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Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #98

Space-based ADS-B and the FAA ATC billing systems, continued Progress on wake turbulence separation standards Lessons from “zombie towers” Remote towers at large airports

Robert Poole
December 5, 2012

In this issue:

Alerting Pilots to Runway Incursions

Last month, the Wall Street Journal’s Scott McCartney wrote an excellent piece on how Boston’s Logan Airport developed a way to reduce conflicts between ground vehicles and aircraft. With the consent of, and partial funding from, the FAA, they procured transponders for all ground vehicles so they can be tracked by the ASDE-X surface-detection system that is operational at Logan (and 34 other large U.S. airports). With ASDE-X, a potential conflict (such as the near-collision there several years ago between a 737 on its take-off roll and a maintenance truck) shows up on the controller’s display screen, after which the controller alerts the pilot by voice radio. The new system at Logan provides much better tracking of all ground vehicles. Way down at the end of the article was a paragraph noting that “Drivers [of ground vehicles] get a copy of the [ASDE-X] display on iPads mounted in their vehicles.” My immediate reaction to that was: Why not the pilots?

That reminded me of a test of direct pilot alerting that was carried out back in August 2007 at Syracuse’s Hancock Airport (and which I wrote about in Issue No. 49, January 2008). Sensis and Honeywell had developed a simple modification that would provide a voice warning to pilots, derived from ASDE-X data on an impending runway incursion. Aviation Week wrote about it at the time, noting that in an impending collision situation, fractions of a second count, and hence the time lag between a controller seeing the problem on a display screen, and getting on the radio to tell the pilot about it, could be decisive. Yet this sensible solution seemed to disappear without a trace.

So I did some digging to learn more about the 2007 demonstration and what happened later. One of my readers sent me a link to a video of the demo, which I watched twice. It involved a King Air and a Sabreliner and tested two scenarios. In the first, both aircraft were on the ground, and the problem was that they were on a potential collision course. The system provided repeated “converging traffic” voice warnings to both pilots. The second scenario involved one plane on the runway while the other was on final approach to that runway. Here the system provided repeated “runway occupied” voice warnings to the approaching pilot.

I talked with several of those who had been involved with the test (which was witnessed, they told me, by Acting FAA Administrator Bobby Sturgell). Providing for this voice warning was pretty simple. Honeywell made a software modification to the planes’ TCAS (the airborne collision warning system that has been required equipment for decades) that involved “10 or 20 lines of code.” It used the existing TCAS datalink and voice annunciator to send the ASDE-X alert. When I asked why this very simple change had not been implemented by FAA at all 35 ASDE-X airports, I was told that any change to TCAS needs a lot of testing, an understandable point given that system’s critical role in preventing mid-air collisions.

Probing deeper, I was told by one source that FAA preferred to focus on implementing runway status lights (RSLs) at these airports—basically a system of traffic lights to tell taxiing pilots where they must not go, based on ASDE-X information. But installing RSLs at all 35 ASDE-X airports has been a slow process. They have been installed thus far at only 10 airports, and just five of these have progressed to acceptance testing. The first one expected to be declared operational is Orlando, whose target date is next month. That is five and a half years after the successful demonstration in Syracuse, during which time direct pilot alerting has been unavailable at any airport. One would hope that testing two dozen lines of new code in TCAS would have taken less than five years!

One other comment from these interviews is worth passing along. “ADS-B has frozen us in time,” this person said. It is holding up near-term improvements—including such safety improvements as direct pilot alerting—for better things to be realized from ADS-B “someday.” Innovations like that demonstrated at Syracuse “are seen as a threat to the big program.” I hope that’s not true, but this case cries out for an explanation. Especially now that truck drivers at Logan have visual displays of impending incursions. Surely pilots deserve at least immediate voice warnings.

Runway incursions are still high on the National Transportation Safety Board’s list of aviation safety problems. Perhaps NTSB should take another look at direct pilot alerting.

