US Air Traffic Control Completely Unprepared for Next System Outage

Despite several recent air traffic control outages snarling the US aviation system over the past few years, the FAA is unprepared for — and even behind in trying to plan to address — the next system failure. From Air Traffic Control Reform News (yes, there’s such a thing):

In a stinging audit report dated January 11, 2017, [the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General] found the agency still unprepared for major system disruptions, two and a half years after a contract employee sabotaged and shut down Chicago Center, leading to weeks of disrupted air travel. There was also the outage of en-route automation (ERAM) at Los Angeles Center in 2014, another such outage at Washington Center in 2015, and a 2015 flood in San Antonio that disrupted operations at its tower and TRACON for more than two weeks. These events are called ATC-Zero events, when a portion of the system suddenly goes out of service, providing zero ATC functions.


Copyright: cylonphoto / 123RF Stock Photo

After the major outage in Chicago, there were five steps that an assessment found needed to be completed within one year. Less than half have been done. And as the FAA has developed contingency plans for outages, they haven’t even kept controllers trained on the plans. They’ve even got control centers with no working flashlights.

You’d think that the FAA could switch from one control center to another in the event of a failure (“an ATC-Zero event”). But “neither the ERAM software nor current communications links enable that to be done.”

  • Controllers will in the future be able to talk with planes anywhere. That’s coming by 2025.

  • Data sharing across facilities will occur “in 2020 or later.”

What’s more, there are significant gaps even in the planning for major air traffic control outages.

The current planning for “divestment” (meaning transfer of control from an ATC-Zero facility to an operational one) covers only en-route centers. There is no comparable planning going on for TRACONs; hence, it is unknown what role towers and TRACONs will have in such situations. The report adds, “This is a critical element to effectively manage arrivals and departures at busy airports.” No kidding!

There are no plans for transfer of control when a facility goes down for facilities outside the continental U.S. (e.g. Guam, Hawaii).

At least we haven’t had someone pretending to be air traffic control, like in Die Hard 2.. and Australia.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I think that 2015 flood was in Austin. Did the report get it wrong, or just the story about the report? I know it hit Austin, did that flood also hit San Antonio?

  2. Gary

    Please stop posting on topics that you have no experience or even basic knowledge of. You are an expert in loyalty programs, NOT the airline industry or operations. Local ATC controllers are trained for local operations, you can’t just take a controller from LGA and move them to JFK overnight it takes time and training to be signed off for all functions of a specific tower. The same is true for approach control and center controllers. Secondly even if you could do this instantly and remotely there is a staffing issue you can’t just replace several hundred ATC center controllers at on time (like when Chicago center went down). Even if you could do the ATC functions remotely, the work load even if it were spread a cross all ATC control centers would over load the us system.

    Also what you are referring to with the comment about being able to talk to any plane any where is ADS-C this is a satellite based system where pilots and controllers communicate over a text message type data link. This is already in place for some over water flights. but it is NOT going to change most ATC functions over the continental US the volume of traffic is to high and the separation of planes is to small for it to work.

    I love your blog but you have made several posts like this in the last few weeks on topics where you blog like you are an expert on all things aviation related. You have never flown an airplane, managed an airline, or sat in front of a radar screen.

    So please, just stick to points.

  3. Always love when people don’t like my perspective they want to shut me up rather than having a dialogue, and making assertions about me without knowledge of my background makes it even more rich.

  4. Sorry, I agree with Rob on this one. Do you have insider knowledge of what the FAA is doing on Air Traffic Control reform? Do you have a deep understanding of ATC, meaning you’ve worked for ATC or the FAA on the issues identified? If you do, please let readers know. And yes, before you ask, I do know what they are doing to modernize the ATC, so I have insider knowledge and experience with this. ATC reform is badly, badly needed from a safety perspective. However, like almost everything else in the US government, budget has been a major issue for ATC reform. The FAA is doing as much as it can on ATC given the budget they have been allocated for such projects. Unfortunately they are behind on some of these badly needed reforms because of the lack of funds, and no, all of this work cannot happen in one year or even over a few years because of lack of funding. This is a PRIME example of why more investment is needed in US infrastructure, particularly from a safety perspective.

  5. “You’d think that the FAA could switch from one control center to another in the event of a failure (“an ATC-Zero event”). But “neither the ERAM software nor current communications links enable that to be done.”

    Depends what you mean by switch. I pushed tin for nearly 30 years, the last 17 of my career at SCT (Southern CA Tracon). During the wildfires of 2003 (our building’s air filters were overwhelmed by smoke and the fires burned nearly up to the building), we in fact did transfer much of our airspace to ZLA (Los Angeles Enroute Center) and detailed some of our controllers to outlying towers (LAX BUR ONT for example) to work approach control on those control towers BRITE displays. This was all accomplished after the Ops manager at SCT declared ATC zero.

    ATC facilities have the ability to dial in select frequencies, from other control facilities if needed. And software compatibility is not the issue, but rather radar and radio frequency coverage. Enroute centers use longer range, slower turning radars than approach control facilities do, as a result they are not as accurate and do not update as fast as terminal radar arrays. Thus the larger separation standards Centers have to employ.

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