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1090 Global

On Your Six: Interview with Jim Ullmann, NATCA Director of Safety & Technology


With the third launch of our AireonSM payloads hosted by the Iridium® NEXT constellation about to take place, we’d like to introduce a new blog series, “On Your Six.”  In this series, we’ll be sitting down with industry leaders and ask them, you guessed it, a series of six questions relating to today’s aviation industry.

To kick things off, we’re excited to share our first post of “On Your Six” with NATCA Director of Safety & Technology, Jim Ullmann.  In September of 2015, Jim retired from the FAA after 26 years as an Air Traffic Controller and is uniquely suited to offer insights as to today’s ATC environment among other aviation hot topics.  And on that note, on to the questions

Aireon 1090 Global:  Air Traffic Control technology and capability varies greatly from country to country. What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of today’s ATC infrastructure, and how can it be improved upon?

The National Airspace System (NAS) is an extremely robust and flexible system that is home to the safest, most diverse, complicated yet efficient airspace in the world. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) is committed to safeguarding the NAS.

NATCA has been working collaboratively with the FAA, along with the airlines, the general aviation community, vendors, and other aviation stakeholders to ensure the US continues to be viewed as the world’s premier aviation system. We must all work together to implement new technologies and procedures, which are designed to gain even more efficiencies and predictability.

Our real strength is in the hard-working professional men and women who control and maintain this extremely complicated system. This includes not only our air traffic controllers, but also the professional pilots who are an integral part of maintaining our incredible record of safety. However, we are unfortunately caught in a system that is encumbered by bureaucracy and a procurement system that hampers our ability to quickly modernize. It is imperative we find a way to ensure stable and predictable funding.

Aireon 1090 Global:  Radar was first put into use during WWII, which is all the more surprising if you consider we’re 70 years removed from that conflict.  How has this technology both benefited and limited Air Traffic Controllers?

Ground-based radar has been the heart of our surveillance since its advent, and the NAS was built using these ground-based radar systems. As one would guess, surveillance, along with communications, are the most important tools an air traffic controller has. It would surprise many that there are still numerous areas in the US that do not have adequate radar coverage. Our old ground-based radar system is limited by the location of the radar unit and is affected by terrain, obstructions and range. With new technologies, such as ADS-B and Wide Area Multilateration (WAM), surveillance technology is changing.

Aireon 1090 Global: How will the capabilities provided by space-based ADS-B impact today’s air traffic controllers?

As a participant on the RTCA-led Enhanced Surveillance Task Force, I was fortunate enough to be part of hours of discussion and debate on the potential impacts and benefits Spaced-Based ADS-B (SBA). As I noted in the prior question, surveillance is an integral part of air traffic control. This new SBA technology will lead to unimaginable improvements in surveillance, specifically in oceanic airspace. It will allow our air traffic controllers to have real-time surveillance data in areas of the globe that never have had radar coverage. It will naturally mean increased safety and certainly lead to reduced separation in oceanic airspace.

Aireon 1090 Global: What do today’s Air Traffic Controllers view as the future of surveillance in the industry?

Over the past several years air traffic controllers have seen ADS-B become the primary surveillance source in air traffic control facilities. With additional new technologies, like STARS and ERAM, surveillance from radar or the satellite-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance- Broadcast (ADS-B) can be used. In the terminal environment, FUSION utilizes all available surveillance sources (airport surveillance radar (ASR), air route surveillance radar (ARSR), ADS-B, etc.) into the display of a single tracked target for air traffic control separation services. With SBA, yet another source for surveillance data will be added, and will lead to enhanced surveillance and the opportunities for reduced separation in some areas.

Aireon 1090 Global: What do today’s Air Traffic Controllers view as the biggest challenges facing the aviation industry?

I believe the first thing many air traffic controllers would identify as a challenge would be staffing. The air traffic control workforce of Certified Professional Controllers (CPC) in the US is at a 28-year low, and new controllers cannot be hired and trained fast enough. Many facilities are working mandatory overtime, or working shifts short-staffed, and there have been actual instances of flight cancellations due to a lack of air traffic controller staffing. The FAA’s training academy can only accommodate a finite number of students each year; combine this with the fact it takes 2-3 years for an air traffic controller to become fully certified and the relatively high number of unsuccessful job candidates along the way, and staffing will be a major concern for years to come.

Other challenges include the current lack of stable and predictable funding for the FAA and the large number of changes associated with the implementation of NextGen technologies. Air traffic controllers are all too aware of some of the challenges that lie ahead. Yet, we will ensure the NAS remains the safest, most diverse, most efficient airspace in the world.

Aireon 1090 Global: From the perspective of Air Traffic Controllers, what can help make aviation better for the flying public.

The implementation of new technologies will naturally come with an improved experience for the flying public. I believe the flying public wants shorter flight times and fewer delay. They want the same thing as the rest of the aviation industry, which is predictability. One issue that will continue to have an impact on the flying public is weather. We continue to work towards improving weather capabilities for air traffic controllers and on the timely and efficient dissemination of weather information. It is important for the flying public to note that weather will always have an impact on air travel, no matter what new improved technologies are implemented. Whether it be visibility, wind speed and direction, turbulence, snow, ice, fog, or other weather phenomena, they all have a potential to affect your flying experience. With an estimated 69 percent of system delays, the largest cause of air traffic delay in the National Airspace System is weather.