Saying it is responding to “a shift in users’ preferences for automated services,” the FAA in August announced it will discontinue the so-called Flight Watch radio service, also known as En Route Flight Advisory Service, or EFAS, available nationwide on 122.0 MHz. Flight Watch will be discontinued about the time you read this, on September 24, 2015, although the frequency will be monitored for an additional six months, presumably to tell pilots trying to use it to do a better job of preflight planning.
The FAA says the change is designed to make Flight Service more efficient and reduce its cost, and that safety will not be compromised. “None of these changes will affect core flight service safety functions such as search and rescue, emergency services, Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) entry and dissemination, and pilot weather reports,” said Steven Villanueva, Deputy Director Flight Service, in the ATO’s System Operations Service Unit.
The Flight Watch function will be consolidated into routine services available via other in-flight frequencies “to eliminate unnecessary duplication of service and provide greater convenience for pilots.” Dedicated Flight Watch frequencies will be decommissioned, and airborne pilots will need to use published frequencies like 122.2 MHz to contact Flight Service.
Eliminating dedicated Flight Watch/EFAS frequencies perhaps was inevitable once the agency’s Flight Information System-Broadcast (FIS-B, a component of ADS-B) became operational. With an appropriate receiver, anyone can obtain ADS-B In, which includes FIS-B. In fact, the popularity of electronic flight bags—tablet computers running appropriate software and obtaining near-real-time data from ADS-B receivers—probably spelled the end of Flight Watch. And to many, it didn’t make much sense to staff a dedicated Flight Service position to handle the limited services available from Flight Watch: You could get an update on your destination’s weather but needed to call on a different frequency to file a flight plan.
Two other Flight Service-related changes are coming. First, the FAA wants pilots to know the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) flight plan form will be the only one to use as of October 1, 2015. The ICAO form replaces the old, familiar FAA domestic one in use for literally decades. The ICAO form long has been used for international flight plans, and a transition to it for domestic flights was begun in 2012, the FAA says. But now the FAA wants everyone to use the ICAO form, for both VFR and IFR operations, domestic or international.
According to the agency, using one form “will simplify the process and align U.S. flight plans within ICAO standards.” Again, recent trends in automating various flight planning processes—including flight plan filing—mean the form used is of little consequence once your machine starts talking to the FAA’s.
A final Flight Service-related change involves phasing out the Remote Airport Advisory Service. The FAA’s Airport Advisory Service (AAS) is a holdover from the days when there literally were hundreds of flight service stations throughout the country, most of them at airports. It’s perhaps best described as something between a full ATC tower and using Unicom at a non-towered facility, but operated by the flight service station.
With Flight Service’s consolidation over the last 30 years or so, the locations at which AAS was offered shrank along with it. Presently, there are 19 non-Alaska locations receiving AAS remotely, and that service will be discontinued on October 1, 2015. Sites in Alaska at which AAS/RAAS is provided will continue to have the service.
New Nall Report Out
Most years, the AOPA’s Air Safety Institute (AOPA-ASI) publishes something called the Nall Report. Dedicated to Joe Nall, an NTSB member who died as a passenger in a 1989 airplane accident in Caracas, Venezuela, while on official business, the 24th Joseph T. Nall Report is the result of AOPA-ASI’s research into GA accidents “during the most recent year for which reasonably complete data are available” (lack of 2011 activity data from the FAA is hampering accident statisticians, including AOPA-ASI).
The latest Nall Report finds that non-commercial airplane operations decreased four percent from 2010 to 2012. Meanwhile, the number of non-commercial accidents remained roughly the same, “resulting in increased accident rates on non-commercial flights,” according to the Report. Both non-fatal and fatal airplane accident rates “remained close to their minima over the preceding decade at 2.62 accidents and 0.27 fatal accidents per 100,000 hours,” the Report added.
The data from AOPA-ASI roughly jibes with that of the NTSB, which we summarized in this space last month. Basically, GA safety is getting slightly worse as the number of accidents remains steady but activity levels drop, resulting in slight increases in fatal and non-fatal accident rates.
ZDC Goes Down
An August 15, 2015, outage at the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZDC) was caused by an issue with a software upgrade to ERAM, the En Route Automation Modernization, a deployed portion of the FAA’s NextGen ATC system. The FAA had declared ERAM operational earlier in 2015.
According to the agency, “A new function in the latest ERAM software upgrade provided individual controllers with the ability to set up a customized window of frequently referenced data. This information was supposed to be completely removed from the system as controllers deleted it.
“However, as controllers adjusted their unique settings, those changes remained in memory until the storage limit was filled. This consumed processing power needed for the successful operation of the overall system.” It’s not known whether similar upgrades at other ARTCCs also failed, or if they were even installed.
The failure occurred on a Saturday, forcing several airlines to cancel flights as ATC compensated. In a Facebook post the next day, the FAA said, “Preliminary information from yesterday indicates 492 related delays and 476 cancellations.” The agency reduced arrival/departure rates at the airports served by ZDC for five hours. According to the FAA, average normal traffic was down 70 percent at KBWI, 72 percent at KDCA, and 88 percent at KIAD.