Friday, October 02, 2009

WAM, Bam, Thank You Ma’am

I’ve spent the whole week trying to learn something about WAM, after reading this:

Wide-Area Multilateration in Colorado

The Solution

The FAA plans to improve safety while reducing delays at four Colorado airports through a new technology called Wide Area Multilateration (WAM).”

How it Works

WAM provides surveillance through a network of small sensors deployed in remote areas. The sensors send out signals that are received and sent back by aircraft transponders. System computers immediately analyze those signals and are able to determine the precise location of aircraft through triangulation.

This data is transmitted to screens viewed by air traffic controllers for separation of aircraft.“

That sounds great. But I don’t know a thing about WAM so I started reading. There’s nothing about WAM at Wikipedia -- just about the basic technology. That is some interesting reading. Especially if you own a cell phone.


”AirSage collects and analyzes mobile phone signaling data to determine phone locations and calculate traffic flow for over 220,000 centerline miles of roadway in the United States including interstates, highways, and arterials. Cellular networks use geographically dispersed cell towers to provide wide-area radio coverage. Signaling data contains information about the network connection including data about signal strength between the transceiver and the phone, as well as round trip delay times. With this data, AirSage uses a combination of positioning techniques such as signal strength multilateration and triangulation, to generate real-time phone location probabilities. “

That’s a phrase worth remembering; “location probabilities “.

AOPA seems to like it. Of course, they thought they’d like FSS being contracted out too.

I finally found some nitty-gritty details from (where else ?) the folks that are selling the system. Corporations are always a reliable source of information on things they sell.

”As a result of the WAM surveillance, controllers are implementing standard radar procedures with five nautical miles of separation, which includes flight following and the ability to vector aircraft during instrument approaches.“

Standard radar procedures for a system that isn’t radar, huh ? Okey-dokey. That brings up a lot of questions -- when you put “ vector aircraft during instrument approaches “ together with “location probabilities “. I wonder how that works out when one aircraft is a radar target and one is a WAM target ? But I’m sure it will all be okay. After all, you can trust the FAA to do the right thing, right ?

This is the real story I learned while researching the subject. From NATCA’s Labor Relations report on May 3, 2009:

”On March 16, 2009, NATCA requested a briefing regarding WAM. The multilateration is a surveillance technology that works by employing multiple remote sensors throughout an area to compensate for terrain obstructions. This matter has specifically impacted the controllers at Denver ARTCC (ZDV). The Agency never responded to our request and as a result, on April 16, 2009, NATCA filed a national grievance over WAM. Because the Agency’s response to our grievance did not arrive in a timely manner, on May 20, 2009, we requested arbitration on the matter. On May 21, 2009, the Agency finally responded to our grievance stating that on March 12, 2009, the Agency provided us with a briefing. In our May 27th response to this, we stated at the time of the March 12, 2009 briefing, we were advised that it was purely informational. “

In other words, the FAA “informed” NATCA about WAM, NATCA requested negotiations, the FAA ignored NATCA, and when NATCA complained, the FAA ignored the complaint with the irrelevant response “you were informed”. When the Bush Administration controlled the complaint procedures (arbitration of a grievance), the FAA could ignore the complaints and get away with it. And that is what they have been doing. The gist is that WAM is being implemented without any input from the controllers that will be using it. But I’m sure everything is fine, what with the FAA being so competent and trustworthy.

For those of you that are not controllers -- just ordinary citizens -- I hope it occurs to you that if Marion Blakey was willing to do this to her employees, she might be willing to do the same thing to you. And, if you’ll notice, those dates above are well after Ms. Blakey left. Ms. Blakey didn’t create this culture at the FAA -- she just empowered it. It will take more than a change of Administrations to change the FAA.

Whether or not you appreciate them, unions -- especially government unions -- do provide a degree of oversight. You don’t have to go far to find out that oversight at the FAA is a good thing.

Don Brown
October 2, 2009

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