ATCA Annual – back together again… virtually

Brian Bruckbauer, the new President and CEO of ATCA kicked off day one of the 66th ATCA Annual event with an eye towards year three of dealing with the global pandemic. He cautioned that although this is an important topic it shouldn’t overshadow other important topics for the event. We need to consider new airspace entrants, the topic of 5G and the great news surrounding the once-in-a-generation $25 Billion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law approval. One note throughout the first day related to COVID-19 was that the industry had some positive outcomes during this time. It forced the industry to innovate and prioritise contingency plans. These topics will carry forward in years to come with positive impacts.

Teri Bristol, Chief Operating Officer of Air Traffic Operations for the FAA, led the discussion with the opening keynote report on The State of ATO. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law was the lead topic of her discussion. $5 Billion is specifically earmarked for air traffic control improvements. This funding will be allocated in increments of $1 Billion per year for the upcoming five years. The current plan is to utilise $2.25 Billion for physical upgrades and $2.75 Billion for new air traffic control facilities.

In additional to this program there are other programs she detailed in her opening. The twenty-year old FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI) upgrade selection will be awarded in late 2022 to begin a seven-year program in early 2023. This will migrate this infrastructure to an IP-centric communications network in support of 26,000 services across 4,000 locations.  Next is the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) program.  This nine-year program completed in May of 2021 and is in use in more than 5,000 ATC locations to support communications, navigation and surveillance. Also related to STARS, there are no more than 148,000 planes in the US equipped with ADS-B as of January, 2022.

The Aviation Risk Identification and Assessment (ARIA) tool has been implemented to support the reduction of collision risk, being used in airborne situations during 2020, surface situations in 2021 and will be adding terrain during the upcoming year. The LAANC tool has delivered more than 1 million authorisations as of last week.  Commercial space is another area to mention. During 2021 there were 69 operations, a 55% increase over the prior year, involving FAA staff. The projected figure for 2022 is that there will more than 100 operations. There are also new market entrants in this field such as Rocket Labs and Relativity. Joint programs are running between aviation and space organisations to share data domestically and internationally.

Lastly, I will mention Cyber. The FAA has implemented a Zero Trust architecture throughout the ATC supply chain. This is 75% complete and will reach 100% by late February. The FAA has certainly been busy during pandemic times!

Money, money, money

The next session was a panel of industry experts from the FAA, the American Association of Airport Executives and industry to discuss maximising the $25 Billion in funding. Specific to the area of ATC, the initial work plan is to address power, air, water and fire safety topics. The FAA supports 22 airspace districts with 400 system support centres, 6,000 ATC centres and 12,500 remote unstaffed facilities. The later locations might only be visited once every fifty years! It was surprising to hear that the funding does not directly address ATC IT infrastructure and this would be a secondary benefit not a core topic. Sustainability was a topic raised under the umbrella of ‘build back better’ with a look toward how to use more smart infrastructure in airports coming from the introduction of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Intermodalism as it pertains to linking other transport modes for greener access to airport facilities and to also adopt lessons learned from other transportation mediums.

Globalisation

The second panel of the day was led by Eamonn Brennan, Director General of EUROCONTROL with panelists from NavCanada, the FAA, NATCA and the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists. The discussion began with a look at the current flight statistics around the world. Although improving, we’re still a long way from returning to pre-pandemic levels. To set the stage for the discussion – nothing in the history of aviation has caused flight levels to be as low as they are. Not 9/11, not the financial crisis, not SARS. With passengers being on average, 38% lower than previously, this is below break-even for any airline. When we consider losses in our industry, we don’t always consider the big picture. It's not only about airlines and airports, all commerce associated with flying is impacted. This includes taxi drivers and food vendors even. 

There’s been a great deal of discussion about aviation recovery in Asia, but this is only for domestic routes. Asia’s long-haul traffic has not recovered yet and this impacts all regions globally. And now we have the objective to become a greener industry while trying to recover our footing. “As an industry we could all agree there was a single virus, but no one could agree on a single course of response.” This should be a lesson for the future, as this won’t be the last pandemic to cross our path.

There was a great round table discussion related to lessons learned and what each participant would do different for the next pandemic. Let’s take a look at these highlights.

Teri Bristol shared some FAA lessons learned such as don’t underestimate the importance of consistent employee communication. The pandemic allowed for us to focus on implementing efficiency programs and now our delays are lower than pre-pandemic times

What’s different for the future? Normalise and move on and develop a bigger toolbox of scenarios to meet the unknown.

The situation at NavCanada is still a financial downturn. They had to take on 1.1 Billion additional debt and are currently still losing 2 Million per day in ANSP fees. During the initial wave of the pandemic it was a challenge to address our ‘in the room’ culture, but we moved 2,000 employees to remote work in real time. We’ve learned that more work can be done remotely. We were surprised by what routes became popular and by how quickly Omicron spread through our workforce. What’s different for the future? Build resilience planning.

NATCA was able to still conduct required ATC training during the pandemic by following strict safety rules. This resulted in shifting training schedules and locations real time based on the status of positive cases in the staff ranks.

One of the biggest challenges mentioned, which impacted many industries and not only aviation is that everyone thought the pandemic would end. And it didn’t….and still hasn’t.

FAA Reauthorization

The last two panels of the day looked at the topic of FAA Reauthorization from the industry and congressional perspective. For international readers who might not be familiar with this. The FAA Reauthorization Act was signed into law on October 5, 2018. It extended the FAA's funding and authorities through Fiscal Year 2023. The bill includes important legislative changes related to increasing the safety and pace of UAS integration, expediting the financing and development of airport capital projects, directing the FAA to advance leadership in the field of international supersonic aircraft policies, addressing aircraft noise, and ensuring safe lithium battery transport.

Now the work is beginning to look ahead to this process for 2023. A lot of political discussions are ensuring with many different opionions, so we’ll need to see where this all ends.