News

ATC Reform Can Ensure a System that’s Resilient?

Posted by #ModernSkies

In September 2014, one man wreaked havoc on the skies over the Midwest when he cut sensitive cables and set fire inside a suburban Chicago air traffic control operations facility. At that point, the lives of the passengers and crew in 135 jets were in critical danger. Here’s what the Chicago Tribune said about the extent of the damage caused by a disgruntled telecommunications contractor for the FAA:

“Among the new disclosures was that Howard cut cables at precisely the most sensitive spot, knocking out the backup telecommunications system in addition to the primary one. Radars went black. The automated handoff system to transfer control of planes to other facilities was down. Even ground-to-ground communications were wiped out.

“What followed was a controlled panic, as FAA controllers used cell phones and other backup devices to ground planes and turn back hundreds of others about to enter Chicago’s airspace. The contingency plan worked — no planes were lost and no one was reported injured. But severe damage had been done.

“‘There has never been an outage of the resulting magnitude like the outage (Howard) caused by attacking the Chicago Center,’ prosecutors said in asking a federal judge to sentence him next month to 13 years in prison.”

The Chicago Center houses equipment that “provides critical voice and data communications that support air traffic operations at FAA facilities nationwide,” according to an investigation conducted by the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Transportation. For two weeks following the fire, thousands of flights in and out of O’Hare and Midway airports were delayed or canceled. American, Southwest and United airlines have hubs in Chicago, which is the nation’s third busiest airspace, and aviation stakeholders reported a loss of more than $350 million.

The IG’s report provided 24 essential recommendations and noted, “The damage to Chicago Center highlighted weakness in FAA’s current air traffic control infrastructure, which has limited flexibility to respond to system failures and facilitate the return to normal operations.” This situation is a powerful argument in favor of ATC reform for efficiency and to maximize safety. Ten years and $6 billion ago, the FAA began efforts to modernize the Air TrafficControl (ATC) system through NextGen, but we’re still waiting for that to fully come online. When the unthinkable happens – system failure, sabotage, terrorism – a resilient system is absolutely necessary. What we need to do is restructure ATC under a not-for-profit entity, removing this 24/7 technology and service provider from the political and financial pressures of the federal budget cycle. This is how we will ensure the reliable funding needed to make the technological transformations.