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Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #52

Topics include: the no-reform FAA reauthorization; U.S. vs. Europe on ATC modernization; FAA "re-baselining," continued; synthetic vision--a key to capacity expansion; controllers' role in NextGen; and other news.

Robert Poole
April 1, 2008

In this issue:


Reauthorization without Reform

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D, WV) has agreed to drop his proposal for a $25 per jet or turboprop flight under Instrument Flight Rules, caving in to pressure from general aviation groups and his opposite number on the Finance Committee (where support for status-quo tax-and-grant funding remains very strong). Resolving that impasse means the bill finally reaches the Senate floor and will likely be approved. There are still some thorny issues to resolved at the House/Senate conference committee, but it now looks likely that the long-overdue FAA reauthorization will actually be enacted this year.

The tragedy is that Congress will have turned its back on real reform, just when it was sorely needed to provide a better institutional framework for implementing the hugely ambitious and high-risk transformation of air traffic control promised by NextGen. The highly publicized battle between the airlines and general aviation over "user fees" was important to both, but was a side-show. The main attraction was the idea of putting aviation customers in charge of at least major aspects of NextGen modernization, by means of a board that would make decisions on key investments, using resources under its control.

Shifting a significant part of ATC funding from user taxes (paid to the Treasury and allocated by Congress) to user fees (ideally paid directly to the Air Traffic Organization, just as postal customers pay the U.S. Postal Service directly for mail and packagtes) would make it possible for the ATO to issue revenue bonds to finance key NextGen projects. Creating a bondable revenue stream and a customer board to advise on bond-funded projects was part of the very ambitious Administration reauthorization proposal, issued 14 months ago. Though ignored by the House, key aspects of this core idea were embraced (and to some extent strengthened) by Senate Commerce Committee chairman Sen. Rockefeller and then-ranking Republican Sen. Trent Lott (D, MS). That major reform has now been thrown overboard, in the interest of getting a bill passed without further delay.

Yet the fundamental problems remain. The latest DOT Inspector General's report (see below) continues to raise serious concerns about the FAA's ability to take on something as high-risk as implementing NextGen. And customer reaction to the FAA's plan for implementing ADS-B/Out was overwhelmingly negative (as I discussed in last month's issue). The status quo model offers only two "solutions": increased user taxes and even greater congressional micromanagement. Neither will fix the underlying institutional problems.

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Is Europe Outpacing U.S. on ATC Modernization?

In some fundamental ways, modernizing air traffic control in Europe is a more difficult challenge than doing so in the United States. Europe, after all, has over 40 national ATC systems in a region geographically smaller than the USA. Their challenge in creating a "Single European Sky" is the U.S. facility consolidation problem writ large. And while progress on that key objective has been limited thus far, in a number of other areas Europe seems to be making good progress toward a system based on the same basic concept of operations at NextGen.

Where the United States has the Joint Planning & Development Office (JPDO) as the lead entity for NextGen, Europe has its SESAR (Single European Skies ATM Research) program. The former is primarily an inter-agency (i.e., intergovernmental) body while the latter is an industry-government consortium. As Aviation Week put it recently (April 14, 2008), "SESAR already has a much more well-defined organization to drive research and implementation." The magazine quoted Boeing's Kevin Brown saying "The U.S. needs to expend a lot more energy in building a governance model," and that U.S. aviation industry is waiting to see this kind of structure formed with strong leadership to drive implementation.

SESAR is actually under contract to Eurocontrol and the European Commission, producing a series of reports (on a strict timetable) defining key aspects of the next-generation European air traffic management (ATM) system and spelling out how and when it will be implemented. Last December, for example, its D2 report defined agreed-upon performance targets for the new system, including cutting ATM costs per flight in half by 2020, increasing capacity 27% by 2011 and 73% by 2020, and achieving a 10% reduction in environmental impact.

