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Protecting the Control Tower: FAA ATO Pandemic Influenza Preparations

This article is a part of the “Are We Prepared? Planning for Pandemics and Natural Disasters” special section in the Aug/Sep 2010 print issue of PA TIMES.

Jonathan L. Katz

What can agencies do to protect their mission, operations and stakeholders against pandemic influenza? One answer can be found in the preparations of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Air Traffic Organization (ATO) in the United States Department of Transportation against the impact of H1N1 virus (also called Swine Flu). This article discusses ATO efforts to prepare for the impact of a potentially severe pandemic influenza on the operations of the National Airspace System (NAS), which is a part of the critical national infrastructure. The FAA is a federal regulator that both oversees and provides services to the NAS.

A pandemic is an epidemic of infectious disease that spreads through human populations across a large region, a continent, or even worldwide. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a pandemic can start under three conditions: emergence of a disease new to a population; agents infect humans, causing serious illness; and agents spread easily and sustainably among humans.

In April 2009, locations in Mexico and the United States began reporting the appearance of H1N1. H1N1 became a pandemic in most countries, contributing to deaths in high risk groups such as individuals with chronic illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and WHO grew concerned that H1N1 could mutate into a deadly strain. If that happened, the morbidity and mortality rates could jump.

The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic is the worst known severe pandemic, resulting in an estimated 500,000 U.S. deaths and upwards of 50 million worldwide. (Severity is defined as a Case Fatality Rate greater than 2 percent, i.e., CDC Pandemic Severity Index level 5.) However, while all recent flu pandemics resulted in greater morbidity and mortality than the regular seasonal flu, none approached the levels of the Spanish Flu. Scientists did not know if H1N1 would result in a severe pandemic, but believed that future pandemics were inevitable and could be severe.

The FAA had considered possible impacts from pandemic influenza since 2005, after public health alarms sounded on the spread of H5N1 (Avian Flu). Then, the FAA responded by issuing the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza. The spread of H1N1 spurred review of plans and preparations.

The June 2009 U.S. Government Accountability Office report, “Influenza Pandemic: Increased Agency Accountability Could Help Protect Federal Employees Serving the Public in the Event of a Pandemic” noted that like many other federal facilities, air traffic management facilities had not developed facility pandemic plans or incorporated pandemic plans into their all-hazards contingency plans.

A severe pandemic influenza could degrade the operations of the NAS. If the morbidity and mortality associated with H1N1 became severe, agencies like the FAA, whose workers were critical to the national infrastructure, needed to take steps to ensure readiness to deal with the potential impacts. The FAA therefore moved to protect workers and workplaces, for example establishing an internal website providing managers and employees with information, guidance, tools, and resource links regarding pandemic influenza. Previous planning identified air traffic control specialists, flight technicians, aviation safety inspectors, and other personnel as critical workers. The ATO worked on ways to assure they could continue to carry out their critical functions.

In the context of FAA strategic planning, the ATO’s strategic goals were to make preparations required to sustain ATO services in the event of a severe pandemic influenza, contribute to the FAA and the national strategy for the pandemic influenza containment effort, and protect the workforce. The ATO based its effort to prepare for an influenza pandemic on five broad strategic approaches.

  • First, ATO leveraged and expanded the application of its robust, pre-existing suite of business continuity and crisis response tools such as lines of succession, delegations of authorities, calling trees, etc. established in accordance with existing guidance on emergency operations and operational contingency plans.
  • Second, ATO coordinated with internal and external stakeholders to develop strategies to use existing Air Traffic Flow Management (ATFM) capabilities to mitigate the reduction or outright loss of air navigation services provided by facilities impacted by pandemic influenza. This effort built on ongoing, daily coordination with the customers (e.g., airlines, general aviation, and the military) to harmonize ATO and customer plans to counter the threat, enabling aviation system stakeholders to limit the impact of pandemic influenza on the aviation system.
  • Third, ATO worked with internal and external stakeholders to strengthen its pre-existing abilities to devolve the provision of essential services from severely affected facilities to less affected facilities. This effort to improve ATO devolution capabilities included both its operational air traffic services and other facilities, and supporting elements such as Acquisition and Business Services’ offices at FAA headquarters.
  • Fourth, ATO continued to work with other FAA organizations such as the Security and Hazardous Materials (ASH) and Human Resource Management (AHR) to rapidly develop and implement protective measures, including a broad spectrum of tools such as telecommuting, hygiene education and training, reinforced cleaning services and personal hygiene supplies (e.g., hand sanitizers), and personal protective equipment such as face masks and gloves. Further, the ATO explored innovative ways to procedurally enable more social distancing through use of virtual collaboration tools; altered work procedures that de-emphasize the need for onsite or face-to-face work, etc.
  • Fifth, ATO continued and deepened its review of its essential services to determine the functions which, if necessary, could be limited, delayed, or suspended, without unacceptable impacts to the provision of air navigation services.

Both as a lead and a participating organization, the ATO pursued a broad range of preparedness actions, such as:

  • Continued efforts to validate lines of succession, delegations of authority, emergency communications, protection of vital data, and other Continuity of Operations (COOP) provisions.
  • Expanded the application of COOP provisions from staff offices at FAA headquarters to service area offices and, to the extent appropriate, other field elements.
  • • Continued close cooperation with other FAA organizations through a Crisis Response Working Group to strengthen plans to prepare for, respond to, and recover from a pandemic influenza. This included developing strategies to acquire antiviral and other prophylaxis measures.
  • Explored ways to strengthen ability to devolve critical functions from critically affected offices and facilities to other locations that could still maintain adequate staffing levels.
  • Mitigated the impact of a pandemic influenza on the NAS and aviation operations.
  • Continued existing protocols and implemented new efforts to combat the pandemic and protect the workforce.
  • Provided guidance to managers and supervisors on preparing for a pandemic influenza.
  • Worked with the International Civil Aviation Organization to update and align procedures on aircraft illness or death reporting.
  • Worked with other government agencies to update and implement common Concept of Operations (CONOPS) to enhance shared situational awareness and ensure that aviation operations on this matter were well-coordinated, mutually supportive, and rapidly and effectively implemented.
  • Acquired and distributed H1N1 vaccine for voluntary administration to personnel.

The impact of the 2009-2010 H1N1 pandemic influenza on the United States, the FAA and the ATO proved mild to moderate. However, ATO strategic preparations and activities against H1N1 enabled the ATO to take actions and make plans that may be applicable to the appearance of the next severe pandemic influenza. Such preparations must account for a plethora of ever-changing factors, risks and possible scenarios. The ATO will build on past efforts at pandemic influenza preparedness to respond as circumstances change, new issues emerge and new needs arise.

ASPA memberJonathan L. Katz is a technical program management specialist in the Enterprise Systems Business Unit of TASC, Inc. Email: [email protected]

Disclaimer: The views in this article are solely those of the author and are not attributable to TASC, Inc., or any of its clients.

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