Will technology strangle our freedom to fly?


At a recent meeting with Nav Canada, one of their senior managers made a comment regarding an apparent large number of non-transponder aircraft in the B.C. lower mainland area. "There is a potential safety issue that Nav Canada has to be very aware of as any mishap with one of these aircraft and a transponder equipped aircraft where we are providing advisory in the future could become a problem for the company."

He went on to explain that this busy airspace will soon be equipped with both the Canadian Automated Air Traffic Control System (CAATS) and multi-lateration (a new technique for determining an aircraft’s location that does not depend on radar).

Both systems depend on transponder interrogation for information and the main benefit of multi-lateration is that it will permit Nav Canada to see targets much closer to the ground and in areas such as the Vancouver Harbour area that are presently masked from radar.

As stated by Nav Canada during the implementation of redesigned airspace in B.C., Nav Canada’s goal once multi-lateration is in operation is to provide service from the ground up for as much of this airspace as possible.

More specific to the "problem" cited by the senior manager, pilots of transponder equipped aircraft may expect an increased level of service, meaning separation from or being made aware of all aircraft in their vicinity. "Non-transponder aircraft wherever they are operating in this airspace and whenever operating outside of their designated areas (transiting) will present challenges. This could also include non-transponder equipped gliders transiting or operating outside of their known training areas."

Of course, a simple solution would be to require all aircraft to equip with a transponder to fly in any airspace served by multi-lateration.

The goal of service from the ground up is a significant issue for COPA and I stated this during the Vancouver airspace review. Even if all aircraft equip with transponders, time has proven that Nav Canada is not capable of providing consistent control service to VFR aircraft.

Staffing deficiencies that have plagued Nav Canada since its inception continue to this day and manifest themselves in denials of service or access to airspace. Service to VFR is usually the first to go when staff shortages occur.

Some other new technologies have been introduced with the goal of providing better service or to provide efficiencies and reduce staff. One example is the Extended Computer Display System (EXCDS), which resulted in the requirement for VFR pilots to call from the ground for a transponder code at least 30 minutes before entering some TCAs. This system is being installed across the country.

For the most part the system is working but it has caused access issues at some busy times and in certain circumstances.

I attend several meetings with Nav Canada each year, both as a member of the Nav Canada Advisory Committee and the Air Navigation System National Advisory Council, and much time is spent briefing industry representatives on the challenges and progress being made toward the goal of staffing to 105 per cent of the requirement for air traffic controllers (to allow for sickness, leave, course etc).

While they have achieved this goal in certain specialities and in some centres and control towers, in many key locations it remains an issue and manifests itself in restrictions such as occurred this summer for an extended period in the Winnipeg TCA.

I stated during the Vancouver airspace review and more recently to the senior manager that given the reality of ongoing staffing challenges, the airspace structure, whether in B.C. or when redesigning the current airspace and services under review spanning from Quebec City to Windsor or elsewhere, must be arranged to provide areas where VFR aircraft can operate without the need to contact NavCan.

There must be corridors and adjustments to floors of airspace so that these aircraft can be segregated from others being provided service so that non-equipped aircraft can continue to access smaller airports and transit the area regardless of staffing issues.

The manager responded that I was painting a negative picture and that from his perspective "the level of service is getting better for all and the facts appear to bear this out. In comparison with other ANS jurisdictions Nav Canada’s safety and service record is very good and definitely in the top decile."

He went on to say, "There is no doubt that staffing is a challenge in this business but there have been some significant improvements and the restrictions we were experiencing that were driven by staffing levels have dwindled to very few."

We agreed to disagree. While I agree that there have been some improvements, significant challenges remain. If Nav Canada intends to provide expanded service to some segments by using new technology to expand controlled or monitored airspace, they must realize that either this will come at a cost to those who cannot or will not equip, or Nav Canada will have to provide airspace for non-equipped aircraft to continue to have the freedom and access they deserve.

Your comments about the perceptions and realities of service levels are welcome. In particular I would like your feedback on whether or not service has improved. Provide some details if possible.

The best format for your input is an email to me kpsutka@copanational.org. If you have an issue with a specific service that you have or have not received from Nav Canada, it would also help to contact them using their feedback mechanisms service@navacanada.ca  or fax 1-877-663-6656 or phone 1-800-876-4693. If they do not hear about issues, they will assume that everything is going well.