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Civil/Military Airspace Cooperation

Several decades ago, when I first started researching possible commercialization of the U.S. air traffic control system, various parties warned me that the military would likely be a serious opponent. Initially I saw that as a big question mark, since there were not any real self-supporting ANSPs in those days. But as these entities began emerging, starting with Airways New Zealand in 1987, I was pleasantly surprised to see civil/military cooperation in ATC developing almost as a matter of course (starting with New Zealand).

For nearly 15 years now, the Air Traffic Control Association has been organizing biennial Civil/Military Aviation Conferences, which these days attract several hundred participants from 50 or so countries. The 2013 CMAC will be held April 22-24 in Geneva, hosted by the Swiss Air Force in partnership with ICAO, the Defense Department, and the FAA.

Some of the most interesting examples of jointly provided service have been developed (or are under development) in Europe. Commercialized provider DFS, the ANSP of Germany, is responsible for all ATC services in that country in peacetime. Under an interdepartmental agreement of 1991, prior to DFS’s launch in 1993, military controllers are temporarily released from their service obligations to work side-by-side with DFS controllers at the company’s facilities. In general, the agreement provides for flexible use of airspace, temporary restricted areas, and a flexible civilian air route network. DFS and the German Air Force recently introduced demand-oriented Military Variable Profile Areas, which are normally used for civilian aircraft, but are requested for specific military use at other times. DFS is also working on Dynamic Mobile Areas—airspace created ad-hoc for time-limited military purposes. Stefan Lentz of DFS Aeronautical Solutions estimates that integrating civil/military airspace in Germany has enhanced airspace capacity by about 30%.

Cross-border projects are also under way in Europe. DFS and the other ANSPs in FABEC (Functional Airspace Block Europe Central) have created Cross Border Area (CBA) Sea in the North Sea and CBA Land on the German/Netherlands border. Eurocontrol’s Maastricht Upper Area Center (MUAC) is also involved with CBA Land. And MUAC has a project under way with the Royal Netherlands Air Force, under which it is adapting MUAC’s FDPS to meet the RNAF’s need for a replacement flight data processing system.

In other parts of the world, Airservices Australia last year signed an Operating Level Agreement with the country’s Defense Department under which Airservices’ next air traffic management system will serve both civil and military needs. South Africa’s ANSP—ATNS—has worked with the defense ministry on flexible airspace, so as to share the use of the country’s large military areas.

Here in the United States, I had an interesting chat with several people at MITRE Corporation’s booth at last fall’s ATCA Annual Meeting. Their display highlighted the National Special Activity Airspace Project they have been working on, to develop more flexible use of such airspace between the Department of Defense and the FAA. The project grew out of a 2009 recommendation by the RTCA’s NextGen Mid-Term Implementation Task Force that FAA “increase the awareness and predictability of SAA usage so that flight operators can more reliably plan and utilize flight routes that transit inactive SAA without affecting DOD mission needs.” Under NSAAP, the procedures for use of SAA will be significantly automated, with use schedules disseminated via SWIM-based system to all flight operators, and all FAA automation systems (ERAM, TFMS, STARS, etc.) will have access to the most current SAA schedules and status information.

Thus, the same kinds of civil/military cooperation that we’ve seen between commercialized ANSPs and the military are evolving in the United States as well. If and when the Air Traffic Organization is converted into a self-supporting ANSP, there should be a smooth transition to continued civil/military cooperation.

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Is the ATO Overstaffed with Controllers?

Since Congress deferred the legally mandated sequestration (requiring across the board spending cuts in all discretionary budget items), the question of what this would do to air traffic control is very much alive. In a report last month, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) estimated the cut in FAA’s budget to be $1.35 billion (though OMB recently put the number at $1.04 billion). Relying on a report from the Center for American Progress that I criticized in the Sept. 2012 issue of Airport Policy News, NATCA says this could lead to the furlough of up to 2,200 employees and the possible closure of up to 106 control towers at smaller airports.

