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A Boeing 747-48HE registered VH-OEB (OEB) was en-route from Los Angeles, USA to Auckland, New Zealand was maintaining flight level (FL) 330 as assigned by Tahiti air traffic control (ATC). A Boeing 747-4H6 registered VH-OED (OED) was en route from Auckland to Los Angeles and was also maintaining FL330. The crew of OEB reported that they observed, on their traffic alert and collision avoidance system (TCAS), another aircraft that was on a reciprocal track at the same level (OED). The crew of OEB turned their aircraft right 15 degrees and descended to FL325. The crew of OED later reported that they observed, on their TCAS, another aircraft that was on a reciprocal track at the same level (OEB), and climbed their aircraft to FL333. A third aircraft, a Boeing 747, was en-route from Los Angeles to Auckland at FL340. The crew of OED also observed an indication of that aircraft on their TCAS.

The vertical separation standard was 1,000 ft. The vertical distance between OED and OEB reduced to 800 ft, and to 700 ft between OED and the third aircraft. There was an infringement of separation standards.

The crews of OEB and OED were communicating with Tahiti ATC via both Controller-Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) and high frequency (HF) radio. CPDLC was a 'means of communications between a controller and pilot using data link for [Air Traffic Control] communication' (ICAO Doc 4444 ATM/501 14.1.1). Messages were compiled and initiated either by the crew of the aircraft or by ATC and were, in this case, pre-formatted. The use of pre-formatted messages was 'intended to reduce the possibility of misinterpretation and ambiguity' (ICAO Doc 4444 ATM/501 14.3.4).

The crew of OEB had requested climb from FL320 to FL340 but that request was denied. About ten minutes later the crew of OED requested climb from FL330 to FL350. Tahiti ATC asked the crew of OED, via CPDLC, when they could reach FL350 and then denied the request for climb. The French Bureau d'Enquetes et d' Analyses pour la Securite de l'Aviation Civile (BEA) produced a report on the occurrence. The BEA reported that the crew of OED then contacted Tahiti ATC via HF radio and advised that they could reach FL350 by time 1140 universal coordinated time. The controller responded via HF radio and instructed the crew of OED to maintain FL330. The crew of OEB then requested, via CPDLC, climb to FL330. The CPDLC response provided to the crew of OEB was 'climb to and maintain FL330 due to traffic' even though FL330 was not available. The message was selected by the controller from the menu of pre-formatted messages available in the system.

The South Pacific Operations Manual (SPOM Part 5.5) stated that 'when a clearance request is denied, the controller shall use the element "UNABLE" in the uplink message'. The SPOM detailed the procedures and requirements applicable in the South Pacific flight information regions (FIRs) for CPDLC equipped aircraft and applied within the Tahiti FIR. The SPOM (Part 5.1) also stated that `generally, when a CPDLC aircraft is operating within a CPDLC FIR, CPDLC will be the primary means of communication'.

Subsequent to the occurrence OEB returned to FL320 and OED returned to FL330. The crews then reported to Tahiti ATC at those respective levels. The controller had not intended to assign FL330 to the crew of OEB and did not realise that they had been assigned FL330, or that they had climbed to FL330 and subsequently returned to FL320. When the crews reported at FL330 and FL320 respectively, after the occurrence, that information was consistent with the information the controller had recorded on the flight progress strips. The controller was not aware that there had been an infringement of separation standards.

The BEA reported that the controller believed there were possibly two reasons why a climb instruction had unintentionally been assigned to the crew of OEB:

1. In reply to the request by OEB for climb to FL330, the controller pre-selected the wrong pre-formatted CPDLC message and sent the message without checking it, or

2. The controller confused the two aircraft because of their similar callsigns.

The BEA reported that four controllers had been rostered for the period between 1900 hours and 0700 hours (Papeete local time) and were rostered to cover the aerodrome control position, the approach control position and the area control position. The event occurred at 0050 Papeete local time. The controller involved in the occurrence was alone in the tower at the time of the occurrence and was performing all three functions. That controller considered that the workload was high due to poor quality HF radio, increased coordination with other centres in relation to aircraft using 'flexible routes' and difficulty validating CPDLC messages with OED.

The controllers at Tahiti had been trained in France but that training had not included the use of CPDLC. Initial training on the use of CPDLC was incorporated into a one-week training program in Papeete that included CPDLC with other local training requirements. Ongoing CPDLC training was incorporated into on-the-job training which could take controllers around 57 weeks to complete. Controllers reported that the initial training was essential but they had not been exposed to the system sufficiently during training to master all aspects of the system.

The controller involved in the occurrence had been working Tahiti Oceanic Controlled Airspace for approximately three and a half years and was qualified on the three ATC positions being managed at the time of the occurrence.

 

The negative response `UNABLE' from the controller to the crew's request for a higher level, in accordance with the SPOM, would have reduced the possibility of error in the pre-formatted CPDLC message selected by the controller for transmission to the crew of OEB.

The use of HF radio and CPDLC combined with a high controller workload and similar radiotelephony callsigns of the two aircraft involved in the communications exchanges possibly contributed to the confusion to which the controller referred and may have resulted in the transmission of the incorrect CPDLC message.

When an individual controller combines a number of positions, diverse scenarios and increasing workloads can quickly distract controllers. Controllers and supervisors need to be vigilant so that ATC positions can be separated to facilitate effective workload management.

The monitoring of TCAS and high situational awareness by all the crews involved proved to be an effective defence for the aviation system.

 

The controller issued an incorrect climb instruction.

 
General details
Date: 31 January 2002 Investigation status: Completed 
Time: 1151 hours UTC Investigation type: Occurrence Investigation 
Location   (show map):111 km NNE PUMIS, (IFR) Occurrence type:Loss of separation 
State: International Occurrence class: Airspace 
Release date: 23 January 2003 Occurrence category: Incident 
Report status: Final Highest injury level: None 
 
Aircraft 1 details
Aircraft manufacturer: The Boeing Company 
Aircraft model: 747 
Aircraft registration: VH-OED 
Serial number: 25126 
Type of operation: Air Transport High Capacity 
Damage to aircraft: Nil 
Departure point:Auckland, NEW ZEALAND
Destination:Los Angeles, U.S.A.
Aircraft 2 details
Aircraft manufacturer: The Boeing Company 
Aircraft model: 747 
Aircraft registration: VH-OEB 
Serial number: 25778 
Type of operation: Air Transport High Capacity 
Damage to aircraft: Nil 
Departure point:Los Angeles, U.S.A.
Destination:Auckland, NEW ZEALAND
Aircraft 3 details
Aircraft manufacturer: The Boeing Company 
Aircraft model: 747 
Aircraft registration: ZK-SUJ 
Type of operation: Air Transport High Capacity 
Damage to aircraft: Nil 
Departure point:Los Angeles, U.S.A.
Destination:Auckland, NEW ZEALAND
 
 
 
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Last update 13 May 2014