Last fall's D3 report was the concept of operations for 2020 and beyond, along with associated architecture and enabling technology for 4-D (three dimensions in space plus time) trajectories. One of the key concepts is that the primary driver of route choice should be the business objectives of aircraft operators, not the controller's discretion. As the D3 report put it, "the business trajectory is at the core of the system with the aim to execute each flight as close as possible to the intention of its owner"-whether that be to minimize flight time, minimize fuel burn, or some other objective.

And in February 2008, Eurocontrol accepted SESAR's D4 report, which lays out a deployment sequence. Implementation Package 1 covers 2008-2012, with modest near-term performance improvements. IP-2 (2013-2020) would implement the trajectory management process, advanced weather data, and advanced automation tools. And IP-3 (beyond 2020) would implement the more-advanced features, such as Airborne Separation Assistance System and 4-D Trajectory Contract.

Still to come this spring are reports D5 (European ATM Master Plan) and D6 (Work Program for 2008-2013.

My point here is not to criticize the hard work and expertise of the many public-sector and private-sector people at JPDO. What I'm suggesting is that, by contrast, SESAR seems far more focused on implementation, especially the very difficult problem of coordinating the complementary technology investments of air navigation service providers and airspace users. Europe seems to have assembled the key stakeholders into a framework for making those decisions and carrying them out, which is something I don't see happening here.

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FAA "Rebaselining," Continued

Last month's article in which I criticized the FAA's policy of "rebaselining" various technology programs (i.e., readjusting their cost and schedule after the fact) generated a lot of comment. In particular, Gene Juba, VP of ATO Finance, sent me a thoughtful letter using the WAAS program as an example. Because of an FAA policy decision to shift to life-cycle costing (including both acquisition costs and operating costs in a program's budget) and also, in this case, because of a new mandate to include an additional GPS signal in the program, total WAAS costs increased by $2 billion. So it makes sense for the ATO to measure its progress against a revised baseline that includes those two major changes.

I think Juba is right in this case-but I don't think that's the end of the story. Another very knowledgeable source told me that in many cases "rebaselining . . . is used as a way to conceal cost overruns and schedule slippages," which was the thrust of my article. As I was pondering this question, across my screen came a new report by the DOT Inspector General: "Air Traffic Control Modernization: FAA Faces Challenges in Managing in Ongoing Projects, Sustaining Existing Facilities, and Introducing New Capabilities," Report No. AV-2008-049, April 14, 2008 (www.oig.dot.gov). It has a lot to say on this subject, reinforcing my concerns about the extent of FAA rebaselining.

While the report found that "FAA has done a better job of managing cost growth and schedule delays with its major acquisitions since we last reported," it worries that "several major programs are facing significant cost and schedule risks or diminishing benefits." Two ongoing problems are the Airport Surveillance Radar (ASR-11) program and the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS). In both cases, large projected increases in total program costs led to them being scaled back to a much smaller number of systems-only 66 ASRs by 2009 as opposed to 112 by 2005 and just 50 sites for STARS instead of the originally planned 172 sites. While these rebaselined programs are now closer to budget, all the other sites that were supposed to receive ASRs or STARS are left without the needed upgrades. A similar problem afflicts the runway-safety program ASDE-X.

This matters, not just because of all the airports and FAA facilities that are either left out altogether or that will have to make do with a less-capable replacement. The other reason is NextGen. As the OIG report points out, "Many NextGen capabilities for more flexible use of high-density airspace depend on enhanced controller displays and related equipment near airports." It goes on to say that "According to FAA, about 30 existing capital programs will serve as platforms for NextGen, some of which were designed and approved before the JPDO and NextGen concept of operations was established."

The report also notes that from FY 2003 to FY 2007 "funding for FAA's operations account [mostly payroll] rose by almost 20%, while funding for the capital account trended downward." And more ominously, recent trends in capital spending have focused most such spending on "sustainment"-i.e. in-place replacement and renewal of aging and obsolescent facilities and equipment. Yet in order to implement NextGen, this focus will have to shift largely to new capabilities, such as controller-pilot data link, GPS-based landing systems, and System-Wide Information Management. This suggests a capital-spending crunch in the near future, unless additional sources of capital spending can be found.

