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.
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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.