NATCA, FAA Spar Over NextGen Implementation Snags

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The FAA's operational test of a new NextGen computer system for air traffic control ran into problems last weekend at Salt Lake Center and had to be shut down -- but the problem could have been averted, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, if the FAA had included NATCA in its planning process. "The FAA has been stubbornly unwilling to collaborate with NATCA in this project's development," NATCA Northwest Mountain Regional Vice President Jim Ullmann said in a news release on Wednesday. The system, called En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM), promises to provide greater flexibility for controllers in the FAA's Next Generation Air Transportation System. FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown told AVweb that operational testing of ERAM is necessary to bring the new system online. "This is the normal way we test things and find bugs," she said. Backup plans were in place and the new system is now offline until fixes are made. She said although there was no official NATCA participation in the planning for the new system, air traffic controllers were involved in the process. She added that the FAA and the union are now working on a Memorandum of Understanding to determine NATCA participation in that planning process going forward. Asked for a timetable, she said there is "no line in the sand" and while the NextGen process is moving along, there are no further operational tests of the ERAM system scheduled as of now.

Ullmann said the FAA rushed the test to meet artificial deadlines without being fully ready. "NATCA stands ready, willing and able, as always, to help implement this system safely and effectively," he said. "All the FAA has to do is allow that to happen. We demand modernization that works and is safe." Controllers have no confidence in ERAM, according to NATCA. When the system failed on Saturday morning, the backup system that kicked in caused serious problems of its own. Controllers lost information about the aircraft they were handling on their radar scopes, and the problems caused some flight delays. Each of the five regional en route centers that border Salt Lake Center were affected. NATCA asked the FAA to stop any further testing of ERAM on live traffic until both parties can reach an agreement on how to formally collaborate on the project. A new contract between the FAA and NATCA took effect just last week, resolving several years of conflict over work rules, training, and other issues.