The report also makes the point that "a key cost driver [of NextGen] will be the extent to which FAA realigns air traffic control facilities." There is an obvious business case for large-scale consolidation of the more than 200 en-route centers and TRACONs into a much smaller number. Given that the average age of an en-route center is 43 years, it makes no sense to rebuild all 21 of them if facilities are going to be consolidated.

I'll end with these words from the report's summary. "FAA is at a crossroads with NAS modernization efforts and will be challenged to keep ongoing projects on track, maintain aging facilities, and develop and implement NextGen initiatives. FAA is essentially opening a new chapter in the history of ATC modernization with its plans for NextGen. The transition to NextGen is one of the most complex, high-risk undertakings FAA has ever attempted." And as it is now funded and managed, it is simply not up to the task.

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Synthetic Vision: A Key to Expanding Runway Capacity

One of the key NextGen concepts is "equivalent visual operations"-EVO. Basically, that means being able to carry out flight activity under low-visibility conditions equivalent to what can be done under optimum clear-skies visibility. Achieving that would do wonders for airport capacity. For example, Washington Reagan airport can handle about 36 departures and 36 landings per hour under optimum visibility-but just 24 of each under IFR conditions. At SFO, the corresponding numbers are 60 and 50 versus 30 and 42. So EVO would provide very significant gains in runway capacity during poor-visibility conditions.

There are several possible paths to achieving this capability. The first is enhanced vision capability. Enhanced vision systems use forward-looking infrared (FLIR) imagery projected onto a heads-up display. Aircraft are, by current FAA regulations, permitted to descend to 100 feet using FLIR, but thus far these systems have only been installed on general aviation planes. That may be because current regulations don't permit a FLIR-equipped airliner to begin an instrument approach using FLIR-but at some point, that could change.

One step up from that is synthetic vision, a system based on GPS and stored terrain databases that creates a synthetic view, on a primary flight display, of what a pilot would see out the windshield under clear-weather, daylight conditions. Synthetic vision systems (SVS) were first used in Alaska, under FAA's pioneering Capstone program. Chelton Flight Systems retrofitted their Electronic Flight Information System into about 100 Alaskan general aviation aircraft under this program. More recently, Universal and Honeywell have produced synthetic vision systems that are being installed on high-end business jets like Gulfstreams and Challengers. And coming soon are more affordable SVSs for smaller GA planes, including very light jets, from firms such as Garmin.

Why not on airliners? It's partly a matter of the above-mentioned FAA regulations, but airlines also have an alternative means of getting to the same end. At this point in time, airlines are mostly pursuing RNP (required navigation performance) as a broader means of achieving precision departure, approach, and landing capabilities. RNP integrates data from the GPS and inertial navigation systems on many airliners to permit the plane to fly a very precise track. Airlines whose planes are already equipped with these technologies can get them certified for RNP without the extra cost of adding FLIR or SVS. Still, as costs come down and SVS becomes more widely used, we may see it migrating into the passenger jet cockpit, as well. That will hasten the achievement of the NextGen goal of EVO.

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Controllers and NextGen

In the latest flap at the Dallas TRACON, FAA managers concealed 62 operational errors or deviations by controllers, reporting them instead as pilot errors or non-events-apparently to make their facility's statistics look good. While that kind of problem should be solved once an automated system for keeping track of operational errors in TRACON airspace goes online, I'm concerned about the still dismal relationship between controllers and management. Controllers thought they had it made under former Administrator Jane Garvey, but the price of that good feeling was an operations/payroll budget that grew way out of line, and a culture that led to controllers in some busy facilities spending little more than half of their 8-hour shifts actually controlling traffic.

