Report: FAA not prepared for major air traffic outages
By Joan Lowy
January 13, 2017
The Federal Aviation Administration still isn't prepared to handle major air traffic control outages despite promises to update plans, a government watchdog said Friday.
The FAA has been working on new contingency plans since a fire at control facility in the Chicago area in 2014 led to widespread flight cancellations and delays for more than two weeks, according to a report by the Department of Transportation's inspector general.
Progress has been made on new contingency plans for transferring responsibility for high-altitude air traffic from one facility to another in the event of a disruption. But the work isn't complete in part because of a lack of controller training for handling such emergency events, the report said. For example, controllers told investigators they hadn't received refresher training on procedures to be used when radar isn't available.
The FAA has yet to develop new plans for lower-altitude flights and planes in the immediate vicinity of airports.
Besides the Chicago fire, the FAA experienced major computer outages at control centers near Los Angeles and Washington that handle high altitude air traffic. The outages caused cancellations and delays, and forced some pilots to take alternative routes far out of the way. In October 2015, record rainfall and widespread flooding forced the shutdown of a regional control center located at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas and affected operations for more than two weeks.
"These disruptions continue to highlight the limited flexibility and the lack of redundancy and resiliency of FAA's current air traffic control infrastructure," wrote Matthew Hampton, assistant inspector general for aviation audits.
The inspector general's report revealed extensive problems encountered during the outages. For example, although FAA policy requires that battery-powered transceivers be tested weekly to ensure that they are in a state of readiness, the "power-fail" phone at the Austin facility didn't work. Also, two portable emergency transceivers interfered with each other and could not be used to transmit simultaneously. The transceivers also didn't have headset capability, making communication difficult due to loud background noise. There were no working flashlights.
To assist the Austin control tower during the outage, the FAA transported a mobile air traffic control tower from Kansas City to the airport. Mobile towers are designed to be used in emergencies. However, once the tower arrived in Austin, it took maintenance technicians hours to set it up because there were no operating instructions. Austin personnel also told the inspector general the unit was outdated and had been poorly maintained.
Delays and uncertainties surrounding the FAA's air traffic control modernization program means elements of the program that could help are unavailable, the report said.
"This 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," said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the House transportation committee chairman. Shuster wants to spin off FAA's air traffic control operations into a private, nonprofit corporation.
The FAA concurred with eight recommendations made by the inspector general. Clay Foushee, FAA's director for audit and evaluation, said in a reply appended to the report that the agency has comprehensive contingency plans and that all facilities are required to conduct annual contingency planning.