As the FAA moves towards NextGen implementation, so do trainers of the air traffic controllers of tomorrow. Robert W. Moorman explores how the US is meeting is trying to meet the demand for more controllers.

The FAA faces the daunting challenge of hiring enough air traffic controllers to meet the projected air traffic demand while ensuring they are qualified to do so within the US’s Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen).

If that weren’t challenging enough, the FAA is replacing its principal training contractor, Raytheon Technical Services Corporation with Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) in McClean, Virginia. The new $425 million Controller Training Contract (CTC) is a five-year contract, three-year base plus two one-year options. It will replace Raytheon’s Air Traffic Controller Optimum Training Solutions (ATCOTS) program. The maximum contract ceiling is $727 million. Training will be performed mainly in Oklahoma City, Washington D.C. and at air traffic control sites nationwide.

“We aim to bring innovative solutions to the FAA that demonstrate new technologies and techniques in order to provide the highest quality instruction,” said Dan Harris, SAIC senior vice president and general manager of the Federal Civilian Customer Group.

Those same sentiments were likely uttered by the previous trainer. So, after millions of dollars in cost overruns and accusations of mismanagement of the ATCOTS program, the decision has been made to start from scratch rather than move on with the existing trainer.

Raytheon did not bid on the new Controller Training Contract last year, because “we believed that ATCOTS provided our customer the best solution, and that CTC would not adequately address the challenges the FAA faces,” said a company spokesman.

Kevin Ramundo, VP for Communications, Raytheon Intelligence, Information and Services provided this statement on the eve of the new contract award: "We're disappointed that the FAA has decided not to continue the proven and effective Air Traffic Controller Optimum Training Solutions (ATCOTS) program. With as many as 4,200 new hires expected to enter controller training through 2017, a 77% increase from the past three years, we don't believe this is the right time to make a change, especially in light of Raytheon's outstanding work on ATCOTS.”

He continued: “We've helped more than 9,000 controllers achieve Certified Professional Controller status since 2009 while keeping within contract costs, and our performance has been recognized by the FAA with three consecutive, 100% award fee scores since last year. We will work closely with our customer and the new contractor to achieve the smoothest possible transition so that the National Air Space will remain safe and fully functional."

The ATCOTS program was designed to replace two levels of controller training with a single performance-based program all under the watchful eyes of a budget-conscious US Congress.

ATCOTS

This story begins in September 2008, when the FAA awarded an $859 million contract to Raytheon Technical Services Corporation. Controller training was — until this latest announcement — a principal part of Raytheon’s Air Traffic Control Optimum Training Solution (ATCOTS).

ATCOTS training consists of an enhanced technically-based curriculum that includes radar simulation, scenario-based training, field site-courses, and instruction on new and existing regulations and procedures. More than 8,000 controllers have been trained and certified under ATCOTS.

The controller training programs remain sufficiently funded for the next few years. Funding for 2014, 2015 is $86.5 million and $110 million respectively. Projected funding for 2016 is $109.7 million.

Training

Raytheon’s interim role is cloudy. It is expected to continue to supplement the FAA’s training for initial controller qualification at the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City and on field qualification at various facilities around the country until SAIC takes over.

Qualification training in Oklahoma City includes classroom and simulation instruction by FAA and Raytheon instructors. This is followed by on the job training in the field from certified professional controllers.

SAIC is expected to provide training on the new advanced air traffic control methodologies and technology developed for NextGen. Controllers receive enhanced training on Performance Based Navigation (PBN) procedures. These satellite-based procedures enable aircraft to fly more directly from point to point. Routine refresher courses are added when changes are made to the PBN system.

SAIC is also expected to help train controllers on the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS), an integral part of NextGen. FAA’s large TRACON’s are transitioning from the Common Automated Radar Terminal Systems (CARTS) to STARS terminal automation platform.

