviation technology, modernizing and enhancing our nation’s air traffic control system, and working to ensure that we are prepared to meet the growing demand for aviation services.

NATCA’s Recommendations

It is our understanding that this hearing is the first of several on the topics covered by FAA Reauthorization. As this hearing is focused on modernization, NATCA’s remarks are intended to specifically address the FAA’s efforts in implementing the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). We look forward to the opportunity to testify before you in the future and are prepared to address the many other important issues facing the FAA including the need for fair dispute resolution between labor and management, realignment of FAA facilities and services, staffing and the need for scientifically based standards, the designee program and the FAA certification process, and other topics.

NATCA remains, as ever, completely committed to the safety and efficiency of the National Airspace System (NAS). New technology has the potential to improve safety, expand capacity, and increase efficiency of the NAS. Therefore, we support the FAA’s willingness to undertake the large-scale and long-term research, development and modernization project that it has labeled NextGen. Yet the complexity and the risk of this program should not be underestimated. The GAO has stated that NextGen is a high risk effort because of its dollar cost and complexity. Therefore it is imperative that the FAA proceed in a way which maximizes the chances of success. At present, there are several outstanding shortcomings with the FAA’s methodology and plans that must be addressed at this early stage of the process.

  1. The FAA must collaborate meaningfully with stakeholders – The inclusion of NATCA is critical to the success of NextGen and all projects relating to modernization, technology, and procedures. The Government Accountability Office and the Inspector General of the Transportation Department have both testified before Congress that controller involvement prevents cost overruns and implementation delays. NATCA must be included in all stages, from inception to implementation.
  2. NowGen must not be neglected as we prepare for NextGen – The current air traffic control system has fallen into disrepair. Both the human infrastructure, including staffing levels of air traffic controllers, inspectors, engineers, and other aviation safety professionals, and physical infrastructure, such as poorly-maintained and deteriorating air traffic control facilities, need attention in the near term.
  3. Human factors must be addressed – Several of NextGen’s proposals raise serious concerns regarding human factors, including the increased complexity and safety risk inherent in a best-equipped, best-served policy. These issues must be addressed during the development stages in order to avoid delays, cost overruns, and safety failures.
  4. Safety requires redundancy – NATCA is concerned that the system being proposed by the FAA, which is centralized and lacking a viable backup, is unacceptably vulnerable to attack or natural disaster. Human intervention must not be the first and only layer of redundancy. The FAA must build redundancy into the system in order to ensure that in the event of an attack, natural disaster, or technological failure, safety is not compromised.

Collaboration is Critical

The participation of NATCA throughout all stages of NextGen’s development and implementation is critical to the success of this project. NATCA’s members are frontline workers who are able to provide vital insight to help the team identify and address human-interface issues and other concerns. Doing so on the front end rather than during implementation will save the Agency time, taxpayer money and resources while avoiding potential damage to the integrity of the air traffic control system. Because NATCA’s members have an intimate understanding of frontline air traffic control, they are uniquely qualified to provide insight into the needs of the system, the utility of the FAA’s proposed technology, and the usability of the products included under the NextGen umbrella. As Peter Bunce, President and CEO of General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) said, “If we are going to have full implementation [of NextGen] somewhere in the range of 2025, it is absolutely imperative that we still get the controllers and pilots together and decide what type of architecture is actually going to exist in the end state.”

The FAA’s go-it-alone strategy has come under criticism throughout the aviation industry. Last month, the FAA announced that it has committed to launching a NextGen Implementation Panel, through the RTCA Inc. (formerly the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics). Despite this gesture, to date we have received no indication from the FAA that the Agency has any intention of meaningfully collaborating with NATCA.

During the late 1990s and into the early part of this decade, the FAA completed more than 7,100 projects to install and integrate new facilities, systems, and equipment into the NAS, as well as more than 10,000 hardware and software upgrades. During this time, NATCA had representatives on more than 70 modernization and procedure development projects through the Controller Liaison Program. This program allowed controllers to provide crucial insight and guidance for the development and implementation of some of the most effective technological and procedural advancements including: Advanced Technologies and Oceanic Procedures (ATOP), Display System Replacement (DSR), User Request Evaluation Tool (URET), Voice Switching Control System (VSCS), Domestic Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (DRVSM), and Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS). Despite its success, the Liaison Program was terminated in 2005. Throughout the rest of the Bush Administration, the FAA resisted any meaningful input from NATCA – to the detriment of the NAS.

The labor-management environment that developed during the Bush administration continues to make meaningful collaboration nearly impossible. The contempt with which all levels of agency management has treated and continues to treat the air traffic controller work force makes it clear that the Agency does not value the professionalism of NATCA’s members. It is our hope that after the imposed work rules are addressed by the Obama Administration and NATCA and the FAA reach a mutually-accepted collective bargaining agreement, we can again return to an era of cooperation and collaboration that will best serve the needs of the FAA, air traffic controllers, stakeholders, and the flying public.

Status of Near-Term NextGen Collaboration Efforts: ERAM

One of the earliest NextGen projects to be deployed will be the switch from the Host computer system, which currently serves as the technological backbone of en route air traffic control, to En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM). Host, which was originally deployed in the 1980s, is the mainframe computer processor which provides data to display terminals at en route air traffic control positions. It is expected to become unsustainable within the next two years, as the availability of new technology has made replacement parts for older computers harder to find. It is also incapable of handling the satellite-based ADS-B system around which NextGen has been developed. In contrast, ERAM is designed to process data from both radar and satellite sources. Rather than rely on a single processor, ERAM will be a network of computers in which the old Host display terminals will be replaced by individual PC processors. Once it is properly implemented, this distributive processing will allow the system to handle a significantly larger volume of data and provide a more seamless backup system then the one currently in place.

While NATCA supports ERAM as a good concept and necessary for the future of air traffic control, confidence is low in the product in its current state. ERAM testing has yielded more than 40,000 problem reports (PRs), 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. As of less than two months ago, officials on the ERAM team disclosed that ERAM had yet to remain stable and functional for a full 24 hours of continuous operational testing. 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 work-arounds 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.

This February, the FAA has approached NATCA with what we hoped would be a genuine invitation seeking our collaboration in the implementation phase of ERAM. We embraced the opportunity to substantively contribute to finding solutions cooperatively with the FAA. Unfortunately, despite the Agency’s repeated promises to work with NATCA in a more collaborative manner on the ERAM issue, we are running into the same obstructionist attitude that we have become so familiar with over the last eight years. NATCA has acted swiftly and eagerly, submitting comprehensive proposals about the terms of our collaboration within nine days of receiving the full ERAM briefing from the Agency, and we are prepared to work with the Agency to come to an agreement. For their part, the FAA has required weeks of delay to respond to our proposals, while engaging in unfair labor practices in soliciting bargaining unit members to work on the transition team. At this time, it is unclear as to whether or not the Agency is prepared to reach agreement or work with NATCA.

NATCA is disappointed with the Agency’s stance on collaborating with our organization. As with all NextGen and modernization efforts, we believe that our expertise would serve the Agency and the flying public well. We remain committed to continuing the effort to reach an agreement with the Agency over the deployment of ERAM.

Status of Near-Term NextGen Collaboration Efforts: Airspace Redesign

In the 1990s, the FAA collaborated with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) to address the issue of airspace congestion. Working together the group identified chokepoints, analyzed weaknesses in the system, and developed a multilateral and comprehensive approach to improving the system. However, during the Bush Administration the FAA abandoned this collaborative approach and instead chose to unilaterally implement piecemeal changes to air traffic control functions and procedures. Recent events pertaining to airspace redesign for the New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia areas have also shown that the FAA still does not intend to include NATCA in this project.

Last year, the FAA implemented Phase I of the NY-NJ-PHL airspace redesign effort, which included new dispersal headings for Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) departures. These new procedures were implemented without input from system users, including air traffic controllers. As a result, the new procedures were plagued by several serious inadequacies, including a lack of published procedures, incomplete testing, insufficient training for both controllers and pilots, and frequent miscommunication between controllers and pilots.

Now the FAA is ready to begin implementation of Phase II, which will involve the terminalization of airspace currently controlled by Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) and New York ARTCC. This shift is highly complex and will require changes not only to procedures but also to technology, personnel, facilities, and training. Yet it appears that the FAA has not learned its lesson from Phase I. Despite outreach attempts from NATCA, the FAA has refused to collaborate with the frontline controller work force.

History has shown us that successful modernization efforts require the input and involvement of all stakeholders, and airspace redesign is no exception. NATCA believes that without the collaboration of the air traffic controller work force in developing and implementing the airspace redesign, the FAA's plans will be expensive, unsafe, inefficient, and unlikely to significantly improve the capacity of the New York area airspace. This is a belief not limited to air traffic controllers or unions. Jim May, President and CEO of the Air Transport Association (ATA), spoke about the importance of “controller acceptance of implementation and new procedures” at a hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation. Of airspace redesign he said, “You’ve got to bring Pat [Forrey, President of NATCA] and his guys into the process… We can’t do New York without his folks.” With NATCA’s help, the FAA may be able to avoid the shortcomings that were present during Phase I of airspace redesign and, by so doing, may be able to transition more smoothly to the new procedures and reduce the risk to the flying public during the transition.

NowGen: Human Infrastructure

While NATCA believes that NextGen may hold some promising plans and technology for the future of air traffic control, we are concerned that the Agency’s focus on NextGen comes at the expense of the current air traffic control system, or NowGen. There are some very pressing problems facing the air traffic control system of today that can be addressed using available technology and infrastructure.

