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Performance Success Stories

Phoenix Air Traffic Controllers look to the future with NextGen Technology

  • FAA software engineers created the Advanced Electronic Flight Strips (AEFS) prototype system in collaboration with air traffic controllers, management and NATCA.
  • Entire airfield activity is visible on a single screen for all controllers in the tower.
PHX Air Traffic Controller Steve Stenstrom uses AEFS.
Photo courtesy of: Mike Schrempp, NATCA

Airports referenced in this story

NextGen Implementation Plan (PDF)

Improved Surface Operations
Focuses on improved airport surveillance information, automation to support airport configuration management and runway assignments and enhanced cockpit displays to provide increased situational awareness for controllers and pilots; a key step is sharing airport surface information with authorized stakeholders.

Thanks to emerging NextGen technology, air traffic controllers are now controlling traffic from the tower with a swipe of a finger or a click of a mouse. The old tried-and-true process of paper flight progress strips, which air traffic controllers in the towers use to track incoming and outgoing flights, has been upgraded to a prototype paperless software program, known as the Advanced Electronic Flight Strips (AEFS) system.

NextGen is the modernization of the National Airspace System (NAS) with a goal to increase safety and efficiency while reducing the impact on our environment. The prototype AEFS system was created and designed by the FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center's Terminal Second Level Engineering team to demonstrate how providing tower controllers with a single source of collective information increases efficiency, while maintaining safety and situational awareness for each controller in the tower cab.

Software engineers Guy Monhollen, program lead for AEFS, Joel Knee, and Anthony Kristovich collaborated with air traffic controllers, FAA management, and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) to ensure AEFS was user-friendly and adaptable for each tower's specific needs. The prototype AEFS system will be replaced with a new flight information system delivered through the Terminal Flight Data Manager (TFDM) program. The TFDM program will replace AEFS and the current Electronic Flight Strip Transfer System (EFSTS) with a fully supported system that will support the NAS long term.

At the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) traffic control tower, where AEFS is currently being used, the NextGen prototype is living up to expectations for the move beyond paper strips.

"It was a group effort to get such a user-friendly design and we worked together to get what we needed. Everybody contributed to it and we turned it into gold," said PHX air traffic manager Jim McMahon.

Jerry Johnston, PHX air traffic control specialist and NATCA alternate regional vice president, has been controlling traffic for over 28 years and waited a long time for this concept to become a reality. "To hear about it was one thing, but to see it come here and be used is awesome. People who see it are amazed. This is the future of where we want to go," said Johnston.

So exactly how did the veteran controller find AEFS to use? "Before AEFS, with paper strips, the (controller's) focus was taken away from the window walking around the tower cab to update a strip. With the new system, it is on one screen and updates are made through a touch screen or mouse. To send a strip across the room no longer requires physically walking away from your location, but a simple swipe of a finger across the screen sends it," said Johnston.

In addition to the demonstrated ease of use, AEFS allows air traffic management to monitor one screen while observing the sequence of activity throughout the tower. In the case of weather events, runway closures, flow problems, and ground stops, the system allows the traffic management unit (TMU) or front line manager (FLM) to enter the information and immediately populate it onto the AEFS screen of all controllers in the tower cab.

"AEFS offers controllers extra tools than just (replacing) paper strips," said Mike Schrempp, PHX air traffic control specialist and NATCA AEFS subject matter expert. "The system allows us to highlight strips with traffic management initiatives and helps prevent flight plans from timing out. It also allows us to stay at our stations engaged with our traffic at all times," said Schrempp.

This move to the future, through the AEFS prototype, highlights the many benefits to come across the NAS with TFDM including: reducing controller heads-down time, increasing controller awareness by allowing more out-the-window scanning time, reducing the time needed to mark strips manually and increasing accessibility by allowing any controller, TMU or FLM in the cab to access or manipulate information in the system when needed.

"It brings all the air traffic controllers together as a group, by allowing each controller to see everything that's going on in the tower cab through their AEFS screen. It helps us to be safer controllers, which is our number one job. AEFS also allows us to be more efficient and effective moving traffic, all with one tool," said Schrempp.

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