There are at least two flaws in the reasoning of both CAP and NATCA. The first, which I wrote about previously, is to assume that in dealing with the sequester, Congress does not give agency heads (such as the FAA Administrator) the discretion to apportion the assigned agency cut in the way that does the least short-term damage. And as I suggested then, faced with the choice of cutting capital expenditures and operating spending equally, it seems quite likely that the FAA Administrator would cut the former, thereby preserving as much of the operations as possible (despite the longer-term harm to NextGen and other capital projects).

The second flaw is the assumption that controller staffing is currently at the optimal level. And that is the question the DOT Inspector General’s Office is now investigating, at the request of Congressmen John Mica (R, FL) and Thomas Petri (R, WI). Flight operations have declined 23% since 2000, but the number of controllers has actually increased slightly during the same time period. ATC facilities serving formerly major airline hubs like Pittsburgh and St. Louis have not downsized their staffs proportionately. Mica and Petri, in their letter requesting the OIG study, said that “As many as two-thirds of the FAA’s air traffic control facilities are currently over-staffed,” a claim the study will surely look into.

In addition to matching staffing levels to flight activity levels, the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization could also expand the successful contract tower program. According to the latest Inspector General review of that program, the average annual operating cost of a contract tower is $534,000, while a comparable (in terms of traffic level and complexity) FAA-run tower costs $2,025,000. In round numbers, each additional conversion should save about $1.5 million. If there are 100 towers in this size range still run by FAA (and OIG had 92 in its sample), converting them would save $150 million—not a very large fraction of the $1.04 billion sequester, but every $150 million helps. And this would keep those 100 towers open, greatly benefiting the communities they serve. That, along with downward adjustments to staffing at formerly much busier large towers and TRACONS, would make it possible for FAA to take at least a large fraction of the $1.04 billion cut from operations, rather than gutting the capital expenditures needed for NextGen.

I would hope the ATO’s aviation customers speak out for a business-like approach to making least-bad cuts to its budget.

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Big Troubles for Single European Sky

A basic premise of ATC modernization in Europe is that the cost of providing this service needs to be cut in half, to levels comparable to those of the United States. ATC costs are much more in Europe due to the fragmented nature of the airspace and the high cost of supporting 68 en-route centers in 31 different countries. The political approach adopted by the European Commission has been a mandate to reorganize airspace into nine geographically contiguous “functional airspace blocks” (FABs), within each of which routes will be streamlined and—somehow—costs will be reduced. The deadline for having all nine FABs in operation was December 2012—but most still exist largely on paper.

That being the case, the European Commission is promising a crackdown, with new legislative measures to be unveiled this spring and, as announced on Dec. 4th, threatening legal action against member states that failed to meet the December deadline. Adding to the chorus, to many people’s surprise, was a report from a member of the European Parliament, Jacqueline Foster, who is the aviation spokesperson for the Parliament’s Transport and Tourism Committee. Her report expressed strong support for the EC’s performance targets and the creation of the nine FABs.

But all this sturm und drang fails to come to terms with the elephant in the room: It is impossible to achieve the 50% cost-reduction goal without large-scale consolidation of airspace and ATC facilities irrespective of political borders. Needless to say, neither prospect sits well with national governments, each of which is protective of its own ANSP and unlikely to support the closure of en-route centers within its borders. Indeed, in an interview in CANSO’s Airspace magazine (Quarter 4, 2012), Foster blithely states that she sees no prospect of any job losses, nor can she see any ANSPs disappearing.

What this sort of talk either denies or is ignorant of is the concept of economies of scale. Air traffic control is a service business, and just as in most other businesses, the unit costs are generally lower at a larger scale of operation. If you spend time perusing the cost-effectiveness reports produced by CANSO and Eurocontrol, it is evident that the least-productive ANSPs are those of small size serving areas of low traffic volume. And the ones with high flight-hours per controller-hour have lower costs per flight hour. The same is true for individual facilities. Data on TRACONs and Centers in the United States in a forthcoming Reason Foundation study exhibit a similar pattern.

