Aviation Policy News: Controller shortages, FAA behind on space launches, and more
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Aviation Policy Newsletter

Aviation Policy News: Controller shortages, FAA behind on space launches, and more

Plus: Future of ground-based navigation, electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, and more.

In this issue:

Controller Shortages Plague New York Airspace 

While inclement summer weather and some airline problems contributed to airline delays and cancellations prior to the Fourth of July holiday, a significant cause was air traffic controller shortages at key Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) facilities in the New York region, widely known as the location of between half and three-fourths of all U.S. airline delays.

On June 1, 2023, the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report, AV2023035, faulting FAA for ongoing controller shortages at critical facilities. The focus of the report is what OIG defines as 26 critical air traffic control facilities: control towers, Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACONs), and high-altitude centers. The new report notes that OIG reviewed air traffic controller staffing at critical facilities in 2016, finding that “many critical facilities had a clear shortage of fully trained controllers and that FAA lacked the data and effective models to determine the needed number of controllers.” Alas, little has changed since then.

“For more than 8 years, FAA has not revised its . . . staffing levels to ensure its critical air traffic control facilities have an adequate number of controllers in place,” says the new report.

The audit found that 20 of 26 (77%) critical facilities are staffed below FAA’s 85% threshold. Two of the worst of these are the New York TRACON (54%) and New York Center (64%). To be sure, those numbers are for fully-trained certified controllers. The three main airport control towers—John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark—are staffed at around the 85% threshold.

The OIG report does not include the total number of controllers at any of these facilities. Their total controller count, including trainees, is likely well above the 54% and 64% noted above the New York TRACON and Center, respectively. But the additional controllers are trainees, and as the audit report notes, such controllers in training spend only about 41% of their time actually “on position,” under the supervision of a certified controller. Meanwhile, their trainer is controlling far fewer flights than usual, due to the supervisory duties.

One reason for the shortage at high-activity facilities like TRACONs is FAA’s slow process for relocating controllers. Most such TRACONs get new staff via a pipeline of controllers-in-training who transfer from a less-demanding facility. It can take from three months to a year for such controller transfers. On the other hand, Figure 4 in the OIG report shows that some critical facilities have far more trainees than the average of 27%. Of the 26 critical facilities, nearly half were higher than that. Two of the most impacted facilities are New York TRACON (64% trainees) and New York Center (50% trainees). The audit report recommends that the maximum fraction of trainees should not exceed 30%. The report’s appendix also shows that both facilities are far understaffed in terms of operational supervisors and traffic management coordinators.

Unfortunately, the OIG recommendations don’t include such specifics. They simply urge FAA to:

  • Complete a comprehensive review of its model for distributing certified controllers, using it to update interim staffing levels; and,
  • Implement a new labor distribution system.

Having been let off that easily, FAA concurred with both recommendations.

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FAA Is Way Behind on Space Launches and Airlines

FAA has received a small batch of favorable PR recently, lauding several measures it has taken to reduce the amount of airspace put off limits to aviation during space launches and recoveries. Most recently, Zach Wichter in USA Today reported that FAA changed its procedure for launches from Cape Canaveral. Rather than closing a standard amount of airspace for all launches, since April it is taking into account the actual direction of the launch. Aviation Daily elaborated, reporting on June 21 that since the large majority of launches from the Cape head east or south, it is no longer closing airspace to the north for east/south launch trajectories. And that is, indeed, saving time and fuel for aircraft that now have to make smaller deviations from standard routes.

But affected airlines would do better to read a new Office of Inspector General (OIG) report on the subject, requested by members of the House Transportation Committee’s Aviation Subcommittee. Report AV2023036 paints a very different picture. It notes that FAA switched on its prototype Space Data Integrator (SDI) in 2021, seven years after the project began. Installed at the FAA Command Center in Virginia, it receives space vehicle launch and recovery data from commercial space operators. SDI is actually quite limited and was supposed to be supplemented within several years by a Hazard Risk Assessment Management Tool that would spell out the boundaries of airspace that needs to be restricted for each individual launch or recovery operation.

