Thursday, October 11, 2007


ERAM is an acronym that you need to remember. It stands for En Route Automation Modernization and, so far, CNN Money is the only news outlet I’ve found that has picked up the story.

The most important aspect of the program is somewhat buried in the fluff.

” Considered a critical part of the National Airspace System's future, ERAM will be the backbone of the FAA's en route operations once it is fully operational. The system includes computer hardware, software and an extremely robust backup with four levels of redundancy. “

To truly understand the scope of the program, you must understand what the Air Route Traffic Control Centers (or the “en route operations”) actually do and the job of the “software” the story refers to. The ARTCCs (or Centers) handle all the operational data for the FAA. All the flight plans that pilots file are sent there and then distributed to the Towers, Approach Controls and other Centers. The “devil in the details” is that once those flight plans become active -- the airplane takes off -- the flight plans change. Continuously.

Let’s say a flight has proposed flying at an altitude of 33,000 feet from Atlanta (ATL) to New York’s Kennedy (JFK) airport. As soon as the pilot talks to a controller he’s told that the ride at 33,000 feet is bumpy so he asks for and receives a clearance to fly at 29,000 feet. That little detail has to be communicated to all the other air traffic controllers on that aircraft’s route of flight. And speaking of it’s route of flight, every change in the route of flight has to be communicated also. A deviation around weather, a change in speed, an equipment malfunction -- every little detail has to be passed to the next controller. That is what the ERAM software will do. And it has to happen in real time for thousands of flights. It is a complicated process that is beyond description.

When the FAA first tried to automate this process, they turned to IBM back in the days when IBM was known as “Big Blue.” IBM was It when it came to computers. It is the most fascinating story I know of in the FAA. In short, IBM couldn’t do it. Their programmers couldn’t think like air traffic controllers. To save the program, the FAA and IBM took some air traffic controllers and trained them to be programmers. The controller/programmers worked with the IBM programmers to complete the job.

The next attempt to update the program was called the Advanced Automation System. It was a colossal failure. In the end, it cost about 2.5 billion dollars for virtually no gain.

This is part of what ERAM will attempt to do. Keep your eyes open. This should be interesting.

Don Brown
October 11, 2007

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