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”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - Alan Levin The bot­tom line The suc­cess of Canada’s sys­tem has led some U.S. law­mak­ers to push for par­tial pri­va­ti­za­tion of the FAA’s air traf­fic divi­sion.

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.

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