Air traffic control facilities across the nation are severely understaffed as a result of the wave of retirements and resignations following the Agency’s unilateral imposition of work and pay rules on the air traffic controller work force. Rampant fatigue in the work force is undermining safety across the system as those controllers that remain are required to work excessive amounts of overtime, have fewer opportunities for rest on and off the shift, and are often required to do a job designed for two to four controllers when Radar Associate positions are eliminated and positions are combined. The FAA’s recent hiring efforts intended to combat the staffing problem have resulted in an unsafe ratio of trainees, a training backlog, and an over-reliance on developmentals, or trainees, to work live traffic.

Over 46,000 years of experience has been lost since the imposed work rules. Along with that experience, vital institutional knowledge and qualified instructors have been sacrificed over the past two and a half years. The FAA must make addressing the work force issue its top priority; returning to the bargaining table to reach a legitimate and mutually-acceptable collective bargaining agreement would go a long way towards stabilizing today’s air traffic controller work force and setting a solid foundation for the training and development of the air traffic controller work force of tomorrow.

NowGen: Physical Infrastructure

In addition to the deterioration of the human infrastructure, the FAA must contend with the deterioration of the physical infrastructure. According to a recent report by the Department of Transportation Inspector General, 59 percent of FAA facilities are beyond their 30-year design life, while all 23 en route centers are over 40 years old. Several air traffic control facilities including Detroit Metropolitan Airport Tower and TRACON (DTW), O’Hare International Airport Tower (ORD), Kansas City Tower/TRACON (MCI), Miami ARTCC (ZMA), and Memphis ARTCC (ZME) have reported problems with mold contamination. At DTW, inspectors have confirmed the presence of stachybotrys, a toxic form of mold believed to be a contributory factor in health problems experienced by controllers at the facility, including cases of occupational asthma as well as seven cancer diagnoses during the past six years.

The FAA has also fallen behind in the installation of vital runway incursion prevention technology. Airport Surface Detection Equipment-Model X (ASDE-X) is a developed and proven surface radar system that has been used to great effect where it has been installed. Unfortunately, the FAA has allowed this demonstrated technology to take a back seat to NextGen and is on track to miss its delivery benchmarks. While the FAA estimated that ASDE-X would be deployed at the 35 busiest airports by the end of 2010, to date they have installed only 13 of the 35 (having taken four years to install the first 11), and several of those that have been installed are still experiencing serious implementation glitches.

The FAA must make the maintenance and appropriate equipage of existing air traffic control facilities a priority. Air traffic controllers must be provided with safe and secure facilities and up-to-date equipment so that they can continue to maintain the safest and most efficient air traffic control system in the world.

Potential Advantages of NextGen Technology and Systems

NATCA believes that there is great potential in Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B). As the FAA has stated, satellite-based technology is capable of providing a more accurate depiction of aircraft location and eliminating the lag time of traditional radar scans. This degree of precision can help ensure greater safety and efficiency by allowing air traffic controllers the ability to make better-informed decisions regarding aircraft movements. If aircraft were equipped with ADS-B displays, pilots would have additional tools with which to process and understand their location and flying conditions, allowing pilots to maintain greater situational awareness, particularly during periods of poor visibility.

This capability will give controllers greater flexibility and provide predictability to the users. For example, controllers will be able to more frequently instruct pilots to proceed to the airport visually, utilizing the ADS-B in weather currently requiring instrument flight rules (IFR). A visual approach, which is granted at the discretion of air traffic controllers, requires pilots to utilize a simple “see and avoid” method of separation, allowing then to follow more closely than instrument guided approach standards permit. With current technology, controllers may only grant visual approaches during good weather and when visibility is unobstructed, as pilots must safely see the runway, ground, surrounding terrain, and other aircraft in the vicinity. With ADS-B displays, pilots would be able to artificially “see” other aircraft even during inclement weather, giving controllers greater flexibility to use these less complex and more efficient approach rules, increasing the arrival rates regardless of the weather. There would no longer be a need to reduce arrival rates during IFR weather. The users could more accurately predict scheduling, reduce delays, and increase capacity.

Concerns over NextGen

Based on the public documents that the FAA has made available on NextGen, NATCA has several outstanding concerns for both the long and short term that we believe the FAA must address comprehensively before it can begin the roll-out of any major NextGen technology or policy changes. As previously stated, we believe that these and other issues can be most effectively addressed in a collaborative environment, and we sincerely hope that NATCA can be a part of developing the solutions to the problems facing the current air traffic control system and plan for the future system. Below are the concerns NATCA believes must be addressed immediately, which will be discussed in greater depth in the sections that follow.

  1. The FAA must retain a backup system: Redundancy is the essential element of any safety operation. The FAA’s published plans contain no viable backup should the satellite fail due to natural or criminal activity. Limited frequency availability further complicates this situation.
  2. Safe and viable plan for equipage: The success of NextGen is dependent on the equipage of thousands of aircraft with new technology, an expensive undertaking that would be a major financial strain on airlines, general aviation, and business aviation, particularly in the current economic climate. The FAA has tried to address this by instituting a new “best-equipped, best-served” policy for air traffic control. This policy has serious implications for safety, as it adds an untenable level of complexity to air traffic control operations. If the FAA wishes to incentivize equipage, it must do so in a way that does not compromise safety.
  3. Full consideration of human factors: Many of the proposed changes to the air traffic control system place significant demands on the people who make the system work. The usability of the technology and the accompanying procedures must be a priority.
  4. Research before rulemaking: Many of the plans and promises made in the FAA’s NextGen documents are based on assumptions about technology that has yet to be developed. While the ideas are a good basis for research and development projects, it is misleading for the FAA to describe its plans for operations as if the required technology were already available.

Redundancy: The Need for a Viable Backup System

While we believe ADS-B has tremendous potential and is capable of providing precise, accurate, and instantaneous information on aircraft positions to air traffic controllers, it is particularly vulnerable due to its single-site source. ADS-B is satellite-based technology, with information broadcasting from a single source satellite orbiting the earth. While this allows it to be more precise than the current ground-based radar, the singularity of its source makes it vulnerable to natural disasters and criminal or terrorist acts. If the satellite were to cease functioning for any reason, the entire U.S. air traffic control system would be crippled.

The current ground-based radar system gathers its information from numerous radar sights located throughout the country. If one radar sight were to fail, another site could act as a back up. For example, if a terminal radar site were to fail, Center Radar, or CENRAP, from the nearest en route radar site would be able to provide the relevant data. In most cases when this occurs, FAA separation requirements are increased from three miles to five miles, but safety is maintained and service is uninterrupted.

Until redundancy can be incorporated into the new technology, the easiest option for creating the system redundancy necessary to maintain the safety of the NAS is to maintain the existing ground radar coverage as a backup for the ADS-B system. However, due to financial considerations, the Agency wants to decommission many of the current radar sites, which would result in an incomplete backup system with gaps in coverage.

Further complicating this is the issue of frequency congestion. ADS-B transmits its information in the same frequency spectrum as the current radar systems, TCAS, ASDE-X, and other critical aviation safety technology. There are simply not enough frequencies available to transmit all of the necessary information. According to a briefing before the Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) on February 24, 2009, the FAA would have to decommission all existing radar sites and reduce TCAS surveillance to 60 percent in order to safely utilize ADS-B in future NextGen applications. This further limitation of the available redundancy makes the NAS more vulnerable to failure and puts the safety of the flying public at risk.

Before ADS-B is implemented, the FAA must develop a safe and viable means of providing a backup system. Redundancy and workable backup systems are vital to the safety of the NAS, and must not be discounted in the fervor to introduce new technology.

Near-term Redundancy Concerns: FAA Realignment Initiatives

In the near term, we have similar concerns regarding the loss of redundancy due to facility and service realignment initiatives. By proceeding recklessly with de-consolidation initiatives, the FAA has delivered a serious blow to redundancy in knowledge and training. In combined tower/Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facilities, each air traffic controller is trained on all aspects of arrivals and departures. With this overlapping knowledge, controllers are able to more safely and efficiently coordinate with one another and control aircraft. The redundancy in training also gives managers more flexibility in staffing. This redundancy is being removed through the FAA’s realignment initiatives, diminishing the safety and efficiency of air traffic control operations and making facilities more vulnerable to the effects of the staffing crisis.

The FAA is also moving forward on a number of consolidation initiatives, in which the FAA would first split tower/TRACON functions in current combined facilities and then consolidate the radar functions into a larger facility. In these instances, not only is training and knowledge redundancy sacrificed, but security also becomes a serious concern. As with the single ADS-B site, consolidating air traffic control facilities and eliminating radar capabilities at many airports leaves regions vulnerable to attack, natural disaster, or technological malfunction. If a consolidated facility were to fail, not only would a single airport be out of service, but the entire region would be shut down to air travel as well.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee recently introduced HR 915, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009, which created a process for evaluating realignment decisions and involving all stakeholders in the planning process. NATCA believes that this is the correct approach and urges this Committee to include similar language in their companion legislation. Working together, stakeholders can help mitigate the redundancy loss and ensure that realignment initiatives are undertaken only when they present an operational benefit to users, improve safety, efficiency and capacity, while also saving taxpayer money.

Equipage: A Major Hurdle in Tough Economic Times

In order to utilize the technology and procedures that create the foundation of NextGen, aircraft must be equipped with new technology. For general and business aviation, the process of equipage may be cost-prohibitive. Encouraging voluntary compliance for these fliers may prove to be a fruitless effort, and mandatory equipage may cripple the general aviation industry beyond repair. One NATCA member and private pilot echoed the sentiments of many when he said, “I'll stop flying before I spend $35,000 on new equipment for my $50,000 plane.” Particularly during these difficult economic times, when private pilots are struggling to pay for regular maintenance and fuel costs, the added expense will be cost prohibitive to most.

