Towards a More Flexible National Airspace

Former Administrator, Michael Huerta (January 09, 2013–January 05, 2018)

Thank you, Jim [Washington, ATCA chairman and COO of B3 Solutions].  As always, I’m glad to be a part of the ATCA conference. I’d like to start out today with some comments on Friday’s incident near Chicago.

I am sure many of you have seen the news reports over the weekend about the fire at our Air Route Traffic Control Center in Aurora, Illinois.  Early Friday morning we evacuated the en route center, and our employees got out safely. The individual charged in relation to the incident is receiving treatment for self-inflicted injuries and is under guard. One of our technical operations employees suffered from smoke inhalation and was treated at the scene. We are thankful that he is OK. He went back to work soon thereafter. We are relieved that everyone is safe and that initial cleanup of the site has progressed throughout the weekend.

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 60 percent of typical traffic at O'Hare and more than 75 percent at Midway. 

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. On Friday morning we activated our contingency plan, which is why 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!

First, we transferred control of high altitude air traffic to neighboring en route centers in Minneapolis, Kansas City, Cleveland and Indianapolis. These centers are Chicago’s next door neighbors in terms of airspace.

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.

The centers are funneling the lower level traffic to 19 different TRACON facilities in the area. These TRACONS have increased their control upwards to about 17,000 feet altitude, from the normal range of about 10,000 feet, to provide increased coverage.

In addition, air traffic controllers who normally work at the Chicago en route center are now working at other surrounding FAA air traffic facilities to help safely maximize the traffic flow in and out of the Chicago area airports.

Some Chicago center controllers also are traveling to the other high-altitude centers I mentioned to assist controllers at those locations to provide local knowledge and to minimize disruptions for travelers.

We recovered operations in Chicago by developing new communication and flight plan processing solutions. We also adapted our automation and modified our radar feeds.

The day after the fire, we created direct phone lines between all four centers and Chicago TRACON. When controllers handle a departure or arrival there’s a lot of coordination that has to happen, for example if there’s a go-around.  This ability to communicate directly has helped us increase capacity.

The fire also disrupted our ability to exchange flight plan data between Chicago center and its four neighboring centers. We had been typing in the flight plan info for each plane and printing it out on a strip for the en route controllers. We’ve been able to automate much of this, and it has significantly improved our throughput as well.

We reestablished consistent arrival and departure rates at Chicago area airports. We are speaking with the airlines continually to give them a better measure of predictability so they can adjust their schedules accordingly. Believe me, we are using all existing tools to maximize operations, and we’re developing new capabilities where necessary to return to normal service levels in the Chicago area.

While the operational changes enable us to build traffic, we also need to restore Chicago Center itself. The damaged communications equipment needs to be replaced entirely. While crews are cleaning the area damaged by the fire, others are reconfiguring space on a different floor, to house the new equipment. We have brought in our best technicians from around the country to expedite the replacement of the central communications network at Chicago center.

The supplier and the operator of the FTI system which was damaged is Harris Corporation. They have been working throughout the weekend to stage and assemble equipment to begin the restoration.

The first shipment of communications equipment arrived last night and crews began installing it over night.  All of the equipment will arrive this week and we are working with the Harris Corporation towards a target of having the communications capabilities rebuilt and up and running by October 13th.  That is an extraordinarily accelerated timeline, and I have to thank the teamwork of the employees in the Central Service Area and all across the nation, for their dedication and willingness to work round-the-clock to get this done.

Secretary Foxx and I are very proud of how the FAA team has handled the last three days. Our people are working through incredibly challenging circumstances. I have been in constant communication with the Secretary, giving him updates on the incident and our progress in returning the system to near normal operations.

The FAA’s contingency planning focuses on the safe handling of aircraft. When a situation like a major outage occurs, our goal is to manage the aircraft in the air to ensure they reach their destinations safely. In the case of Friday’s fire, the FAA worked quickly to handle aircraft traversing Chicago center’s airspace and implemented its contingency plans to handoff airspace responsibilities to adjacent facilities.  What suffers under these circumstances is the efficiency of the system we have come to depend on. 

Regardless of the extraordinary conditions we are dealing with though, I do understand the traveling public’s frustrations with flight delays and cancellations. The air transportation system is vital to our economy and people rely on it to function 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I want to make sure that we have the most robust contingency plans possible.

That is why I’ve asked our Air Traffic Organization, in collaboration with our partners NATCA and PASS, to review our contingency plans for our major facilities. Over the next 30 days, they will take a look at our plans to make sure we are prepared to both assure the safety of aircraft but also the efficiency of the system. I want to make sure we have all the tools in place to get our airspace back up and running as quickly as possible.  I’ve asked the team to think as creatively as possible and make recommendations to me about our preparedness going forward.

As part of this review, we are also asking our security organization to review the security protocols at our facilities to make sure we have the most robust policies and practices in place. If we need to make changes as a result of what happened on Friday to improve the system, we will not hesitate to do so.

This incident in Chicago is also a stark reminder of the reasons that we are working toward an even more robust and scalable system. In the future, our ability to agilely shift air traffic management responsibilities between facilities is a key objective of NextGen.  But getting there requires stable and adequate funding, the right people in the right place, and a sustained commitment to follow through on today's plans.

We have followed through on a joint decision between industry and the FAA in 2010 to move to a system of satellite-based surveillance and navigation that will provide greater situational awareness for all airspace users. Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast, or ADS-B, will bring more flexibility and more options throughout our nation’s airspace.

In the spring, we completed the installation of the baseline ground infrastructure for ADS-B, which gives us the capability to track aircraft using satellites instead of radar. What we need is equipped aircraft to take advantage of the system we have built. In the past, we’ve called ADS-B a game changer, but that’s only if we all use it. 

