State of ATO

Chief Operating Officer, Air Traffic Organization Teri L. Bristol (June 1, 2014 - February 28, 2022)

Thank you, Jim [Washington].  I’m very happy to be here. 

This morning, Administrator Huerta spoke at length about Friday’s fire at the Chicago en route center.  We were all relieved that our employees safely evacuated the building.  The individual charged in the incident is receiving treatment for self-inflicted injuries and is under guard. 

I think the question on many people’s minds is how could one incident have such an impact on our system?  And I’d like to address that.  We always have redundancy built into everything we do.  We have contingency plans in place for unexpected incidents. 

Our people at Chicago Center executed their contingency plan and safely transferred Chicago airspace to their neighboring en route facilities. 

We have been able to keep air traffic moving, despite the loss of capability at Chicago center, a facility which controls traffic over an area that encompasses five states and hundreds of airports – 91,000 square miles!

As Administrator Huerta mentioned this morning, we transferred control of high altitude air traffic to neighboring en route centers in Minneapolis, Kansas City, Cleveland and Indianapolis. 

We established consistent altitudes for hand-offs. Controllers in these centers are handling air traffic at 18,000 feet and above.  They are directing the air traffic coming and going from Chicago center’s airspace.  They are also handling the transcontinental flights at cruising altitudes by sending those flights around Chicago airspace entirely.  I would like to thank our friends to the North… NavCanada has been extremely helpful, providing us additional flexibility and access to help us better manage through the situation.

We are steadily increasing the amount of air traffic we can handle in the air space around Chicago, and we are trying to reach as close to normal operations as quickly as possible.  Yesterday, air traffic controllers safely managed about 70% of typical traffic at O'Hare and about 95% at Midway.   

My leadership team and I have been closely involved throughout the weekend and today to ensure that the cleanup and system restoration efforts are going well.  We’ve brought in our best technicians to rebuild our communications capabilities.  People are working around the clock in an effort to restore normal operational service by October 13th.  And over the next 30 days, we’re going to review our contingency and security protocols to ensure preparedness and continuity of air traffic service during a crisis like this.

Over these past few days, I’ve been seeing the tremendous character and professionalism of our workforce shine through.  Everyone, regardless of their job function, has pulled together as one unit.  And this is actually the very message I was planning to deliver today.   

I’m honored to serve as the FAA’s Chief Operating Officer.  I’ve been officially on the job for six months now, and I’ve never been more proud of the people of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization.  The busiest and the best.  We run a safe, efficient, airspace system every day. 

I’m also proud to be part of this aviation community.  The airspace users, and the flying public and the passengers are the ATO’s customers.  And I look forward to working in partnership with you to strengthen our nation’s air traffic system in the months and years ahead.

That’s really why we’re here.  How can we most effectively work together to make it happen?

Some of you may recall a book called The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, published in 2000.  Gladwell talks about what happens when ideas and trends cross a threshold    – that’s where he gets the phrase “tipping point” from.  These ideas and trends then spread like wildfire. 

How does that happen?  And more importantly, why does that happen?  The book has some theories – one of them essentially is that when the right people get behind the right ideas at the right time, there can be major change.        

Now what does this mean for us?  The aviation community is at a tipping point, in terms of how we work together to improve and modernize the NAS.  We are the right people.  Collaboration is the right idea and with the launch of NextGen – this is the right time! 

Are we going to fall back into old ways of business – silos, turf wars, and provincial thinking that characterize some of our past efforts?  Or do we build on the recent trend toward collaboration between government, labor, and industry?  We have to strengthen this collaboration, keeping in mind that our goal is a better future system for the nation.  It’s time for us to capitalize on our momentum.    

Our choice will determine how much we accomplish in the next five years.  The time has never been better for new ways of doing business.

Today, I’d like to provide you with a “State of the ATO.”  Specifically, I’ll cover three topics –

I’ll discuss our strategic plan called the ATO Blueprint.    

I’ll discuss the progress we’re making in modernization.    

And I’ll discuss some of our upcoming investment priorities. 

So let me start with the ATO Blueprint.       

The FAA is going to make aviation safer and smarter, by developing a risk-based decision making initiative.

The FAA is going to deliver greater benefits through technology, infrastructure, and more efficient streamlined services.

The FAA will target its international efforts more effectively. 