For the commercial airline industry, moving forward with NextGen means undergoing the expensive process of retrofitting a fleet of aircraft, a major challenge for airlines struggling to continue operations despite the economic downturn. Early equipage difficulties may be exacerbated by the FAA's history of changing technological requirements and delaying or abandoning modernization efforts. American Airlines, for example, retrofitted its fleet to install the Controller Pilot Data Link Communication system (CPDLC) only to see the FAA abandoned its efforts in 2004, leaving the airline to foot the bill for technology it would never use.

Airlines may be reluctant to equip their fleets until they can see a clear operational or economic benefit and until the FAA has demonstrated a firm commitment to a particular set of equipage standards. NextGen will be delayed until the FAA is able to effectively address the legitimate concern of airlines and aircraft owners and convince them that the technology is a good investment.

“Best-Equipped, Best-Served”: Implications on Human Factors

In an attempt to create artificial economic incentives for early equipage, the FAA has announced that it will implement a policy that would “provide 'best-equipped, best-served' priority in the NAS to early adopters.” This has serious implications for safe and efficient operations and for the workload and complexity for air traffic controllers.

Currently, air traffic controllers provide service on a first-come, first-serve basis. Air traffic controllers instruct aircraft to merge onto airways or disburse to their destinations in the order which comes most naturally, the order in which they arrive. Giving priority to particular aircraft would require complex maneuvering on the part of air traffic controllers, who would have to vector aircraft around one another in order to give preferential treatment. This is an unnecessary level of complexity introduced into the already complex air traffic control environment. As with any additional complexity, it brings with it an increased risk in terms of both safety and delays.

Air traffic controllers are also taught to maximize the efficiency of the NAS to the maximum extent practicable without sacrificing safety. This often means granting requests from pilots to proceed directly to particular navigation points of reference, VORs, rather than continuing along the prescribed route. Currently, this is done whenever air traffic and weather conditions permit. As there is no way to increase the use of these on-the-fly improvements to efficiency, the only way to provide incentives is to instruct controllers to avoid giving direct routes to aircraft without the new equipment. This means decreasing the overall efficiency of the NAS, and increasing flight delays for unequipped aircraft.

Lastly, differential treatment from air traffic control based on level of equipage requires the controller to know the level of equipage. This would mean an additional piece of information in an already cluttered data-block. According to a Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI) study, the quantity of information in the display has a direct relationship to the time it takes for a controller to scan that display. Similarly, when a display is cluttered with information, it takes additional time to scan and parse out the relevant data. Therefore, adding this additional information to the data blocks will increase the complexity of air traffic control even before one accounts for the preferential maneuvering.

Human Factors Considerations for “Trajectory Management”

The FAA’s NextGen plans include increased automation and eventual self-separation of aircraft, resulting in a shift in the “traditional responsibilities and practices of pilots/controllers.” Under the proposed system, air traffic control would shift to what the FAA is euphemistically referring to as “Trajectory Management.” Essentially, air traffic controllers would discontinue active air traffic control and shift instead to air traffic monitoring and route management. This could have serious implications for the safety of the NAS.

Studies have shown that “when acting as a monitor of an automated system, people are frequently slow in detecting that a problem has occurred that necessitates their intervention. Once detected, additional time is also needed to determine the state of the system and sufficiently understand what is happening in order to be able to act in an appropriate manner. The extra time associated with performing these steps can be critical, prohibiting performance of the very activity the human is present to handle.” Safe air traffic control depends on the ability to quickly assess situations and make split second decisions.

Training and experience would also be a serious issue in this scenario. After this changeover of duties is completed, it won’t be long before the system is staffed entirely by individuals with no active air traffic control experience or on-the-job training. Even those who might remain in the profession and remember active air traffic control would quickly fall out of practice. Currently, controllers and managers who are working off the floor are required to work positions for 16 hours to maintain currency. Maintaining this level of currency would be impossible should automated separation become the standard. This too, would make it difficult for air traffic monitors to safely perform air traffic control functions should automated separation fail.

Research Before Rulemaking

At this stage of NextGen’s progress, it is difficult to talk about near-term benefits of the system. Although this Committee is justified in looking for short-term improvements to help alleviate delays and improve capacity of the NAS, NextGen may not be the best place to look. Right now, NextGen is little more than a very ambitious research and development project. While the technology being developed may eventually produce great benefit to the system, it is misleading for the FAA to speak of plans as if the technology already existed.

For example, on January 29th of this year, the FAA published a PowerPoint presentation entitled “Delivering NextGen: Trajectory Based Operations.” This document included statements such as “ANSP uses scheduling tools and trajectory based operations to assure a smooth flow of traffic and increase the efficient use of airspace,” implying the availability of 4-D scheduling tools (three traditional directions plus time) that are, in fact, still in the early stages of developments. It is still unknown when these scheduling tools will be fully developed or even how they will function, yet the FAA continues to publish descriptions of how flight paths will be changed and how the new procedures will look.

To create and outline the procedures at this early stage of the development process is both disingenuous and irresponsible. The FAA is misleading its stakeholders into thinking the process is already further along than it actually is. It is also spending time, money, and manpower developing procedures and plans when it is unknown precisely how the necessary tools will function. This means that FAA is either developing broad and non-specific procedures, which are largely useless except as a public relations tool, or they are developing specific procedures which will likely need to be rebuilt once the technology is available.

Conclusion

In NextGen, the FAA has undertaken a large-scale and long-term research and development project to overhaul the technological infrastructure of the air traffic control system. This ambitious undertaking has serious implications for the future of the National Airspace System and should therefore include the meaningful participation of all NAS stakeholders.

NATCA supports the FAA’s modernization efforts and is eager to be a part of the team developing and planning the technology that will bring us into the next generation of air traffic control. We look forward to working with the FAA to help them address the serious outstanding issues including human factors, equipage, and redundancy concerns. It is essential for us to be included as partners in this ongoing modernization effort.

NATCA President Pat Forrey Testifies on NextGen Before House Aviation Subcommittee - (3/18/2009)

Introduction

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) is the exclusive representative of over 15,000 air traffic controllers 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, 500 aircraft certification professionals, agency operational support staff, regional personnel from FAA’s logistics, budget, finance, and computer specialist divisions, and agency occupational health specialists, nurses, and medical program specialists. NATCA’s mission is to preserve, promote and improve the safety of air travel within the United States, and to serve as an advocate for air traffic controllers and other aviation safety professionals. NATCA has a long history of supporting new aviation technology, modernizing and enhancing our nation’s air traffic control system, and working to ensure that we are prepared to meet the growing demand for aviation services.

NATCA’s Recommendations

NATCA remains, as ever, completely committed to the safety and efficiency of the National Airspace System (NAS). New technology has the potential to improve safety, expand capacity, and increase efficiency of the NAS. Therefore, we support the FAA’s willingness to undertake the large scale and long-term research, development and modernization project that it has labeled the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). There are however, several outstanding shortcomings with the FAA’s methodology and plans that need to be addressed at this early stage of the process.

  1. The FAA must collaborate meaningfully with stakeholders – The inclusion of NATCA is critical to the success of NextGen and all projects relating to modernization, technology and procedures. As recently as February 11th of this year, the Government Accountability Office and the Inspector General of the Transportation Department have both testified before this Committee that controller involvement prevents cost overruns and implementation delays. NATCA must be included in all stages, from inception to implementation.

  2. NowGen must not be neglected as we prepare for NextGen – The current air traffic control system has fallen into disrepair. Both the human infrastructure, including staffing levels of air traffic controllers, inspectors, engineers, and other aviation safety professionals, and physical infrastructure, such as poorly-maintained and deteriorating air traffic control facilities, need attention in the near term.

  3. Human factors must be addressed – Several of NextGen’s proposals raise serious concerns regarding human factors, including the increased complexity and safety risk inherent in a best equipped, best served policy. These issues must be addressed during the development stages in order to avoid delays, cost overruns, and safety failures.

  4. Safety requires redundancy – NATCA is concerned that the system being proposed by the FAA, which is centralized and lacking a viable backup, is unacceptably vulnerable to attack or natural disaster. Human intervention must not be the first and only layer of redundancy. The FAA must build redundancy into the system in order to ensure that in the event of an attack, natural disaster, or technological failure, safety is not compromised.

Collaboration is Critical

The participation of NATCA throughout all stages of NextGen’s development and implementation is critical to the success of this project. NATCA’s members are frontline workers who are able to provide vital insight to help the team identify and address human-interface issues and other concerns. Doing so on the front-end rather than during implementation will save the agency time, taxpayer money and resources while avoiding potential damage to the integrity of the air traffic control system. Because NATCA’s members have an intimate understanding of frontline air traffic control, they are uniquely qualified to provide insight into the needs of the system, the utility of the FAA’s proposed technology, and the usability of the products included under the NextGen umbrella.

The FAA’s go-it-alone strategy has come under criticism by this Committee and throughout the aviation industry. Last month, the FAA announced that it has committed to launching a NextGen Implementation Panel, through the RTCA Inc. (formerly the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics). Despite this gesture, to date we have received no indication from the FAA that the Agency has any intention of meaningfully collaborating with NATCA.

