FAA implements ATOP system in New York area

 - October 4, 2006, 5:33 AM

A new oceanic ATC system that will eventually allow controllers to reduce separation minimums over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans has gone fully operational at the New York en route center.

The Advanced Technologies and Oceanic Procedures (ATOP) system provides satellite datalink communication and position information to air traffic controllers, replacing the previous system of third-party providers such as Arinc and Sita relaying fixes over high-frequency radio.

ATOP detects conflicts between aircraft and provides for the safe separation of aircraft in areas outside radar coverage or direct radio communication. It also significantly reduces the intensive manual process of paper flight strips that currently limits controllers’ flexibility to safely handle requests for more efficient tracks over long oceanic routes.

The FAA is also replacing oceanic procedures with ATOP at the Oakland, Calif., and Anchorage, Alaska centers for the Pacific and Arctic regions. ATOP is expected to become fully operational in Oakland this fall and in Anchorage next spring.

The FAA awarded the ATOP contract to Lockheed Martin in 2001 at a baseline price of $247 million. Working with the U.S. aerospace giant are Adacel of Canada and Airways New Zealand, which is providing the training. Through 2009, the contract cost will be $548 million.

Any FANS (future air navigation system) aircraft equipped with controller/pilot datalink communication (CPDLC) will be able to take advantage of the ATOP system. The FAA said that currently about 30 percent of the aircraft flying Pacific routes are FANS-equipped, but only 10 percent of those operating in the Atlantic and Caribbean are.

ATOP Benefits

More direct communications and reduced controller workload eventually will enable reduced lateral separation from 100 nm to 30 nm and longitudinal separation from 80 nm to 30 nm. With greater transoceanic capacity, more aircraft will be able to fly preferred routes, saving fuel and improving on-time performance. The system also will make weather deviations quicker and easier.

ATOP reduces the workload on controllers by replacing the labor-intensive paper strips used for decades to track transoceanic aircraft with electronic flight strips. The FAA provides air traffic services to 80 percent of the world’s controlled oceanic airspace.

The agency estimates that the government and the airlines will save $2.7 billion in reduced fuel costs by 2013. “This really is an important breakthrough,” said FAA Administrator Marion Blakey. “You’ve got in this case a combination of safety and efficiency in a package that really is a breakthrough in terms of air navigation.”

CPDLC will automatically transmit aircraft latitude and longitude to oceanic controllers, replacing the “crackly” high-frequency radio communications that required pilots to report every 50 minutes and was prone to human error.

Dave Ford, FAA director of ocean and offshore services, said the New York center already is giving direct routings to aircraft that have digital communication capabilities. He added that ATOP will in the long run help with high-frequency communication costs, which are “pretty big in the oceanic area.” Equipped aircraft in the Pacific will go immediately to 50-50 separations once Oakland goes operational and drop to 30-30 in December.