Sunday, November 1, 2009

Flying Blind: Oman's Air Traffic Control system error

I fly a lot. So do many of you, I know.

Perhaps you might be interested in a recent report I received over a beer from a good contact in the US Military, who is sometimes passing through here. His news was confirmed with a nod and a wink by my contact in the relevant Ministry, so I thought I'd share. It's also doing the rounds of the regular aircrews by now too.

In early October, Oman's entire Air Traffic Control system, covering the whole damn country, went down for several hours, due to human error and sloppy procedures when operating the underlying IT system. The back-up system failed too. All the poor controllers had left were radio communications with the planes and basic radar, which just gives blips on the screen and no data like call sign, aircraft type or even airspeed - vital data for the way aircraft are controlled in our airspace.

In fact, it seems that for a while it's likely that Oman's air traffic controllers were basically 'flying blind', without even the basic radar.


Photo: Oman Air Traffic controllers have apparently had several near-misses this year, aka 'airprox events'

The event is being followed up by the appropriate authorities, of course, but because no aircraft actually crashed, and this being Oman, it's being hushed up somewhat. Afterall, it was all OK in the end. Yani!! Mafi mushkala!! (or perhaps Hakuna Mattata?)

International airlines have responded to the incident by unofficially suspending the ban on in-flight smoking while in Oman airspace. An unofficial spokeman for one airline, who declined to be named, said:

"We figured, what the hell. After all, it could be our last chance for a bloody cigarette, so everyone can now just go for it. The crew won't say anything until we're safely outside Omani airspace."

Now, joking aside, air traffic controllers - even ours - do train for such situations. And the planes themselves also have a basic Traffic alert and Collision Avoidance System or TCAS (thank's to the International Civil Aviation Organization, after a few mid-air collisions in the 70s and 80s).

And I have every confidence things will improve after lessons have been learnt...


I also see that there wasn't a report (yet) made to the Aviation Safety Reporting System (a voluntary international confidential near miss reporting website run by NASA) either. Tsk tsk.

One for the Muscat Daily to follow-up on? I'd love to read an official version of what happened...


  1. DG Civil Aviation- "OOOPS, my bad." If this is true, the worse matter with this incident is the 'cover-up'. I don't think the gov't needs to hang out all the 'dirty laundry' for everyone to see, but some sort of official annoucement is called for and the results of the investigation should be made public. Thanks Dragon for the revelation.

  2. Hello there

    I would like to say something here;

    Technical faults happen, though so rare. In fact, it could be less vital in a less crowded airspace like oman than those faults happen in an aeroplane.

    The person who was on the shift that day is a senior controller (name: C.M) from Australia.

    Expats in oman ATC represent not more than 10%. There is a controller from SA who grew up in japan and has american accent. He is brelliant.

    I would say that MCT controllers (I mean all including expats) are the best in the area. I am not exagerating if I say they are better than the Holly Dubai and I know what I am talking about.

    The system failed for 30 minutes. Mr. C.M was panicing when the shit-hit-the-fan. He started calling Bombay control telling them about the situation. Well, wrong, where was your priorities mr C.M? The experienced westerned controller should have controlled close proximity traffic around the area instead.

    In basic words, he did not apply the contingency plan which is part of the SOP if you know what I'm saying.

    The result was 3 airmisses. And the problem was fully resolved 2 hours later under basic radar as you mentioned.

    I do agree that the the Government is slow in many thing, howebver, they do not have to write this up in newspaper. It is not necessary. Only when a crash occurs (God forbeds) then authorities are involved.

    Bottom line, the next action is that the DGCA is bringing a new back up system (Good move). And, I heard that they are not going to send mr. CM back home due to lack of competency (excellent move)..

    Mafi Mushkillah so far in OMAN AIRSPACE. It is only callsigns like whisper, reach (US) who think that own the airspace. They are the conflicting traffic with commercial transporters.

    By the way I like your blog and regularly visit.....

    Cheers and thumb up.....


  3. Nice post, a return to former glories perhaps?

    Kind of alarming that there was no ATC coverage for a while back there - I understand it's actually quite easy to fly into other planes in the air. Just imagine what would be happening if there was an accident?

    I guess the response from the authorities is spot on though, out with the old, in with the new (in terms of hardware).

    Presumably this "C.M." informed their hand-off controllers in other zones of the situation because they can then stack and rack or whatever the correct term is, in their airspace, whille the problems are resolved.

    And as for Muscat Daily? I've not really read much hard-hitting journalism in that paper yet. And if they do carry the story, I wonder if they'll give you credit for breaking it? I suspect not.

