Just how unprepared is the FAA?

thinking-272677_1280On 9/11 the FAA was caught completely off-guard as terrorists took over four aircraft and pulled of the most tragic and devastating attack using aviation in the history of the world. As an agency, the FAA was never in the intelligence loop, did not foresee the significant threat it faced (according to the 9/11 Commission Report) and did not have an effective response. As a result, the security of the skies was given over to the newly created TSA.

Now, 13 years later, we have a small fire set by a contractor in a Chicago air traffic control facility and four days later the ATC system is STILL disrupted and hundreds of flights continue to get cancelled. Just how resilient is our nation’s air traffic control system? Is it so fragile that we can’t withstand a fire at one of its facilities without the entire system being affected? And what would happen if this attack had been more serious?

We need to be more resilient.

Unlike airport security and screening, the security of FAA facilities has always been the responsibility of the FAA itself. It’s control towers, its Terminal Radar Approach Control facilities (radar centers that control airspace around large airports) and Air Route Traffic Control Centers (radar facilities that control traffic throughout the U.S. in en route airspace). Even when an air traffic control tower (ATCT) is located within the perimeter of an airport – inside the fence line – the tower will still have its own security personnel and procedures. Obviously, it’s not enough. Maybe its time the FAA took a lesson from the military airbase security community and tightened things up.

Typically, security officers along with a computerized access control system (at some facilities) control access to the buildings. If you’ve ever seen a radar facility you’ll notice the fencing that surrounds the place. So far, we’re off to a good start. Getting to the facility with some sort of car bomb is going to be somewhat more difficult as a result of these measures. But now we need to take a look at two other components – insider threat and resiliency when a system fails, gets attacked or otherwise goes out of service.

FAA Administration Huerta called for a 30-day review of contingency plans and security protocols for its major facilities noting in an FAA press release that, “the air transportation system is vital to our economy and people rely on it to function 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I want to make sure that we have the most robust contingency plans possible.”  (click here for full text)

That said – why wasn’t the FAA more prepared? 

On Friday, I had just gotten off the phone with Bloomberg news (click here for article) after an interview on the incident explaining how in extreme situations, the military could even be called in to bring in mobile radars if necessary. But now I question the overall preparedness of the FAA in this case. With all the talk of cybersecurity, haven’t they gamed out scenarios where a facility goes completely dark? 

While the ultimate measure of safety was achieved – no mid air collisions, the nation’s entire ATC system was affected, particularly in Chicago. When a flight is cancelled, its not just inconvenience for a few thousand passengers – millions of dollars are lost every hour by the air carrier industry and individual and businesses also suffer financial loss and opportunity costs.

Without a real national rail system we’ve bet the transportation needs of our country on aviation and it look like it needs to put some meat on its bones.

While the long term solution is likely NextGen, the massive air traffic control upgrade of the U.S. aviation system from a land based to a satellite based navigation system (look up “ADS-B” for a complete explanation), what’s the short term solution? 

I like to address issues from the perspective of “what’s in the control of a security director?”

For the FAA the answer is obvious – review of security protocols, review of background checks, workplace violence training for employees and contractors so they can keep an eye on each other and report when someone is having a bad day, life or whatever – both to get them help and to keep the workplace safe.

For the Airport Security Coordinator and the Federal Security Director, I’m suggesting that you get in touch with your local FAA ATC reps and go over contingency plans with them. While not all FAA radar and tower facilities are on airport, many are nearby some airport. Ensure they have the connections they need to the first response community and do they need your help? Work with regional emergency planners to determine if there are back up facilities or resources that should be acquired. While the security of the FAA’s facilities is not the direct responsibility of the airport operator nor the TSA for that matter, for aviation security to be effective, all elements must be considered and everyone must work together.

Whatever the case is, our system must become more resilient. National infrastructure is a prime target for terrorists and they are likely filling their notebooks with pages on lessons learned after this incident.


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