(p. D1) Ottawa
Flying over the U.S.-Canadian border is like time travel for pilots. Going north to south, you leave a modern air-traffic control system run by a company and enter one run by the government struggling to catch up.
Airlines, the air-traffic controllers’ union and key congressional leaders all support turning over U.S. air-traffic control services to a newly created nonprofit company and leaving the Federal Aviation Administration as a safety regulator. It’s an idea that still faces strong opposition in Congress, but has gained traction this year.
The model is Nav Canada, the world’s second-largest air-traffic control agency, after the U.S.
. . .
The key, Nav Canada says, is its nongovernmental structure. Technology, critical to efficient airspace use these days, gets developed faster than if a government agency were trying to do it, officials say. Critics say slow technology development has been the FAA’s Achilles’ heel.
“We can fly optimal routes because of the technology they have. It makes a big difference,” American Airlines vice president Lorne Cass says. “These are things customers don’t see except they shave off minutes.”
Mr. Cass, who has worked for several airlines and the FAA, first visited Nav Canada in 2004 to see new technology. “They’ve always been pretty good at continuous modernization,” he says. “They just have more flexibility than the FAA has.”
. . .
(p. D2) In government, you often need giant programs with huge promises to get funding. But Nav Canada opted for small projects, often with no idea what the outcome should look like. The company hired a corps of techies that the federal agency had never had and involved controllers in development.
“We’re convinced you’re better off doing things incrementally than a big bang approach,” Mr. Koslow says.
Data linkage between cockpits and control centers is one example. Text messages with cockpits have been in use across oceans, in parts of Europe and across all of Canada for several years. Controllers in Montreal who handle planes to and from North America and both Europe and Asia say the texting system virtually eliminates problems of mishearing instructions and readbacks over the radio because of foreign accents.
Another innovation adopted around the world is electronic flight strips–critical information about each flight that gets changed on touch screens and passed from one controller to another electronically. Nav Canada has used them for more than 13 years. Many U.S. air controllers still use paper printouts placed in plastic carriers about the size of a 6-inch ruler that controllers scribble on.
. . .
Jerome Gagnon, a shift manager in Montreal’s control tower, says the electronic system has reduced workload, errors and noise. “We don’t want controllers to just be heads down. There’s a lot of stuff that happens out the window,” he says.
Rarely do controllers have to call each other to coordinate flights anymore, but making changes with the FAA on cross-border flights can’t be done electronically.
As he explains the process in the Montreal tower, other controllers start laughing. One blurts out incredulously: “You still have to call the FAA by phone!””
For the full story, see:
SCOTT MCCARTNEY. “THE MIDDLE SEAT; The Air-Traffic System U.S. Airlines Wish They Had.” The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., April 28, 2016): D1-D2.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 27, 2016. The online version has a couple of extra sentences that are included in the passages quoted above.)