FAA Looking For AI Help With Flight Safety


Facing a major controller shortage, the ragged rollout of new technology and a growing list of airliner-involved runway incursions, the FAA is asking AI for help. The agency has issued a request for information calling on the artificial intelligence industry for ideas on how to use the burgeoning technology to improve aviation safety. “The FAA envisions a new safety analytics system that will vastly expand and accelerate insights from current and additional sources of data and provide a comprehensive understanding of causal factors of safety events to help predict high-risk operations and environments,” the RFI says.

The agency also admits how disorganized its own structure is, saying it includes “an extensive collection of connected and disconnected systems.” It wants all the bells and whistles that AI promises to deliver but it wants to keep what it has, and any new tech will have to integrate with the existing data infrastructure, some of which dates to the 1970s. The RFI was issued on June 10 and companies have until July 2 to address the 11 points detailed in the document.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.


    • AI has lots of useful promise, but at present it is having a field day in warfare, surveillance, stealing intellectual property, phishing, cloning voice and facial images for devious purposes, discover and edit speech on social media sites, to name a few. The more linking of AI that takes place, the greater attraction it will have for misuse. What could go wrong?

  1. CHITRAGUPTA. “His path to the radar room or the tower cab was squashed with his major physical disability of being a white male.” Maybe, just maybe, there was another reason.

  2. SAFETY?
    Aviation safety is about sound judgement, experience, professionalism, and proper attitude.
    Unless these are addressed first, what good is adding yet another box in the system?

  3. I’m married to a controller and I’ve been a professional pilot for longer than that. I’ve been saying for years that, due to poor planning by senior management, they will inevitably look to automate things so they need fewer controllers instead of staffing and training enough. This the same agency that so rapidly implemented nextgen that they ran billions over budget, years behind, and they still don’t have all of the capabilities they originally promised.

    The glimmer of hope on the horizon is that the FAA wants whatever AI they use to work with existing systems! Good luck since some of them are antiquated by today’s IT standards!

    Don’t forget that part of what led to the “issues” with the 737Max was the fact that Boeing changed flight control software and nobody at the FAA noticed. This should be interesting either way!

  4. Let’s also nor forget the AI demonstration that publicly came to the conclusion that it would like to kill us. Whether sentient or not, it got its information from somewhere and would.likely act on it.

  5. OF COURSE the FAA is looking to A.I. to solve all its ATC problems. Just as facility consolidation & tower privatization was going to solve all of its staffing problems. Until it didn’t. Just as “Free Flight” was going to solve all its problems. Until it didn’t. Just as firing all the union controllers to pave the way for a technological Valhalla would solve all of its problems. Until — $8 billion later — it didn’t.

    A *consistent* pipeline of hiring and training controllers, starting new hires in lower level facilities and creating the more experienced controllers to “graduate” up to the busier facilities, is what works. Even acknowledging the incredibly high washout rate of controllers — which has NOTHING to do with the political wedge issue(s) de jour, but everything to do with the uniquely complex task of separating live traffic in a dynamic environment under severe time constraints — having an appropriate ratio of experienced controllers to train the newbies is irreplaceable. This is a SAFETY ISSUE of the highest order. We know it works. It’s been proven (albeit for a very limited period of time). It’s time to stop the magical thinking and get the busiest and most complex ATC system on the planet properly funded so it can be properly staffed.

    • Well said, Brian. It’s nice to see some institutional knowledge put to good use.

      Thank you,

      Don Brown

  6. AI can resolve FAA’s disorganization and confusion in the tower and provide a more predictable partner in the cockpit. The demand to retain infrastructure (= the dysfunctional, bloated, bureaucracy) is the only way they could find to force the project to fail. Hopefully congress will recognize this and privatize the ATC function. Give the FAA less to do until they can get it done (think MCAS). We’re making glacial progress !

    • You make some valid points. However, the new private sector owner would be big iron. Then GA be subject to whatever restrictions and fees they want to stick us with.

    • If you want to see how privatization of the ATC system might work, just look at Canada. It does some things well and other things not so well. It is pay as you go for most of us with light aircraft. I will bet that it did not lower Canadian taxes when their system was privatized, but it definitely raised flight costs. Their av fuel seems more expensive than ours. I understand that the current trend for at least one of the political parties in the US is to privatize, privatize and more privatize. It works for some stuff and not so well with other stuff. Privatization of prisons is a disaster, privatization of the military was a disaster, etc. I have flown in Canadian system as a GA aircraft pilot, and it was not too bad, but the US air traffic system is significantly busier and denser, so functionally comparing it to Canada is probably like comparing oranges to kumquats.

  7. AI isn’t intelligent at all. It’s a great memory and search engine. It only knows what it’s be trained for. It can’t think independently.

  8. A summary of Brigida v. Buttigieg:

    Case Summary
    The Obama administration dropped a skill-based system for selecting and hiring air traffic controllers (ATCs), and replaced it with a new system designed to favor applicants on the basis of their race. It makes no sense. Worse yet, it is illegal and unconstitutional. The FAA purged its system of thousands of previously-qualified, ready-to-hire applicants simply because they did not fit the right biographical profile. The government endangered public safety and owes restitution for this grave injustice.

    Case History
    The job of an air traffic controller is among the most challenging and important jobs in the nation. It requires intelligence, skill, and aptitude. The critical decisions made by air traffic controllers directly impact the safety of millions of air travelers.