Alas, the OIG auditors learned that the successor program is far behind schedule and has been renamed NAS Space Integration Capabilities (NSIC). Its three planned components are a hazard area identification system, live launch/recovery information transfer, and hazard mission decision support. This sounds like progress until you turn the page and find out that a decision to actually invest resources in NSIC won’t happen until Sept. 2027. Who knows how many years after that will any of these capabilities be in operation?

And that is bad news for airlines and other aviation users because commercial space launches are growing every year, generally outpacing FAA forecasts. Jeff Foust reported in Space News (Feb. 21) that “FAA has, in recent years, underestimated actual commercial space activities.”

Such as predicting 36-to-44 launches in 2021; the actual number was 64. Again for 2023, actuals were 74 compared with the FAA prediction of 45-68 launches. Unless something changes at FAA, aviation users are going to be stuck with the SDI prototype for at least a decade. So let’s see how bad it is.

Here is a set of shortcomings itemized in the OIG report.

  • SDI currently receives information from only one commercial launch provider, SpaceX. Efforts are under way to link it with Blue Origin and Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska.
  • SDI is not installed at any of the high-altitude centers (such as Jacksonville and Miami Centers).
  • Air traffic control facilities get non-real-time information from the Command Center by telephone (officially called the Hotline).
  • Airlines do not even get Hotline calls, and they apparently must depend on non-real-time information from Centers to modify their flight plans.
  • ATC Centers won’t get direct data feeds to their displays until NSIC is finally rolled out, a decade or so from now.

FAA told the OIG auditors that a reason for the long delay is budget limitations, as well as the complexity of integrating real-time launch and recovery data into existing systems such as ERAM and STARS. Those are pretty standard reasons for air traffic control projects taking far longer and costing more than was initially planned.

One near-term improvement to SDI, as long as we’re stuck with only that, would be to require launch and re-entry vehicles to be equipped with ADS-B, enabling their real-time location, speed, direction, and altitude to be fed into SDI. The Air Line Pilots Association suggested this several years ago, as I noted in my SDI article in the July 2020 issue of this newsletter. And FAA should be using Aireon’s space-based ADS-B surveillance to monitor all aircraft that are anywhere near the temporarily restricted airspace.

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NOTAMs Fix Is On the Way

Congress did something right in May, enacting a stand-alone measure, the NOTAM Improvement Act of 2023, rather than waiting for Congress to agree on the 2023 FAA reauthorization bill. The plan was developed not by FAA but by a private organization, the NOTAM Alliance, led by Mark Zee, founder of a flight information service called OpsGroup.

The Alliance began work on NOTAM reform following a near-disaster at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) in 2017 when an Air Canada A320 nearly landed on a taxiway where four airliners were waiting to take off. The Air Canada pilots had overlooked a NOTAM message that the runway in question had been closed to landings. The Alliance identified five major flaws in the ancient NOTAM system:

  • A huge overload of individual notices, with nothing to distinguish major concerns from trivial ones;
  • Hard to read, because it is printed in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS;
  • Using ancient information formats, such as Q codes from 1909 and telegraph characters from 1924;
  • A bunch of “junk” in each briefing packet (trivial information);
  • NOTAMs include information from all countries, with no overall vetting.

The Alliance ramped up efforts on a sweeping revision in February, taking input from pilots, dispatchers, airlines, and other airspace users on eight important safety categories. In March, they tested the readability of NOTAMs using a large language model system. In early May, they designed a proposed system, creating a “Super NOTAM” prototype that begins with a primary section of relevant operational messages. All the less-relevant messages go into an appendix.

With this work as a guide, Congress drafted and passed the legislation. Since much of the hard definitional work has already been done by the Alliance, the legislation calls for complete implementation of the replacement system by Sept. 30, 2024.

That is sooner than the aggressive schedule proposed in the Reason Foundation recommendation on NOTAM reform, which called for a definitional effort much like what the NOTAM Alliance has already accomplished.

Hats off to Mark Zee and the Alliance—and to the bipartisan members of Congress who bypassed a lengthy FAA development process in the interest of increased aviation safety.

