Despite efforts to improve emergency contingency procedures, the Department of Transportation Inspector General contends the FAA is still not completely prepared to handle events that could cause major outages, such as the fire that was deliberately set in the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center in September 2014. The DOT IG stated that belief in a study the watchdog conducted at the behest of Congress on whether the FAA can manage air traffic control crises that arise within the National Airspace System.
In the new report, the DOT IG found that the “FAA has taken steps to improve the effectiveness of its operational contingency plans; however, significant work remains to mitigate the impact of air traffic control disruptions.” After the Chicago fire, the FAA updated its contingency plan with the goal of achieving 90 percent capacity at the top 30 airports within 24 hours of a major disruption, the DOT IG noted. “However, the FAA’s air traffic facilities are not yet fully prepared to respond effectively to major system disruptions, in part because of a lack of necessary controller training for these types of emergency events.”
Further, the agency’s requirements for transferring airspace and ATC responsibilities to other facilities are incomplete, and the FAA has not validated technical requirements to support such activities.
The watchdog also pointed to the FAA’s response to the October 2015 radar room flood at the Austin-Bergstrom control tower in Austin, Texas, saying it “highlighted the lack of redundancy, resiliency and flexibility of the FAA’s key air traffic control infrastructure, including communication, surveillance, automation and flight-plan equipment.”
Many new technologies/capabilities that can improve the agency’s continuity of ATC operations will not be available for years, the DOT IG found.
The watchdog made a series of recommendations to the FAA on improving its preparation and response to such events. These recommendations involve training; testing equipment; evaluating how technologies could enhance continuity of airspace operations; validating procedures for handing off operations; plans for oceanic airspace; updates of operational contingency procedures and lessons learned; processes for baseline contingency metrics; and collaboration with stakeholders.
The FAA concurred with the recommendations and agreed to work to implement them.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) noted that the report “adds to the sea of evidence supporting the need for real reform in modernizing and managing air traffic services, and letting the FAA focus on its safety mission.” Shuster added the report “is another example of the FAA bureaucracy dropping the ball and failing to follow through on important contingency planning and training needed to prevent shutdowns of the nation’s airspace.”
The top Democrats on the committee, including the T&I ranking member Peter DeFazio (Oregon) and House aviation subcommittee ranking member Rick Larsen (Washington), agreed that “strong contingency plans and internal controls are vital to recovery from large-scale disruptions to air traffic services, regardless of the cause,” and said in a joint statement the DOT IG recommendations will improve the FAA’s policies and procedures.
But DeFazio and Larsen, who have opposed ATC privatization, also noted, “While the FAA operated the system every day in 2016 without any widespread glitches, it was the airlines that failed to manage their own IT systems, with large-scale disruptions on at least 15 occasions. For that and many other reasons, we remain unconvinced that privatizing the air traffic control system would lead to improvement.”