The new regime under subsequent Administrator Marion Blakey pushed through a more stringent contract and reformed some work rules, but between the substance and the way it's been implemented, the organizational culture seems to have gotten even worse. Controllers union NATCA has had minimal involvement in NextGen planning, even though it will involve a major change in the role of the controller. It appears to me that the parlous state of controller/managament relations is a major risk factor for the successful implementation of NextGen.

That's why I was glad to see ATO's chief operating officer, Hank Krakowski, headline a NATCA air safety conference in Chicago, April 2nd. According to a news release from the FAA, Krakowski "returned again and again . . . to the need for FAA management to 'rebuild trust' with controllers." A case in point was one item he'd come to the conference to promote: a new voluntary self-reporting program called ATSAP (which he noted was analogous to a safety reporting he'd helped start when he was at United Airlines).

I also found some encouragement in a speech by Pat Forrey, NATCA's president, at the Aero Club of Washington on March 26th. Though he delivered an expected quota of red-meat FAA-bashing, he also said "I want this war to end, and I have been working non-stop toward that goal." Toward the end, he presented a set of ideas on transitioning to NextGen. He called for expediting delivery of ASDE-X, and for some kind of runway incursion system at a minimum of 60 airports. He called for quick resolution of what kind of terminal display system is going to replace the obsolete displays at nearly 100 sites where neither STARS or Common ARTS is going in. He urged system-wide deployment of controller automation techniques such as URET, expansion of the oceanic ATOP system to the sectors controlled from Anchorage, and the near-term implementation of ADS-B in oceanic airspace.

He closed his remarks by calling for greater inclusion of controllers in the NextGen modernization process. I'd like to second the motion.

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News Notes

New E-Newsletter on ATC Management. The Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation last month launched ATM Monthly, an electronic newsletter about the challenges of operating and managing 21st-century air navigation service providers. You can download a sample issue from www.centreforaviation.com.

Philippines Separating ANSP from Safety Regulator. Stung by being rated only Category 2 for air safety by the U.S. FAA, the government of the Philippines has decided to create a new aviation safety regulator. The result will be to spin off from the former Air Traffic Office a new Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) as an independent regulatory body. The remaining ATO will focus solely on being the country's air navigation service provider.

ATC Commercialization Study in Public Administration Journal. A new article summarizes the results of the landmark 2006 study of 10 commercialized air navigation service providers led by Glen McDougall of MBS Ottawa. It was published last month in the March 2008 issue of Canadian Public Administration Journal. This is the most comprehensive analysis yet of the before-and-after performance of ANSPs that have been commercialized, and is well worth reading. Go to www.ipac/ca/CPAJ.

CANSO Creates New Publication. The Civil Air Navigation Services Organization has launched a quarterly on-line magazine called Airspace. The inaugural issue is Quarter One 2008. The purpose of the new publication is to address high-level policy issues while also offering interviews with industry leaders and in-depth technology and operations articles. Go to www.canso.org.

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Quotable Quotes

"The traditional human-centric air traffic control system has reached the end of its design life and is unable to meet new system capacity, efficiency, and safety requirements. It is time to move on to a different solution, driven by a need to expand growth and leadership in aviation. The future demands that we innovate, automate, and integrate to build a performance-driven, aircraft-centric automation system that results in each National Airspace System element-from passenger to air traffic controller to pilot to flight dispatcher--being a real-time node on this new aviation network."
--Michael J. Harrison, "A CNS/ATM Junkie's Tour," Journal of Air Traffic Control, Summer 2007.

"We're not trying to get the human out of the picture, but it will move from a controller managing the position and vector of every aircraft to the controller managing trajectories-and much more controlling by exception as opposed to active participation. The airplane and its flight management system and the FAA's ground automation are now well able to very accurately predict where the aircraft [is] going to be . . . . So the controller's job, I think, is going to morph into manipulating those trajectories, and being well supported by the automation that will look ahead further in time and alert the controller to potential conflicts, and have the controller intercede more or less only when those conflicts arise."
--Mike Lewis, Boeing ATM, Airport Business, February 2008

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


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