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New technology provides clear landing for ASU Polytechnic students

installation of simulation station

Brian Donnelly of Advanced Technologies Operational Management Systems puts the final touches on the installation of a new simulation station at ASU's Polytechnic campus on Aug. 18.

August 18, 2015

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ASU’s Polytechnic campus is known for its cutting-edge technology. On Tuesday workers were installing a piece of machinery that’s so advanced even the feds in Washington aren’t ready for it.

It’s an air-traffic-control simulation station that could update a system that hasn’t changed since Jimmy Carter occupied the White House. And if everything works, it will make travel much safer and ease the stress of air-traffic controllers.

“It’s so cutting-edge that it’s bleeding edge,” said Mary Niemczyk, chair of ASU’s Aviation Programs at the Polytechnic campus. “And we’re the only university that has it.”

Brian Donnelly of Advanced Technologies Operational Management Systems (ATOMS), based in Mays Landing, New Jersey, was overseeing the final installation of the eight stations on Tuesday. They will include NextGen software, an air-traffic-control system that aims to revolutionize the industry.

Donnelly said once students complete the Air Traffic Management undergraduate degree program at Poly, they’ll be well prepared to enter a specialized field in aviation.

“This software has been aligned to meet the needs of what ASU wants and what the Federal Aviation Administration requires,” Donnelly said. “Once they complete this program, this will allow a student to be ready for the FAA.”

Donnelly added that industry technology has not been changed since the 1970s and many air-traffic controllers still work with pen and paper, specifically using a Flight Progress Strip as a quick way to annotate an “operation.” The limitations with these strips, he said, are that controllers often have to keep their heads down and focus on checking off information rather than visually scanning the airfield for potential hazards.

“I’ve seen so many close calls in my career all because the controller’s head was down during an operation, checking off the information on the strip,” said Donnelly, a former FAA controller.

Ironically, Phoenix’s Sky Harbor is the only major airport in the country that doesn’t use the strips, which are costly. On the average, more than 4,000 strips are consumed daily at major airports, at a cost of approximately $150,000 a year per airport, Donnelly said.

“If the FAA upgraded their systems, it would pay for itself in just a few years in strip costs alone,” Donnelly said. “But there are too many layers with the FAA to get it done and too many companies who want a piece of the pie. All we want to do is make it better for flight controllers.”

Donnelly declined to share the cost of the new simulators.

According to Steven Daniel-Hamberg, a student worker who graduated with ASU’s Air Traffic Management Program last December, flight controllers have it pretty good. The median salary for an air-traffic controller is approximately $113,500 a year with mandatory retirement at 56 and an excellent pension package and upgraded Social Security supplements. However, competition for jobs is fierce. Daniel-Hamberg said last year approximately 28,000 people applied for 1,200 open jobs. He is one of the 28,000 hopefuls awaiting word from the FAA.

“I want someplace busy like Chicago or Atlanta,” he said. “I enjoy a good challenge and want to be busy.”

While Donnelly expects the FAA will continue to drag its feet for a few more years, ASU has decided to move forward. It is currently the only university that will train students on these simulators, which will commence in spring 2016 after instructors become familiar with the software and its capabilities.

The program should help ASU’s future air-traffic controllers be ready for a competitive field – whether they’re using NextGen or strips of paper.