This is Part I of a two-part story regarding the Federal Aviation Administration’s testing of the En Route Automation Modernization system

BY HELGA GENDELL

The En Route Automation Modernization system (ERAM) has been described by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as “the backbone of the nation’s airspace system” of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), but it has reportedly experienced its share of software problems during that testing.

ERAM has been undergoing testing at the Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) in Palmdale since May 2010. The center handles the high altitude airspace over Southern California, including aircraft at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and portions of Nevada, Arizona and Utah.

The ERAM software program has reportedly been plagued by failures at testing sites such as Salt Lake City, UT, Seattle, WA and Minneapolis, MN. Testing was suspended for a period of time, but according to FAA spokesman Ian Gregor, testing at Salt Lake City and Seattle was successfully completed and the program is now being used to control live traffic at those facilities.

ERAM was designed to replace the current HOST computer system used at the FAA’s high altitude en route centers. It processes flight radar data, communications and generates display data to air traffic controllers. ERAM will support satellite-based systems, such as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), and data communications technologies to clear the way for future gains in safety and efficiency, according to FAA documentation.

In 2003, President George W. Bush and Congress enacted the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) under VISION 100- Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act. Under this initiative, the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) responsibilities include maintaining the NextGen vision and facilitating a public/private partnership to bring NextGen online by 2025.

According to FAA documentation, NextGen is a collection of programs and initiatives to improve the capacity, efficiency, safety, security, and environmental impact of aviation in the U.S. The benefits of ERAM include increasing capacity and improving efficiency, and en route controllers will be able to track 1,900 aircraft at a time, instead of the current 1,100. The program is designed to process data from 64 radars instead of the current 24. Controllers would be able to share and coordinate information seamlessly between centers, making use of the three-mile (rather than five-mile) separation.

In an AVweb (www.avweb.com) Oct. 7, 2009 article by contributing editor Mary Grady, titled “NATCA, FAA Spar Over NextGen Implementation Snag,” Grady wrote, “The FAA’s operational test of a new NextGen computer system for air traffic control ran into problems last weekend at Salt Lake Center and had to be shut down – but the problem could have been averted, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), if the FAA had included NATCA in its planning process. ‘The FAA has been stubbornly unwilling to collaborate with NATCA in this project’s development,’ NATCA Northwest Mountain Regional Vice President Jim Ullman said in a news release.”

“FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown told AVweb that operational testing of ERAM is necessary to bring the new system online. ‘This is the normal way we test things and find bugs,’ she said. Backup plans were in place and the new system is now offline until fixes are made. She said although there was no official NATCA participation in the planning for the new system, air traffic controllers were involved in the process. She added that the FAA and the union are now working on a memorandum of understanding to determine NATCA participation in that planning process going forward.

“Asked for a timetable, Brown said there is ‘no line in the sand’ and while the NextGen process is moving along, there are no further operational tests of the ERAM system scheduled as of now.”

“Ullman said the FAA rushed the test to meet artificial deadlines without being fully ready. ‘NATCA stands ready, willing and able, as always, to help implement this system safely and effectively,’ he said. ‘All the FAA has to do is allow that to happen. We demand modernization that works and is safe.’ Controllers have no confidence in ERAM, according to NATCA.

“When the system failed on Saturday morning, the backup system that kicked in caused serious problems of its own. Controllers lost information about the aircraft they were handling on their radarscopes, and the problems caused some flight delays. Each of the five regional en route centers that border Salt Lake Center was affected. NATCA asked the FAA to stop any further testing of ERAM on live traffic until both parties can reach an agreement on how to formally collaborate on the project.”

Calvin Scovel, III, the Department of Transportation inspector general, reported to various U.S. House of Representatives committees about the progress of the FAA’s NextGen program and the issues related to the troubled ERAM program both in 2010 and several times this year.

In the 2010 report to the committee, Scovel pointed out that ERAM was experiencing software-related problems at its key initial operating center in Salt Lake City. “These problems include radar processing failures, problems in handing off traffic between controllers, and critical flight information being paired to the wrong aircraft. FAA is spending about $14 million per month to resolve these problems and deploy ERAM at other sites. However, these costs do not include enhancement for NextGen, which have not been established but are expected to cost several billion dollars,” Scovel told the commission.

