Thursday, October 25, 2012
By Mark O’Neil
National Office - Enroute Technology Coordinator
The Blended Airspace initiative aims to increase access to uncontrolled airports through the utilization of technologies that allow controllers to provide surface separation services remotely. Plainly stated, this initiative will determine the feasibility of providing remote tower services to non-towered airports from an existing center or TRACON. The remote tower concept is a controversial issue that is receiving substantial attention in the global Air Traffic Management (ATM) community. Air Navigation Services Providers (ANSPs) in Australia, Norway and Sweden are currently testing the remote tower concept, and articles discussing the issue are becoming common in the ATM press (See article Remote Towers).
The FAA’s Blended Airspace project arose from the Wide Area Multilateration (WAM) project at Denver Center (ZDV), in which the State of Colorado teamed with the agency to bring surveillance (and radar separation standards) to some of Colorado’s ski country airports. The Colorado WAM project has improved the safety and efficiency of the ZDV mountainous terrain sector operations and is being expanded to include additional airports. The success of this project has spurred the FAA to analyze the feasibility of providing remote tower services to some of the busier non-towered airports in the NAS.
The Surveillance Broadcast Services (SBS) Article 48 Blended Airspace Subgroup is in the early stages of research with delivery of final recommendations on the Blended Airspace concept expected in November 2014. As an untested, emerging concept, the Blended Airspace/Remote Towers initiative has significant hurdles to clear before the technology can be introduced to the NAS. Some of the most obvious challenges to the concept are:
• Technology - Are existing technologies sufficient to allow for remote separation of aircraft?
• Safety - Can services be delivered safely and consistently across all types of conditions?
• Business Case – Is the cost associated with operating remote towers justified by the increase in capacity and/or safety that they deliver to the NAS?
Additionally, an analysis of training, staffing, certification levels, frequency availability, and physical space requirements will be required. There are also significant computer human interface (CHI) issues that will demand attention.
The Way Forward
The Blended Airspace concept suggests a radical paradigm shift in ATC. As such, a careful, in-depth analysis is in order. As always, NATCA will work to preserve, promote and improve the working conditions of members and to improve the safety of air traffic within the United States.
Assuring that the U.S. system remains the world leader in delivering safe, efficient air travel requires that we constantly strive to improve the service that we deliver to NAS users. However, modernization efforts are often misplaced attempts to find uses for existing products or technologies. The operational expertise that NATCA Tech Reps provide will help to keep the Blended Airspace analysis focused on the practical usage of updated technologies and procedures to solve real problems in the NAS. Currently, there are far more questions than answers surrounding the viability of the Blended Airspace concept. However, our pre-decisional involvement in this initiative is critical to ensuring that the concept is fully vetted prior to any future implementation.