During the late 1990s and into the early part of this decade, the FAA completed more than 7,100 projects to install and integrate new facilities, systems, and equipment into the NAS, as well as more than 10,000 hardware and software upgrades. During this time, NATCA had representatives on over 70 modernization and procedure development projects1 through the Controller Liaison Program. This program allowed controllers to provide crucial insight and guidance for the development and implementation of some of the most effective technological and procedural advancements including: Advanced Technologies and Oceanic Procedures (ATOP), Display System Replacement (DSR), User Request Evaluation Tool (URET), Voice Switching Control System (VSCS), Domestic Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (DRVSM), and Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS). Despite its success, the Liaison Program was terminated in 2003. Throughout the rest of the Bush Administration, the FAA resisted any meaningful input from NATCA – to the detriment of the NAS.

The labor-management environment that developed during the Bush administration continues to make meaningful collaboration nearly impossible. The contempt with which all levels of Agency management has treated and continues to treat the air traffic controller workforce makes it clear that the agency does not value the professionalism of NATCA’s members. It is our hope that after the imposed work rules are addressed by the Obama Administration and NATCA and the FAA reach a mutually-accepted collective bargaining agreement, we can again return to an era of cooperation and collaboration that will best serve the needs of the FAA, air traffic controllers, stakeholders, and the flying public.

NowGen: Human Infrastructure

While NATCA believes that NextGen may hold some promising plans and technology for the future of air traffic control, we are concerned that the Agency’s focus on NextGen comes at the expense of the current air traffic control system, or NowGen. There are some very pressing problems facing the air traffic control system of today that can be addressed using available technology and infrastructure.

Air traffic control facilities across the nation are severely understaffed as a result of the wave of retirements and resignations following the agency’s unilateral imposition of work and pay rules on the air traffic controller workforce. Rampant fatigue in the workforce is undermining safety across the system as those controllers that remain are required to work excessive amounts of overtime, have fewer opportunities for rest on and off the shift, and are often required to do a job designed for two to four controllers when Radar Associate positions are eliminated and positions are combined. The FAA’s recent hiring efforts intended to combat the staffing problem have resulted in an unsafe ratio of trainees, a training backlog, and an overreliance on developmentals, or trainees, to work live traffic.

Over 46,000 years of experience has been lost since the imposed work rules. Along with that experience, vital institutional knowledge and qualified instructors have been sacrificed over the past two and a half years. The FAA must make addressing the workforce issue its top priority; returning to the bargaining table to reach a legitimate and mutually-acceptable collective bargaining agreement would go a long way towards stabilizing today’s air traffic controller workforce and setting a solid foundation for the training and development of the air traffic controller workforce of tomorrow.

NowGen: Physical Infrastructure

In addition to the deterioration of the human infrastructure, the FAA must contend with the deterioration of the physical infrastructure. According to a recent report by the Department of Transportation Inspector General, 59 percent of FAA facilities are beyond their 30-year design life, while all 23 En Route centers are over 40 years old. Several air traffic control facilities including Detroit Metropolitan Airport Tower and TRACON (DTW), O’Hare International Airport Tower (ORD), Kansas City Tower/TRACON (MCI), Miami ARTCC (ZMA), and Memphis ARTCC (ZME) have reported problems with mold contamination. At DTW inspectors have confirmed the presence of stachybotrys, a toxic form of mold believed to be a contributory factor in health problems experienced by controllers at the facility, including cases of occupational asthma, as well as seven cancer diagnoses during the past six years.

The FAA has also fallen behind in the installation of vital runway incursion prevention technology. Airport Surface Detection Equipment-Model X (ASDE-X) is a developed and proven surface radar system that has been used to great effect where it has been installed. Unfortunately, the FAA has allowed this demonstrated technology to take a back seat to NextGen and is on track to miss its delivery benchmarks. While the FAA estimated that ASDE-X would be deployed at the 35 busiest airports by the end of 2010, to date they have installed only 13 of the 35 (having taken four years to install the first 11), and several of those that have been installed are still experiencing serious implementation glitches.

The FAA must make the maintenance and appropriate equipage of existing air traffic control facilities a priority. Air traffic controllers must be provided with safe and secure facilities and up-to-date equipment so that they can continue to maintain the safest and most efficient air traffic control system in the world.

Potential Advantages of NextGen Technology and Systems

NATCA believes that there is great potential in Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B). As the FAA has stated, satellite-based technology is capable of providing a more accurate depiction of aircraft location and eliminating the lag time of traditional radar scans. This degree of precision can help ensure greater safety and efficiency by allowing air traffic controllers the ability to make better-informed decisions regarding aircraft movements. If aircraft were equipped with ADS-B displays, pilots would have additional tools with which to process and understand their location and flying conditions, allowing pilots to maintain greater situational awareness, particularly during periods of poor visibility.

This capability will give controllers greater flexibility and provide predictability to the users. For example, controllers will be able to more frequently instruct pilots to proceed to the airport visually, utilizing the ADS-B in weather currently requiring instrument flight rules (IFR). A visual approach, which is granted at the discretion of air traffic controllers, requires pilots to utilize a simple “see and avoid” method of separation, allowing then to follow more closely than instrument guided approach standards permit. With current technology, controllers may only grant visual approaches during good weather and when visibility is unobstructed, as pilots must safely see the runway, ground, surrounding terrain, and other aircraft in the vicinity. With ADS-B displays, pilots would be able to artificially “see” other aircraft even during inclement whether, giving controllers greater flexibility to use these less complex and more efficient approach rules, increasing the arrival rates regardless of the weather. There would no longer be a need to reduce arrival rates during IFR weather. The users could more accurately predict scheduling, reduce delays, and increase capacity.

Concerns over NextGen

Based on the public documents that the FAA has made available on NextGen, NATCA has several outstanding concerns that we believe the FAA must address comprehensively before it can begin the roll-out of any major NextGen technology or policy changes. As previously stated, we believe that these and other issues can be most effectively addressed in a collaborative environment, and we sincerely hope that NATCA can be a part of developing the solutions to the problems facing the current air traffic control system and plan for the future system. Below are the concerns NATCA believes must be addressed immediately, which will be discussed in greater depth in the sections that follow.

  1. The FAA must retain a back-up system: Redundancy is the essential element of any safety operation. The FAA’s published plans contain no viable backup should the satellite fail due to natural or criminal activity. Limited frequency availability further complicates this situation.

  2. Safe and viable plan for equipage: The success of NextGen is dependent on the equipage of thousands of aircraft with new technology, an expensive undertaking that would be a major financial strain on airlines, general aviation and business aviation, particularly in the current economic climate. The FAA has tried to address this by instituting a new “best equipped, best served” policy for air traffic control. This policy has serious implications for safety, as it adds an untenable level of complexity to air traffic control operations. If the FAA wishes to incentivize equipage, it must do so in a way that does not compromise safety.

  3. Full consideration of human factors: Many of the proposed changes to the air traffic control system place significant demands on the people who make the system work. The usability of the technology and the accompanying procedures must be a priority.

  4. Research before rulemaking: Many of the plans and promises made in the FAA’s NextGen documents are based on assumptions about technology that has yet to be developed. While the ideas are a good basis for research and development projects, it is misleading for the FAA to describe its plans for operations as if the required technology were already available.

Redundancy: The Need for a Viable Back-Up System

While we believe ADS-B has tremendous potential and is capable of providing precise, accurate, and instantaneous information on aircraft positions to air traffic controllers, it is particularly vulnerable due to its single-site source. ADS-B is satellite-based technology, with information broadcasting from a single source satellite orbiting the earth. While this allows it to be more precise than the current ground-based radar, the singularity of its source makes it vulnerable to natural disasters and criminal or terrorist acts. If the satellite were to cease functioning for any reason, the entire US air traffic control system would be crippled.

The current ground-based radar system gathers its information from numerous radar sights located throughout the country. If one radar sight were to fail, another site could act as a back up. For example, if a terminal radar site were to fail, Center Radar, or CENRAP, from the nearest en route radar site would be able to provide the relevant data. In most cases when this occurs, FAA separation requirements are increased from three miles to five miles, but safety is maintained and service is uninterrupted.

Until redundancy can be incorporated into the new technology, the easiest option for creating the system redundancy necessary to maintain the safety of the NAS is to maintain the existing ground radar coverage as a back-up for the ADS-B system. However, due to financial considerations, the Agency wants to decommission many of the current radar sites, which would result in an incomplete backup system with gaps in coverage.

Further complicating this is the issue of frequency congestion. ADS-B transmits its information in the same frequency spectrum as the current radar systems, TCASS, ASDE-X and other critical aviation safety technology. There are simply not enough frequencies available to transmit all of the necessary information. According to a briefing before the Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) on February 24, 2009, the FAA would have to decommission all existing radar sites and reduce TCASS surveillance to 60 percent in order to safely utilize ADS-B4. This further limitation of the available redundancy makes the NAS more vulnerable to failure and puts the safety of the flying public at risk.

Before ADS-B is implemented, the FAA must develop a safe and viable means of providing a back-up system. Redundancy and workable back-up systems are vital to the safety of the NAS, and must not be discounted in the fervor to introduce new technology.

Near-term Redundancy Concerns: FAA Realignment Initiatives

In the near term, we have similar concerns regarding the loss of redundancy due to facility and service realignment initiatives. By proceeding recklessly with de-consolidation initiatives, the FAA has delivered a serious blow to redundancy in knowledge and training. In combined tower/Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facilities each air traffic controller is trained on all aspects of arrivals and departures. With this overlapping knowledge, controllers are able to more safely and efficiently coordinate with one another and control aircraft. The redundancy in training also gives managers more flexibility in staffing. This redundancy is being removed through the FAA’s realignment initiatives, diminishing the safety and efficiency of air traffic control operations and making facilities more vulnerable to the effects of the staffing crisis.

