Thursday, May 22, 2008

ERAM Update

For those that don’t remember, ERAM stands for En Route Automation Modernization. Not that it will help you much, but the FAA’s babble-speak about ERAM is here. ERAM is to be the computer guts of the air traffic control system. It’s the software and hardware that will crunch the bits and bytes so that the airplanes don’t go crunch. Unfortunately, that may be the literal truth. Responsibility for the traveling public may be changing hands from thousands of air traffic controllers to a few computer programmers.

The problem is that we don’t know. Put your thinking cap on. This isn’t simple. You need to hold several thoughts in your head to follow along and you’ll need to remember what has been transpiring in the FAA for the last several years.

First, air traffic controllers -- in the form of NATCA -- were kicked off all the controller liaison positions three years ago. In order to understand how ignorant that leaves you (the Public), think about how little you would know about aircraft inspections at Southwest without union members blowing the whistle. If local FAA managers were doing the inspections you still wouldn’t know about it and the Administration would still be protecting their plausible deniability.

Next -- like everything in the Government these days -- the work is being done by contractors. They get paid bonuses for delivering “on time.” In addition, the FAA has instituted “pay for performance.” You don’t get paid a bonus for saying “Hey !...wait a minute...this isn’t right.” You get paid for throwing the switch and turning it on. The rumor is that ERAM will be on time and it will work -- no matter what the reality.

You’ve read my thoughts about URET. That system takes away a controller’s ability to “see” traffic without radar. It forces the controller to rely on the computer programmer’s ability to see traffic. You might think that sentence is phrased kind of funny but it is phrased exactly as I intended. “The computer” doesn’t think. Nor does it feel or learn. Somebody is making the decisions. If that person isn’t a controller then it’s a programmer.

Now toss in the fact that the FAA is losing it’s experienced controllers. A new controller that has never read a flight progress strip outside of the fantasy world of simulation doesn’t know a thing about “projecting.” He doesn’t know what the traffic will look like before it shows up on his radar. He just knows what the computer tells him. Correction -- He just knows what the programmer is telling him. Project that line of thought onto ERAM -- a program that is being designed without controller input. I’m sure there are managers working on it that used to be controllers. If you think that is the same thing as a controller you haven’t been paying attention.

Now turn the computer off.

The software that ERAM will replace was the biggest program and the most complicated software ever written up until that time. Do you think ERAM will be any less complicated for its time ? Do you think it won’t crash ?

Remember, the last time the FAA tried to replace this software was the complete and utter failure known as the Advanced Automation System. One of the sub-stories behind that failure was the inability to meet the human factors concerns. The technological part was daunting enough. The human factors part proved impossible. Those pesky humans -- always getting in the way.

In listening to controllers discuss ERAM, it’s clear that they’ve been cut out of the process. They’re picking up their information second and third-hand -- even as the equipment is being installed in their facilities. That, in of itself, ought to make you nervous.

In my day, the FAA told us the Advanced Automation System would make us airspace “managers” instead of controllers. They were wrong. Today -- with ERAM -- it sounds like they’re trying again. Another controller summed it up better. They’re trying to turn controllers into “mouse-clicking monkeys.” If the computer is “green” you’re good. If the computer is “red”, click the mouse until it turns “green.”

Controllers might have to worry that the programmers are right but you have to worry about what happens if they’re wrong. Those programmers and FAA managers won’t be sitting in front of a radar scope when it breaks. And none of them will be sitting next to you in that airplane when the “red” won’t go away and the mouse won’t click. You’ll be on your own.

You might want to make sure ERAM works. Don’t ask me how you can do that when controllers don’t know. I guess you’ll have to ask the FAA. I sure hope they’re better at inspecting computer programs than they are at inspecting airplanes.

Don Brown
May 22, 2008

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