Reason Foundation

Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #71

Air traffic growth, real-time black box data and GPS

Robert Poole
March 29, 2010

In this issue:

ATC Workload Growth Scaled Back in FAA Forecast

I attended and spoke at the FAA's annual Aerospace Forecast Conference earlier this month, and I've been poring over the FAA Aerospace Forecast, Fiscal Years 2010-2030 during the past week. While it includes lots of fascinating information, what I'm interested in for this newsletter is the implications for the air traffic control system.

In planning for NextGen implementation, the FAA and the inter-agency Joint Planning & Development Office (JPDO) generally use a 20-year planning period, and so does the FAA Forecast. So let's begin with a comparison of ATC activity levels for 2030 with the report's estimates for 2010. Tables 31, 32, and 33 provide relevant activity levels, by type of user, for towers, TRACONs, and Centers. Based on those tables, here are the ratios of flight operations for 2030 vs. 2010:


Air Taxi/Commuter

Gen. Aviation



Tower Ops.












Center IFR Aircraft






The implication of these figures is significant growth in ATC activity over the next 20 years, but not the doubling that was widely talked about as recently as several years ago for the 20-year period from 2005 to 2025. What FAA is now forecasting, overall, is even more modest growth than in its 2009 Forecast.

But I think we need to dig a bit further to get a more accurate picture of the 2030 ATC environment. The Forecast's tables also provide, for historical comparison purposes, the activity levels for 2000. So I calculated the same ratios as above, but now comparing 2030 with what we actually saw in the peak year 2000:


Air Taxi/Commuter

Gen. Aviation



Tower Ops.












Center IRF Aircraft






This gives us a somewhat different picture. In the aggregate, tower operations in 2030 will be essentially the same level as in 2000, TRACON operations 5% higher, and Center operations 39% higher. Airline operations in the system will grow by 30 to 70%, air taxi by 16 to 35%, while GA and military will actually decline in all categories compared with actual levels seen in 2000.

Needless to say, there are some caveats. First, these forecasts are derived from econometric models, and those models have baseline, pessimistic, and optimistic projections for the underlying economic factors from which the aviation activity projections are derived. The numbers in my tables are from the FAA's aviation activity tables produced using the baseline numbers. Second, these are aggregate numbers, which gloss over larger capacity growth in particular locations, such as the 35 major airports FAA designates as the OEP (Operational Evolution Partnership) airports. On p. 26 of the report you will see that 12 of these airports had 2009 activity levels higher than in the peak year 2000 and another five had 2009 activity between 90 and 100% of what it was in 2000. (On the other hand, three--Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Cincinnati-have shrunk to less than half their 2000 activity levels.)

What all this means for NextGen is not straightforward. In the near-term, it may suggest focusing implementation efforts on the towers and TRACONs that represent the largest bottlenecks in the system. On an aggregate basis, however, the largest growth will be in the en-route portion of the system, so medium-term priority should be on implementation there. I do think the overall gains in safety, fuel consumption, and delay-reduction still amply justify NextGen. The likelihood that we won't be doubling flight activity over the next 20 years should give us more breathing room than we thought would exist.

TRACON Consolidation: How to Decide?

Having followed many efforts by controllers' union NATCA to prevent ATC facility consolidations in recent years, I was somewhat heartened by the March 18th testimony of NATCA Executive VP Patricia Gilbert before the transportation, housing, and urban development subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. In discussing "facility closures and consolidations," Gilbert said the union is not opposed to all "realignment" efforts and had, in fact, collaborated with the FAA on creation of consolidated TRACONs in northern and southern California as well as in the DC metro area. But, she stressed, "Changes must be made only when the identified benefits outweigh the risks, and every effort has been made to minimize and mitigate those risks." And this, she said, can only come about via true collaboration between the FAA and NATCA.

Elsewhere in her testimony, Gilbert praised "a recent shift by the FAA away from the ad-hoc, unilateral approach to altering ATC facilities [and] services by vowing to adopt a more comprehensive and inclusive plan," but repeated that FAA must collaborate with NATCA "to ensure that changes are made only in cases where benefits outweigh the risks."

That cooperative approach is notably absent from the NATCA website, which is set up to mobilize opposition to the consolidation of TRACONs. It offers sample arguments against such changes, provides links to recent news articles and editorials where NATCA has stirred up opposition, and offers customizable letters to your Congress members and to your local newspaper, suggesting what you should say. You put in your zip code and it provides the addresses of your Senators and Congressman, and gives you a sample letter text that asserts "The FAA has an obligation to demonstrate that the proposal to remove the TRACON will provide an operational benefit, increase safety, increase system efficiency, or save money. Thus far, the agency has failed to demonstrate any benefits to their proposal at all." Remember, this is the pre-canned language-it assumes that this applies to whatever TRACON may be being proposed for consolidation!