The FAA is also moving forward on a number of consolidation initiatives, in which the FAA would first split tower/TRACON functions in current combined facilities and then consolidate the radar functions into a larger facility. In these instances, not only is training and knowledge redundancy sacrificed but security also becomes a serious concern. As with the single ADS-B site, consolidating air traffic control facilities and eliminating radar capabilities at many airports leaves regions vulnerable to attack, natural disaster, or technological malfunction. If a consolidated facility were to fail, not only would a single airport be out of service but the entire region would be shut down to air travel as well.

We applaud the Committee for its work on the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009 in which it created a process for evaluating realignment decisions and involving all stakeholders in the planning process. Working together, stakeholders can help mitigate the redundancy loss and ensure that realignment initiatives are undertaken only when they present an operational benefit to users, improve safety, efficiency, and capacity, while also saving taxpayer money.

Equipage: A Major Hurdle in Tough Economic Times

In order to utilize the technology and procedures that create the foundation of NextGen, aircraft must be equipped with new technology. For general and business aviation, the process of equipage may be cost-prohibitive. Encouraging voluntary compliance for these fliers may prove to be a fruitless effort, and mandatory equipage may cripple the general aviation industry beyond repair. One NATCA member and private pilot echoed the sentiments of many when he said, “I'll stop flying before I spend $35,000 on new equipment for my $50,000 plane.” Particularly during these difficult economic times, when private pilots are struggling to pay for regular maintenance and fuel costs, the added expense will be cost prohibitive to most.

For the commercial airline industry, moving forward with NextGen means undergoing the expensive process of retrofitting a fleet of aircraft, a major challenge for airlines struggling to continue operations despite the economic downturn. Early equipage difficulties may be exacerbated by the FAA's history of changing technological requirements and delaying or abandoning modernization efforts. American Airlines, for example, retrofitted its fleet to install the Controller Pilot Data Link Communication system (CPDLC) only to see the FAA abandoned its efforts in 2004, leaving the airline to foot the bill for technology it would never use.

Airlines may be reluctant to equip their fleets until they can see a clear operational or economic benefit and until the FAA has demonstrated a firm commitment to a particular set of equipage standards. NextGen will be delayed until the FAA is able to effectively address the legitimate concern of airlines and aircraft owners and convince them that the technology is a good investment.

“Best Equipped, Best Served”: Implications on Human Factors

In an attempt to create artificial economic incentives for early equipage, the FAA has announced that it will implement a policy that would “provide 'best-equipped, best-served' priority in the NAS to early adopters.” This has serious implications for safe and efficient operations and for the workload and complexity for air traffic controllers.

Currently, air traffic controllers provide service on a first-come, first-serve basis. Air traffic controllers instruct aircraft to merge onto airways or disburse to their destinations in the order which comes most naturally, the order in which they arrive. Giving priority to particular aircraft would require complex maneuvering on the part of air traffic controllers, who would have to vector aircraft around one another in order to give preferential treatment. This is an unnecessary level of complexity introduced into the already complex air traffic control environment. As with any additional complexity, it brings with it an increased risk in terms of both safety and delays.

Air traffic controllers are also taught to maximize the efficiency of the NAS to the maximum extent practicable without sacrificing safety. This often means granting requests from pilots to proceed directly to particular navigation points of reference, VORs, rather than continuing along the prescribed route. Currently, this is done whenever air traffic and whether conditions permit. As there is no way to increase the use of these on-the-fly improvements to efficiency, the only way to provide incentives is to instruct controllers to avoid giving direct routes to aircraft without the new equipment. This means decreasing the overall efficiency of the NAS, and increasing flight delays for unequipped aircraft.

Lastly, differential treatment from air traffic control based on level of equipage requires the controller to know the level of equipage. This would mean an additional piece of information in an already-cluttered data-block. According to a Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI) study, the quantity of information in the display has a direct relationship to the time it takes for a controller to scan that display. Similarly, when a display is cluttered with information, it takes additional time to scan and parse out the relevant data.5 Therefore, adding this additional information to the data blocks will increase the complexity of air traffic control even before one accounts for the preferential maneuvering.

Human Factors Considerations for “Trajectory Management”

The FAA’s NextGen plans include increased automation and eventual self-separation of aircraft, resulting in a shift in the “traditional responsibilities and practices of pilots/controllers.” Under the proposed system, air traffic control would shift to what the FAA is euphemistically referring to as “Trajectory Management.” Essentially, air traffic controllers would discontinue active air traffic control and shift instead to air traffic monitoring and route management. This could have serious implications for the safety of the NAS.

Studies have shown that “when acting as a monitor of an automated system, people are frequently slow in detecting that a problem has occurred that necessitates their intervention. Once detected, additional time is also needed to determine the state of the system and sufficiently understand what is happening in order to be able to act in an appropriate manner. The extra time associated with performing these steps can be critical, prohibiting performance of the very activity the human is present to handle.”6 Safe air traffic control depends on the ability to quickly assess situations and make split second decisions.

Training and experience would also be a serious issue in this scenario. After this changeover of duties is completed it won’t be long before the system is staffed entirely by individuals with no active air traffic control experience or on the job training. Even those who might remain in the profession and remember active air traffic control would quickly fall out of practice. Currently, controllers and managers who are working off the floor are required to work positions for 16 hours to maintain currency. Maintaining this level of currency would be impossible should automated separation become the standard. This too, would make it difficult for air traffic monitors to safely perform air traffic control functions should automated separation fail.

Research Before Rulemaking

At this stage of NextGen’s progress, it is difficult to talk about near-term benefits of the system. Although this Committee is justified in looking for short-term improvements to help alleviate delays and improve capacity of the NAS, NextGen may not be the best place to look. Right now, NextGen is little more than a very ambitious research and development project. While the technology being developed may eventually produce great benefit to the system, it is misleading for the FAA to speak of plans as if the technology already existed.

For example, On January 29th of this year, the FAA published a PowerPoint presentation entitled “Delivering NextGen: Trajectory Based Operations,” This document included statements such as “ANSP uses scheduling tools and trajectory based operations to assure a smooth flow of traffic and increase the efficient use of airspace,” 7 implying the availability of 4-D scheduling tools (three traditional directions plus time) that are, in fact, still in the early stages of developments. It is still unknown when these scheduling tools will be fully developed or even how they will function, yet the FAA continues to publish descriptions of how flight paths will be changed and how the new procedures will look.

To create and outline the procedures at this early stage of the development process is both disingenuous and irresponsible. The FAA is misleading its stakeholders into thinking the process is already further along than it actually is. It is also spending time, money and manpower developing procedures and plans when it is unknown precisely how the necessary tools will function. This means that FAA is either developing broad and non-specific procedures, which are largely useless except as a public relations tool, or they are developing specific procedures which will likely need to be rebuilt once the technology is available.

Conclusion

In NextGen, the FAA has undertaken a large-scale and long-term research and development project to overhaul the technological infrastructure of the air traffic control system. This ambitious undertaking has serious implications for the future of the National Airspace System and should therefore include the meaningful participation of all NAS stakeholders.

NATCA supports the FAA’s modernization efforts and is eager to be a part of the team developing and planning the technology that will bring us into the next generation of air traffic control. We look forward to working with the FAA to help them address the serious outstanding issues including human factors, equipage, and redundancy concerns. It is essential for us to be included as partners in this ongoing modernization effort.

Testimony of Pat Forrey before Senate Aviation Subcommittee - FAA Reauthorization - (5/13/2009)

Introduction

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) is the exclusive representative of more than 15,000 air traffic controllers 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, 500 aircraft certification professionals, agency operational support staff, regional personnel from FAA’s logistics, budget, finance, and computer specialist divisions, and agency occupational health specialists, nurses, and medical program specialists. NATCA’s mission is to preserve, promote, and improve the safety of air travel within the United States, and to serve as an advocate for air traffic controllers and other aviation safety professionals. NATCA has a long history of supporting new aviation technology, modernizing and enhancing our nation’s air traffic control system, and working to ensure that we are prepared to meet the growing demand for aviation services.

Why Passage of FAA Reauthorization Is Urgently Needed: NATCA’s Perspective

The air traffic controllers and aviation safety professionals that NATCA represents are highly trained and highly skilled; they deserve to have the most advanced technology to enable them to more effectively direct aircraft, contributing to a safer and more efficient National Airspace System (NAS) .

NATCA has been a vocal supporter of FAA Reauthorization and continues to urge swift passage of the legislation to facilitate safe and effective modernization of the NAS while maintaining, up-keeping, and improving vital human and physical infrastructure.

The current economic downturn and the subsequent decrease in flight volume present not only a challenge, but also an opportunity to improve the NAS so that air traffic controllers will be better able to handle the inevitable resurgence of our aviation industry when the economy fully rebounds.

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, we support the FAA’s willingness to undertake the large-scale and long-term research, development, and modernization project called the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). Yet the complexity and the risk of this program should not be underestimated. The GAO has stated that NextGen is a “high-risk effort” because of its cost and complexity, making it imperative that the FAA proceed in a manner that maximizes the chances of success.

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.

The Agency is also 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.

A restoration of what was once a great collaborative relationship is only possible with the existence of a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and a fair process for negotiating future CBAs and other labor agreements. Air traffic controllers have been working under FAA-imposed work and pay rules for nearly 1,000 days. Two weeks ago, the Obama Administration announced that it was appointing former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey to lead a team of three to mediate the contract dispute between NATCA and the FAA. With this bold step, President Obama and Secretary LaHood are fulfilling a commitment to the safety and modernization of the air traffic control system and to the dedicated men and women safety professionals who run the system each day.

