USDOT IG Reports on FAA’s “What If” ATC Contingency Plans

January 18, 2017

On January 11 the Inspector General (IG) of the U.S. Department of Transportation released a report entitled “Although FAA Has Taken Steps To Improve Its Operational Contingency Plans, Significant Work Remains To Mitigate the Effects of Major System Disruptions.” The report details how the Federal Aviation Administration deals with air traffic control (ATC) outages. The report, requested by the chairmen and ranking minority members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and its Subcommittee on Aviation, comes after a series of outages in California, Illinois, Texas, and Virginia during 2014 and 2015 seriously impacted ATC operations.

Overall, the IG states that the FAA has taken steps to make its operational contingency plans more effective, but several issues remain. Namely, after the Illinois event, where ATC was disrupted for several days after an act of sabotage costing airlines more than $350 million, FAA guidance was updated and now has a goal of 90 percent capacity at the top 30 airports 24 hours after a disrupting event, and 90 percent capacity at high altitude control centers 96 hours after such an event. However, these plans have not been implemented in all facilities, and controllers are not being trained at the appropriate levels to ensure that these goals are fulfilled.

The FAA also updated their plans to transfer ATC responsibilities between facilities in case one fails, but those plans are not ready to be fully implemented because the technical requirements have not been validated. The FAA also faces challenges in transferring ATC responsibilities between facilities, as there is little or no redundancy between facilities. For example, in the Illinois and Texas events the FAA had to create new physical links between the disrupted facilities and the ones that were temporarily taking over.

The IG reports that the FAA lacks procedures to share lessons learned and contingency plans within FAA itself and with external stakeholders in the aviation industry. Internal communications during the outages themselves have also been problematic, complicating recovery.

Finally, the IG analyzed how new NextGen technologies will help with this issue. After the Illinois event, FAA planned to study how NextGen, the agency’s modernization program, would help with ATC resiliency. That plan was supposed to be finished by March 2016 but hasn’t been released yet. According to the IG report, one of the issues was that “[FAA officials] stated in June 2016 that they have been unable to set up meeting with the various NextGen program officials to discuss the role of NextGen in mitigating the impact of future [ATC outages]”.

The IG made eight recommendations to improve the situation, and the FAA concurred with all eight.

The Republicans and Democrats who requested the report had dueling statements upon its release – the GOP statement is here and the Democratic statement is here.

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