Each day, more than a thousand flights traverse the North Atlantic Airspace – which includes portions of Greenland, Iceland, Canada and the eastern United States – making it one of the busiest and most complex sectors for air traffic in the world. The North Atlantic Track (NAT) system, a route network designed to streamline operations, is used by air traffic control centers in those regions to monitor and manage the system. Flight crews passing through must follow specific navigation, communication, compliance and safety requirements as narrow as the routes themselves.
Invariably, with so many factors at play, there are extensive opportunities for error.
As it relates to aircrews, of all the errors that can, do occur, said Don Trekell, an instructor at Scott International Procedures which provides business aviation pilots with international procedures training.
Trekell, who keeps track of operating trends, said aircraft drift off course most often because of something the crew did or didn’t do. Crews most often deviate, he said, because they “flew the flight plan instead of the clearance.”
Fixing the Issues
When operators fail to maintain adequate separation – either vertically, laterally or longitudinally – the ramifications can be steep. John Tuten, chief pilot/flight operations for Honeywell International and chairman of NBAA’s International Operations Committee, said when these “errors” occur, it’s partly because of pilots’ “lack of adhering to a standard operating procedure (SOP) or having an inadequate SOP.” Tuten said that “recent and quality training” is essential to fixing these issues.
Trekell tends to agree. Reducing these errors requires “strong SOPs that utilize two-pilot verification. Ensuring the navigation systems are loaded correctly in accordance with the clearance goes a long way in mitigating this type of error,” Trekell said. Crews need to have the contingency procedures at the ready for when things go wrong. Other errors may be equipment-related, faulty crew procedures, or ATC related changes and amendments.
Incorrect Preferred Route Filings
Karoline Gorman, an oceanic air traffic controller at the FAA’s New York Air Route Traffic Control Center, said the errors that her center deal with are predominantly route related. “Our biggest current issue is incorrect preferred route filings into the New York [City] metro area from the Caribbean departure points or Florida departures northbound filed over the Atlantic,” Gorman said.
The “biggest offenders,” she said, are flights planned to New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport (TEB) and nearby Westchester County Airport (HPN) in New York. Control centers typically will issue inflight reroutes, which can sometimes compound errors or cause further misunderstanding.
“For controllers, it increases workload and frequency congestion,” Gorman said.
NAT Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) will contact operators directly for feedback and lesson learning opportunities following safety events in the NAT region. ANSPs and operators share safety reports with the North Atlantic Central Monitoring Agency who are responsible for the collation of all safety reporting in the NAT region for the purposes of calculating the collision risk estimate, identifying trends and effective mitigations. Pilots can sign-up to receive de-identified summaries of all events at www.natcma.com.
Altogether, the safety of flying in NAT airspace relies on pilots adhering to rigorous safety procedures and maintaining constant vigilance throughout the flight.