WASHINGTON, D.C. — A new Department of Transportation Inspector General (IG) report outlines deficiencies in the FAA’s ability to adequately prepare for and respond to major disruptions to the air traffic system.
The IG pointed to shortcomings in the agency’s contingency planning, controller training, technology, and system redundancy and resiliency.
The report also highlights the related impacts of ongoing delays and uncertainty in the FAA’s NextGen air traffic control modernization effort.
The IG’s audit was undertaken, in part, to review the FAA’s efforts in preparing for incidents that cause significant disruptions to the National Airspace System (NAS), such as a fire at the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center in 2014 and the flooding of a radar room at the Austin, Texas, TRACON in 2015.
“The Inspector General’s report is another example of the FAA bureaucracy dropping the ball and failing to follow through on important contingency planning and training needed to prevent shutdowns of the nation’s airspace,” said Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.). “Aviation system inefficiency and delays cost passengers and the economy over $30 billion every year, but unfortunately, the FAA’s chronic inability to modernize air traffic services technology is also negatively impacting their ability to address major operational disruptions and reduce delays. 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.”
“For too long the FAA has been reactive rather than proactive in identifying and mitigating potential problems,” said Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ). “This attitude has significant economic costs to consumers, the aviation industry and the federal government. This GAO report underscores the systemic issues at FAA and reinforces the changes the Aviation Subcommittee has been pushing the agency to make.”
Shuster and LoBiondo initiated the IG report in August 2015.
The IG report highlighted the impacts of such system disruptions. For example, the Chicago Center fire resulted in thousands of flight delays or cancellations at Chicago O’Hare and Midway Airports and more than $350 million in associated costs.
“The FAA’s decades-long inability to modernize its outdated technology and struggles in managing significant system failures are on full display again,” Shuster added. “When the Chicago Center fire happened, the FAA clearly wasn’t prepared to deal with such a major system disruption, and it’s unacceptable that well over two years later, it appears the FAA still isn’t ready.”
Several additional highlights from the Inspector General’s report, which is available in full here, include:
“The Chicago Center fire and the Austin tower/TRACON flood also highlighted the lack of redundancy, resiliency, and flexibility of FAA’s key air traffic control infrastructure, including communication, surveillance, automation, and flight-plan equipment.”
“FAA plans to introduce several capabilities through Next Generation Air Transportation Systems (NextGen) that are designed to improve critical communications, surveillance, and the distribution of flight data. The implementation of several NextGen technologies is expected to enable FAA to improve the continuity of air traffic operations during emergency events.… Many of these capabilities will not be available for years, and the overall cost and timeframe for implementing them is uncertain.”
“In response to the Chicago Center fire, FAA planned to initiate a comprehensive evaluation of how planned NextGen capabilities could enhance the resiliency and continuity of NAS operations for all air traffic services…. However, the evaluation, which was due in March 2016, has not been completed. In fact, TOCO [Temporary Operational Contingency Office] officials stated in June 2016 that they have been unable to set up meetings with the various NextGen program officials to discuss the role of NextGen in mitigating the impact of future ATC-Zero events.”