The website itself offers several specific reasons to oppose consolidations:

·         Loss of local knowledge-alleging that local controllers' detailed knowledge of the nearby terrain "helps save countless lives every year" such as pointing out a highway on which a disabled plane can land.

·         Diminished service-alleging that post-consolidation, the local airports "often see a decrease in ATC attention."

·         Safety and efficiency-claiming that "FAA statistics show that large radar centers typically have over 63 percent more operational errors than combined tower/radar facilities" and that "realigned facilities typically cost more to operate than the current system."

Alas, no citations are given to permit anyone to see if these claims are supported by data. And I'm always suspicious when someone cites "countless" as a number-generally it means they have no countable figures to offer.

In most decisions about transportation infrastructure, when a significant change is proposed, good practice calls for a careful analysis of benefits and costs, and if the benefit/cost ratio is positive (or exceeds a defined threshold such as 1.5), the project generally goes forward. I was dismayed to note in Gilbert's testimony the comparison instead of benefits versus risks. That's a different standard, and judging by the website, it's intended to be. It says that TRACON consolidation "runs the grave risk of reducing the level of services provided to local airport users." If reduced service were part of the change (which has not been demonstrated), then that would be a cost that should be weighed against the benefits-not the factor that should decide the outcome.

Another interpretation of "risk" is safety degradation. Although Gilbert did not allege this in her testimony, this charge is made repeatedly by local NATCA people fighting facility consolidation (as well as by the local private pilots whom they stir up). And this gets to the heart of the unfortunate politicization of what in most civilized countries is a business-not a political-decision. In Canada or Britain, for example, when facilities are consolidated, the commercialized air navigation service provider (ANSP) makes the decision, in consultation with its customers and employees. If there are safety implications, the arm's length safety regulator in the national government reviews the change and can modify or prevent it, to ensure that safety is not degraded.

But in this country, because the FAA is both the safety regulator and the ANSP, it is not seen as an objective third party, as would be the case in Canada and Britain. Instead, it's an interested party. Therefore, what should be a decision on the merits of the case is often decided on a political basis, if NATCA is able to generate enough editorials and letters to Congress to provoke legislators to intervene.

NextGen is premised, in part, on large-scale facility consolidation. System Wide Information Management (SWIM) means aircraft can be controlled anywhere, from anywhere, in real time. Locating large numbers of air traffic managers in a much smaller number of high-tech facilities (instead of 191 Centers and TRACONs) will greatly increase the system's flexibility, both tactically (covering traffic peaks in different regions) and strategically (shifting resources to match changing airport hub activity over time). But this will only happen if we can de-politicize facility consolidation.

Federal Grants for Airline NextGen Equipage?

On Sunday, March 21st, the Washington Post editorialized in favor of NextGen but against federal aid for airlines to equip their planes with the on-board equipment needed to make full use of NextGen capabilities. The very next day, the Senate approved its version of the FAA reauthorization bill, including a last-minute provision that would offer equipage grants to airlines.

The case in favor of such grants goes as follows. NextGen is a whole new approach to keeping planes safely separated, and its design requires a greater fraction of equipment to be on board the planes than did the ground-based system using radars and VORs that we've been using since the 1950s. Since it's the FAA's job to provide the ATC system, it should be its job to provide both the ground-based portions (ADS-B antennas, ground-based augmentation systems for GPS-guided landings, etc.) and the airborne portions. And besides, this gear is all paid for out of aviation user taxes, so it's not as if we're talking about general taxpayer subsidies.

There are several big holes in this argument. First, since the very beginnings of ATC, planes have needed on-board equipment, beginning with radios and later including transponders, collision-avoidance systems, and flight management systems. NextGen may be a difference in amount, but it's not a difference in kind. Second, it's not clear that the funding for equipage grants would come out of Aviation Trust Fund monies; unless there's an increase in those user taxes, this new FAA budget item might come out of the federal general fund. Third, grants for airline equipage are inherently unfair, penalizing those (e.g., Southwest) that have already spent or committed significant sums of their own money to equipage. Fourth, if the feds are going to give equipage grants to airlines, why not to business jets? Why not to Piper Cubs?

As I've written before, the problem of coordinating investment by the ANSP and airspace users is inherent in a major revamp of the system such as NextGen. If the FAA's Air Traffic Organization were governed by a board of aviation stakeholders (as is the case with Nav Canada), that board would be the place to work out the phasing of on-ground and airborne system implementation. And that board would likely have an interest in working out financing (not funding) arrangements for those stakeholders who had near-term difficulties in coming up with the cash for the needed equipage. Instead, our politicized system will now create winners and losers, rather than a win-win approach.

