[Avionics Today 12-01-2014] Miami International Airport is a major hub for international flights between the United States and Latin America as well as islands in the Caribbean region. The unique positioning of Miami in the National Airspace System (NAS) leaves the region's Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs) responsible for managing flights between the Miami metroplex and airports in Cuba and Haiti, as well as nearby U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico. Air traffic in the region has significantly increased over the last five to six years, and the FAA is making sure its NextGen airspace modernization program is bringing needed changes to the area to accommodate for more traffic.
New Carrier Western Global Airlines launched international service at MIA earlier this year. Photo: Miami International Airport.
"Right now we have a couple of issues in Miami Oceanic airspace. One is that Miami Center works with five foreign facilities and the New York Center Oceanic Airspace. The only foreign facility that we are automated with is Cuba," Greg Harris, National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) lead for the Florida Metroplex told Avionics Magazine.
Harris, who has worked at the Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) for more than 19 years, said it can become complicated for controllers in the Miami region that have to help manage traffic at foreign facilities. The issues are not with language barriers or different management protocols, but rather that some of the facilities that Miami controllers interact with do not have radar and also are not equipped with the same technology that U.S. controllers use throughout the NAS to automatically exchange data about incoming flights. Instead, controllers are forced to call the facilities without radar and verbally communicate flight critical information.
"We are still required to call the following facilities to manually pass time and altitude information: Haiti, Dominican Republic, the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos islands," said Harris, adding that Haiti and the Turks and Caicos islands have no radar at all. "The facilities receive information regarding arrival aircraft entering their airspace; however the information they receive does not contain an altitude or time of arrival on each aircraft. Miami Center calls on each aircraft and provides an altitude and time that is approved or disapproved from the receiving facility."
Three years ago, the Havana, Cuba ARTCC implemented Automated Data Exchange (ADE), helping to relieve the responsibility of Miami controllers for flights entering Cuban airspace. During the International Civil Aviation Organization's (ICAO) North American, Central American and Caribbean working group meeting in March, officials discussed expanding ADE to the Santo Domingo ARTCC in the Dominican Republic.
An ICAO report on the transition to ADE showed that replacing voice communications with the automation leads to a workload reduction of 50 percent for Miami ARTCC controllers. According to ICAO, the switch to ADE also helps reduce read back errors, controller-to-controller coordination errors and can also increase controller support for Performance-Based Navigation (PBN) and other emerging avionics technologies that allow aircraft to land at airports more efficiently.
"The automated data exchange allows our computer to talk to their computer to pass flight plan information back and forth," Harris said, discussing the deployment and continued operation of ADE in Havana.
"Whereas prior to that we would have to get on the phone and call them when there would be aircraft that was going into their airspace to give them an estimate of the time that it’s going be at the boundary between the two of us and the altitude and then either we would have to confirm or they would have to confirm. Now, it’s very similar to what is throughout the NAS. Now, the information is just exchanged through the computer. It really helped us tremendously as far as time away from monitoring the scopes because now we don’t have to call Havana, it’s automatically done," Harris added.
Rising air traffic in the airspace shared between Miami, the Caribbean, Central America and South America is also a concern for the region. According to Harris, there has been a 3 to 4 percent increase in the amount of flights they handle for each of the past five years. Miami International Airport (MIA) has greatly increased in popularity for international operators during this time, too. In 2013, MIA reached the 40 million passenger mark for the first time in its 85-year history, setting a new record for passenger numbers for the fourth year in a row. Since 2010, annual passenger traffic at MIA increased more than 12 percent per year.
How is the region handling the increase? Through modernization under the FAA's NextGen program, according to Harris.
"We’ve had [Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast] ADS-B installed in a portion of the area, which came along in August of this year at Miami Center," said Harris. "Also [En Route Automation Modernization] ERAM, which is going into all the facilities around the country, we just had ERAM come on line in the middle part of this year so we’re now up on ERAM."
ERAM is a replacement of Host, the legacy computer system the agency uses at its Air Traffic Control (ATC) centers that manage high altitude traffic. The use of this, combined with ADS-B radar data, will allow Miami Center controllers to manage flights more efficiently, because both systems process flight data radar faster than the legacy technology.
Miami ARTCC is also part of the ongoing Florida Optimization of Airspace Procedures in a Metroplex (OAPM) NextGen initiative.
"Miami is actively participating in the Metroplex," said Harris. "Right now between all the facilities, which include Orlando, Tampa, Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale and Miami, there are approximately 90 to 95 procedures that we’re going to implement. Those will be PBN-related procedures."
Harris added that the progress of the Metroplex project was delayed due to the 2013 government shutdown, but that it is now "getting to the point where we're in the design phase and we're bringing everybody in to let them know what we’re doing administratively with this project and what we’re doing for the design phase and how we’re going to proceed. We’re just weighing out our whole plan for the Florida Metroplex."