One potential advantage Europe has is that nearly all its ANSPs have been commercialized, meaning they are largely de-politicized. That has enabled some of them, such as DFS and NATS, to carry out fairly significant facility consolidation within their own borders. As outgoing DFS CEO Dieter Kaden put it in an interview with Airspace (Quarter 4, 2012), full corporatization of Europe’s ANSPs should be the next step: “This way, the ANSPs become more independent of the States, and this will help to overcome the often misunderstood concept of sovereignty.” And as the article notes, in Kaden’s opinions these changes in structure must take place on a cross-border basis.

That may sound like a radical view, but look what has been happening in the rest of aviation in recent decades. There have been cross-border mergers and acquisitions of airlines (with the United States an unfortunate exception), and there are now global airport operators such as Fraport and Aeroports de Paris. Why shouldn’t there be global—or at least trans-European—ANSPs?

I think the ANSPs’ principal customers, the airlines, would support such changes. They have been outspoken critics of the failure, thus far, of the Single European Sky. Just this week, Ryanair’s director of flight and ground operations, David O’Brien, said the EC should end national ATC monopolies. IATA’s Tony Tyler has also been a strong critic of the FABs process.

I will be discussing this topic at the CANSO/ATCA World ATM Congress in Madrid next month. The discussion should be lively.

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Why Not Call It “Privatization”?

Two recent articles have suggested that a way to resolve many of the problems besetting the U.S. ATC system is to “privatize” it. One was a Bloomberg article by reporter Alan Levin (Dec. 14, 2012) and the other was a piece by former FAA Executive Director for Engineering & Development Joe Del Balzo (on www.jdasolutions.aero) headlined “Privatization of the ATC System Is a Timely Issue.” I bristle when I see this term applied to the kind of ATC reform I support, so let me take this opportunity to explain why.

As used in everyday parlance, privatization has two principal meanings. One version is when a government agency goes into the marketplace to purchase a service that it formerly produced in-house. (Full disclosure: More than 30 years ago I wrote the first book on this form of privatization, Cutting Back City Hall.) In this setting, government generally seeks the lowest-cost bidder that can meet its specifications.

The other version is when a government sells off a state-owned enterprise, as Margaret Thatcher did with British Airways, Jaguar, British Steel, British Telecom, etc. In those circumstances, the decision is that the entity is not inherently governmental, so the government should divest it. In those cases, government generally seeks the highest bidder.

So when most people hear someone calling for “privatization” of air traffic control, they think this means either (1) outsourcing it to the lowest bidder or (2) selling it to the highest bidder. But when it comes to the ATC system, I don’t favor either of those courses of action. I reached this conclusion for three reasons.

First, with current technology at least, ATC appears to be a natural monopoly (apart from the admittedly contestable business of individual airport control towers). That means selling it as a for-profit business would be unwise—or at the very least, would call for stringent price regulation. Second, even if I favored this approach in theory, I understand that it would be politically impossible in the world we actually live in, so I would not waste time advocating it.

Third, I don’t favor outsourcing the whole business to the lowest bidder, because the only credible providers would be big aerospace/avionics companies. But because ATC is such a capital-intensive business, such an outsourcing contract would have to be pretty long-term (at least 20 years or more). It would make no sense to give one such company a 20 or 30-year lock on the ATC system, when there is all kinds of talent and experience out there for an ANSP to take advantage of for specific capabilities.

Yet when most people hear the words “privatize the ATC system,” those are the untenable alternatives they think are being proposed.

What I have long argued for, instead, is reform of the governance and funding of existing air navigation service providers—i.e., reform in place. This does not mean somehow letting the private sector take over, displacing current managers and staff. Rather, it means government deciding that to shield the ANSP from government budget pressures and from—let’s be honest—politicization of what should be business decisions, the ANSP should be made into a separate, self-supporting entity, operated on commercial principles. Its funding should come directly from its aviation customers, rather than being appropriated by legislators. Its governance, as a business, should be by a management team reporting to a real board of directors. And the best sort of board is one that represents all the key stakeholders—airlines, business and general aviation, airports, and employees. That is the governance structure of Nav Canada, and it has worked very well for the past 16 years. The other aspect of governance should be arm’s-length safety regulation by the government’s aviation safety body—in this case, it would be the FAA minus the Air Traffic Organization.

