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Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #33

Topics include: Congress vs. ATC facility consolidation; the promise of "green landings;" Congress and the controllers' contract; and ADS-B for everyone?

Robert Poole
April 1, 2006

In this issue:

Why Congress Should Not Be the ATC "Board of Directors"

Defenders of the ATC status quo, such as Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association president Phil Boyer, have come up with a new line, as they attack proposals to change the funding and governance mechanisms for air traffic control. Last month, in a blast at the Air Transport Association's proposed user fee principles, Boyer proclaimed that "Congress must remain the �board of directors' for the FAA and the air traffic control system. . . . Congress is the voice of the people. And it is the people, not the airlines, who are the ultimate system users."

But as Boyer was making this pronouncement, a series of events was unfolding that illustrates once again, how the inevitable logic of politics dooms Congress to playing a counter-productive role when it tries to carry out this function. In parallel cases in Boise, Idaho and West Palm Beach, Florida, members of Congress intervened to thwart moves toward needed consolidation of ATC facilities.

In both cases, the airports in question (Boise and Palm Beach International) are scheduled to get new control towers in the next few years. As in the case of many other "intermediate activity towers," when planning for their replacement, the FAA uses the opportunity to consolidate the TRACON previously located at the airport into a larger, regional TRACON. In these two cases, the Boise TRACON functions would be absorbed by the Salt Lake City TRACON, while PBI's would be handled at Miami (which already provides those functions for Ft. Lauderdale). In Boise's case, the FAA estimates the move would save $5 million on the proposed $22 million cost of the new tower.

But controllers' union NATCA in both cases cranked up its PR machinery and lobbying efforts. Sure enough, the Idaho Statesman carried a long article accepting at face value the union's assertions about increased cost and reduced safety, as did South Florida papers. The Palm Beach Post even editorialized against the FAA proposal. In Idaho, Sen. Larry Craig (R, ID) personally phoned FAA Administrator Marion Blakey to lobby against the change, and a bipartisan quartet of South Florida Congressmembers sent a letter to Blakey parroting the union line.

This kind of interference is exactly why Congress needs to divest itself of the "board of directors" function, shifting that function to a real board of directors, carefully balanced among all aviation customer groups. Doubling or tripling the capacity and productivity of the ATC system, as envisaged in current plans for the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NGATS), depends crucially on large-scale consolidation of ATC facilities. The new "network-centric" system will provide control of airspace "from anywhere to anywhere." Thus, the union's feigned outrage that the Salt Lake City TRACON would be monitoring traffic within 30 miles of Boise from a location 300 miles away[!!] should be laughed out of court.

And it would be, by any board of directors whose job was really to govern the world's largest system of air traffic management. That is a job for serious professionals with deep knowledge of aviation, technology, finance, and management. It's not a job for politicians who know a little bit about hundreds of different areas on which they pass laws.


"Green Landings" Offer Numerous Benefits

It's widely believed that the Achilles heel of expanding airspace capacity is the terminal area�getting in and out of airports. Sure, there's loads of sky out there for the en-route portion of flights, easily expandable with better technology. But there are only so many runways and little possibility of expanding many of the busiest airports. Fortunately, this belief is incorrect. Technology can make a huge difference in terminal-area airspace, too�while also offering environmental benefits.

One of the key concepts involved in the next-generation, network-centric approach to ATC is "4D trajectories." That means defining and using, for each flight, a precisely defined trajectory from start to finish, defined by the four dimensions of latitude, longitude, altitude, and time. This gets programmed into a plane's flight management system computer and the ATC system's computers, and provides the basis for knowing exactly where each plane is at all times.

That makes it possible to define a "required time of arrival" (RTA) for the flight at its destination airport, something that's not done today. Instead, as various planes approach the airport, controllers have to adjust their spacing by hand, giving them instructions to speed up, slow down, divert into a holding pattern, etc. This wastes fuel and increases emissions. But it also means that valuable runway capacity is wasted. With an RTA for each flight, based on a 4D trajectory known far in advance, controllers will be able to call for speed adjustments way ahead of time, so that planes arrive within +/- 10 seconds of their RTA. And that will make it possible to fit the maximum number of departures in between precisely timed arrivals, making full use of a runway's capacity.

