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NATCA Says Congress Must Prioritize Funding of Air Traffic Control System - (3/12/1998)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The nation's air traffic controllers say funding and implementation of the Federal Aviation Administration's Flight 2000 program is necessary, but Congress must also ensure the air traffic control system can handle significant changes in technology.

National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Mike McNally told the House Committee on Science subcommittee on technology the organization supports the concept of modernizing the national airspace system for the future, but warns against hasty changes.

McNally encouraged incremental modifications, building in appropriate training, full debate of issues and objective cost-benefit analysis before requesting funding and beginning implementation. "We have adopted Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Jane Garvey's concept of build a little, test a little, field a little," said McNally. "Hardly anyone disagrees NAS modernization is a good idea. The how and who, on the other hand, is where the debate lies."

Flight 2000 allows commercial airlines to use their standard instrument flight rules with the independence that comes when piloting under visual flight rules -- better know as "see and be seen" -- typically used by smaller aircraft and often without clearances from air traffic control towers. The project is an attempt to test NAS modernization technologies in a live air traffic control environment, but so far the plan doesn't address how new technology will be phased in to work with current equipment and other incoming technologies, who will ultimately determine an airplane's path, or who will fund various components associated with implementation.

Replacement of the host computer, the heart of the en route system, should be a main priority according to NATCA, and funds should not be diverted from this and other critical programs such as Display System Replacement and Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System to finance any part of Flight 2000. Currently, the host is not year 2000 compliant and is at maximum capacity for air traffic control purposes.
"Without completely replacing the host, future air traffic technology advancements will be severely limited," said McNally. "We are hopeful the current request for $75 million to replace the host will be granted to help advance a realistic NAS modernization concept. The key point on all these technologies is the human factors issues, not only in the cockpit, but on the ground at the hands of the air traffic controllers. We cannot afford to repeat previous FAA mistakes in keeping controllers -- the users -- out of the design, development and implementation stages without increasing the likelihood of inefficiencies and sacrificing the safety of the entire air traffic control system."

"An additional concern, but no less important, is the controller staffing impact," said McNally. "Without careful integration of new technologies into old or new technologies coming, we would have to operate two systems simultaneously, calling for shadow mode operations. This translates into more controllers and increased costs."

McNally emphasized controllers must have highly sophisticated automation to assist in the identification of aircraft conflict before the level of flexibility envisioned in both Flight 2000 and free flight can be accomplished. "The controller must always be the final arbiter in separation of aircraft to maintain the integrity and safety of the National Airspace System. This point is not negotiable for NATCA," said McNally. "It goes to the core of our occupation and aviation safety -- which as always -- is the number one priority of air traffic controllers."

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