Most commercialized ANSPs follow most of this model, and most of them are government corporations.  Nav Canada is a not-for-profit corporation with a unique stakeholder board, and NATS in the U.K. is a kind of hybrid, with ownership shared among U.K. airlines, the government, and the employees. Some refer to Nav Canada and NATS as “privatized,” but neither falls into the two categories I outlined above.

So I’d really like to see the “P” word banished from the debate over ATC reform. We should neither outsource the ATO to the lowest bidder nor sell it to the highest bidder. Instead, we should follow global best practice and reform its funding and governance.

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Upcoming Conference

World ATM Congress (CANSO and ATCA), Madrid, Feb. 12-14, 2013, Madrid Exposition Center (Robert Poole speaking). Details at www.worldatmcongress.org.

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News Notes

Huerta Approved as FAA Administrator. Congratulations to Michael Huerta, whose nomination for a five-year term as Administrator of the FAA was confirmed by the Senate on January 1, 2013.

ADS-B in Australia This Year. Australia’s deadline for equipage with ADS-B/Out is Dec. 12, 2013, less than 11 months from now. As of mid-December, Airservices Australia reported that over 80% of Australian-registered airline flights above FL290 (29,000 ft.) were ADS-B equipped, but that only 8% of business jets were equipped. After the deadline date, non-equipped aircraft will be required to operate below FL290. Much of Australia lacks radar coverage; hence separation in that airspace is by “procedural” standards. Thus, nationwide use of ADS-B at FL290 and above will mean significantly reduced separation standards, resulting in far more efficient use of airspace.

Indonesia Commercializes ATC. As of January 16th, the ATC operations of Indonesia’s two state-owned airport corporations began operating as a merged air navigation service provider (ANSP), under the name Perum Indonesian Flight Navigation Service (PPNPI). The change resulted from 2009 legislation authorizing the government to create a new nonprofit corporation to handle air traffic management nationwide. PPNPI will unify ATC in the eastern and western regions of the country. The two airport corporations were already full members of CANSO, the global organization for ANSPs; that membership will transfer to PPNPI.

More Information on Control Tower Competition. Two articles have appeared recently on the global trend toward making control tower services “contestable”—i.e., open to competitive provision. Graham Lake, former Director General of CANSO, had a guest article in Aviation Intelligence Reporter’s January 2013 issue, “Competition in the ATM Tower Market—A Good Idea Approaching?” And my column about the idea, mysteriously titled by the editors “Faith in the Future,” is in Issue 4 (4th quarter) 2012 of Air Traffic Management.

Contract Towers Implemented in Canary Islands. A joint venture of SAERCO and ANS CR (the Czech Republic ANSP) implemented the first of three control tower contracts it won in 2011 in December 2012, for the tower at La Palma Airport in the Canary Islands. The second tower contract, at Lanzarote Airport, went into operation on Jan. 3, 2013, and the third is due to go live on Feb. 7, 2013 at Fuerteventura Airport.

Naviair Implementing ADS-B in Greenland. To close the gap in ADS-B service across the North Atlantic (from Nav Canada on the west to NATS on the east), Danish ANSP Naviair has contracted with Saab Sensis to install ADS-B ground stations in Greenland and the Faroe Islands. The installations are planned for completion this year, prior to next winter’s Arctic weather conditions. Iceland’s Isavia is installing an ADS-B network that will link with the Greenland and Faroe Islands ground stations.

Remote Tower Testing in Norway. Following in the footsteps of remote tower pioneer Sweden, Norwegian ANSP Avinor in coming months will carry out a validation exercise on remote towers. Since multi-tower simulations have shown the critical role of voice communications in this concept, Avinor is working with Frequentis to implement an IP-based remote tower voice communication system. The validation study is intended to provide information to be used in designing future voice communications systems for operating multiple remote towers from a single location.