This is a major project, since ERAM, unlike stand-alone systems, provides core functionality for air traffic controllers. ERAM has been installed by Lockheed Martin at 20 en route centers. Flight plan processing would also improve, and hand-offs performed when planes divert from their planned course will be done automatically rather than manually. Operational efficiency would also be improved during weather and congestion situations, according to FAA documentation.

Other FAA air traffic facilities, including Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facilities and towers, will be connected to en route centers via ERAM, along with the command center in Herndon, Va., automated flight service stations, and other agencies, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

An April 22, 2010 Homeland Security Newswire (http://homelandsecuritynewswire.com) article stated,

“A new $2.1 billion computer system crucial to modernizing the U.S. air traffic control system has misidentified aircraft and had trouble processing radar information; if the problems continue they could delay the FAA’s NextGen program to replace the current air traffic control system, which is based on Second World War-era radar technology, with a new system which is based on GPS technology.”

Extreme frustration with the ERAM system’s software problems led to individuals in the airline industry, some retired air traffic controllers, some still working as controllers, to start their own bogs, or to comment on those blogs. These individuals said that the ERAM failures have been kept from the public.

One such individual is Don Brown, who retired as an air traffic controller five years ago. He was an air traffic controller at Atlanta Center, the busiest air traffic control facility in the world, for 25 years. During that time Brown was also the facility safety representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Brown also wrote for AVweb. His online blog is at http://gettheflick.blogspot.com.

Brown explained that “Get the Flick” is a term used by air traffic controllers to describe a mental model representing the current and future positions of air traffic in a section of airspace.

Controllers visualize the paths of multiple aircraft in terms of position, altitude, trajectory and speed. Controllers also refer to this as “having the picture.” But the picture moves – like a movie – hence the term “the flick.”

On Oct. 11, 2007, Brown quoted a description of ERAM from another source: “Considered a critical part of the National Airspace System’s future, ERAM will be the backbone of the FAA’s en route operations once it is fully operational. The system includes computer hardware, software and an extremely robust backup with four levels of redundancy.”

Brown’s blog states, “To truly understand the scope of the program, you must understand what the Air Route Traffic Control Centers (or the ‘en route operations’) actually do and the job of the ‘software’ the story refers to. The ARTCC’s (or Centers) handle all the operational data for the FAA. All the flight plans that pilots file are sent there and then distributed to the Towers, Approach Controls and other Centers. The ‘devil in the details’ is that once those flight plans become active – the airplane takes off – the flight plans change. Continuously.

“Let’s say a flight has proposed flying at an altitude of 33,000 feet from Atlanta (ATL) to New York’s Kennedy (JFK) Airport. As soon as the pilot talks to the controller he’s told that the ride at 33,000 feet is bumpy so he asks for and receives a clearance to fly at 29,000 feet. That little detail has to be communicated to all the other air traffic controllers on that aircraft’s route of flight.

“And speaking of its route of flight, every change in the route of flight has to be communicated also. A deviation around weather, a change in speed, an equipment malfunction – every little detail has to be passed to the next controller. That is what the ERAM software will do. And it has to happen in real time for thousands of flights. It is a complicated process beyond description,” said Brown.

“When the FAA first tried to automate this process, they turned to IBM back in the days when IBM was known as ‘Big Blue.’ IBM was ‘It’ when it came to computers. It is the most fascinating story I know of in the FAA. In short, IBM couldn’t do it. Their programmers couldn’t think like air traffic controllers. To save the program, the FAA and IBM took some air traffic controllers and trained them to be programmers.

“The controller/programmers worked with the IBM programmers to complete the job. The next attempt to update the program was called the Advanced Automation System. It was a colossal failure. In the end, it cost about $2.5 billion for virtually no gain. This is part of what ERAM will attempt to do. Keep your eyes open. This should be interesting.”

On March 29, 2010, Brown blogged about ‘Saving ERAM – Chapter 1.” Excerpts from Brown’s blog about pilots, air traffic controllers and navigation follow.

