NextGen Press Obscures ATC Woes

 - August 27, 2007, 10:41 AM

The head of the 14,000-member air traffic controllers union said last month that the FAA is trumpeting the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) to mask poor morale and severe staffing shortages among its controller workforce.

“What better way to pull the wool over the eyes of the American public than for the FAA to flood the media about NextGen,” said National Air Traffic Controllers Association (natca) president Pat Forrey. “This is all designed to draw your attention away from the absolute travesty the ATC system has degraded to.”

Speaking at a transportation forum in Dallas, he suggested that excluding controllers from modernization efforts is part of the FAA’s agenda to run the ATC system more like a business.

“First they sent home every one of our dozens of controllers that worked as technical experts on modernization programs, new equipment testing and rollout plans, airspace redesign initiatives and new air traffic procedures,” Forrey said. “Then, the FAA imposed work and pay rules on us Labor Day weekend last year, after completely destroying the fair collective bargaining process.” He added that the agency gave managers “authoritative and aggressive free reign to run roughshod” over the workforce.

The union leader claimed that natca sees almost daily examples of how the FAA is jeopardizing the safety and success of new equipment and procedures by failing to work with the air traffic controllers who will be using this equipment and these procedures.

Forrey said the Government Accountability Office has consistently reported that failing to involve air traffic controllers in the technology development process to resolve tricky human-factors issues has led to costly reworks and delays. In addition, the Transportation Department’s Inspector General has noted that the need for focused “human factors” research has important safety implications.

He quoted House aviation subcommittee chairman Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) as saying at a hearing on modernization issues in May that “common sense would suggest that the people who will be using and maintaining this new technology should be involved in its development.”

Controllers Maintain Influence
To circumvent the FAA’s alleged efforts to exclude natca from modernization projects, Forrey said, his union is working directly with vendors that are manufacturing the ATC equipment of tomorrow.

“One notable example is a ground radar system known as ASDE-X,” he explained. “We have been working with Sensis to work out issues and potential problems at many airports around the country.”

According to Forrey, natca strongly supports participating in a collaborative process with the FAA in the development of NextGen, as well as the agency’s new modernization programs and initiatives. He said that the union is again working directly with the Joint Planning and Development Office (which is spearheading the efforts to develop NextGen), has joined the RTCA and reinstated its participation with the NGATS Institute.

“While we press for more collaboration on modernization,” he continued, “I must point out to you the importance of how the air traffic control system is being run right now…because like it or not, this is the system we have for the next several years, possibly another decade or more, until NextGen becomes a reality and ground infrastructure is expanded to accommodate more traffic.”