Canada’s acclaimed air traffic control system prompts calls for change stateside
Canada’s computerized process is used in eight other countries “The pace of what they’re doing, you can’t compare it to … here”
Computer screens glow silently in Canada’s 41 air traffic towers. For the past 18 years, NAV CANADA, an independent nonprofit corporation that serves as the country’s flight control operator, has replaced a system that relied on paper strips—which make a distinctive clacking sound when stacked in plastic containers—with a computerized one that’s quieter, safer, and more efficient. The screens display a lineup of pending flights, as well as safety notifications and restrictions for each. “Nobody would go back to strips,” says Jean Beauregard, a supervisor at Ottawa/ Macdonald-Cartier International Airport’s tower.
The transformation of NAV CANADA from a public agency struggling with antiquated technology into a global leader in air traffic systems started 20 years ago. Today, its technology is used in air towers in eight other countries, including Australia and Dubai.
NAV CANADA’s success has U.S. congressmen calling for the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic system to be spun off and structured like Canada’s. “The pace of what they’re doing, you can’t compare it to what we’re doing here,” says Paul Rinaldi, president of the U.S. National Air Traffic Controllers Association union. After multiple visits to Canada, Rinaldi earlier this year reversed the union’s decades-long opposition to putting the FAA’s air traffic division into a nonprofit corporation. “The Canadian system is very impressive,” he says.
The FAA in the late 1990s declared more than $1 billion in losses related to the abandoned Advanced Automation System, a project that would have overhauled its computer network. Some similar improvements since then also have gone over budget and missed deadlines.
Four years after NAV CANADA took over Canada’s air traffic operations in 1996, it upgraded the computer code of a control system that suffered from delays and malfunctions, according to Kim Troutman, the company’s vice president for engineering, and Sidney Koslow, vice president and chief technology officer. Over 20 years, the company has
introduced features such as a midair collision warning and a program for controllers and pilots to send each other text messages instead of relying on crowded radio channels.
The paperless tower system transmits data on individual flights instantly to other controllers, making the coordination of flights across regions easier. It enhances safety by notifying controllers of construction on runways and other obstacles. And NAV CANADA gives engineers more freedom to tinker with functionality during development, Troutman and Koslow say.
“By transitioning away from a manual, paper-based system, controllers are able to concentrate more on the visual surveillance of the airport and aircraft,” says Sarah Fulton, spokeswoman for Airservices Australia, a government corporation that oversees air traffic. NAV CANADA has installed its tower software at four of Australia’s airports and has signed contracts to put in four more.
NAV CANADA recently showed off another new system that allows controllers to log in to work and receive pre-shift briefings on an iPad, replacing sign-in sheets and binders. The company is a majority partner in U.S.-based Aireon, which was formed to construct a space-based system of tracking planes that will for the first time work in the world’s most remote oceans and polar regions.
U.S. Representative Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House’s Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, repeatedly cites NAV CANADA’s success when he calls for partial privatization of the FAA’s air traffic division. Opposition to the idea from Democrats and some leading House Republicans has prevented Shuster’s proposal from moving forward. He has vowed to keep pushing.