  4. Migrating Bird- Thank you so much for the information. Right after the Law of Gravity, Murphy's Law is the most reliable law in the universe. "If something can go wrong, it will go wrong." Yes "technical faults happen." Thats why we have back-up systems, competent personnel in critical jobs, clear emergency procedures, and proper training. ALL of these seemed to be lacking in this incident. All of us who fly in Omani airspace are owed an explanation of what happened and what will be done to insure it won't happen again.

  5. How often would we expect a similar incident to happen for example at Heathrow?

  6. HEY UD...please don't use Jet Star plane image!!
    This is owned and run by Qantas - one of, if not the worlds safest airline..

    very un-Australian of you. ;-)

  7. Migrating Bird,

    Many thanks for the comprehensive comment.

    Exactly. As with all such things, its the cover up that is usually the real story.

    Farmer Joe
    Apologies to our Aussie readers, Qantas does have a great safety record. It was for illustrative purposes only. But no matter how safe the airline or the plane and its crew, if they are directed into the path of another plane by ATC, they're toast...

    Has anyone seen 'Pushing Tin' starring John Cuzack?

  8. Hi there I don't think we should make a big issue
    out of this failure because it could happen any where in the world we are talking about equipment and softwares here, according to my knowledge this 2 hrs failure hasn't happen in Oman for at least the past 10 yrs (it's not an every day case)

  9. "we are talking about equipment and softwares here"

    No we're not.....this was by all accounts a PEOPLE problem, was it not?

  10. 1)if you are talking about human error i am with you but Omani technicians aren't exempted (most important thing they've to learn through)
    Similar problem happen in Melbourne and Ireland according to our radar sys manufacture company.

    2)if you talking about covering up ,every country has own policies( I've never came across of air miss happen in States or N. Zealand !
    and as a passenger you have no right to question
    the country of what happen that day ,you can only ask the airline you have traveled with .
    Sure they'll have an answer if they have filled a report.

  11. "and as a passenger you have no right to question
    the country of what happen that day ,you can only ask the airline you have traveled with ."

    ......I'm speechless now. Utterly speechless.
    As a passenger, I have every right in the world to question the country that I flew over when that country or a representative of that country puts my safety in jeopardy as a result if its actions.

    Do you honestly think that an attitude like that is going to help your tourism driver?
    "Come here and spend your money at our beautiful hotels....but how we handle your flight is none of your business - go ask your airline about it!"


  12. you had a contract with the airline (the ticket ) to take you to your destination safely so you can question them, in the other hand the airline has a contract with appropriate authority to provide them the best service when overflying their airspace so if it wasn't provided then the airline has all the right to question that authority.

  13. Muscat ATC SSK

    Look. Let me clarify. That an individual ATC sometimes makes errors that might result in a near miss, or potential near miss, that's life. It happens, I'm sure, everywhere. Individual ATCs have a famously difficult and stressful job. And Pilots often don't do what they are told either. [But I would expect that such errors are quickly detected and lessons learnt, at least within ATC].

    But we're talking about the whole Muscat ATC System. Such a system would resonably be expected to be robust by design and operation.

    So, when the senior engineer is not (apparently) sufficiently qualified to perform as required, that's a problem. When said engineer demonstrates that inability by enabling the whole system to be shut down for over 2 hours, and remains in his job, that's a bigger problem.

    When the whole Muscat ATC system has zero physical redundancy to unexpected failure of the radar, or the computer systems (fire/flood), and the result would be no ATC system for weeks, that's a problem.

    When something goes wrong (as it did in October) and SOPs for that situation are not followed by senior controllers, that's a problem.

    When an external expert consultancy identifies a whole load of problems with the ATC system, but the report is then kept secret and not actioned just because it makes people look bad, that's a problem.

    The end result of the above was that our entire system went down, reportedly leaving ATC totally blind for around 30 mins and effectively blind for a further 2 hours. In the process there were several near misses, and SOPs not followed.

    But it seems the focus is on covering it up, and hoping it doesn't happen again, rather than really identifying and facing up to fixing the core problems. As someone who flys a lot in Oman airspace, that's a problem...

  14. Off-topic, but I'm condemning them anyway. I'm supposed to be flying now, but when I went to the airport at 9:30 am they told me that my flight takes off at 7:10 pm. I'm so angry!! This kind of problem happened twice to me.. I don't know what's wrong with them!!

  15. i think your problem has to do with the airline you are travelling with they should call every passenger to notify them about the delay


If you wish to post anonymously, please pick a nickname by selecting the Name/URL option, or at least sign off your comment with one! I will delete comments I find objectionable or needlessly inflammatory. Sorry for the word verification.... OMG the spam has gotten BAD these past 12 months... trying to avoid making one log in...