US Air Traffic Control Training on a Collision Course?


2014-03-04 by Ed Timperlake

There is no area of operation within the federal government that provides a more critical and direct link to the immediate safety of millions of people than air traffic control.

More than 1.5 million people fly across the United States daily on one or more of the estimated 50,000 passenger and cargo flights that take off each day.

We’re told that travel by air in the US is safer than driving to the airport and the current data bear this out.

But there are some stubborn facts that suggest we’re moving dangerously close to a situation where ATC is lacking and in the process, risking an airline catastrophe.  

The new ATC Tower at Dulles Airport. Credit: MWAA
The new ATC Tower at Dulles Airport. Credit: MWAA

The cadre of controllers brought aboard at FAA in the years following the Reagan-era air traffic controller strike is hitting retirement age ushering in a new generation of air traffic controllers.  Coincidental to this is the recent spike in air traffic incidents.

Already, we’re seeing signs that there may be a nexus between this rise in incidents and the training given to newly hired air traffic controllers.

Given this information, it was with some surprise that there was one of the more unusual opinion pieces of late, written by a federal contractor who admits their program is not working.

The Hill published this piece on February 26 headlined, “Urgent need to improve air traffic controller training.” Given the rise of incidents involving near misses, landings at the wrong airport and touching down on runways too short for the aircraft, it’s hard to conceive of anyone who would disagree with the premise.

But what is easily overlooked here is that the commentary disparaging ATC training was written by an employee of the company providing that training.

The author is a former FAA executive who now manages transportation training for Raytheon, the company that holds the contract for providing the ATC program known as the Air Traffic Control Optimum Training Solution (ATCOTS).

Not only that, they have run this program since 2008 so it’s not as if the company has suddenly happened upon shortcomings in the program.  Indeed, he’s echoing concerns that have been raised a number of times in recent years.

The Inspector General for the Department of Transportation has issued reports on two separate investigations of this training program – first in 2010 and again in December – detailing the many flaws with the training program, all of which is missing from the February 26 commentary.

In one regard, it’s refreshing to see that a federal contractor is being honest about their performance, particularly with something as vital as air traffic control training and airline safety, and involving a program that has not performed well since its inception.

On the other hand, it is supremely puzzling to see that the FAA is continuing with the program, such as it is, knowing full well that there are fundamental and potentially fatal flaws uncovered by the IG and that the contractor now is publicly admitting.

It’s hard to say whether this disclosure will prompt a more detailed examination of ATCOTS but it should.

Congress has taken a cursory look at this yet seems to shrink from the scene once the hearing rooms are empty and the cameras are gone.

However, when a federal contractor runs to the media explaining that their own program is a failure, we should all pop-tall and pay attention.  

The lives of too many people are at stake to leave this situation to the pervasive mediocrity that all too often exemplifies congressional oversight.

Ed Timperlake is a Naval Aviator who has more than 3,000 hours flying high performance military jets.