    People who do this vital job hold people’s lives in their hands.

    Next time your loved one travels by plane, you want to know, above all, that his air traffic controller has the skills to do this difficult job. You don’t care what the ATC’s skin color happens to be. You just want the best person for the job!

    People who had trained for years and who had scored high on aptitude tests were dropped from consideration, in favor of lesser-trained people who fit the right biographical profile.

    It should come as no surprise that the Obama-era FAA hiring program engineered to favor racial minorities backfired miserably.

    Here’s the incredible irony—as a result of the Obama administration’s reckless decision, even some qualified minorities became collateral damage and lost out on job opportunities.

    That’s right: The FAA’s decision to abandon merit-based hiring of air traffic controllers (ATCs) actually ended up also discriminating against some highly qualified minorities!

    It was a disaster all around. And Mountain States Legal Foundation has stepped up to challenge the government’s reckless disregard for public safety and its insult to the rule of law and the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection guarantee.

    Here is the background in the case: The original lawsuit, Brigida v. FAA, was prompted by the FAA’s 2013 decision to abandon its longtime hiring practice, which relied on a network of university-sponsored Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI) programs in cooperation with the FAA since 1991 to train and test future ATC’s.

    The FAA’s new hiring regime abandoned the CTI program as a basis for hiring new controllers, and instead based hiring on a “biographical questionnaire” designed to screen out candidates who weren’t members of a preferred minority racial group.

    As a result, thousands of qualified and highly-trained applicants, many of whom had spent years in school and had accumulated significant debt to pay for their educations, were turned away. Meanwhile, off-the-street candidates who passed the biographical questionnaire were given preference instead.

    Andrew Brigida, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, was one of several thousand CTI program participants who suffered discrimination because they did not fit the FAA’s new preferred ethnic profile as determined by the biographical questionnaire.

    Recently, a new class representatives joined Brigida in the reenergized lawsuit against the FAA: Matthew Douglas-Cook.

    Mr. Douglas-Cook, an American Indian, suffered a loss of opportunity under the new hiring program. Although he was a highly qualified CTI graduates, he, like Brigida, did not score high enough under the FAA’s biographical questionnaire to be considered for ATC positions. Instead, others who were less qualified were given a hiring preference.

    The FAA’s decision to prioritize race rather than merit in hiring ATC’s was irresponsible. The agency put politics over public safety and above federal law and the Constitution. Discrimination against qualified minority applicants was the unintended but most predictable consequence.

    It was a clumsy attempt at racial discrimination, destined to fail.

    “Air traffic controllers play a critical role in safe air travel,” said MSLF general counsel, Zhonette Brown. “By introducing questions of ethnicity and cultural background, the FAA was playing politics with public safety.”

    Perhaps Justice Clarence Thomas expressed the principle best when he wrote the following words: “The Constitution abhors classifications based on race because every time the government places citizens on racial registers and makes race relevant to the provision of burdens and benefits, it demeans us all.”

    • EXACTLY! And because of DEI and the lowest common denominator in hiring, FAA now has an accident waiting to happen. Witness the ever increasing numbers of runway incursions at major airports. It’s only a matter of time.

  9. So the FAA is getting chewed on for not providing enough oversight to Boeing with their MAX issues. Who provides the oversight to the FAA on these programs?

  10. I’ve been waiting for this story. Even though I’ve been retired for over 15 years (yes, if you remember me you are old), I knew the FAA wouldn’t change. It’s in the organization’s DNA.

    Controllers are very difficult to manage — just as you would expect from exceedingly clever people with quick minds. I suppose it’s only human nature to try to diminish their influence if you’re their organizational superior.

    However, the essence of the problem never goes away. The Air Traffic Control system cannot be revolutionized. It can only evolve. Evolution may not be sexy, but it works. I know — sexy sells. And in business-is-better America, you even have to sell Congress. “Free Flight”, “NextGen”, “NexRad”, AI-2030. (Don’t worry, they’ll come up with a catchier name than I can). Congress needs to sell it to the American Public.

    What works? Build a little, test a little, change a little. The FAA knows it. I think they even planted that idea in my head. ATC must evolve. Revolutions mean somebody dies. The only people that can tell you what works — what is actually a good change — is the experienced air traffic controllers. You know, the guy/girl that didn’t go into management. The ones that worked the holidays, that worked the midnight shifts, that worked the pro pilots, the military pilots and the students talking on the radio for the first time. The ones that know where the mistakes happen every day and how to fix them before they get somebody hurt. (Want to talk about motivation?) The ones that perfected their craft in an unbelievably complex system that is so highly structured it became the safest transportation system man has ever built.

    (See how dumb “revolution” sounds when juxtaposed with the truth? You want to revolutionize the safest transportation system on the planet? Are you just trying to get somebody killed?)

    AI will do nothing for the FAA if the organization can’t recognize these truths. And every time someone tries to revolutionize the system, they only delay the vital process of evolution.

    Don Brown
    Retired ATC

  11. It’s very nice to See Don Brown on this site again!

    And I would add to Don’s comments by saying that those same truths apply to pilots, mechanics and even Aviation Safety Inspectors. And all the people who “manage” and support the certificated aviation professionals who work the front lines of the aviation safety net.

    I hope you are doing very well in retirement Don.