Some real progress toward implementing this vision has been occurring. In 2004 Boeing and Airbus did more than 70 such arrivals at Sydney and Melbourne using an A330 and a B747-400. Actual arrival times were as little as 2 seconds and never more than 30 seconds off. The next major test is taking place in Sweden, with SAS 737s. After some test flights last fall, the major program began January 19 with the first revenue flight to downlink a 4D trajectory. The European Commission is sponsoring a two-year program involving 38 SAS 737s, with support from Boeing, Rockwell Collins, Airbus, and Sweden's commercialized ANSP, Luftfartsverket. One goal is to demonstrate an increase in runway capacity at Stockholm's Arlanda Airport from 45 operations per hour to 60, a 33% increase.

The typical "green" descent being used in these trials is sometimes called a "continuous descent approach" or CDA. Instead of a typical stair-step descent, with accelerations and decelerations, the descent follows a smooth path at just above the "idle" throttle setting. Aviation Week quotes the head of Avtech Sweden as saying such approaches in a 737 cut fuel burn by 550 lbs, with reduced emissions of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides. In addition, CDAs reduce noise by about 30%.

In this country, UPS is gearing up for a major test of this approach at its main hub in Louisville, Kentucky. It did tests there and at Sacramento's Mather airport in 2003. The cargo carrier is outfitting its planes with a Class 3 Electronic Flight Bag, which will use position data from ADS-B and new SafeRoute "merging and spacing" software. The whole program is scheduled to be operational in 2007. In addition to permitting CDA landings, the system is expected to permit reduced spacing between equipped planes during the en-route portion of flight�from 7 miles in trail to just 5 miles.


Controller Contract Renewal Thrown in Congress's Lap

Negotiations between the FAA and air traffic controllers' union NATCA broke down last week, after a month of mediation failed to produce a contract agreement both parties could accept. NATCA claimed its final proposal would save $1.4 billion over the five-year contract period, but FAA said that figure was exaggerated. The agency's proposal would save $1.9 billion, but more importantly would produce permanent changes that would reduce payroll costs long-term. The biggest such change would create a lower pay scale for the thousands of new controllers that will be hired in coming years to replace the imminent wave of retirements. The other key component would eliminate two of the four types of premium pay, the Controller Incentive Pay and the Controller-in-Charge premium, both of which have contributed significantly to the agency's soaring payroll cost during the past seven years (increasing 75% from 1998 through 2005). The proposal would also increase the Air Traffic Organization's management flexibility�to introduce new technology and to deploy controllers to where they are most needed.

Under the FAA personnel reform law passed by Congress in 1997, the procedure for resolving such an impasse calls for giving the contending proposals to Congress. The lawmakers have 60 days to act. If they don't, the FAA proposal becomes the new contract. That procedure was the price the union agreed to pay for being allowed — uniquely among federal employee groups — to bargain over pay. This year marks the first time the procedure will be used.

As Congress weighs the two proposals, it's important that lawmakers keep in mind what's at stake here. As the DOT Inspector General's office has pointed out a number of times in recent years, escalating payroll costs have begun crowding out needed capital investment in modernizing the ATC system — and we've only just begun the major modernization envisioned under the NGATS concept. In addition, the more of the budget chewed up in excessive payroll costs, the harder it will be for the ATO to hire and train the thousands of new recruits needed to replace between half and two-thirds of its work force over the next decade.

