Report Suggests FAA Not Ready for Air Traffic Control Outages

Jan 19, 2017

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A report from the US Department of Transportation Office of the Inspector General suggests that the Federal Aviation Administration could be caught in a very bad situation if a major air traffic control outage were to take place. The report was completed on the request of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the Subcommitee on Aviation.

The 23-page report (caution: PDF link) outlined the FAA’s problems in responding to situations where parts of the American air traffic control infrastructure declared “ATC-Zero;” the inability to provide any air traffic control services. The report focused on the 2014 fire at a Chicago-area telecommunications facility, the 2015 radar room flood at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and software outages in both Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

In each situation, the FAA experienced difficulties in expediting its response. In the wake of the Chicago incident, the report revealed that the FAA only developed short-term contingency plans and was unprepared for a longer major outage. Because there was no long-term plan, air traffic controllers were forced to hand off responsibilities to four other centers hundreds of miles away, including those in Cleveland, Indianapolis and Kansas City.

Undeveloped emergency plans were not the only setback the FAA experienced during ATC-Zero events. The Inspector General also faulted technology and a lack of training as problems that delayed the return of regular air traffic control. Citing the case of the Austin flooding, the Inspector General found problems with logistical and technological plans in an emergency. Emergency transponders in Austin were not regularly tested, resulting in communications problems with aircraft. Furthermore, when a temporary air traffic control tower was dispatched to Austin from Kansas City, air traffic controllers reported the tower was not operational for several hours due to poor maintenance and outdated technology.

As a result of the outages in the past two years, the Inspector General made eight recommendations to the FAA for improved responses to an ATC emergency. The suggestions call for an annual contingency plan training for outage emergencies, regular testing standards on equipment and developing baseline standards for contingency testing. In addition, the office asked for an update on the progress of the NextGen program, which will provide better communication tools to air traffic controllers.

In a response memo, the FAA agreed with the recommendations, and set a timetable for completion. The FAA intends to provide an update on the NextGen emergency response program by June 2017, with other recommendations to be implemented between July and December 2017.

The outages in the Inspector General report should not be confused with airline technology outages that have affected passengers of all four major American carriers over the last two years. In August 2016, two United States Senators asked airlines to respond with their plans for ensuring operations during computer shutdown emergencies.

Featured image courtesy of dlscape via Getty Images.

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