“Putting aside all separation-from-other-aircraft issues, if you’re a pilot and you can’t imagine taking off in IFR conditions [instrument flight rules], flying at the minimum IFR altitude to your destination, executing an IFR approach and landing – safely – without an air traffic controller, then I really wonder if you understand the system. As did Capt. Wally Roberts, the guy that came up with this thought exercise so many years ago. Try it. Air traffic controllers exist to separate aircraft from other aircraft. Keeping pilots out of the dirt and helping them navigate with radar are secondary duties.

“Yet, how many times are you vectored off course and given a close-to-the-ground altitude as a pilot? A course and altitude that you have almost no way of knowing whether or not they are legitimate? This thought is a big seller for GPS with minimum IFR altitude displayed. But focus on why controllers were assigning vectors [a heading provided by air traffic control to provide navigational guidance by radar] and altitudes. Why vector? Why not just let the pilots fly the charted procedure?

“On the other hand, we now have the RNAV/Advanced NAV crowd who are excited that we can now give pilots a precise, repeatable course to fly from takeoff to landing – all without controller intervention. Back to the future. Seriously, these guys are just as excited as the guy who rediscovered the wheel. What they do with RNAV and GPS was done decades earlier with VORs and NDBs. Granted, not as precisely, but it was just as functional,” Brown wrote.

“What does saving ERAM have to do with all of this? Everything. Airplanes still fly from Point A to Point B and controllers still have to track them. Just like pilots, controllers are blinded by their technology – thinking that because all this appears ‘old school’ that it is no longer necessary to understand the core basics of time and distance. We have machines to do this for us now. The machines provide the calculations but they don’t provide the understanding.

“As a matter of fact, they obscure understanding. It is the modern-day equivalent of magic. We believe in what we don’t understand because it is called ‘science.’ Until the Center controllers can plot the passage of an aircraft through their Center’s airspace on paper – doing the calculations by hand – they will never have the understanding needed to judge – or help construct – a program like ERAM.

“And if you think the programmers writing ERAM understand what controllers understand about air traffic control, you are sadly mistaken. An enormously complicated program written by people that don’t understand the subject.”

Brown said that after recently attending a “Communicating for Safety” meeting, “he learned that when the FAA first turned on ERAM at Salt Lake Center (ZLC), it couldn’t even track an airplane going the wrong way. If the computer said the flight was supposed to head north and it was headed south, ERAM wouldn’t track it. The program should track the target no matter what it’s doing. Circles, loops, or random turns.”

“The data should stay with the target. Period. That’s where ERAM started, with live traffic. The thought of it is appalling to anyone that considers themselves to be in the safety business – which everyone should be in the FAA (not to mention the entire industry),” wrote Brown.

Another blogger, ATC FREQS (Observations of an FAA En Route Air Traffic Controller) titled, “We Apologize for the Delay (in ERAM)” wrote on April 14, 2010, “For the time being, the FAA’s ERAM usage on live traffic is on hold pending what the FAA is calling a ‘review’ of the program. Early in the week of March 22, the FAA finally gave in to pressure to stop running the faulty versions of the ERAM software on live air traffic.

“We were also being told that allegedly they were going to take the time to allow the program contractor (Lockheed Martin) to make software changes that would fix all the major ERAM bugs before running it again on live air traffic.”

“But early in April, it appeared that the FAA was considering having Salt Lake Center (ZLC) run the latest ERAM software version (U4), even though they knew it didn’t have all the necessary corrections to run reliably 24/7. And at the same time Minneapolis Center (ZMP) had scheduled more ERAM live runs in mid-April. Eventually those tests were canceled, but it shows there are plenty of people in the FAA ERAM program that still don’t have any problem getting right back to their practice of running versions of ERAM software they know have major bugs,” alleged ATC FREQS.

“Time will tell if the FAA gets right back to testing ERAM software versions they know have bugs. But for the time being, they appear to be taking the time to do what they should have been doing all along, which is fixing the major known bugs before trying more tests on live traffic.”

To read the comments in their entirety, and see a schedule of ERAM testing and resulting problems,

http://atcfreqs.com.

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