Aurora downed: renewed pressure on FAA

Airport focus editor gary mason

Airport Focus Editor Gary Mason on this week’s news (2 October 2014)

The fire that was allegedly started deliberately by a contract employee at one of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) main high altitude ATC centres is the stuff of movie nightmares.

According to reports the private contractor’s act of deliberate vandalism in the basement of the Aurora III centre destroyed 23 of 29 control racks. Radar lines were cut and computers torched.

According to employees as the centre the extent of the destruction is unprecedented. The damage from the sabotage and subsequent firefighting effort has been so severe the FAA is forced to rebuild its infrastructure in separate section of the Aurora air traffic control centre.

As the sole supplier of ATC services in the US the main task of the FAA is to get the centre, which handles about 91,000 square miles of some of the country’s busiest airspace, fully up and running as quickly as possible although estimates as to when that might happen have talked about mid-October.

But even as that recovery operation continues apace questions have inevitably been raised about the vulnerability of the US’s ATC/ATM network to sudden and violent interruptions. Those questions could not have come at a worse time for the FAA whose operations and terms of reference have been the focus of plenty of recent and mainly critical outside scrutiny.

The mainstream media in the US is already citing official reports of dire warnings about the vulnerability of air traffic control systems to sabotage and terrorist attack and an alleged lack of contingency planning.

One bulletin quoted a 16-year-old Government Accountability Office (GAO) report which stated: “Failure to adequately protect these systems, as well as the facilities that house them, could cause nationwide disruption of air traffic or even loss of life due to collisions.”

The media is also reporting that FAA employees are having to work 24-hour shifts to plug the gaps left by the deliberate downing of the Aurora Centre. There have also been reports that staff in some cases have had to use phone and fax to manually hand off control of flights and establish schedules.

Pressure is now building on the FAA to prove to government that its ATC infrastructure is fit  for purpose. While on the one hand the Air Traffic Control profession in the US has developed a reputation for being change averse the Poole report’s assessment of the market identifies more complex challenges. It criticises the Federal Aviation Authority for having “a highly risk-averse, status-quo organisational culture” within its Air Traffic Organisation.

Poole is unequivocal in its argument that a more liberalised, corporate driven ATC market would inject some much needed energy into the way such services are provided into the busiest civil aviation market on the globe.

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