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Although FAA Has Taken Steps To Improve Its Operational Contingency Plans, Significant Work Remains To Mitigate the Effects of Major System Disruptions

Requested by the Chairmen and Ranking Members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and Subcommittee on Aviation
Project ID: 
AV2017020

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) operates a vast network of facilities and communication, navigation, and surveillance equipment for managing air traffic throughout the United States. In recent years, FAA has experienced several major system failures that required individual air traffic control facilities to declare “ATC-Zero,” which means the inability to provide any air traffic control services. In response to a congressional request, we conducted an audit on FAA’s ability to manage air traffic control disruptions that arise in the National Airspace System. We found that while FAA has taken steps to improve the effectiveness of its operational contingency plans, significant work remains. FAA’s air traffic facilities are not fully prepared to respond effectively to major system disruptions, in part because the Agency lacks the necessary training for its controllers and the required redundancy, resiliency, and flexibility for its key air traffic control infrastructure. Many of the new technologies and capabilities that can improve the continuity of air traffic operations will not be available for years, and the Agency’s procedures for updating contingency plans remain incomplete. While the Agency has established new requirements for transferring airspace and air traffic control responsibilities to other facilities, those plans are not ready to be fully implemented. FAA also does not have an effective method for sharing operational contingency plans and lessons learned with its internal and external stakeholders. The Agency concurred with all eight of our recommendations to improve FAA’s ability to respond to air traffic control disruptions.

Recommendations

Open

Closed

No. 1 to FAA

Develop and implement a policy requiring annual contingency plan training for en route and terminal controllers that includes procedures for managing airspace divestment and the loss of communications and/or surveillance capabilities.

Closed on 06.28.2018
No. 2 to FAA

Develop and implement an internal control to test and certify the function of emergency equipment, including "power-fail" phones, flashlights, and other communication equipment at all air traffic facilities semiannually to ensure the equipment operates as intended.

Closed on 11.15.2017
No. 3 to FAA

Convene NextGen program officials to evaluate, expedite, and complete a report on how planned NextGen capabilities can enhance the resiliency and continuity of NAS operations and mitigate the impact of future air traffic control disruptions.

No. 4 to FAA

Establish a process and requirement to validate airspace divestment plans annually to ensure the plans can be executed and technical requirements are up-to-date based on current technology.

No. 5 to FAA

Develop airspace divestment plans for oceanic airspace, and develop and implement the technical requirements needed to support all new plans.

Closed on 09.27.2018
No. 6 to FAA

Update the Automated Contingency Tool (ACT2) or develop and implement a new automated tool that complies with FAA Order 1900.47 to collect, manage, and disseminate operational contingency plans and lessons learned documentation to all air traffic facilities.

No. 7 to FAA

Establish a process for developing baseline contingency metrics, analyzing contingency trends and root causes, and annually disseminating the results to Air Traffic Organization personnel.

No. 8 to FAA

Develop a procedure to include aviation industry stakeholders in post-contingency events at the FAA Command Center to discuss lessons learned and explore possible solutions to mitigate the impact of future air traffic disruptions.