Controllers obtain enhanced classroom and simulation training for the Enroute Automation Modernization (ERAM), which replaces the 40-year-old host computer system at the 20 enroute centers throughout the U.S. These centers, which handle aircraft flying above 10,000 feet, are located in Seattle, Salt Lake City, Denver, Minneapolis, Albuquerque, Oakland, Los Angeles, Houston and elsewhere throughout the US.

Controllers receive refresher training on the satellite-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance - Broadcast system. In the Gulf of Mexico, which has a surface area of 932,000 square miles (1.5 million square kilometers), ADS-B is replacing the current radar based system. According to the FAA, training is essentially the same for radar-based surveillance as for ADS-B. The computer system driving the controller displays at the Houston enroute center captures both radar and ADS-B targets on the controller screens.

There were compelling reasons for ADS-B adoption in the Gulf, particularly by rotorcraft operators, which make up the bulk of daily traffic. Up until 2010, there were numerous accidents, including a mid-air collision, and a bird strike in January 2009 that might have been prevented with the installation of ADS-B ground stations and onboard equipment, known as ADS-B Out. With offshore oil and gas drilling moving farther out into the Gulf, ADS-B provides the radar, surveillance and weather link necessary for safe and reliable aircraft operations. On any given day, there are between 400 and 500 helicopters serving the oil and gas business in the Gulf.

By 2020, the FAA will require ADS-B equipment for all aircraft flying in Classes A, B, C and certain E Class airspace at or above 10,000 feet, as well as around busy airports. So training of controllers on ADS-B stationed throughout the US is of paramount importance.

Cost Concerns

SAIC may be the new primary controller trainer for FAA. But the company inherits cost and operational problems under Raytheon’s tenure. ATCOTS has been beset by operational challenges and cost overruns since the program began in 2009. Critics claim the transition to a performance-based curriculum is unnecessary and costly. Yet proponents say training must be updated and streamlined to prepare controllers to work within NextGen, which, when implemented, will be more efficient, yet more complex than the old school radar-based system of today.

According to the DOT Inspector General, the FAA posted cost overruns of around $89 million in the first four years of a five-year program. In its second of two reports, the IG said FAA managed to “bring the costs of the contract under control only by cutting the amount of training provided by the contractor” and using certified controllers to fill in the gaps,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, Chair of the Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, during a mid-January 2014 hearing.

Cost of training each controller ranges from $20,000 to $29,000, according to the agency. Yet during the Q&A session of the congressional hearing, Patricia McNall, FAA Chief Acquisition Office and Deputy Assistant Administrator for Finance and Management testified that the total cost per controller, which includes contractor and FAA training and salary, was around $250,000.

The FAA plans to hire and train tens of thousands of air traffic controllers over the next decade, according to its air Traffic Controller Workforce Plan 2015-2024. FAA's controller workforce reached 14,330 in fiscal 2014. The FAA hired 1,112 new controllers in fiscal 2014, and has hired more than 4,000 controllers over the last five years.

Mary Kay Langhan-Feirson, Assistant Inspector General, Acquisition and Procurement, IG  said contract cost under Raytheon’s watch exceeded negotiated values by $6 million and the contractor was required to provide far more training than the FAA estimated initially. The FAA also paid $14 million in incentive fees despite four years of cost overruns, she said.

Despite these challenges, Raytheon  said it was able to train 20% more individuals over the 4-year period, and lowered the cost per student on Raytheon-delivered training by 6 percent. Raytheon also shortened class durations at the Academy by 12 percent, a move that some trainers question as counterintuitive. Shortening training times lessens training capability.

While Raytheon’s role will be transferred to SAIC, it is unknown if any aspects of the ATCOTS curriculum will remain.  Will, for instance, SAIC adopt any of the best training methodologies that were being developed, which included avoiding duplication in training? Implementing virtual classroom training and remote training programs were key areas being addressed to help modernize controller training.

Most agree that the training of the controllers of tomorrow — whoever conducts the training — must be enhanced to handle NextGen- systems. Another question to be answered: Will SAIC  follow any template in its approach to training U.S. controllers?