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Future of Ground-Based Navigation Aids Being Debated

I’ve been looking into the future of the Federal Aviation Administration’s ground-based navaids, after receiving a package of information from the Ground-Based Aviation Infrastructure Coalition (GBAIC), made up of companies such as Thales and Leonardo that produce equipment like instrument landing systems (ILSs), VOR and DME beacons, and radar systems produced by other companies. GBAIC paints a disturbing picture of aging, if not obsolete, equipment still in service. For example:

  • More than 500 1970s-era Mark 1-F ILSs are still in operation at US airports.
  • While FAA is reducing the number of VORs from 896 to 589, due to newer technology such as ADS-B, the current rate of replacements would take 42 years.
  • FAA’s current plans for ILS replacements through 2027 would replace only five to seven per year; at that rate, the coalition says it would take 115 years to modernize/replace them all.

The coalition points to $5 billion included in the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law for FAA’s facilities and equipment account and argues that about $1 billion of this should be directed at ground-based infrastructure such as they produce.

There are certainly valid points in this case. Some of these systems are so old, that when they fail, there are no longer spare parts available. FAA’s stated reason for not moving faster on modernization is two-fold: not enough budget funds and some conflicts about the best way forward. For example, FAA has put several billion dollars into the GPS-based Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) used by general aviation to provide more-precise landings at (mostly) GA airports. The WAAS faction at FAA strongly prefers this application of GPS over the Ground-Based Augmentation System (GBAS) that can augment or replace a whole set of ILSs (at every runway end) with a single GBAS unit. FAA has certified GBAS but has not funded any implementations, in contrast to growing GBAS use at major airports in Europe and the Asia/Pacific region.

The coalition hopes to prevail with its proposal to replace aging ILSs with newer ILSs. That’s better than letting ILSs fail, as at San Francisco International in 2013 when an Asiana 777 making a visual approach (due to the ILS being out of service) crashed into the seawall and flipped over. But thus far the coalition is not offering a significantly improved ILS that uses a wide-angle array that yields a very narrow beam. What that does, as demonstrated at Zurich Airport since 2006, is to drastically reduce signal interference due to nearby buildings and aircraft. That requires reserving “critical areas” near runway ends where neither aircraft nor buildings can be located when the ILS is in operation. Yes, the narrow-beam ILS costs more than a conventional ILS, but it would benefit airports using it in two ways: allowing real estate development on land that is now off-limits and increasing runway throughput by enabling departing aircraft to be closer to the runway end awaiting takeoff. An airport aiming to do either or both might be willing to pay the marginal cost difference for the more-advanced ILS.

And I still think the superior cost-effectiveness of GBAS makes it an obvious ILS replacement for multi-runway commercial airports (e.g., Chicago O’Hare). GBAS has already been certified for Category 2 landings, and Category 3 is likely within the next few years. GBAS, of course, relies on GPS, which is subject to jamming. So until this country installs a (long-overdue) GPS backup system, any sensible plan for ILS modernization at large airports should include GBAS in the near-term as a supplement to ILS and eventually as its replacement.

So while I agree with the Ground-Based Infrastructure Coalition’s focus on aging navaids, its proposal is too reliant on existing technologies.

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A New Approach to Vertiport Site Selection?
By Marc Scribner

In late June, Joby Aviation announced it had received a special airworthiness certificate from FAA for its first production prototype electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, which will allow the company to begin flight testing. This is an important milestone in eVTOL production and deployment at scale.

But the Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) services Joby and its competitors aim to provide also require infrastructure, specifically vertiports. In May, the Mineta Transportation Institute and San Jose State University released a report on land-use planning and vertiport site selection. The Mineta report makes a useful contribution by developing a systematic approach to vertiport site selection. However, its incorporation of political, rather than market, parameters raises questions about the economic viability of this approach.

The Mineta report was sponsored by the California of Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and uses the San Francisco Bay Area as a case study. In order to identify suitable vertiport sites in five Bay Area counties (Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Francisco, and San Mateo), the authors used GIS software to analyze parcels with 27 variables related to either safety, access, or equity—which reflect Caltrans’ stated policy commitments—with variables classified as high, medium, and low priority across urban, suburban, or exurban settings.

