Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The FAA and NOTAM's

The FAA has recently moved to begin consolidating and outsourcing the process of issuing NOTAM's into a national office (call 877-487-6867) rather than many local/regional offices. A NOTAM, or NOtice To AirMen, is very relevant to broadcasters since many of them are responsible for the warning beacons on their towers. Whenever a beacon fails, the responsible party has to notify the FAA immediately, who then issues a NOTAM to all the local pilots about the lighting failure, so they know to give said tower a wide berth.

The problem is that many of these local offices have developed personal relationships and "local knowledge" of terrain and towers, that is crucial in ensuing accurate notices reach the right pilots. The national push doesn't seem to be allocating enough resources to compensate for that "local touch"; it's more about saving costs.

A Radio World writer asked me for my thoughts on this issue; below is what I sent him. I don't think they'll reprint my e-mail entirely, but if they do I'll link to them instead. Before you read it, bear in mind that I am not directly responsible for any towers, nor have I ever had to issue (or retract) a NOTAM before. I have no special knowledge of the FAA, I'm just commenting as an intelligent observer who does not have any special insight into the actual reasoning behind this change.
There are some valid reasons for consolidating the collection and
dissemination of NOTAM's...after all, if a plane is flying from, say, Boston to
Miami, and the tower with the lights out is in Delaware, logically the
information of the outage will get to pilots faster via a national office than
via local offices. A national office is probably more capable of updating
with time and technology to better reach pilots using a broader spectrum of
communications: e-mail, txt messaging, websites, blogs, etc.

The problem is that this outsourcing/consolidation seems to be driven by
cost-cutting rather than by efficiency, and as such there aren't sufficient
resources committed to compensate for that crucial "local
knowledge". Knowledge like how a tower might be listed for a certain
latitude and longitude, but in reality it's a few degree-seconds to the
east. That small difference on paper could mean life or death for a pilot
in low-visibility weather, and a local office is more likely to have the
personal connections between the FAA and pilots to ensure that knowledge is

These issues, that local knowledge and personal relations so easily
compensate for, CAN be duplicated with sufficient resources at the
national. It's not easy, nor is it fast, but it can be done.
Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like that's the goal here. Instead, the
goal seems to be to drive the bottom line as hard as possible. Such a method
inherently compromises safety to some degree. That degree might be quite
small, and thus quite acceptable...after all, at a certain point it becomes
dangerous to fly in bad weather no matter how many NOTAM's are issued.

But I fear it's more likely that the resources will be cut more and
more, and the risk increased more and more, in the pursuit of the fiscal bottom
line. And that the only thing that will stop that drive for profits is a
repeat of the 2004 Black Hawk chopper crash in Waco, Texas. That was not a
failure from corruption or malice (a proper NOTAM was issued) it was just a
system too inefficient to work properly. This recent consolidation
seems to be exacerbating that inefficiency, rather than fixing it.

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