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Ensuring the Continuity and Efficiency of the ATC System

Teri L. Bristol is COO of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization. She has overseen the deployment of NextGen, as well as other airspace improvements, including integration of unmanned aircraft and commercial space operations into the National Airspace System (NAS). During her tenure as COO, Bristol has enhanced the organization’s focus on risk management, innovative training, and partnerships with industry. Previously, she served as ATO’s deputy COO. Before that, she oversaw maintenance, monitoring and engineering services in the NAS, directed operational support and integration services across the NAS, and led acquisition and program management of large automation and surveillance systems. Bristol has served as executive committee chair of the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation, which works to harmonize air traffic policies and procedures worldwide.

On Twitter @FAANews

Q: The FAA’s work to ensure overall ATC continuity during the COVID-19 crisis has set a model for the world. Give us your thoughts on the planning that went into having that capability.

The FAA placed much emphasis on contingency planning for situations when an ATC facility couldn’t provide normal air traffic services, and that has contributed to our Resiliency. After a fire at a Chicago facility disrupted air traffic a few years ago, we updated our plans and mandatory training across our National Airspace System.

While we developed the contingency plans with single outages in mind, these plans have held up well during this global health emergency, as our team adjusts for each situation. In most cases, an adjacent facility will handle traffic until full operations are restored.

The need to rely on contingency operations has diminished as we’ve gotten better at sterilizing facilities and returning them to an operational state.

It also helped that we have robust processes and relationships with industry to communicate to everyone who needs to know about airspace changes.

“While we developed the contingency plans with single outages in mind, they’ve held up well in this global health emergency, as our team adjusts for each situation.”

Q: Tell us how industry stakeholders, including business aviation, have helped inform your planning?

Our collaborative approach in managing operations includes a webinar every two hours each day to seek industry perspective. With valuable inputs from business aviation, we can ensure greater efficiency for everyone who uses the ATC system.

When we understand air traffic demand forecasts for high-volume business aviation locations – such as Teterboro (NJ), Southern California and South Florida – that can be very helpful, as business aircraft pilots can provide flexibility in climb, routings and altitude adjustments.

During the pandemic, FAA leaders have hosted regular meetings with operators to understand current demands and constraints. Heidi Williams, NBAA’s director of air traffic services and infrastructure, has been a vocal advocate during those calls, communicating concerns such as ensuring that business aircraft operators are informed about adjusting facility operating hours. We’ve been communicating at every level with industry.

“When our airspace is busy, users tend to be super vigilant and safety conscious. When it’s slower, it might be easy to let our guard down a little. None of us can afford complacency. ”

Q: What goes into the kind of overnight procedures you take to ensure a facility is ready as quickly as one day after identifying a COVID-19-related concern?

The ATO developed a comprehensive strategy to ensure continuity of operations while also enhancing safety for employees.

Our Joint Air Traffic Operations Command Crisis Action Team handles reports of COVID cases and employs a consolidated response so that our operational workforce can focus on operations.

We designed additional layers of cleaning to meet the guidelines of federal health authorities. Our Level 3 cleaning is targeted at facilities with confirmed positive cases and involves our safety and aerospace medicine personnel.

A facility assessment determines areas of concern and contact mapping to ensure thorough cleaning, targeting high-risk areas, if possible, during no- or low-traffic periods. We consider reconfiguring space where applicable.

We implemented staffing modifications, and temporarily adjusted operating hours at more than 90 ATC facilities, based on air traffic demands.

By limiting staff members’ potential exposure to COVID-19, these changes increased our resiliency should a new coronavirus case be reported. Our technical workforce was dispersed to remote locations to both ensure physical distancing and our ability to respond to NAS interruptions, further mitigating impacts and ensuring the same level of service and safety of operations.

“Teamwork is one of ATO’s guiding principles. We have found the commitment to teamwork has truly moved us through the pandemic in ways we never imagined.”

Q: Looking to the future, what enduring lessons do you think the FAA will take from the COVID-19 crisis?

While we’re pleased with our contingency planning, we have a new lens to view those plans with, and we’ll consider how we can sharpen our focus and further enhance resiliency.

Another lesson is how quickly we adapt. Much of our workforce has proven that they can do their jobs and even train from new locations.

Teamwork is one of ATO’s guiding principles. We have found the commitment to teamwork has truly moved us through the pandemic in ways we never imagined.

We have built bridges where we saw gaps. We have collaborative efforts borne from years of effort, and we’ve trusted our folks to do the right thing, and they’ve delivered.

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