Variables identified as high priority for safety were the same across all settings: suitable parcels must be at least 250 feet-by-250 feet and at least 500 feet away from incompatible uses such as schools, parks, and hospitals. Similarly, variables identified as high priority for equity across all settings were block groups with median household incomes below 30% of average, a large population of single head of household, and block groups with large racial and ethnic minority population shares.

However, access priorities varied considerably across urban, suburban, and exurban settings. For instance, urban high-priority access variables included a quarter-mile walking distance to at least one major transportation node, while a 10-mile drive to a major transportation node received the same priority level in suburban and exurban settings.

In the Mineta framework, a site that meets all criteria categorized as safety, access, and equity across all priority levels is rated highly suitable for vertiport development. A site that meets the criteria of the high and medium priorities, but not low priority, is deemed highly considered. One that meets only high-priority factors is rated as considered. Finally, a site that doesn’t meet any of the high-priority criteria is judged as unsuitable.

This analysis produced some interesting results. For San Francisco (urban), 1,392 parcels out of 234,693 total parcels were deemed suitable for vertiport development. For San Jose (suburban), it found only 43 suitable parcels out of 459,282 total parcels. And for Livermore (exurban), just three parcels were identified to be suitable for vertiport development out of 51,836 total parcels.

A central question arises: would incorporating this vertiport site-selection framework into land-use planning align with the market for AAM? There are strong reasons to believe it won’t. For instance, as with many new innovations, the price point for AAM is expected to be high relative to conventional surface transportation options. This means AAM providers are likely to initially cater to higher-income travelers. Prioritizing vertiport site selection in areas with higher concentrations of lower-income households, as the Mineta framework does, is not well-suited to meet expected consumer demand for AAM. Likewise, will prioritizing walking, biking, and mass transit connectivity align with the transportation mode choices of higher-income travelers? Probably not.

This suggests that Caltrans’ policy vision may not be conducive to successful AAM operations, at least initially when air taxi service will likely be a luxury. The authors may recognize the problem of prioritizing politics over markets in vertiport site selection, noting that “we expect that more variables from both the supply and the demand side will be added” if this framework is to be used in near-term planning purposes.

Rather than integrating this framework into land-use planning in a way that grants or forbids private site-selection choices, it could be compared to actual market outcomes. This would have the advantage of allowing vertiport developers to select the most suitable sites based on their assessments of consumer demand—and assume the risk associated with those choices—while testing the economic viability of Caltrans’ political commitments.

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Book Review: The Regulation of Air Transport

I’ve never met Barry Humphreys, author of the new book, The Regulation of Air Transport. But I feel like I know him, having read his insightful comments on an invitation-only online aviation discussion group I’ve been a member of for over two decades. And I’ve enjoyed occasional emails from him, agreeing or disagreeing with something I wrote in this newsletter or put forth in the discussion group.

His book covers a wide range of aviation policy, beginning with the 1944 Chicago Convention that gave us the basics of today’s international aviation law, as well as leading to the creation of the UN-affiliated International Civil Aviation Organization. This is not a book aimed at USA Today readers or aviation buffs in general. But for those interested in the momentous changes in aviation law and policy over the decades since World War II, the book is a tour de force.

At this point, being primarily interested in aviation policy (and less interested in regulatory law, per se), I have only read the following chapters:

  • Chapter 3: Growth and Disruption—Charters and Bermuda 2—how Freddie Laker and other entrepreneurs worked around international regulations to offer passengers better deals.
  • Chapter 4: U.S. Deregulation, for which I was an early advocate and cheerleader.
  • Chapter 5: European Liberalization, from which I learned how it came about in the wake of the U.S. deregulation.
  • Chapter 7: The Low-Cost Revolution, the rise of Southwest, Ryanair, and their competitors.
  • Chapter 11: Air Traffic Management, including the transformation from government departments to user-funded utilities.
  • Chapter 12: Airports, including the global airport privatization revolution.

The author has been a participant in many of these changes, having been at various points in his career a regulator at the United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority, a director of Virgin Atlantic Airways, a board member of the UK’s air navigation service provider (NATS), and chair of a UK startup airline. He, therefore, provides an insider’s view of all these changes, explaining why and how they came about, without taking sides, but presenting ample data showing that airline deregulation, air navigation service provider (ANSP) corporatization, and airport privatization have had many positive impacts. But with his experience in several major branches of commercial aviation, he can also point out flaws and missed opportunities.

