The FAA is moving ahead with a plan to expand the services offered by Houston Center in the Gulf of Mexico by September 2016. As part of the plan, the FAA will install three more ADS-B radios in Mexico to enhance surveillance over the Gulf with a 60- to 80-nm coverage overlap between Houston Flight Information Region and Merida and Monterrey ACC airspace.
The FAA said deploying the additional radios in Mexico “will provide seamless surveillance coverage over Mexican air traffic routes, allowing reduced separation, throughput of about 85 aircraft per hour [up from the current 75 per hour] and more efficient handoffs between U.S. and Mexican airspace.”
The move follows the Mexican Congress vote last month to pass energy reform and end the virtual monopoly of Pemex, the state-owned oil company, on drilling operations in Mexican waters in the Gulf. The end of the Pemex monopoly is expected to trigger billions in additional investment from diversified sources in offshore operations in the Gulf. Earlier this year, Citigroup estimated that Mexican energy reform could generate as much as $20 billion in additional annual foreign investment in Mexico’s energy sector and double the nation’s oil output to five million barrels per day.
Energy reform is expected to increase commercial air traffic between Mexico and the U.S. as well as the number of helicopters based in both countries serving offshore drilling rigs and platforms. The FAA estimates that approximately 458 helicopters operating in the Gulf are participating in the services the FAA provides and more than 100 of those are equipped with ADS-B avionics, flying throughout the Gulf in various weather conditions under air traffic control. The FAA notes that since 2009, monthly IFR traffic has tripled and ADS-B has enabled operators to fly more direct IFR routes.
The current complement of ADS-B equipment installed in the Gulf region includes six air-to-ground communications radios, 12 ADS-B ground stations to provide ATC surveillance and 35 weather systems.
An ADS-B communications disruption in April resulted in widespread but temporary delays of both high- and low-altitude traffic, and some cancellation of helicopter flights over the Gulf. The FAA temporarily dealt with the problem by placing both high- and low-altitude traffic on the same frequency, the normal procedure it uses for low-traffic periods. Helicopters in the Gulf that were able to fly during the disruption often were stuck on platforms for hours waiting for clearances. The FAA said the disruption was caused when a platform operator’s communications provider merged with another without coordinating the move with the FAA. Platform operators contract with telecommunications companies as part of their in-kind contribution to the ADS-B system. When a subsequent air-to-ground communications radio failed, the FAA technicians “were unable to contact the telecommunications provider for their help since the program office was unaware of the telecommunications companies’ consolidation,” an FAA spokesman told AIN.
The radio that failed, identified as QBW, was located in the Gulf’s particularly busy Green Canyon area. Subsequently, ADS-B partners in the Gulf were sent a safety memorandum advising them to “communicate any changes in telecommunications providers to the FAA.”