Growing Interest in Real-Time Black Box Data

Last June, in the aftermath of the loss of Air France 447 with 228 people, I wrote about the idea, then just starting to be discussed, of live streaming of black-box type information from planes en-route. This would provide an alternative means of accident analysis in the event that the black boxes (cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder) could not be recovered. I made brief mention of a Canadian company, AeroMechanical Services, which said it had the technology to do this in hand.

Nine months later, this idea looks increasingly feasible. A March 3rd article in the New York Times reported that the French aviation accident agency and officials from 44 other European Countries are preparing to ask ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) to require commercial airliners to transmit basic flight information on a regular basis throughout each flight. The article also quoted communications company Inmarsat as supporting the idea.

I also located a more detailed article on AeroMechanical Services (The Globe and Mail, Nov. 3, 2009). It turns out the company already offers such a system, called Automated Flight Information Reporting System (AFIRS), which is in use on 180 airliners in service today. AFIRS takes subsets of the information that's being recorded on the black boxes and periodically compresses it and sends it out in databursts, via satellite, to an airline ground station. Matt Bradley, VP of Operations at the company, said that "With current bandwidth, [you have] almost all of the information you need to provide a decent post-flight analysis for an accident investigation."

AFIRS costs about $50K to install on an existing aircraft, but Bradley says it offers airlines a return on that investment in several ways. First, by monitoring fuel burn, it can identify ways of minimizing that costly expense. Second, if it identifies needed maintenance in advance, it can help the airline avoid costly unscheduled maintenance at inconvenient locations. Third, it can monitor exact push-back, take-off, landing, and gate-arrival times, enabling better overall airline operations. AeroMechanical already has type certifications for a number of Airbus and Boeing aircraft.

This sounded like an idea whose time had come when I first heard about it. This new information reinforces that view.

Best-Equipped/Best Served Starting Up in Canada

Last month I discussed the NextGen concept of "best-equipped/best-served" (BEBS) as an incentive for equipage with the on-board avionics needed for NextGen. In the last paragraph, I predicted that implementing BEBS would be easier for commercialized ANSPs than for the FAA's Air Traffic Organization. Only a week later, Aviation Daily reported that Nav Canada will put BEBS into operation on its routes over Hudson Bay this November-and later across the North Atlantic.

Nav Canada has deployed an ADS-B network in the Hudson Bay region, a huge 85,000 sq. km. area that has always lacked radar coverage. Because of that, this airspace traditionally has required "procedural" separation-about 80 miles in trail. With ADS-B equipped aircraft, the more precise position information permits 5-mile spacing, as long as all planes in that space are equipped. As of this month, about 70% of those flying the long transcontinental routes in that region are equipped, but only 50% have been certified by their national aviation authorities. Nav Canada expects that to increase to 80% by this fall. At that point, only those aircraft will be allowed to use the routes at fuel-efficient flight levels 350 to 400 (35,000 to 40,000 ft.). Others will have to fly lower or higher, with procedural separation.

Airlines using this airspace have powerful incentives to equip, since ADS-B information makes it feasible for Nav Canada controllers to grant requests for altitude changes to optimize fuel burn. Air Canada is an enthusiastic participant, with its 777s and A330s already equipped. However, it has decided not to equip its older 767s, apparently because they do not have enough useful life left to justify the investment.

Next steps for BEBS will be the North Atlantic, where Nav Canada is installing ADS-B for the northern oceanic tracks, with ground stations along its coastline and another in Greenland. It is discussing installation on offshore oil rigs off the coasts of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia to extend ADS-B to the southern oceanic tracks, as well. Longer term, the goal is to offer ADS-B based BEBS all the way across the Atlantic, which Nav Canada plans to do in cooperation with the Danish and UK ANSPs. The company is also running the numbers for the business case for extending ADS-B north of Hudson Bay into the Arctic.

The ADS-B progress, and BEBS, are getting rave reviews. IATA's Peter Cerda told Aviation Week that "They [Nav Canada] understand that airlines are a key stakeholder and customer, and they believe [modernization] needs to be done in a collaborative setting." At the ATC Global conference in Amsterdam, Nav Canada and Sensis Corp. received the Environmental Award for the Hudson Bay ADS-B project. Over the next seven years, it is expected to save airlines $195 million in fuel and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 547,000 metric tons.