As the President and the Secretary have repeatedly made clear, a resolution to the dispute is critical to stabilizing the controller workforce, restoring a collaborative working relationship between controllers and the FAA, and successfully implementing the Next Generation Air Transportation System needed to spur economic development and increase the safety, efficiency, and effectiveness of air travel.

As the President also made clear, the current process that was used by the FAA to unfairly impose its will on the controller workforce in 2006 is terribly flawed, but this process can be improved by an FAA Reauthorization bill. We supported this Committee’s language last Congress in S. 1300 that provided a fix to the process by addressing the FAA Personnel Management System. Section 313 would restore fairness to the collective bargaining process and ensures that the Agency can never again unilaterally impose a work or pay rules upon its workforce.

NATCA’s Recommendations for FAA Reauthorization

  1. Contract Dispute Resolution: NATCA supports the inclusion of language similar to Section 313 of S. 1300, the Aviation Investment and Modernization Act of 2007, which sought to prevent future disputes between the Agency and its employees. The bill amended Title 49 to allow for, in the event of a bargaining impasse, the proposals to go through mediation and ultimately, binding arbitration. Implementation of such a process would ensure that Congress will never again find itself in the middle of a contract dispute between the FAA and NATCA.

  2. Realignment of Facilities and Services: NATCA supports the inclusion of language in FAA Reauthorization that would ensure that all FAA realignment initiatives are considered in a collaborative environment and provide a specific operational benefit. NATCA supports the establishment of a workgroup of stakeholders to review all realignment proposals prior to the FAA beginning the realignment process, which we believe must include representatives of all of the affected bargaining units. Additionally, NATCA recommends that realignment be clearly defined as to prevent ambiguity and to provide clarity and uniformity to the process.

  3. Staffing: NATCA fully supports and endorses an air traffic controller staffing provision within the FAA Reauthorization bill authorizing a third-party to conduct scientific study of the system’s air traffic controller staffing need. This language would allow the FAA, Congress, and NATCA to objectively and accurately assess the current risk to the NAS and set benchmarks for resolving the staffing crisis. Just last month, a Department of Transportation Inspector General report stated that the FAA has not yet validated its staffing ranges and therefore cannot ensure it truly represents the workforce needs. The report also said that the “FAA faces an increasing risk of not having enough fully certified controllers in its workforce,” further making the case that such a study is necessary.

  4. Modernization: NATCA supports appropriate funding levels in the FAA Reauthorization bill to modernize the air traffic control system. The NextGen modernization project’s initial plan lacked clearly-defined goals, leadership, and had begun without including stakeholders in the process. The problems associated with ERAM and airspace redesign, which are outlined later in NATCA’s testimony, are demonstrative of projects that have run into problems at least partly because NATCA was not meaningfully involved. NextGen’s success is highly dependent upon a cooperative environment for the development and implementation of new and pre-existing technology.

  5. Maintenance of Air Traffic Control (ATC) Infrastructure: NATCA supports adequate funding for the maintenance of our ATC infrastructure. It is imperative that the funding of NextGen does not come at the expense of the NowGen.

During the previous Administration, the FAA allowed existing facilities to fall into disrepair while focusing all its energy and budget on NextGen projects. While NATCA supports the modernization of the NAS, we also insist upon the proper maintenance of the system. FAA facilities and ATC infrastructure must be maintained in a manner that ensures the safety and security of FAA personnel and allows aviation safety professionals the tools they need to do their jobs to the high standard of excellence we expect and depend on.

Realignment of Facilities and Services

Realignment – the consolidation, deconsolidation, or reorganization of FAA facilities and services – must be implemented only when such changes enhance operational services, provide continued or improved safety, support and facilitate modernization of the NAS, is cost-effective, and the concerns raised by stakeholders are addressed and mitigated. During the past 20 years, the FAA has completed several realignments, including Southern and Northern California, and Potomac in the Washington, D.C. area. NATCA worked cooperatively and collaboratively with the FAA on these efforts because air traffic controllers and other vital stakeholders were included in the planning to help ensure the maintenance of safe and efficient operations, and to express their concerns about controller staffing levels, equipment, training, and redundancy.

During the previous Administration, the FAA began to separate radar and tower air traffic services at several airports across the country without seeking input from stakeholders. The FAA continued to move forward on these initiatives despite serious outstanding concerns over the effect such changes would have on safety and doubts over the operational benefit. Of particular concern in these cases was the staffing shortage, loss of staffing flexibility, barriers to coordination, and the deterioration of controllers’ knowledge of operations.

In Colorado, for example, the FAA transferred the radar functions from the Pueblo International Airport to the Denver TRACON in September of 2008, despite a significant shortage of certified controllers in Denver to absorb the new workload. The increase in workload led to a decrease in ATC services for users in the Denver airspace, leading a manager at the Denver En Route Center to advise his employees in February “that the volume issues created by eight different routes flowing into their airspace routinely created situations that put their controllers at risk, and they are unable to provide the level of service our customers deserve.”

A similar situation has arisen at the Southern California TRACON (SCT), which has seen overtime increase by a staggering 400 percent since the radar services for Palm Springs International Airport were transferred nearly two years ago.

According to an April 23, 2009, report by the DOT Inspector General, SCT is not only the busiest TRACON in the world, handling over 2.2 million operations last year, but one of the most critically understaffed. The report states that SCT “has experienced a sharp decline in CPCs over the last five years…” and “…expects to have over 100 controllers in training later this year – which is more than 40 percent of its workforce and could overwhelm SCT’s training capacity.” NATCA does not believe that these are ideal conditions for absorbing additional radar responsibilities.

At Orlando International Airport (MCO) the split has left the tower with significant levels of inexperience; more than 50 percent of MCO tower controllers have five years of experience or less. When the facility was combined this percentage was reduced to 35 percent, which, while still very high, was less dangerous.

For Miami and Philadelphia, also targeted by the FAA for tower/TRACON separation, NATCA offered an alternative configuration that enabled the facility to simultaneously maintain the advantages of a combined facility while reducing training time. After congressional and public pressure forced the FAA to review this alternative configuration, the FAA ultimately agreed that the proposed configuration would resolve the issues at hand without creating additional safety risks. This sudden course correction revealed the need for a thorough and open selection and review process for FAA facility realignment initiatives.

The FAA conducted a study at Memphis International Airport (MEM), which found that a stand-alone TRACON at MEM would need to be staffed with 43 certified professional controllers (CPCs) while the tower would require 37. A split facility would therefore require a total of 80 CPCs. However, the combined facility currently employs only 47 CPCs, less than 60 percent of what is necessary to operate a split facility. Unfortunately, the FAA is rushing ahead to complete its split of MEM on June 7, 2009, instead of postponing the move until Congress has completed its work on FAA Reauthorization. In general, split facilities require additional staffing, as there is a reduction in flexibility when the workforce is split.

Additionally, controllers at combined tower/TRACON facilities must learn all aspects of operations required for safe and efficient arrivals and departures.

Controllers therefore understand how their actions at one position effect the operations of adjacent positions, enabling them to optimize their performance for both safety and efficiency. When facilities are split, this knowledge is lost. Not only will new trainees be denied the opportunity to train on all aspects of the operation, they will not even have the opportunity to observe operations at other sectors.

The FAA has an obligation to involve members of Congress, the public, airport operators, pilots, controllers, and other stakeholders in the decision-making, planning, and implementation process of any agency effort that could affect the safety and efficiency of the airspace. Regrettably, the agency has chosen to exclude stakeholders from the process, ignore their concerns, and inform the public only after its decision has been made. This go-it-alone method allows the FAA to remain ignorant of authentic and substantial inadequacies in its planning and has led to the unnecessary and regrettable ATC service denigration in Southern California, Colorado, and Orlando.

NATCA supports the inclusion of comprehensive language in FAA Reauthorization to ensure that all FAA realignment initiatives are considered in a collaborative environment and provide a specific operational benefit. We support the establishment of a workgroup of stakeholders to review all realignment proposals prior to the FAA beginning the realignment process, with representatives of all of the affected bargaining units included. In addition, to prevent ambiguity and confusion, realignment must be clearly defined.

Staffing

The State of the Air Traffic Controller Workforce

NATCA and the FAA began contract negotiations in July 2005 over a successor agreement to the 2003 extension to the parties’ 1998 collective bargaining agreement. The FAA unilaterally declared an impasse after only nine months of negotiations (in 1989, 1993, and 1998 the parties reached an agreement after an average of 24 months of negotiation). In September of 2006, the FAA did declare an impasse, as NATCA predicted, and unilaterally imposed work and pay rules (IWRs) on the air traffic controller workforce. This action not only violated the FAA’s legal obligation to bargain in good faith, but it also violated fundamental principals of fairness. This action, in effect, stripped this union of its collective bargaining rights.

The effects of the imposed work rules have been devastating, not only to the working lives of controllers, but to the safety and integrity of the National Airspace System. Prior to the imposed work rules, NATCA officials warned that imposing work rules would result in a mass exodus of controllers from the FAA workforce and would result in dangerously low staffing levels. NATCA’s predictions have proven accurate.

In the two fiscal years following the imposed work rules, 3,356 air traffic controllers left the controller workforce through attrition. Less than two percent had reached the mandatory retirement age of 56. Ninety-eight percent left before mandatory retirement.