And the FAA will recruit and develop a highly skilled workforce.

The common thread running through these four areas is that we will better define, target, and prioritize our activities and services, relying on data to base our decisions.  This will include rightsizing or doing differently certain activities and services that we’ve conducted or provided in the past.  It’s especially important that we do this, given today’s very tough budget climate.

To support these strategic efforts, the Air Traffic Organization has developed what we’re calling the ATO Blueprint which includes three components: Safety, Efficiency, and Business Acumen.  Let me tell you more about it. 

The ATO is proactively committed to identifying and mitigating the MOST pressing safety risks in the airspace system. 

We’re in a better position to do this because of the wealth of safety data that’s now available. 

Through these data sources, the ATO identifies a Top 5 list of safety hazards each year.  We develop corrective actions against these hazards and then measure and monitor the actions for two years.  We recently determined the Top 5 list for fiscal year 2015. 

And we’re reaffirming a commitment to quality control through a National Safety Initiative, which is a collaborative effort between management and labor.  Here, we’re targeting three areas: consistent dissemination of weather information by controllers, conflicts between IFR and VFR aircraft, and parachute operations. 

While safety problems in these areas are exceedingly rare, our data tells us that when problems do happen, it could mean collision and loss of life.  In all of these cases, we want to make sure that controllers have clear, unambiguous guidance on what they can and can’t do to safely affect the situation.

One of the ATO’s major successes in 2014 has been reducing the safety risk associated with converging runway operations, which includes those operations with non-intersecting runways with intersecting flight paths.  Our safety data showed that there was a higher risk when aircraft execute a go around that conflicted with another aircraft departing from a non-intersecting runway, creating the potential for collision. 

To address the problem, we worked with our stakeholders, and put in place policy changes and new automation tools at 140 airports where this risk was identified.  This was one of the most significant reductions in safety risk we’ve made over the past decade. 

The second key component of the ATO Blueprint is our Efficiency Initiative, which is a collaborative effort between management and labor, to deliver consistent and predictable results based on metrics.  This effort is built on the same model we’re employing within safety in that we’re collecting data, finding areas of concern, and developing strategies for improvement. 

The Efficiency effort is essential as we look to optimize the NAS, both from an operations perspective and an engineering and infrastructure perspective.  The initial focus is on improving existing metrics and enhancing decision making using the Terminal Arrival Efficiency Rate (TAER) tool, which measures the performance and impact of Traffic Management Initiatives (TMI) and other similar tools.

A national review of the previous day’s operation and outlook for the current day occurs every morning linking senior ATO leaders with our Directors of Operations and Managers of Tactical Operations in the field.  At the end of every week, we conduct a “deep dive” on the previous week’s operation spending time to analyze what worked well and what needs continued focus. 

The third component of the ATO Blueprint is called Business Acumen.  We are expecting a significant loss of leadership and corporate knowledge over the next three years.  In anticipation of this shift, we are working to enhance managers’ non-technical business skills, which will help them make smarter tactical and strategic decisions.

Through these strategic efforts, we will enhance the safety and efficiency of the service we provide.  This is in keeping with our core mission.

And the ATO’s modernization efforts support this mission as well – which brings me to the second topic I’d like to discuss. 

My Program Management Organization within the ATO is responsible for completing the implementation and execution of NextGen programs.    

The foundation for NextGen includes upgrading the automation in our en route and key terminal facilities.  These are the ERAM and TAMR programs respectively.  ERAM will be finalized in all 20 planned en route centers by next spring and TAMR is now in full production mode.

And earlier this year, the ATO completed the installation of 634 radios that make up the ground infrastructure for ADS-B.  Now we’re in a position to deliver the benefits of more precise surveillance to equipped airspace users.  This includes providing more efficient separation of aircraft, surveillance coverage in non-radar environments like in the mountains or over large bodies of water, and greater situational awareness for both controllers and pilots.  With NextGen’s foundation near complete, we’re in a position to really unleash the benefits of NextGen. 

But make no mistake.  NextGen is happening NOW.  It’s being integrated into the NAS every day.  In May, we implemented the Houston Metroplex initiative.  Airspace users can now benefit from 61 new satellite-based procedures in the Houston area. 

In point of fact, as of May, the ATO has implemented more than 7,000 satellite-based procedures and routes around the nation.  These procedures enable equipped aircraft to fly on more direct paths across the country.  This cuts flight time, reduces congestion, fuel burn and emissions, and improves access to airports.    