As you know, we’re going to hold a Call to Action regarding ADS-B equipage at the end of October to look at where we are. We will try to identify what the issues are, or what the barriers are, so that the carriers can equip by the deadline that we worked with industry to establish, a deadline that is rapidly approaching—January 2020. That date is not going to change. NextGen is on track. And we will keep it on track, but to do so, we’ve got to meet that equipage mandate.  

Meanwhile, we’re reshaping our airspace through implementing NextGen procedures.  In May, our Houston Metroplex site went live.  Airspace users can now benefit from 61 new satellite-based procedures in the Houston area.  These procedures include Optimized Profile Descents.  OPDs allow pilots to almost idle the engines while the aircraft descends at a constant rate. 

We also have procedures in place that will allow planes to climb without leveling off, which brings them to a cruising altitude sooner.  These procedures mean less fuel usage and less carbon emissions, and, based on flight plans, we estimate airliners will fly 648,000 fewer nautical miles each year in Houston. 

This will help improve on-time performance and it will save up to 3 million gallons of fuel and reduce carbon emissions by as much as 31,000 metric tons each year.  We estimate these procedures could save airlines $9.2 million dollars in fuel each year. That’s like taking 6,000 cars off the streets of Houston.

The Houston project was completed in only 30 months, which is 6-12 months less than previous projects of this scope.  This is a major accomplishment.

We are implementing these kinds of improvements in other metropolitan areas. This month, we started using these new NextGen procedures in North Texas, and we’re planning to roll out more benefits, in Northern California, starting in November.

And then there are NextGen benefits in places like Atlanta, Louisville and Memphis thanks to new wake turbulence separation standards.  In Atlanta, we implemented the new standards in June of this year.  After 90 days, Delta Airlines is reporting a 2.3 minute reduction in taxi out times and a 14 to 24 percent reduction in departure queue delays.  On the arrival side, Delta is also benefiting from each aircraft spending two minutes less in the TRACON airspace.  These efficiencies are reducing fuel usage and emissions. 

Last year, we started using new wake separation standards in Louisville and UPS is saving 52,000 pounds of fuel per night on arrivals.  We put the same procedures in place in Memphis a year before that and the airport capacity in Memphis is up by more than 20 percent. 

We see the many ways that NextGen can improve all that we do, and we are committed to following through on our implementation plans. However, we still remain in a difficult situation when it comes to long term planning and budgeting. 

In December, Congress passed a two-year budget resolution that has provided us with some degree of certainty for fiscal years 2014 and 2015.  This budget deal has temporarily suspended the cuts we faced under the sequester. Our funding levels for FY 2015 have yet to be finalized by Congress, but we are in a continuing resolution that keeps us at 2014 levels through December 11th.

We have to prioritize our work, and the current budget environment is making us take a closer look at what we can do differently or perhaps stop altogether.  In addition to modernizing through NextGen, we have to maintain our existing infrastructure.

We are having discussions with our stakeholders about our mission and our work – what should be high on the list and what shouldn’t be on the list at all. 

In an aviation community as diverse as ours, this is obviously a much larger discussion.  We want to build consensus on the direction we’re going, and I believe that consensus around the future direction of the FAA is critical if we’re going to resolve our long-term funding challenges.

We can see the future clearly, and we want to get to the types of efficiencies that NextGen can bring us all. While we are able to respond to the type of incident in Chicago with our current infrastructure, we will be able to respond even more swiftly to future contingencies with the improved performance of NextGen.

With NextGen capabilities fully operational, we will be able to provide many more options for rapidly reconfiguring our facilities. 

We have made great progress in laying the groundwork for this. Already, we have updated the air traffic control automation system in almost all of our en route centers and are doing so in our terminal facilities too. These programs, En Route Automation Modernization, or ERAM, and Terminal Automation Modernization and Replacement, or TAMR, provide both the capacity and functional capability to "see" well beyond the traditional airspace boundaries. 

These new platforms are powerful, and when we combine them with the greater precision and coverage of ADS-B, we will have the ability to configure any single facility to view any part of our nation’s airspace.

In addition to seeing any part of our airspace, we will be able to talk with the aircraft in any part of it as well. The NAS Voice System is taking our communications equipment from point to point communications to a Voice Over Internet Protocol system, using the federal government’s more secure version of the Internet.  

Because of this greater flexibility, we will be able to rapidly reconfigure a facility’s access to radio resources to allow them to hand off control of sectors of airspace from one facility to another if traffic becomes extremely busy or if we lose the capability of a facility, as happened in Aurora.  

For example, in the current outage at Chicago center, we would be able to have each of the neighboring en route centers reach into Chicago center's airspace and take control of all of the radios used to control aircraft there. Additionally, we would be able to rapidly establish ground-to-ground connections between these en route centers and the TRACONS that normally connect to Chicago center. This would greatly increase the range of our operational response, ease the burden on the surrounding TRACONS, and increase arrival and departure throughput. It could also open additional routes into and out of Chicago.

NextGen tools will provide more accurate information and airspace flexibility in a much more dynamic way than we are able to do today.  As a result, we will be able to better reduce the impact of unplanned changes or outages on our operation.

I think we all want to benefit from the better capabilities that NextGen can bring us. It’s good for safety, good for efficiency, good for the traveling public and good for business. I look forward to working with all of you to find the best path to overcome the challenges that we face.

We are at a critical point in aviation, where the decisions we make today will affect this industry for decades to come. Thanks for joining with me to make the right decisions and make sure our nation’s aviation system is better for generations to come.