GPS Vulnerability Still a Major Problem

Since the Coast Guard shut off LORAN on February 8th, the world has been without a functioning backup system for GPS. This is not just a problem for aviation; it's a huge problem for the military, for agriculture, construction, freight logistics, cell phone users, 911 emergency services, and individuals using GPS navigation systems. The only system that had been designated as the U.S. backup-eLORAN-is apparently in limbo, since it was going to be based at LORAN installations.

A recent article in the Financial Times (Feb. 23rd) reported U.K. concerns about the growing availability of low-cost GPS jamming devices, apparently available over the Internet for $150. A U.K. project called Gaardian brings together industry and academic researchers to figure out cost-effective backup approaches. And Popular Mechanics reported in February that the U.S. Air Force's Academy Center for Cyber Space Research (ACCSR) is working on GPS backup technologies, among them "pseudo satellites"-blimps and/or ground stations independent of GPS that could provide alternative signals.

For aviation specifically, backup capability can be provided via wide-area multilateration (WAM). Multilateration makes use of existing transponders and can replace existing secondary surveillance radars. If used without GPS timing (as is the case with the ASDE-X systems installed at larger airports), it can provide surveillance independent of ADS-B (which depends on GPS). Nationwide GPS backup would then require a nationwide network of multilateration stations, as proposed by Rick Castaldo and Julie Kriegsfeld in the Spring 2009 issue of The Journal of Air Traffic Control.

That could be the answer for U.S. aviation-but not necessarily for all the other GPS uses. I still think the Administration's decision to abandon eLORAN was a serious mistake.

News Notes

Feedback on ANSP Reserve Accounts

Last month's article about Nav Canada's Rate Stabilization Fund, which sets aside money in growth years to minimize the need for rate increases during recession years, brought this comment from the CEO of an overseas air navigation service provider: "[Rate stabilization funds] might be OK for cost-efficient ANSPs like Nav Canada and Airways New Zealand, but IATA and the airlines are violently opposed to it being used by (the vast majority of) cost-inefficient ANSPs."

Remote Tower Wins Award

During the annual ATC Global conference in Amsterdam earlier this month, Saab and LFV Group received an award from Jane's Information Group for their development and implementation of the technology enabling remote air traffic control. LFV is the ANSP for Sweden, and parent LFV Group operates 16 Swedish airports. The new system permits the control of traffic at several smaller airports from a single ATC center. The jury which decided on the award included people from CANSO, the FAA, ICAO, IATA, and Jane's Information Group. Also winning awards at ATC Global were Germany's ANSP Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS) for a cross-border arrival flow manager and South Africa's ATNS, which won the Enabling Technology Award for its Air Traffic Flow Management system.

Perspective on NextGen for Business Jet Pilots

The March issue of Professional Pilot carries my article "What Full-Blown NextGen Offers Us-and Why We May Not Get It." Publisher Murray Smith invited me to write this editorial opinion piece to foster discussion within general aviation on questions of ATC governance reform. It's not on their website yet, but you might check to see at:

French Controllers' Mystery Schedules

According to The Economist's Charlemagne columnist (March 6, 2010), French air traffic controllers are "said in a recent study by French state auditors to work fewer than 100 days a year-though nobody knows for sure, as their perks include shift patterns kept secret from senior management." As Dave Barry would say, "I'm not making this up."

Garvey Joins Metron Board

Metron Aviation announced earlier this month that former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey had joined its Board of Directors. The company also announced a partnership with George Mason University's School of Information Technology and Engineering, in Fairfax, Virginia.

Error re VORs

Several readers pointed out an error in last month's issue. In the article on ADS-B, I incorrectly referred to VORs as surveillance equipment, when they are, of course, navigation equipment.

Quotable Quotes

"Decision making authority over the FAA is divided, the authors persuasively argue, among too many cooks. Crucial decisions about technology, investment, operations, and facilities are made jointly by Congress, the administration, Department of Transportation leadership, and FAA management. A significant byproduct of this divided authority is that no one is ultimately responsible for getting things done, and no one is accountable when needed programs are not carried out. The result, the authors argue, has been a long history of programs that deliver less than was promised, that cost more than was promised, and that were implemented later than was promised, if at all."

--Kevin Neels, reviewing Managing the Skies by Clinton Oster and John Strong, Journal of the Transportation Research Forum, Fall 2009.

"The original Apollo project was mainly a race to prove the superiority of American capitalism over Soviet communism. Capitalism won-but at a cost of creating, in NASA, one of the largest bureaucracies in American history. If the United States is to return to the moon, it needs to do so in a way that is demonstrably superior to the first trip-for example, being led by business rather than government. Engaging in another government-driven spending battle, this time with the Chinese, will do nothing more than show that America has missed the point."

--"Moon Dreams," The Economist, Feb. 20, 2010.

Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy

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