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Program for Increasing Air Traffic Control Capacity Loses Clearance for Takeoff - (3/7/2002)

NASHUA, N.H. – Air traffic controllers at Boston Center stand ready to implement Reduced Vertical Separation Minima (RVSM), an airspace capacity-enhancing program and part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s plan to modernize the air traffic control system. Only one thing stands in the way: Nav Canada, the privatized air traffic control provider for Canada.

RVSM addresses the lack of en route airspace capacity by reducing the minimum vertical separation requirement between aircraft from 2,000 feet to 1,000 feet when traveling at an altitude of between 29,000 feet and 41,000 feet. This doubles the room controllers have to work with, alleviates delays and helps airlines save money. RVSM is already in use for oceanic traffic controlled by Jacksonville Center, Miami Center, New York Center, San Juan (Puerto Rico) Combined Center Radar Approach Control and Washington Center. Because three of the six Boston Center sectors of airspace scheduled to use RVSM border Canadian sectors – including one which serves as a main corridor for trans-Atlantic traffic – cooperation with Nav Canada is essential in order for RVSM to achieve its goal of making more efficient use of airspace.

Boston Center controllers were scheduled to undergo RVSM training beginning March 20 and start using the program on April 18. However, Nav Canada simply isn’t ready to move at the same pace as the FAA. Though the provider hasn’t said why during RVSM meetings attended by representatives of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Boston Center officials say they’ve been told the reason is insurance liability. Nav Canada has yet to perform what is called an “airspace impact study” on the sectors which would work RVSM traffic with Boston Center.

“This is yet another example of the failures of a privatized air traffic control system,” NATCA President John Carr said. “If it’s not a financial crisis or government bailout like in Great Britain, it’s modernization on the Canadian model: waiting to see what the U.S. develops, and then waiting to see if increased charges to passengers will help pay for it.” As a solution to the problem, Boston Center proposed using RVSM in its airspace while assuring Nav Canada it would assign all flights worked by both U.S. and Canadian controllers to normal, non-RVSM “cardinal” altitudes – between 29,000 feet and 41,000 feet in increments of 2,000 – before they were handed off to Canada. But Nav Canada said no.

“Moving forward with modernization is not optional, it’s mandatory,” Carr said, “and working with an ineffective and dysfunctional air traffic control system in Canada is making it hard for the FAA to keep its promises to the American people. Anyone who points to Nav Canada as a success story must also enjoy flight delays, cancellations and root canals.”

As a way of appeasing Nav Canada, the FAA on Feb. 22 ordered Boston Center not to implement RVSM “within any sector that is directly adjacent to Canadian airspace until such time as a coordinated implementation can occur between FAA and Canadian facilities.” Boston Center controllers say Nav Canada told them it won’t be until October, at the earliest.

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