Systems interface cited in air traffic ‘near misses'

IT systems failures spark visions of downtime and server disruption. But what about when an IT system fails to provide critical information in a digestible fashion?

This is believed to be why aeroplane "near misses" over Alice Springs and Northern NSW occurred, according to an air traffic controllers' union source.

"The two aircraft were flying in opposite directions at the same level over Alice Springs - the situation was averted by airborne warning systems on the planes telling the pilots to change levels," the source told Computerworld.

He described the situation as "potentially dangerous" and added the reason the controller had the aircraft on the same level is still under investigation.

Although the source discounted concerns the near misses were a result of improper or inadequate training on The Australian Advanced Air Traffic System (TAAATS), he admitted the incident stemmed from "HMI [human machine interface] issues".

That is, the interpretation of information in TAATS presented via computer to air traffic controllers is leading to human errors.

However, spokesperson for Airservices Australia Richard Dudley dismissed this as "pure speculation".

"These incidents are under investigation by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which will examine a number of issues ranging from training to malfunctioning equipment and pilot error," Dudley said.

Whatever the cause, these incidents stem from being at the "bleeding edge" of technology, as Australia is a leading country in tracking aircraft electronically. Elsewhere, flight progress usually involves paper-based methods, the union source said. However, being at the forefront technologically gives rise to teething problems - in this case ergonomic factors in presenting information.

"It isn't an IT systems failure in the sense that air traffic control was operating under normal control," the union source explained.

Meanwhile the latest incident to hit headlines was a power failure at Sydney airport's control system that left air traffic controllers blind for 10 minutes during a routine maintenance check. Backup measures such as uninterruptible power supply (UPS) and battery support failed. Power was quickly restored, but the IT system took 10 minutes to "reboot".

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