Wednesday, March 30, 2011
What I Learned About ERAM
On the last day at Communicating for Safety, there was a panel discussion on ERAM. For those that don’t know about ERAM, it’s the big enchilada in air traffic control for NextGen. Without ERAM, there is no NextGen. Read the FAA’s Fact Sheet on it if you need to.
”The computer system used at the FAA’s high altitude en route centers is considered the backbone of the nation’s airspace system. It processes flight radar data, provides communications and generates display data to air traffic controllers.
The current system, called the Host, is being replaced by ERAM.”
Now, let me get my usual overexplanations out of the way. I’m retired. I’ve been retired for 5 years. (Yes, time does fly when you’re having fun.) All the abbreviations at the panel discussion went right over my head. I can’t tell you the details of ERAM. I can only tell you what I see and what I feel based on 25 years in ATC.
Another piece of the puzzle that you need to plug into this post is the recent past history of NATCA and the FAA. The Bush Administration -- in the form of Marion Blakey -- cut NATCA out of the process. A lot of work was done on ERAM without the input of the people that were going to use it. It was a shameful and despicable period. Even worse, it was just plain stupid.
Now, let’s get to the heart of it. Here’s what I learned from listening. When the FAA first turned ERAM on at Salt Lake Center (ZLC), it couldn’t even track an airplane going the wrong way. If the computer said the flight was supposed to head north and it was headed south, ERAM wouldn’t track it.
(For the non-controllers, the data tag that is attached to the actual radar target should follow the target. Here’s a picture from a simulator program.)
The program should track the target no matter what it’s doing. Circles, loops or random turns. The data should stay with the target. Period. That’s where ERAM started with live traffic. The thought of it is appalling to anyone that considers themselves to be in the safety business -- which should be everyone in the FAA (not to mention the entire industry.) You can read about the beginning in this press release from October 2009. (The timeline is important.)
The next big step was ERAM’s deployment to Seattle Center (ZSE). Seattle Center (ZSE) adjoins Salt Lake Center (ZLC) which means that the ability of ERAM to pass data back and forth between two facilities gets tested. That started in March 2010. (I’m not certain of that date and it’s harder to verify than I thought it would be.) There are still numerous problems. Basic problems. I believe they were referred to as “core functionality”. In other words, there are problems that should have been fixed before ERAM ever left the lab. They should have been fixed before the program left Salt Lake Center. And now, they are about to leave Seattle Center.
The language the FAA is using is intentionally confusing but they are splitting hairs and proceeding with ERAM’s deployment. ERAM is not ready to be deployed. But yesterday, the FAA’s Chief Operating Officer, Hank Krakowski, signed off on turning ERAM on at Albuquerque (ZAQ), Minneapolis (ZMP) and Houston Centers (ZHU).
Here is what hit me when I learned at Communicating for Safety that the FAA was considering ERAM’s continued deployment. If the FAA and Lockheed (the ERAM contractor) have all available resources concentrated at ZLC and ZSE, trying to fix the known problems with ERAM -- what happens when they add even one more facility to the mix? Instead of juggling 2 balls, they now have to juggle 3. Or 5. Every controller I talked to (and they were all involved with the program in one way or another) agreed with my assessment. By deploying ERAM to other facilities the problems will grow exponentially. They will have the same problems they now have, a whole host of new problems (each facility is somewhat unique) and they won’t have any more people to handle the problems.
Before I close, I want to reiterate; ERAM has to work. If the FAA decided to scrap the whole thing tomorrow, they’d have to start over the very next day. It’s that important. It is a monumental undertaking. The pressure to keep this ball rolling is enormous. But so are the consequences if ERAM’s shortcomings cause an accident.
Every instinct I have tells me that ERAM’s continued deployment is a mistake. A really big mistake. The FAA needs to get it right at ZSE and ZLC before it goes any further. I have nothing more concrete to offer. I’m now an outsider looking in. But my instincts have always been pretty good when it comes to safety.
Expect the press releases about ERAM to start sometime very soon.
March 30, 2011