The CNS-ATM System

STREETLIFE - Nigel Paul Villarete - The Freeman

The Philippines’ January 1 aviation fiasco was one for the books. It left a dark mark on our aviation history and the economic losses, estimated to the hundreds of millions, or maybe even billions, of pesos, is not anything to laugh at or to be proud of. The government must exert all extreme efforts for it not to be ever repeated again. It shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

At the heart of the after-tale discussion is a system called CNS-ATM (Communications, Navigation, Surveillance – Air Traffic Management) system. The words are self-explanatory, albeit technical in nature – “communications” for how aircraft communicate with each other and the ground stations, “navigation” for how they move and are steered from origin to their destination, “surveillance” for how they are properly tracked so that they reach their destination and don’t collide with each other in the air. Air traffic management is self-explanatory, of course.

The first explanation which officially came seems to point out a deficiency of the CNS-ATM. In fact, what immediately was asked was a ?13-billion budget for its upgrading. People would immediately suspect it was the system’s fault, that’s why upgrades are needed. Subsequent explanations slowly deviated from this and pointed to causes outside of the system. But the harm has been done, a lot of people I know are convinced the CNS-ATM system is faulty and caused the fiasco.

In fact, there was, and is, nothing wrong with CNS-ATM. Since the 1990’s, the entire aviation sector has been embracing it and looked at it as the future of air navigation, agreed by most countries and embraced by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) through ICAO Document 9750. Most countries have already installed, or are in the process of installing, such related systems all over the world. The Philippines is fortunate to have gotten the assistance of JICA and acquired the CNS-ATM from Thales, which also provided the same to other countries such as Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, French Polynesia, Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, among others. We’re in good company, and our own CNS-ATM system, albeit slightly delayed, is operating perfectly and robustly.

It only came out around two or so days later, on what most probably has happened. Until they release the official explanation, we will always wonder what the truth is. But one thing is sure; it was not the CNS-ATM’s fault. It was something with the electrical system powering it, possibly the Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) or its standby battery, or a circuit breaker connected to it. Just as most of our computers may work perfectly even when brownout happens, they will also be turned off if the UPS fails. Our CNS-ATM did not fail, it was working properly, excellently in fact. But nothing beats a faulty electrical supply. The question is why did it happen?

The CNS-ATM is fail-safe! It has multiple redundancies which always perfectly ensures it won’t fail and will continue to operate, save for global disruptions like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, or nuclear wars. CNS-ATMs all over the world don’t fail. Ours didn’t also, but our agencies’ ability to provide continuous power did. Why?

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