Guidelines

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) will soon publish guidelines for competency-based training of air traffic controller and air traffic safety electronics personnel that could provide a template for trainers and regulatory authorities worldwide.

ICAO declined to be interviewed for this article, but provided a brief statement on the subject: “The new provisions for competency-based approaches to training and assessment of ATCs and ATSEPs have gone through final review and will become applicable in November 2016. We are also working on two manuals to support these provisions and we hope to have these ready by the end of this year. The provisions were presented and discussed in the 2nd NGAP symposium and were well received. We are planning workshops to roll the provisions out.”

The FAA said it is reviewing its technical training curriculum for training controllers. The review will include changes to course content to link job requirements to training content design.

A bigger concern than which company will train controllers and by what methodology, is ensuring a steady revenue stream for the NextGen implementation. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), which represents 20,000 air traffic controllers nationwide, believes the current funding mechanism to maintain and advance the air transportation system is broken.

“The lack of stable, predictable funding has led to serious problems at the FAA,” NATCA president Paul Rinaldi said during testimony in March 2015 on FAA Reauthorization before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation.

Rinaldi succinctly summarized the predicament: “The problems for the FAA are not caused by the failure of Congressional appropriators to provide proper funding to the system, rather they result from a process where funding is affected by short-term funding bills, government shutdowns, partial FAA shutdowns, threatened government-wide and FAA-specific shutdowns, sequestration and 23 authorized extensions to name a few.”

Over Water Concerns

The March 8, 2014 disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 prompted regulatory authorities and safety experts to explore ways to enhance ATC over water and remote land coverage, particularly in those areas of the world where it is lacking.

Some believe that the U.S.’s NextGen, Single Skies in Europe and similar efforts in Russia, Asia and elsewhere worldwide will take care of the coverage problems. But full implementation of NextGen-like systems is years away and something needs to be done now to prevent a repeat of Flight 17.

During the ICAO High-level Safety Conference in February 2015, the EU Member states agreed to “fast track” a requirement (4D position reports every 15 minutes) for aircraft operators to routinely track their aircraft. This can be accomplished through Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Contract (ADS-C) or position data feeds from ATS surveillance services where it exists, according to the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO).

The introduction of satellite-based systems will “enable the ATM industry to provide enhanced ATS surveillance coverage globally, including the polar, oceanic and other remote regions,” said Jeff Poole, CANSO Director General. “We need to access the impact on existing systems and services” from the proposed new requirement for routine tracking of aircraft.

The Conference agreed to conduct a regional implementation initiative to validate the proposed new standard for routine tracking by operators of commercial aircraft.

The adoption of a new standard will have training implications for controllers and other air traffic management personnel. “ATCO training is constantly updated to take into account new changes in technology, procedures and regulations,” said Poole. “The proposed new requirement for routine aircraft tracking is one such change to which the ATM industry will need to adapt, including any associated training.”

Poole said it was “too early to tell” what training requirements would be needed, but existing procedures and coordination processes between Air Navigation Services Providers and other entities might be needed to be improved in some regions.

Notable Notes

# Nearly 2 million Americans fly daily across the U.S. At any given time, there are 5,000 aircraft flying over the country.

# Air traffic controllers and others provide air navigation services to aircraft in U.S. domestic airspace and in the 24.6 million square miles of international oceanic airspace delegated to the U.S. by ICAO.

# FAA determined in 2005 that more than 70% of the ATC workforce would become eligible to retire over the next decade. As such, FAA projected a need to hire and train around 17,000 new air traffic controllers by 2015.

# As of 2015, there were approximately 15,000 fully qualified air traffic controllers employed by FAA.

# Implementation of NextGen across the U.S. is occurring in stages, between 2012-2025.

# FAA estimates that Revenue Passenger Miles (RPMs), the standard for measuring air traffic volume, projects RPM growth of U.S. air carriers to average 2.5 percent per year over the next 20 years.

# The average base salary for air traffic controllers in 2013 was around $122,490, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.