New Research Shows How Delays Propagate in U.S. Airspace. A simulation model of the U.S. commercial air transport network provides insights into how delays spread across the system from various chokepoints. Pablo Fleurquin and colleagues at Spain’s Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Physics and Complex Systems modeled the system with airports as nodes and the flights between them as edges (a method that has successfully modeled the spreading of other kinds of disruptions). Using data from about 6 million flights in 2010, from 18 airlines operating at over 300 airports, they identified three principal factors in causing delays to ripple throughout the network: delays on early legs of an aircraft’s daily routes, delays in passenger and crew connections, and airport congestion. It turned out that passenger and crew connection delays had the largest impact. (http://arxiv.org/abs/1301.1136)

Replacing Rotating Radars. Back in October, the FAA held an “industry day” to discuss with interested bidders its next-generation surveillance and weather radar capability (NSWRC) program. The agency hopes to develop an all-purpose phased-array (i.e., non-rotating) radar that could replace all airport surveillance radars (ASR) and terminal Doppler weather radars (TDWR), starting in 2023; it might also be adapted to replace the long-range radars that FAA operates for the Defense Department. MIT Lincoln Laboratory is working on a proof-of-concept active electronically scanned array (AESA), which it hopes will be ready for testing in 2015. FAA hopes to make an initial investment decision in 2016.

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Quotable Quotes

“All of the parties involved [in German ATC] hold the common belief that airspace belongs to everyone, which necessitates handling it in the most economic way possible. We see airspace as a continuum which is shared between civil, military, and public use depending on the time.”
—Thomas Klein, DFS Military Competence Center, in “Border Patrol,” Air Traffic Management, Issue 3 2012

“There are no signs of real consolidation or efficiencies of scale. EU member states have paid lip-service to European legislatures and turned this key reform [Functional Airspace Blocks] into an administrative box-ticking exercise and continue to operate their ANSPs in silos.”
—Tony Tyler, Director General of IATA, quoted in Cathy Buyck, “A Failed Project,” Aviation Week, Dec. 10, 2012

“Today we have aircraft on oceanic flights that would like to change altitudes for more optimum conditions. The problem is, due to the time lag in getting clearance from air traffic control, many pilots don’t attempt to make the change. But if the pilot can gain visibility of the local traffic through onboard surveillance methods, and there is a procedure that allows them to call ATC to say they have positive situational awareness, they will be able to inform ATC that they are going to make a change in altitude. It will be on an ‘informing’ basis as opposed to a ‘permission’ basis. That’s starting to happen now and saves a huge amount of fuel. How long the procedural changes take to happen depends on the regulatory bodies, Eurocontrol and the FAA. It could be short or long, depending on how quickly governments can move.”
—Bob Smith, Honeywell Aerospace, in John Croft, “Blurring the Lines,” Aviation Week, Dec. 3, 2012

“The picture of the new SEA tower was taken today, as it was seen for most of this week. It shows the new expensive and unnecessarily high ATC tower nearly constantly in the fog, unable to visually see the airplanes. At the surface, airline traffic was moving all over the airport, pretty much as usual. These towers typically function in fog situations by using ASDE-X, transponders, VHF radio, the telephone, specialist memory, and remote video cameras. So why do we need to build more excessively high and expensive FAA ATC towers? . . . That function increasingly can be done better by alternate uses of the available airport real estate, modern aircraft systems, and with the pilots and operators increasingly managing where and when their aircraft taxi anyway. The evolving ATS system needs to move toward using more general levels of coordination, and not as it does now, using individual routing control of each specific aircraft. This conceptual shift for NextGen is important, for both safety and efficiency reasons as well as to increase future capacity, at lower fully allocated cost.”
—Capt. Tom Imrich, email communication, Jan. 21, 2013 (quoted with permission)

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


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