This is not armchair or beach reading for aviation buffs. But it is an excellent history of the major changes since World War II that have shaped today’s commercial aviation world. Aviation leaders, policy analysts, and academic researchers will find The Regulation of Air Transport to be a comprehensive guide to the policy revolutions that have shaped 21st-century aviation. Highly recommended.

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News Notes

RFP Released for Virgin Islands Airports P3
The U.S. Virgin Islands Port Authority (VIPA) on July 5 issued a request for proposals (RFP) from the four bidders it had previously short-listed as best-qualified. They are daa International, Vantage Airport Group, Vinci Airports, and VIports Partners (Aecon, Tikehau Star Infra, and Avports). VIPA aims to select its preferred developer/operator by early 2024 and then negotiate a long-term public-private partnership (P3) agreement. The winning team will be expected to finance and develop significant modernization of the two international airports, one on St. Croix and the other on St. Thomas.

FAA Excludes Remote Towers from Modernization Program
FAA has released for comment its Programmatic Environmental Assessment of its plan to pay for building 31 “sustainable” bricks and mortar control towers to replace aging towers at small general aviation airports. In the draft document, it includes only two alternatives: no action or its sustainable towers plan. It gives lip service to an “alternative considered [but] not carried forward”—going with remote towers instead. While conceding that remote towers are “less expensive and quicker to build,…entail lower operating costs…[and] have a smaller construction and operation footprint,” this option was rejected because FAA has not yet certified remote towers.

FAA Finalizes Secondary Barrier Rule
After several years of delay, FAA last month released its plan to implement a provision of the 2018 reauthorization legislation calling for secondary barriers at the front of airliner cabins. It applies to all new passenger aircraft under Part 121 starting “in about 26 months” (per Aviation Daily). It applies only to new aircraft, so it does not require retrofitting barriers on airliners already in service. It does not apply to airliners operated by non-U.S. airlines. The cost is estimated at $236.5 million over 50 years.

Illinois Legislature Backs South Suburban Airport P3
A joint resolution passed in May by both houses of the Illinois legislature requires the Illinois Department of Transportation to begin a process to prequalify companies or consortia interested in a P3 development of the airport site into a commercial airport. The language added the words “domestic and commercial freight cargo transfer” to the purposes for the airport, which had previously been stated as for “air travel facilities.” Earlier, the Illinois legislature authorized $150 million in state funds for an expressway interchange to serve the airport site.

Skycraft Launches Second Batch of ATC Satellites
On June 13, Australian startup Skycraft launched a second batch of satellites that will become part of a constellation to provide space-based air traffic surveillance, competing with Aireon. The constellation is intended to provide global controller-pilot communications, in addition to surveillance based on ADS-B. The launch took place using a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

FAA Approves Lilium Jet Certification Basis
German eVTOL developer Lilium is aiming for joint certification of its six-passenger Lilium Jet by FAA and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). The G-1 Certification Basis spells out the airworthiness and environmental standards that developers must satisfy via testing and demonstration with both agencies. FAA granted Lilium its G-1 last month, and had previously approved G-1 Certification Basis for the eVTOLs of Archer Aviation and Joby Aviation, but thus far Lilium is the first company with G-1 approval from both EASA and FAA.

Sydney Airport Slot Rules Stifle Competition, Says Regulator
The Australia Competition and Consumer Commission last month found that two small airlines will have little chance to offer increased domestic service to and from Sydney International Airport due to “duopoly” slot holdings by Qantas and Virgin Australia. ACCC identified current slot rules as a key barrier to a larger and more competitive domestic air travel market. It concluded, “The most effective way that the Australian Government could enhance airline competition for the benefit of consumers would be to implement reforms to the way Sydney Airport slots are allocated to airlines.”

DOT Inspector General Faults FAA eVTOL Certification Lag
In a report requested by members of the House Aviation Subcommittee, the Office of Inspector General found that regulatory, management, and communications problems are hindering FAA’s progress in certifying advanced air mobility (AAM) aircraft, and that challenges remain, due to the agency’s recent switch to a new approach which has not been fully defined. The report is AV2023037, released June 21.

