Thursday, April 08, 2010

Saving ERAM -- Chapter 4



I feel certain that I left a lot of people in the dust with Chapter 3 (in other words I think my writing was disjointed) so let’s review.

Flight plans were being filed incorrectly for decades. FSS “fixed” them for decades, so many pilots never realized that they were filing them incorrectly. Remember, this is a gradual process. It starts with a few people and spreads -- for decades. As more and more people acquire advanced navigation, the problem spreads. Here is the easiest example to understand.

AIM 5-1-8

d. Area Navigation (RNAV)


”(f) File a minimum of one route description waypoint for each ARTCC through whose area the random route will be flown. These waypoints must be located within 200 NM of the preceding center's boundary. “


Pilots don’t understand this requirement so they ignore it. (Besides, how are they supposed to know where the Center borders are? Without a map? Did someone say map?) One reason for this rule is so that the flight plan will process in the computer. That was the way the Flight Data Processing (FDP) program was written. The flight plan had to have a least one point in each Center the flight transited or the program would reject the flight plan.

There are a couple of ways to “fix” a flight plan like this (besides filing it correctly of course). One way is to insert the Lat/Long of the next fix in the flight plan. An example makes it easier to understand.

LAX..JFK -- That skips every Center (except ZLA and ZNY obviously) and it will not process. (Yes, I know it probably would but that’s another 200 words to explain exceptions.) However, if you put in the Lat/Long for JFK, the flight plan will process. So that is what the guys at the FSS learned to do.

LAX..4206/7904..JFK

Who did they learn that from ? From the Center guys of course. Centers had to put in random routes on the military long before anyone else ever thought about it and I suspect controllers asked for this tool. We have met the enemy, Pogo...

Now, while the witch’s brew of short cuts and system cheats is boiling, the FAA gets cute and decides to automate the process further. (Warning: Everything after this is my best guess. Emphasis on guess. I believe it is true but I have no way of verifying the details. It’s just what I’ve been able to piece together over the years.) The FAA creates DUATS. Except there’s this one little problem. Many pilots have been filing incorrectly for years. But they don’t know that because FSS just fixed the flight plans for them without telling them. And now those pilots are trying to file using a computer program that is written to conform to those rules in the AIM (5-1-8) that pilots have been ignoring (and FSS “fixing”) for years.

This is only Act I, Scene 1 in the FAA’s version of Comedy of Errors. I was told that when the FAA contracted out DUATS they agreed to pay a fee for each flight plan submitted. They should have said for each flight plan correctly submitted. DUATS goes live and pilots start submitting flight plans. When the computer says “ERROR” what’s the first thing most people do ? That’s right -- they hit the “ENTER” button again. And again.

It gets even better. Once the pilot gives up on DUATS, he has to get the flight plan entered the only other way available to him -- through Flight Service. Or worse, some were even calling the Towers and Centers to file their flight plans. Or worse, just take off VFR and file. The FAA is now paying twice to enter a flight plan that this automation was supposed to make cheaper. And...you know its coming...when the FAA gets the bill for the first month of DUATS, it 2-3-4-5 times what they were expecting. And FSS hasn’t shown any decrease in activity.

So, what do you think the FAA does ? It calls an emergency meeting to solve the problem. They wind up calling FSS and asking, “How do y’all make the process work?” FSS says, “We put in a Lat/Long.” And that is what the DUATS program now does. The DUATS program is rewritten to enter a Lat/Long into the flight plan. There, I fixed it.

(With the knowledge you now have, go back to the DUATS page on Wikipedia and study up on this section of the entry that looks like this:)




If anyone out there in cyberspace would like to give a factual explanation of the above -- write it out and put your name on it -- I’ll publish it. I’m betting no one does. You see, I happened to track down a guy that helped write the DUATS program. He was a regular chatterbox when he thought I was interested in becoming a customer. He got quiet and defensive when he figured out I was a union safety rep with some serious concerns as to how DUATS worked.

By the way, the Lat/Long above that you think belongs to JFK doesn’t. It belongs to 9NY4 -- Kennedy, NY near Jamestown, NY. That would be a relatively benign error in the litany of errors I saw in my career.

The folks writing the ERAM program are trying to make this comedy of errors work by automating it. I’m betting they are just automating a flawed system. And they don’t realize it. We are automating errors.

Don Brown
April 8, 2010

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