Air Traffic Control Around the Globe: Shouldn’t Everyone be in on the Secret?

By Robert Mark on February 18th, 2007

Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and the Northwestern University’s Transportation Center hosted Dan Garton last week to talk about how American Airlines’ has managed to succeed without the need for bankruptcy protection like its United, Delta and Northwest Airlines competitors.

Garton, American’s executive vice president of marketing, explained the company’s strategy to deal with an ever-aging fleet of MD-80s in the face of Boeing and Airbus order books packed to the teeth with plenty of demand from other carriers. American signed an exclusivity agreement that guarantees them airplanes when they’re ready.

Pretty smart idea.

The talk’s Q & A session was open to anything related to American Airlines, so I asked Garton how safe he considered the air traffic control system in Brazil for AA operations since the mid-air collision last September. I also wondered if the unraveling of Brazilian airspace problems had eroded any of American’s bookings to Rio for Carnival because of passenger concerns about safety.

As a sidenote, there are still two issues at stake in this ongoing mid-air collision argument … what the pilots did or did not do during the flight – and I’m talking about both the Legacy pilots and the 737 crew – and the issue of the apparent chaotic state of Brazilian ATC.

Garton thought for a moment and then replied, “We have the safest air traffic system in the world and there are no concerns at all. We have not seen any falloff in passenger bookings to Brazil,” he said.

It didn’t seem as if were talking about the same thing.

Garton was focusing on the U.S. air traffic control system that the folks at FAA and NATCA run better than anyone else on the globe, while I was asking about the one in Brazil where the government, until recently was adamant that the only possible answer to the September, 2006 midair was pilot error on the part of the U. S. Embraer Legacy crew.

If I was concerned about international air traffic control in Brazil, I wondered why an executive from the largest airline in the world was not. Is there really no problem or has the word about the problem simply not been sent out very well.

After the talk, another audience member came up and asked why I had wasted time with such a stupid question when it was clear to most of the world that the pilots of the Legacy had simply turned off their transponder in order to take a shortcut back to the states. It had nothing to do with air traffic control, he said.

I have said that until someone shows me cockpit data recorder information or a radar track with the Legacy deviating from a route, I’ll never believe those guys turned off their transponder on purpose, especially since the route from Brasilia to Manuas is about as direct as they come.

This week a new safety briefing was issued by the Airline Pilots Association warning pilots to be on the lookout for ATC trouble in the airspace in and around Brazil. If ALPA is worried, why isn’t anyone else? And why has it taken nearly five months for them to warn members? The International Association of Air Traffic Controllers hasn’t mentioned the topic of ATC in that region at all either. A quick look at this video posted on YouTube this week will highlight the fact that ATC issues are also a problem in Argentina.

While many experts – including me – take occasional potshots at ATC here in the states, at least the FAA takes responsibility for the operation. In Brazil, that’s not the case.

To paraphrase Alice a bit as we look at Brazilian ATC, “things are getting curiouser and curiouser.”

The Brazilian Air Force, that runs the ATC system and spent countless hours vehemently denying any connection last fall between their system and the midair has known about the system’s deficiencies for quite some time … years in fact.

This recent note from The Engineer Online, mentions a deal between the Brazilian Air Force and electronics giant Thales to replace 26 aging Brazilian ATC radar sites, a process that has been underway since 2001.

So did the busiest sector in Brazilian ATC not get the memo or the upgrade despite all the work over the past six years?

Did Brazilian Air Force officials forget they were modernizing their ATC system? Talking about fixing the problem rather than looking for a convenient scapegoat might have at least offered the families of the Boeing victims some comfort.

Then of course there was the transcript run in Brazilian newspaper Folha that has some seemingly damning evidence depending, of course, upon the context you read the information.

I was surprised though that a newspaper had released a transcript of anything before the investigation is complete. A Folha source said the transcript was prepared by the NTSB which is closed today February 19 for President’s Day.

Our translation of the two controllers in Brazil is thanks to a dedicated Jetwhine reader in San Paulo. It seems to indicate that not only did the controllers not clearly understand that there were two aircraft headed to the same point in space at the same altitude, but that they had little or no communications with the Boeing either for quite some time.

Manaus [AZ] talks to Brasilia [BS] (in Portuguese)

AZ – Go ahead Brasilia.

BS – Do you have this N600XL?

AZ – We have it here. He is descending here.

BS – He declared emergency, was heading to Cachimbo, an aeroplane copied and passed to us.

[…]

BS – Gol 1907. Brother, what is his ETA to BOL, if he is already on my FIR?

AZ – Wait, who is the guy?

BS – Gol 1907, Eduardo Gomes Brasilia.

AZ – Uh. What GOL1907 is this?

BS – Man…

AZ – Mate, we do not have any GOL, no GOL with us, nope.

BS – There must be one, man.

AZ – Uh. But this was more than half hour ago. There is radar but he is not there. I can’t see. He disappeared from Radar.

AZ – The thing is, the November. The pilot said that he collided with something and doesn’t know what it was.

BS – Sheesh, dam…

AZ – Then the wingtip was broken and he doesn’t know what it was. But the GOL was on 370. But you passed me on 360, don’t you?

BS – Yes.

[…]

(The assistant controller comments before picking up) Jomarcelo said that it was on 36 {Sargent Jomarcelo Fernandes dos Santos is the controller that was on duty and was in charge of the sector in which the Legacy was flying after passing Brasilia}

[…]

BS – Speak up Manaus!

AZ – Did you have any information from the GOL?

BS – It is here! Oh my God! Wait.

AZ – Did you find the GOL?

BS – No. Did you find it?

AZ – GOL 1907?

BS – Did he really take-off?

It seems clear the controllers realized the mess they were in.

But now, five months later, why does everyone traveling through that region still seem to be acting as if there is no 800-lbs. gorilla in the room?

Surely ATC in Brazil has an internal government component that must be laid at the feet of the Brazilians to fix and depending upon whom you believe, they may or may not be in the process.

But there is also an ongoing international component to this problem as well that no one seems to be talking about, much less fixing. Even the ALPA note was pretty well hidden on their site and makes flying there sound like VFR … “keep your eyes open,” much like Africa is yet today.

Except, that African ATC system deficiencies are well know, and well communicated throughout the aviation community.

In that region, legal or not, lateral offsets are a way of life to prevent midairs, as well as the common traffic advisory frequency to back up the lack of decent ATC.

Clearly air traffic control is more effective in some parts of the globe than others. But isn’t it time the world’s major aviation organizations begin exerting a little pressure on Brazil to fix the problem, or at least tell us what they are doing before there is another collision somewhere? And what are the other regions where ATC is questionable? Shouldn’t we be telling the passengers in back about the risks before they book the flight?

For the record, I still think asking about the state of Brazilian ATC was, and still is, a pretty good question.

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