Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Fix On Fail

There is something I’ve been meaning to get off my chest and this press release from PASS (Professional Aviation Safety Specialists) will serve as well as any other excuse.


”Some facilities are staffed at less than half of what the facility’s workload generates, making daily operations difficult and resulting in more unplanned outages and longer restoration times. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), there has been an increase in unscheduled outages from an average of 21 hours in 2001 to about 40 hours in 2006. Despite falling below the minimum number of technicians, the FAA has not requested additional staffing in its proposed budget for FY 2009.“

The shortfall in technicians has been met with a new maintenance philosophy that has been called “Fix on Fail.” In short, the FAA doesn’t have the manpower to keep up with preventative maintenance anymore so they don’t. They fix it when it fails. We could get bogged down in all the details within that issue but I have a different angle I want to pursue.

My long-time readers know that I have real issues with the system called URET that was used to replace flight progress strips. The backup to URET is flight progress strips. The backup to radar is non-radar. There is a huge difference between seeing what is on a radar scope and “seeing” what in your head when you’re working in non-radar conditions. If you don’t practice “thinking” non-radar you won’t be any good at it because in the vast majority of day-to-day operations in air traffic control it isn’t required.

Each of these subjects -- URET, flight progress strips, non-radar, etc. -- are extremely complicated in of themselves. I’m asking the impossible of non-controllers but I need you to think of them all together and how they interact. Even worse, I need you project forward in time and think about where we are headed.

It all goes back to my lame joke about non-radar. “What did they call non-radar before radar ?” Answer: Air Traffic Control. Non-radar is the foundation of all air traffic control. Flight progress strips allowed controllers to “think” non-radar and incorporate that thought process when using radar. URET was used to replace flight progress strips in the Centers. URET doesn’t allow you to “think” non-radar (there is no fix/time displayed) nor does it allow controllers to practice the mechanical skills needed with flight progress strips, i.e. strip marking. Yet, the backup to URET is flight progress strips. Furthermore, URET isn’t certified for use in non-radar conditions. In other words, if the radar is out, using flight progress strips is required.

And the FAA is cutting back on preventative maintenance ?!?

If you project this mess forward in time the consequences are even more frightening. As more and more senior controllers retire, there will be fewer and fewer controllers left that have even seen flight progress strips much less know how to use them effectively. As the FAA defers more and more maintenance, the more likely it is that something will fail and controllers will be forced into a situation where they will have to revert to flight progress strips and non-radar.

To sum it all up simply, the FAA has no viable backup plan. Without extensive training (something that is virtually impossible to do when your ATC system is already understaffed), the controller workforce will become less and less capable of handling a serious equipment outage (radar site, URET , radar scope, telecommunications or computer). Without an adequate number of technicians, a serious equipment outage becomes more and more likely.

The only semi-irrational plan I can think of -- that the FAA might use -- is the extensive use of “ATC Zero.” “ATC Zero” is where an air traffic control facility determines it can no longer provide ATC service and closes. It then transfers its airspace to another control facility. It is an unbelievably complex and completely flawed process that hasn’t worked well yet. The first 10 minutes of the event are usually unrestrained chaos. You can read about one instance (and see an enlightening picture) here.

These facts are well known inside the controller community. Ask any controller anywhere if they’ve ever witnessed “ATC zero” in action and even the ones that haven’t will roll their eyes. It’s the ATC version of a “Hail Mary” pass in football. Back in the days when the FAA at least tried to excel, the system was designed to “fail gracefully.” Now it’s just designed to fail.

Don Brown
May 14, 2008

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