The FAA now insists that this exodus had been long anticipated and that it was the result of nothing more than an increase in retirement eligibility. This, however, is not the case. In FY2008 there were 947 retirements and 442 resignations, removals, and deaths. Three months prior to the implementation of the IWRs, the FAA predicted there would be 645 retirements and 84 resignations, removals, and deaths in FY2008, approximately half of the actual attrition level.

In its April 23, 2009 report, the IG stated that “the retirement wave hit record numbers in 2007 and 2008 and is projected to increase through at least 2012… FAA faces an increasing risk of not having enough fully certified controllers in its workforce – with 27 percent of the workforce now in training, compared to 15 percent in 2004.”

As NATCA has previously testified, the gap between the FAA’s prediction and the actual attrition can be attributed directly to the IWRs and the adverse work environment that those rules created. These rules removed career advancement opportunities, established new pay bands that decreased controller wages by an average of 30 percent, reduced the availability and duration of rest periods, instituted unpopular changes to the annual leave policy, and created an adverse work environment without a viable process to appeal or address managerial abuses of authority.

As a result of the new pay bands, veteran controllers who are eligible to retire have already worked their three highest salary years that will determine their pensions. Combined with the deterioration of working conditions and a more acute fear of errors due to increased workload, all incentives for experienced controllers to stay on board until their mandatory retirement age have been removed.

On the other end of the spectrum, new hires are experiencing the stress and challenge of air traffic control, coupled with poor treatment from management and B-Scale wages, and are choosing to leave the FAA in favor of careers in the private sector.

One former controller summed up the sentiments of many in his resignation letter to the FAA:

Under the FAA’s new imposed work rules, I cannot justify staying with the Agency… I do not feel I can continue to work in an environment that is so vindictive, or for an employer who is more worried about the bottom line rather than safety. I cannot justify staying when I can return to a company that knows how and makes it a point to take care of its employees. My take home pay will go up, my quality of life will improve, and my workload will decrease.

Fatigue

The staffing shortage has created an environment conducive to high levels of fatigue among air traffic controllers, as controllers are required to work excessive amounts of overtime and work on short-staffed shifts.

At Orlando International Tower and TRACON, for example, controllers were required to work an average of 558 hours of overtime per pay period in CY2008. If divided evenly among the fully certified controllers, each controller would have to work more than 14 additional hours per pay period – cutting available rest and recovery time almost in half. In its April 23, 2009 report on staffing and training issues at key FAA facilities in California, the DOT Inspector General found that overtime hours at LAX Tower, Southern California TRACON, and Northern California TRACON significantly increased over the past two years, by 868, 400, and 120 percent, respectively.

While moderate amounts of overtime can be absorbed into the system without noticeable effects on performance, excessive overtime introduces fatigue into the system. In order to absorb the fatigue-inducing effects of overtime, an individual controller must have sufficient time for recovery following a long week, while the workforce must be made up of non-fatigued controllers who can provide support during the shifts themselves. With the staffing shortage such as it is, this is impossible. In addition, excessive overtime negatively affects controllers’ quality of life and interferes with home life issues, such as childcare, lowering the morale of the workforce.

The alternative to excessive overtime is to work each shift without proper staffing levels. A short-staffed shift often means controllers are afforded fewer opportunities for rest and recovery during the shift itself, being required to work longer on position and given shorter rest periods. Although the FAA had, until recently, limited time-on-position to two hours based on Civil Aeronautics Medical Institute (CAMI) data, this limitation was removed when the imposed work rules were instituted and is currently ignored throughout the system. At Atlanta Tower (ATL), controllers report that they are given exactly 20 minutes of break time, regardless of the length of time on position or the intensity of the traffic they work.

Not only are controllers working longer on position, but the workload during that time has increased as well. On a short-handed shift, managers reduce the number of radar assistants (RAs), increasing the workload for the controller working radar. A controller working without an assistant is responsible not only for communication with aircraft, but also for coordination with other controller positions and facilities, as well as updating flight progress information. Additionally, managers may be forced to combine positions, creating greater complexity by requiring each controller to monitor greater numbers of confliction points and an increased volume of aircraft. One recent internal FAA document reported that as many as 56.3 percent of errors in Eastern Region en route facilities occur when there are combined sectors, combined Radar/RA positions, or both.

Inexperience and the Training Backlog

Rather than taking meaningful steps to stem the flow of experienced personnel, the FAA simply began a massive hiring effort. As a result, trainees now make up an extremely high percentage of the workforce. As of the end of FY2008, trainees (excluding CPC-ITS, previously certified controllers training on a new area or facility) accounted for nearly a quarter of the controller workforce (22 percent). This exceeds what the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation recently reported experts to consider the safe upper limit for the system. In many facilities the situation is even worse, with 48 facilities exceeding 35 percent trainees.

Staffing shortages and high trainee ratios have a direct effect on the efficiency of training itself. With so many trainees, and a small and shrinking number of Certified Professional Controllers (CPCs), there are a limited number of controllers capable of providing training, creating a backlog of trainees. At Miami Center (ZMA), for example, trainees have had to wait up to 16 months from their start date to receive on-the-job training due to the facility’s staffing shortage.

For the first time since the 1980s, trainees are being put directly into some of the most demanding and difficult terminal facilities after completing their classroom training at Oklahoma City. These facilities include Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson Tower (ATL), Atlanta TRACON (A80), Charlotte Tower (CLT), New York TRACON (N90), Dallas-Fort Worth Tower (DFW), San Francisco Tower (SFO), Southern California TRACON (SCT), and Northern California TRACON (NCT). These higher level facilities did not have training curricula designed to teach new hires aircraft types, airline identification, and other basic fundamental air traffic control knowledge and skills. In the past, terminal trainees were placed in a lower-level tower to receive initial certification and would transfer to a higher-level facility as their careers and skills advanced. The imposed work rules, however, removed financial incentives for experienced controllers to transfer to more difficult facilities because many would actually take a pay cut with such a transfer. Because retirement eligible controllers are leaving in record numbers, staffing has become critical at these terminal facilities, forcing the Agency to hire trainees with no previous air traffic control experience.

Even as these trainees certify, the air traffic control system is still left staffed by individuals with little to no experience. These new hires are the future of air traffic control and have tremendous potential, but they are denied the opportunity to learn from experienced controllers and are forced to shoulder too much of the air traffic control burden at this early stage of their careers.

Since the implementation of the imposed work rules, the FAA lost more than 46,000 years of air traffic control experience through retirements alone. Nearly one third (27 percent) of air traffic controllers in the FAA have less than five years experience, and 40 air traffic control facilities have more than half of its workforce composed of individuals with less than five years experience.

Establishing Scientific Staffing Standards

In 1998, the FAA and NATCA agreed upon the optimal number of controllers for each facility based on a scientific study that factored in time-and-motion studies, sector complexity and workload, number of operations on the 90th percentile day, and relevant non-operational activities (i.e. training, annual/sick leave).

Although the current number of operations is similar to that of 1998, the FAA has abandoned these standards in favor of staffing ranges concocted to conceal the severity of the controller staffing shortage.

As part of its 2007 Controller Workforce Plan, the FAA established staffing ranges for each air traffic control facility, which it modified slightly in 2008. Rather than basing its staffing goals on an accurate and precise scientific assessment of each facility’s requirements for safe operation, the FAA has designed these ranges in order to deliberately mislead stakeholders about the staffing crisis currently facing the air traffic control system in this country. They were also designed in order to meet specific budget goals, with regional directors identifying the number of air traffic control positions it could fund at each facility and remain within its fixed budgets. NATCA has reason to believe that the FAA’s official staffing ranges were engineered by the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) finance office, rather than the ATO safety office, based on a memo written by the workforce staffing manager, Jodi McCarthy.

FAA attempts to justify this budget-based staffing standard by presenting a pseudo-scientific justification for its staffing numbers in its Controller Workforce Plan. The FAA’s reasoning is based on an average of the following:

  1. Scientific Data – The FAA does not specify which study this refers to, who conducted it, or whether the study was conducted by an unbiased third party. It has thus far refused to provide NATCA with the details of the study parameters or the results.

  2. Current Staffing at Peer Facilities – As the entire system is suffering the same staffing shortage, peer facilities will be equally understaffed. Therefore using these as a basis of comparison yields an anticipated deflated standard.

  3. Past Staffing Lows – The FAA misleadingly refers to this comparison as the past year of “highest productivity.” However, it goes on to define productivity as the highest number of operations per controller – or the year when the fewest controllers were relied upon to control the largest amount of traffic – without taking into account error rates, delays, or effect on the workforce.

  4. Managers’ Advice – The FAA misleadingly refers to this as “service unit input.” This input did not include input from NATCA and came entirely from within FAA management ranks, who are under pressure to conceal the extent of the staffing shortage and assure Congress and the flying public that all is under control. Therefore this too is likely to yield a dangerously low and inaccurate estimate of needed staffing.

In the summer of 2008, the FAA acted in a way that corroborated NATCA’s claims of the invalidity of these staffing ranges by offering significant relocation incentives to controllers to transfer to many facilities throughout the country. These incentives included increases to base pay, bonuses, and relocation payments, and allowed controllers to remain above the new pay bands, contrary to transfer procedures outlined in the imposed work rules. Yet, in every case where such incentives were offered, current controller staffing is within or in some cases even above the FAA staffing ranges (See Table 1). If FAA’s staffing ranges were accepted as valid, it would appear as if the Agency is offering lucrative incentives to transfer controllers to well-staffed, even overstaffed, facilities. The truth, however, is that the facilities are indeed severely understaffed.

