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FAA Looks To Technology To Train Air Controllers

Inside Atlanta's new air traffic control tower, a dozen controllers separate arriving and departing planes.
Jim Burress for NPR
Inside Atlanta's new air traffic control tower, a dozen controllers separate arriving and departing planes.

Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is the world's busiest airport, serving more than 90 million travelers last year. But it faces one problem shared by airports across the country: finding capable people to manage its air traffic. A new program could help solve the problem.

In his two-plus decades as an air traffic controller, Dan Ellenberger has routed countless planes. One event last year sticks out most in his mind, even though he wasn't directly involved.

"It was probably the ugliest and the closest that I've ever seen airplanes get to each other without there actually being a midair [collision]," he says of the near miss.

As passenger jets were on final approach to Atlanta's airport, an air traffic controller at a nearby satellite airport mistakenly routed a small, general aviation airplane into their paths.

Too Many 'Operational Errors'

When planes get too close, the Federal Aviation Administration calls that an "operational error." In September, it happened 36 times. Ellenberger, an air traffic control union official, says that's not an anomaly. Every month for the past year, errors have exceeded the agency's own safety goals.

"I don't feel safe," Ellenberger says. "I don't care to fly. I do fly. But, I, I know what goes on."

Critics have long said that safety concerns are largely the result of understaffing and inexperience. With a mandatory retirement age of 56, thousands of veteran controllers have left — and through 2016 will leave — faster than the FAA can replace them.

Hank Krakowski, who is in charge of air traffic at the FAA, says the agency will need to hire between 1,000 and 2,000 controllers per year for at least the next five years.

In 2002, congressional investigators warned that such staffing problems lay ahead. The FAA has hired thousands of new controllers since 2006. But training them takes years.

Simulators To Speed Training

To help speed the process, the FAA now uses simulators. In Atlanta, for example, a dozen panoramic screens show detailed projections of Hartsfield-Jackson International. While pilots have long trained on simulators, the FAA says only within the past few years has technology allowed for a realistic airport re-creation.

Here, an animated jet approaches as instructor Tom Manson demonstrates a potentially serious scenario: stuck landing gear.

"This aircraft right out here is going to make a low pass past the tower and ... the tower will try to visually observe whether or not his gear is down for him," he says.

Manson walks students through what the gear should look like. He then goes over how to communicate that to the pilot.

"And then at that point, we want to find out what the pilot's intentions are and do whatever we can to help him out."

But Manson doesn't have to intervene at all. The simulator is able to hear, interpret and translate students' commands into a response from the aircraft on the screen. Make a mistake, and the simulator plays out the likely chain of events.

And while the $48 million tower simulation system speeds certification of new tower controllers, they make up only one part of a complex chain of people who separate air traffic.

Sixteen airports across the country use the simulator. Six more are due online by summer.

Copyright 2009 90.1 WABE