And with Data Comm we have trials underway at Memphis and Newark airports to demonstrate Data Comm’s departure clearance capability.  Each site is using Data Comm, 24/7, to conduct as many as 80 operations a day.  We’re already seeing reduced communications time, resulting in faster taxi outs, reduced delays, and reduced pilot and controller workload.  In 2015, we’ll proceed with key site testing at control towers in Salt Lake and Houston, and we’re on schedule for deployment at 56 airports starting in 2016.

To upgrade voice communications, we just issued a final investment decision for NAS Voice System.  We currently depend on ten different kinds of voice switches, many of which are becoming obsolete.  With NAS Voice System, we’ll be able to transfer air traffic sectors within facilities, and between facilities, to better balance operations workload and be able to maintain operations in the event that we lose the capability of a facility like the recent situation in Aurora.  We’re working with our labor partners – NATCA and PASS, respectively, to get their input to define program requirements.  This is important, because early stakeholder input will help us deliver a product that is on time, within budget, and achieves performance goals.    

When stakeholders collaborate by giving each other input, we get a better product in the end.  I talked about how we’re at a tipping point.  Let’s tip forward to even more effective collaboration. 

In fact, it’s been through collaboration with industry, specifically through our NextGen Advisory Committee, that the FAA has decided on a set of four NextGen priorities, where we plan to concentrate our efforts in the next one to three years.  The four priorities are: increasing the use of Performance Based (or satellite-based) Navigation, making multiple runway operations more efficient, improving surface operations, and implementing Data Communications.  We believe, and industry agrees, that progress in these areas can benefit the aviation community right away.

The ATO is working closely with the FAA’s NextGen office and with industry as part of the NextGen Integrated Working Group.  In mid-October, we will submit a plan to Congress where we’ll make specific commitments, with locations and dates as well as costs, to deliver capabilities in these four areas. 

Finally, let me tell you about our contracting opportunities in the ATO.

The FAA plans to invest about $4 billion in procurement annually, with more than $1 billion provided to small businesses.  The ATO will make the bulk of these awards in areas like engineering and safety analysis services, facility construction, major air traffic control systems procurement, and direct operational services, such as satellite surveillance and telecommunications.

Over the next two years, some of the ATO’s major procurements include our Decision Support Programs: Terminal Flight Data Manager and Traffic Flow Management System. 

Terminal Flight Data Manager, or TFDM, is a new system that will automate flight plans and integrate them with surveillance data to create accurate, real-time predictive tools for the terminal environment.  This capability will enable controllers to make more informed decisions to improve traffic flow on the airport surface and decrease the time the aircraft is spent waiting to taxi.  In doing so, we’ll be able to reduce aircraft fuel usage and emissions.  We plan to develop TFDM’s surface capability starting in 2016. 

The Traffic Flow Management System, or TFMS, is designed to balance user demand with system capacity, so we can reduce congestion and delays.  The better we can forecast capacity and demand, the better our performance will be. 

You’re invited to hear updates on these and other programs at an Industry Outreach event we’re hosting at FAA Headquarters on Thursday morning, although preregistration is required by tomorrow.

As the backdrop to everything I’ve talked about today, the biggest challenge that we face is budget uncertainty.  We are in a difficult situation when it comes to long term planning and budgeting. Congress has passed a continuing resolution that will keep us at current funding levels through December 11.  And last December, Congress passed a two-year budget agreement that enables us to temporarily avoid the cuts we would have had to make under a sequester in fiscal years 2014 and 2015.  But unless there’s another fix, the sequester will be with us again in 2016.

In closing, the ATO remains committed to running the safest, most efficient system in the world.  Through the ATO Blueprint, and through NextGen and other modernization efforts, we’re committed to improving the service we provide for our customers.  But we can’t do it alone.  No one can.  We need continued, effective collaboration between government, labor and industry.  We’re seeing it on multiple fronts and it’s a big reason for much of our progress in recent years.

And here we are – at the tipping point.  Our future success comes down to our ability to strengthen this collaborative approach.  Let’s find out what each of our needs are and let’s meet these needs in a way that puts the future of aviation ahead of parochial interests.  In doing so, we’ll build an even greater airspace system and deliver greater benefits for our nation.

Thank you.