NATCA likes to pretend that the U.S. ATC system is the most efficient in the world. That claim is mostly based on macro-level comparisons with Europe, where dozens of small national ATC systems, defined by national borders, operate with far more facilities and controllers than would be needed if ATC were operated as a single, seamless Europe-wide system. For an apples vs. apples comparison, you have to compare comparable ATC facilities. And there the picture looks dramatically different. As I reported here last summer in Issue No. 28, the International Terminal Air Traffic Control Benchmark Pilot Study selected six matched pairs of terminal-area ATC facilities, such as Philadelphia and Frankfurt, San Diego and Auckland, and Washington Dulles and Toronto. While the U.S. facilities controlled 12% more traffic per controller, their cost was so much higher that the cost per aircraft movement was higher for the U.S. facility in every matched pair (except Philadelphia/Frankfurt, which were equal). Canada was an especially dramatic contrast, at $20/movement in Toronto vs. $36/movement in Washington. Clearly, the commercialized air navigation service providers (ANSPs) overseas are getting more bang for their customers' bucks than we get here in the land of free markets.

Thus, from a productivity standpoint, the ATO is a relatively inefficient ANSP. That's why Congress should allow the FAA's compensation proposal to go into effect — by doing nothing.


Giving the Customers What They Want: ADS-B

One of the least controversial technologies involved in ATC modernization is called Automatic Dependent Surveillance�Broadcast, or ADS-B for short. It makes use of the GPS satellite constellation to let each plane keep track of its position and broadcast that information not only to ATC on the ground but to other planes in the sky around it. ADS-B is a key enabling technology for many of the capabilities of the next-generation, network-centric system. And it can eventually replace thousands of old and costly-to-maintain ground-based radars and navigational aids, saving the ATO hundreds of millions a year.

Commercialized Airservices Australia is moving ahead with its plan for ADS-B nationwide, providing much-improved ATC in areas that have never had radar coverage. It's also involved in a joint venture with SITA to bring similar capabilities to Indonesia, which likewise largely lacks radar coverage. Flight trials are also under way in the Mediterranean, via the commercialized ANSPs bordering that sea. Nav Canada and Eurocontrol give discounts on ATC user fees to planes equipped with ADS-B.

Last month Nav Canada announced that it is considering installing ADS-B ground stations in the vast Hudson Bay region within the next year. Since that area has limited radar coverage but is important for both domestic and international routes, ADS-B coverage would permit reduced separation standards, thereby expanding capacity. Nav Canada has reviewed its cost-benefit analysis of the project with its airline customers and gotten very positive feedback. So the next step is for the project to be reviewed by the company's stakeholder board.

That's how these decisions get made by commercialized ANSPs. Back in the USA, however, the process is much slower. The FAA announced in February that it will begin introducing what it calls "ADS-B Out" in the 2007-2010 time frame: ADS-B equipped planes would transmit their positions to controllers on the ground. As for "ADS-B In," which would involve pilots being able to see a display of other planes on a screen in the cockpit, well, the FAA is going to start studying that. The agency estimates that it will take until 2025 for the needed avionics equipment to be installed in cockpits for "ADS-B In." That's an absurdly long time.

The last time I wrote about ADS-B (Issue No. 30), a former FAA official readers wrote to suggest that much quicker implementation would produce huge benefits—and that the longer the transition period, the longer we'll have to wait not only for the improved ATC capabilities but also for the cost savings that will come from scrapping all that old ground-based stuff. The full benefits, on both counts, can only be realized when all planes in controlled airspace are equipped, so that all show up in the system with the same high-quality data. He pointed out the non-credibility of FAA being able to force/entice the entire aviation community to equip their planes in a timely fashion. Then he added: "But a stakeholder corporatized board, acting on a narrowly defined agenda, could have the financial and political clout to pull it off."

Give the customers what they want — what a concept!


Quotable Quote

"This year and next will be critical to how air traffic control is conducted in the U.S. for decades to come, and aviation 'alphabet groups' are girding for battle. . . . It's natural for the lobbyists of the aviation groups to fight for their constituents. But they can't lose sight of the ultimate goal. The U.S. won't continue to have the best civil aviation system in the world if the stakeholders involved refuse to fly information toward the future."

—Editorial, Aviation Week & Space Technology, March 6, 2006.


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


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