People, IT vital to FAA future

Information technology has a major stake in the success of the aviation marketplace, government and industry officials said Nov. 5.

"Our current airline environment is tough," said Bill Sears, director of communications for air traffic operations and safety with the Air Transport Association of America, speaking at the Air Traffic Control Association Inc.'s annual convention in Washington, D.C. "[But] air transport is here to stay. We must modernize."

While IT programs — such as computer upgrades and satellite navigation — remain crucial, a more pressing issue is staffing, according to John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

The Federal Aviation Administration "has got to proactively replace the workforce," Carr said.

Most likely, the agency will need to hire thousands of air traffic controllers in the next decade, a General Accounting Office review found.

The FAA will have to recruit a well-qualified workforce to offset the anticipated attrition of experienced controllers and to address increased traffic demands, GAO officials concluded in a June 14 report.

The FAA hopes to hire about 850 air traffic controllers in fiscal 2003, according to Bill Peacock, the agency's director of air traffic. The agency is operating under a continuing resolution until Nov. 22, but it plans to launch a 10-year strategy to build a bubble of controllers once it gets funding, Peacock said.

When thinking about recruiting, the FAA also has to factor in training, Peacock said. However, he said the biggest challenge is getting stakeholders equipped to exploit new technologies. "You need a high percentage of equipage and trained crews," he said. "We need to take a systems approach to the national airspace redesign."

Officials emphasized the need for global solutions — and urgency.

FAA Administrator Marion Blakey announced Oct. 8 that, within a month, the agency would approve approach procedures that allow pilots to use on-board technology to navigate aircraft to any point in the world with only geographical coordinates.

The aviation community must now determine how to maintain that momentum, said Charles Keegan, the FAA's associate administrator for research and acquisitions.

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