Port Authority Signs $1.24 Billion Contract for JFK Roadway Network
On June 27, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey announced the signing of a $1.24 billion contract with Halmar and Skanska to develop a new roadway network, ground transportation center, and supporting infrastructure at New York’s Kennedy International Airport (JFK). The project is part of an overall $19 billion effort to modernize JFK, including three major terminal expansion projects being done via long-term public-private partnerships. The estimated completion date is Dec. 2027.

Eurocontrol Leading Vertiports Project
The manager of high-altitude airspace in Europe has begun a three-year project to develop recommendations and standards for vertiports and integrate urban air mobility (UAM) traffic into European airspace. The project budget is $13.1 million. The project will work closely with EASA, the European air safety regulator.

Joby Rolls Out Prototype of Production Model
Joby Aviation last month rolled out the prototype of its S4 eVTOL aircraft. It will be used for development testing, prior to a production model to be used for FAA certification. The prototype will subsequently be used by the Air Force under that agency’s Agility Prime program. The S4 is designed for autonomous operation.

Paine Field Gets a Honolulu Route
The Seattle area’s second airport—Paine Field in Everett—will have its first truly long-distance airline route this fall when Alaska Airlines launches nonstop service to Honolulu. The service will operate daily starting Nov. 17.

Time for a Blended Wing Body Airliner?
In a recent “Up Front” column in Aviation Week, columnist Kevin Michaels argues that commercial aviation needs a “game changer” in greenhouse gas reduction—and that the blended wing body (BWB) offers the best way forward. Though not being considered by either Airbus or Boeing, a California startup named JetZero is working with Northrop Grumman and Scaled Composites to develop its 200-passenger BWB design.

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Quotable Quotes

“This [air travel problems] illustrates why the U.S. would benefit from spinning off air traffic control from government, as countries such as Canada have done to salutary effect. Air traffic control could rely on user fees, instead of taxes, and not be hostage to special-interest politics. . . . The idea dates back to Al Gore’s 1990s pitch for reinventing government. Mr. Buttigieg could revive his political fortunes by working with the GOP to make it a reality. As it is, he’ll take the heat for summer delays. Summer travel dysfunction doesn’t have to be inevitable. It’s the product of incompetent government.”
—Editorial, “Stuck on the Airport Tarmac,” The Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2023

“On your comments about FAA signing up for space-based ADS-B surveillance—In U.S. and Alaska [domestic airspsce], this is completely unnecessary. The FAA should just tap into the vast network of amateur-run ADS-B receivers that feed into FlightAware and FlightRadar24. This network of 35,000+ ADS-B receivers dwarfs the number of ground stations that FAA operates. When there are accidents around the world, many times the data captured by these receives is much more accurate and comprehensive than the data collected by receivers run by FAA or other international aviation authorities. Not only is there a lot more data available, but it is free! Here is a link to FlightAware’s ADS-B coverage map.”
—Mike Schumann, email to Robert Poole, June 15, 2023

“[FAA’s] initiative with the [controllers] union appears to have been started without the benefit of the insights of the [new] Independent Aviation Safety Review Team, without any cited lessons from the ATC Voluntary Safety Reporting Programs, but with the commitment of time of every controller to a monthly briefing. . . . Perhaps the most-cited reason for [recent] ATC problems is ‘pressure on the system due to increased air traffic, staffing shortages, or loss of expertise after the pandemic.’ None of these factors can be rectified by training. However, requiring controllers to take time from their duty station to get this briefing will likely reduce the pool of available controllers. . . . The first monthly briefing, July? August? . . . will instruct the ATC workforce about the most prominent problems. Are the lessons about how to reduce these risks already known? Why not administer this remedial education now?… Are these sessions likely to be worth the ATCer lost time on the scopes?… This campaign sounds great, but has little remedial merit as presently defined. Its global goals have merit, but its tactics are myopic.”
—“’Stand Up for Safety’ Campaign, as an ATC System Solution, Is Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing,” Sandy Murdock [former FAA Chief Counsel], JDA Journal, July 5, 2023

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