NATCA fully supports and endorses the language in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009 that authorizes a scientific study of the system’s air traffic controller staffing to be conducted by an objective third party. This language allows the FAA, Congress, and NATCA to truly assess the current risk to the NAS and set benchmarks for resolving the staffing crisis.

Modernization

NATCA supports the modernization of the NAS, and supports adequate funding in an FAA Reauthorization bill to accelerate the implementation of NextGen. Our support of NextGen is not without conditions, however. Thus far, NATCA, like much of the industry community, has been disappointed by the FAA’s lack of clear direction for NextGen plans as well as the FAA’s continued exclusion of stakeholders from the planning and implementation of new technologies.

As NATCA’s Director of Safety and Technology, Dale Wright, described in greater detail in his March 25, 2009 testimony before this subcommittee, there are several outstanding shortcomings with the FAA’s methodology and plans that must be addressed at this early stage of the process.

  1. The FAA must collaborate meaningfully with stakeholders – The inclusion of NATCA is critical to the success of NextGen and all projects relating to modernization, technology, and procedures. The Government Accountability Office and the Inspector General of the Transportation Department have both testified before Congress that controller involvement prevents cost overruns and implementation delays. NATCA must be included in all stages, from inception to implementation.

  2. NowGen must not be neglected as we prepare for NextGen – The current air traffic control system has fallen into disrepair. Both the human infrastructure (including staffing levels of air traffic controllers, inspectors, engineers, and other aviation safety professionals) and physical infrastructure (such as poorly-maintained and deteriorating air traffic control facilities) need attention in the near term.

  3. Human factors must be addressed – Several of NextGen’s proposals raise serious concerns regarding human factors, including the increased complexity and safety risk inherent in a best equipped, best-served policy. These issues must be addressed during the development stages in order to avoid delays, cost overruns, and safety failures.

  4. Safety requires redundancy – NATCA is concerned that the system being proposed by the FAA, which is centralized and lacking a viable backup, is unacceptably vulnerable to attack or natural disaster. Human intervention must not be the first and only layer of redundancy. The FAA must build redundancy into the system in order to ensure that safety is not compromised in the event of an attack, natural disaster, or technological failure.

NextGen will only be successful if it is done with complete participation and agreement from government, labor, and industry groups from development through implementation. By collaborating meaningfully with NATCA from the early stages of the project through implementation, the FAA will be able to identify and address potential issues early on in the process, thereby saving time, money, resources and, most importantly, avoiding unnecessary safety risks. Currently, NATCA has been able to identify several serious concerns with the FAA’s NextGen initiatives; many of the plans ignore serious human factors implications while others eliminate redundancy necessary for safety. We believe that if given the opportunity to collaborate meaningfully, NATCA would be able to assist the FAA in addressing these and other issues and mitigating the risks associated with them.

During the late 1990s and into the early part of this decade, NATCA had representatives on over 70 national modernization and procedure development task forces. Working collaboratively through these task forces, we were able to complete more than 7,100 projects to install and integrate new facilities, systems, and equipment into the NAS. In addition, more than 10,000 hardware and software upgrades were completed.

Under the Bush Administration, the FAA routinely avoided collaboration with NATCA on key issues and initiatives related to modernization and ultimately terminated the successful Controller Liaison Program, under which controllers provided crucial insight and guidance for the development and implementation of some of the most effective technological and procedural advancements, including: Advanced Technologies and Oceanic Procedures (ATOP), Display System Replacement (DSR), User Request Evaluation Tool (URET), Voice Switching, Control System (VSCS), Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (DRVSM), and Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS).

NATCA believes that the success of NextGen is dependent upon this level of NATCA involvement. It is our hope once NATCA and the FAA are able reach a mutually acceptable collective bargaining agreement we can again return to an era of cooperation and collaboration that will best serve the needs of the NAS and the flying public.

Status of Near-Term NextGen Collaboration Efforts: ERAM

One of the earliest NextGen projects to be deployed will be the switch from the Host computer system (Host), which currently serves as the technological backbone of en route air traffic control, to En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM). Host, which was originally deployed in the 1980s, is the mainframe computer processor which provides data to display terminals at en route air traffic control positions. It is expected to become unsustainable within the next two years, as the availability of new technology has made replacement parts for older computers harder to find. It is also incapable of handling the satellite-based ADS-B system around which NextGen has been developed. In contrast, ERAM is designed to process data from both radar and satellite sources. Rather than rely on a single processor, ERAM will be a network of computers in which the old Host display terminals will be replaced by individual PC processors. Once it is properly implemented, this distributive processing will allow the system to handle a significantly larger volume of data and provide a more seamless backup system than the one currently in place.

While NATCA supports ERAM as a good concept and necessary for the future of air traffic control, 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. 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.

This February, the FAA approached NATCA with an invitation seeking our collaboration in the implementation phase of ERAM. At that time, we enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to substantively contribute to finding solutions cooperatively with the FAA. NATCA responded swiftly by submitting comprehensive proposals regarding the terms of our collaboration to the Agency within nine days of receiving the full ERAM briefing from them. Since then, we have engaged in a constructive negotiations process with the Agency a number of times. Additional negotiations sessions over ERAM are scheduled for May and June. NATCA is committed to continuing to work with the Agency to reach an agreement over ERAM.

NATCA is also looking forward to a change in the Agency’s stance on collaborating with our organization. As with all NextGen and modernization efforts, we believe that our expertise would serve the Agency and the flying public well. We remain committed to continuing the effort to reach an agreement with the Agency over the deployment of ERAM.

Airspace Redesign to Alleviate Congestion

In the 1990s, the FAA collaborated with NATCA to address the issue of airspace congestion. Working together, the group identified chokepoints, analyzed weaknesses in the system, and developed a multilateral and comprehensive approach to improving the system. However, during the Bush Administration the FAA abandoned this collaborative approach and instead chose to unilaterally implement piecemeal changes to air traffic control functions and procedures. Recent events pertaining to airspace redesign for the New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia areas have also shown that the FAA still does not intend to include NATCA in this project, despite significant problems with the roll-out of the redesign’s first phase.

Last year, the FAA implemented Phase I of the NY-NJ-PHL airspace redesign effort, which included new dispersal headings for Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) departures that were implemented without input from system users, including air traffic controllers. As a result, the new procedures were plagued by serious inadequacies, including a lack of published procedures, incomplete testing, insufficient training for both controllers and pilots, and frequent miscommunication between controllers and pilots.

Now the FAA is ready to begin implementation of Phase II, which will involve the terminalization of airspace currently controlled by Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) and New York ARTCC. This shift is highly complex and will require changes not only to procedures but also to technology, personnel, facilities, and training. Yet it appears that the FAA has not learned its lesson from Phase I and, despite outreach attempts from NATCA, the FAA has refused to collaborate with the frontline controller workforce.

History has shown us that successful modernization efforts require the input and involvement of all stakeholders, and airspace redesign is no exception. NATCA believes that without the collaboration of the air traffic controller workforce in developing and implementing the airspace redesign, the FAA's plans will be expensive, unsafe, inefficient, and unlikely to significantly improve the capacity of the New York area airspace.

This is a belief not limited to air traffic controllers or unions. Jim May, President and CEO of the Air Transport Association (ATA), spoke about the importance of “controller acceptance of implementation and new procedures” at a hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation.

Of airspace redesign, specifically, he said, “You’ve got to bring Pat [Forrey, President of NATCA] and his guys into the process… We can’t do New York without his folks.”

With NATCA’s help, the FAA may be able to avoid the shortcomings that were present during Phase I of airspace redesign and, by so doing, may be able to transition more smoothly to the new procedures and reduce the risk to the flying public during the transition.

Maintenance of Air Traffic Control Infrastructure

While NATCA supports the upgrade of air traffic control technology, it is imperative that the funding of NextGen not come at the expense of NowGen. During the previous Administration, FAA facilities were allowed to fall into disrepair while the FAA pursued its ill-defined and still-unrealized modernization goals.

According to a recent report by the Department of Transportation Inspector General, 59 percent of FAA facilities are beyond their 30-year design life. All en route centers are over 40 years old and falling into disrepair. Certain terminal facilities are also falling into unacceptable levels of disrepair – putting the health and safety of FAA employees at risk. For example, inspectors have confirmed the presence at Detroit Metropolitan Airport Tower and TRACON of stachybotrys, a toxic form of mold believed to be a contributory factor in health problems experienced by controllers at the facility (including cases of occupational asthma as well as seven cancer diagnoses during the past six years.)

This level of deterioration is unacceptable. The FAA must repair and maintain existing air traffic control facilities in a manner that ensures the safety and security of FAA personnel and allows aviation safety professionals the tools they need to do their jobs to the high standard of excellence we expect and depend on.

Conclusion

NATCA urges swift passage of an FAA Reauthorization bill in order to ensure the short and long-term health, growth, safety, and efficiency of the National Airspace System.

In NextGen, the FAA has undertaken a large-scale and long-term research and development project to overhaul the technological infrastructure of the air traffic control system. This ambitious undertaking has serious implications for the future of the National Airspace System and should therefore include the meaningful participation of all NAS stakeholders, most notably NATCA. Collaboration with NATCA by the FAA is predicated on the resolution of our current contract dispute as well as a fix to the collective bargaining process to ensure fairness in future negotiations.

NATCA supports the FAA’s modernization efforts and is eager to be a part of the team developing and planning the technology that will bring us into the next generation of air traffic control. We look forward to working with the FAA to help them address the serious outstanding issues including human factors, equipage, and redundancy concerns. It is essential for us to be included as partners in this ongoing modernization effort.