FAA command center guards U.S. National Airspace System

 - May 6, 2008, 6:01 AM

Perhaps deliberately, the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC) is not easy to find. Tucked away in the countryside near Herndon, Va., the facility looks like any of the other low-rise high-tech buildings in the neighborhood. But unlike the others, the ATCSCC has no large signs announcing its owner’s name, no imposing entrance and no flags flying outside. And there’s no admittance without prior clearance and an established need to be there. The ATCSCC is, after all, the nerve center of the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS). Security is tight, but not overbearingly so, in contrast to Dulles, just a few miles away.

The building’s unassuming exterior does not prepare a first-time visitor for what’s inside. The initial impression is a memory flashback to NASA’s Houston Mission Control, when Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts were commuting to and from the moon. The FAA’s command center has a similar look to it, although smaller, with large display screens around the walls and banks of specialist control consoles, each with three or four monitor screens, spread across the floor.

The continuously updated wall displays give the center staff–and visitors–an instantaneous overview of what’s happening in the NAS, and cover such things as current and forecast national weather, traffic flows, airport status and other key operational information. But the fine decision-making details come up on the monitors at the various specialist consoles.

On the front line–both literally and meta- phorically–is the bank of consoles dedicated to the tactical and strategic airspace management team, along with the national severe weather specialists. Here, by using the displays of the computer-aided enhanced traffic management system (ETMS), the team can dissect the traffic flows into smaller segments, where current loadings can be blended with future predictions based on airline schedules and filed flight plans, to quickly identify potential traffic buildups and expected pressures at chokepoints. This is where the hard decisions are made on ground delays, re-routing and similar issues that affect airspace users. And, incidentally, it’s where the order went out across the nation on the morning of September 11 to get everyone down on the ground.

Right behind, but in constant contact with, the airspace managers’ is a second tier of specialist consoles, each assigned to one or more ARTCCs, and from which the managers’ decisions are passed to the individual centers. But it’s also a two-way information process, with the centers passing back traffic data to the command center to aid in decision making. On the Friday morning of AIN’s visit, just more than 3,500 airplanes were airborne across the NAS in generally good weather conditions, and conversations between center personnel were relaxed and subdued. On the busiest days, close to 10,000 airplanes could be in the sky at the same time.

The third tier of consoles covers a number of other different interests, including FAA Free Flight, computer analysis and system standards experts, in addition to the Air Transport Association and NBAA staffers. And a final fourth tier of consoles accommodates FAA oceanic monitoring personnel, Department of Defense special-use airspace and military exercise coordinators and FAA domestic and international notam specialists. Interestingly, of these third- and fourth-tier positions, it is the NBAA console that seemed to be the most active during AIN’s visit.

NBAA Shares in CDM

NBAA enjoys a unique standing within the command center, since the organization’s more than 9,000 aircraft–of which more than half are business jets–represent a significant component of the total IFR-capable U.S. civil fleet. As a result, NBAA is privy to the center’s collaborative decision making (CDM) process–which, every two hours throughout the day, conducts a nationwide, open-line conference call when ARTCCs, major airlines and Nav Canada can discuss current conditions and review any unusual situations that will affect flight operations, such as re-routes due to severe storm movements or military operations, runway closures or pending ground stops or delays.

But while the resulting heads-up information would be extremely valuable to corporate flight departments, it is clearly impractical to disseminate it to each of the association’s more than 7,000 member companies. Consequently, NBAA has instituted a special subscriber program, which provides an information and flight-following service direct from the NBAA desk at the command center. Managed by Jo Damato, herself a CFI/CFII/MEI-rated commercial pilot who was formerly director of training at NetJets, the NBAA desk typically handles around 900 corporate flights per day.

Operating Monday through Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., and with shorter hours on the weekends, a normal day sees Damato and her two pilot assistants providing NAS overview briefings and special notices to subscribers about to file flight plans and, as flights launch, monitoring their routes and destinations for changing conditions that could affect their schedules. For example, if a board chairman has flown into Chicago early in the morning for a day of meetings with a planned 6 p.m. departure, but traffic or weather has built up by early afternoon and with it, the likelihood of a ground stop or delay, the company pilot is immediately alerted, so that he can discuss possible departure changes with the chairman.

Currently, the NBAA program covers more than 6,000 corporate aircraft, most of which are operated by the major fleet and fractional organizations. Soon, according to Bob Lamond, NBAA director of air traffic services and the sparkplug behind both the special subscriber program and NBAA’s command center involvement, it is expected that certain flight-planning service providers could also join and offer similar benefits to their clients.