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Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #54

Topics include: controller training and adequate ATC staffing; some progress on Single European Sky; DayJet to pioneer NextGen operations; populist attack on business jets; progress at Flight Service Stations; and other news.

Robert Poole
June 1, 2008

In this issue:


Replacement Controllers: Too Few or Too Many?

Until recently, the frequent refrain coming from controllers' union NATCA was that the FAA was failing to recruit and train enough new controllers to replace the coming wave of retirements of controllers hired after President Reagan's mass firing of striking controllers in 1981. But now that the agency has massively expanded hiring and training, today's complaint is that operational facilities-centers, TRACONs, and towers-are being overwhelmed with developmental controllers, to the point where needed on-the-job training cannot be fully accommodated.

The House Aviation Subcommittee held a hearing on this subject on June 11th, and I've just reviewed the testimony of both the GAO and the DOT Inspector General's Office. Both agreed that the FAA has stepped up hiring and taken other useful actions, but both suggested that some facilities do appear to have more developmental controllers than is wise. Let's go to the numbers.

First, the GAO reports the good news that, when it comes to comparing the number of controllers at a facility with what it "should" have, we are no longer trapped by the 1990s-era negotiated staffing levels, based on bargaining between FAA and NATCA. In 2007, the FAA replaced that with facility-specific staffing ranges based on a combination of traffic levels, productivity trends, expected retirements, and controllers in training. As of April 2008, GAO found that 45% of the 314 facilities are not within the desired ranges-but the vast majorities of these cases are above the staffing range (145 facilities) while only 12 are below. That's the good news.

The bad news is that while there are slightly more total controllers on the payroll today (December 2007) than in 2004, the IG finds the overall percentage of trainees has increased from 15.2% of the workforce to 24.5%. Overall, FAA says that each facility should be able to have up to 35% trainees and still control its traffic properly. Even if that percentage is valid (and the IG found a number of people who think it's too high), FAA figures show that 70 out of 314 facilities exceed that percentage today, compared with only 22 in 2004. And some of these are very busy places: Teterboro tower (52% trainees), Las Vegas TRACON (50% trainees), and Oakland center (38% trainees). A table in the GAO testimony is more reassuring as to towers, listing 50 of the country's busiest airports. Only five of these exceeded the 35% trainee figure-Tampa, Cleveland, DFW, LaGuardia, and Houston Hobby. The majority are in the 10-25% trainee range.

Still, the fraction of trainees is likely to continue creeping upward over the next five years, as retirements continue and the pace of training is constrained by the amount of time fully certified controllers have available, as well as the physical space for training at some facilities (e.g., Miami Center). GAO cites FAA data to estimate that by 2011 up to 59% of the controller workforce will have less than five years of experience (compared with about 25% today).

FAA is offering bonuses to controllers eligible to retire to stay on for several more years, which may help. It is also installing high-fidelity training simulators at busy airport towers; NASA Ames has found that use of such a simulator reduced training days for ground control training by 60% at Miami Tower. And it is under strong pressure from NATCA and Congress to re-open the current contract to restore some of the premium pay controllers no longer get. For its part, NATCA should be willing to ditch the controller-favored 2-2-1 shift schedule which researchers have found contributes significantly to controller fatigue, due to disruption of diurnal rhythms. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, about 61% of controllers work such shifts, which give them a longer weekend and no more than one midnight shift per week.

In addition, I wonder if Pat Forrey and other NATCA leaders have thought about the implications of their encouraging eligible controllers to retire, thereby increasing the pressure on the FAA. As noted above, that means in a mere three years' time (2011), nearly 60% of the controller workforce will have less than five years' experience. That means less than five years of absorbing the NATCA culture, at a time when air traffic control will be fundamentally changing to the partially automated NextGen paradigm. You would have thought NATCA would put a premium on keeping as many of the old guard on the job as possible, in hopes of teaching the new guys the "us versus them" way of relating to the FAA. Such wholesale turnover gives Hank Krakowski and his team at the Air Traffic Organization a better opportunity to break this mindset and develop a healthier relationship with their controller workforce.

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Some Progress on Integrated European Airspace

Those working on the NextGen replacement for the current U.S. ATC system tout the major benefits, in terms of both flexibility and cost savings, that will result from being able to manage traffic anywhere, from anywhere. That has led to models in which the current 21 centers and 171 TRACONs are replaced by a handful of multi-purpose centers, with airspace boundaries that can be reconfigured in real time, depending on traffic and weather. But a major obstacle to this vision remains the great resistance in Congress to consolidation of facilities.

Consolidation of facilities and redefining airspace boundaries is an even more difficult problem in Europe, where the current vision of the next-generation system is premised on achieving a "Single European Sky" independent of national borders. There are more than 60 centers in Europe, located in 40-odd countries, each one very protective of the sovereign airspace above its territory. The European Commission estimates that this fragmentation of airspace costs about $1.5 billion per year in wasted fuel and time. That's because air routes must zig-zag around restricted military airspace and fit in with the constraints of 40+ separate national ATC systems. Eurocontrol estimates that air routes, on average, are more than 30 miles too long, as a result.

Against that backdrop, last week the European Commission issued its draft legislation for Single European Skies 2. Since there has been little real progress under the current bottom-up approach under which countries are supposed to be defining a set of functional airspace blocks (FABs) independent of national borders, the new SES legislation sets a deadline of 2009 for such plans to be worked out and 2012 for their implementation. It would also give Eurocontrol the responsibility for implementing SES. The idea is that mandated deadlines will motivate governments to make the tough choices involved-but if they don't, then a top-down approach will be developed instead.

Left unaddressed in all this is the future role of the country-specific air navigation service providers (ANSPs), nearly all of which have been commercialized over the past decade or so. Their membership organization, the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO), responded to the SES 2 legislative proposal by calling for Eurocontrol's role to be clarified. Eurocontrol has important regulatory responsibilities as well as current flow-control and fee-collection duties. CANSO points out that one of the underlying principles of ATC reform (including SES) is separation of regulation from service provision. So it is calling for Eurocontrol to separate those sets of activities, and to have the service provision functions be "governed by industry," acting on behalf of the individual ANSPs.

But still unanswered is how to have a seamless, borderless Single European Sky with 40+ ANSPs. If SES 2 results in 6 to 10 functional airspace blocks, you would think that 6 to 10 ANSPs would be the maximum number needed. The fact that nearly all these ANSPs have been commercialized-and hence largely de-politicized-should make mergers among them far less difficult than would be the case if these were traditional government agencies, funded out of national government budgets. Thus far, however, we have seen only a few modest proposals being made for FABs by adjacent ANSPs-such as FAB Central Europe (Austria, Bosnia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia) and a U.K./Ireland FAB proposed by NATS and IAA.

The latest issue of CANSO's Airspace magazine offers a provocative feature titled "9/10ths of the Law: Sovereignty and Ownership of the Skies," which points out that under Article 28 of the Chicago Convention, states are not obligated to provide air navigation services over their territory themselves, but must ensure that when it is provided, it complies with ICAO standards and recommended practices. In other words, the obligations under Article 28 are regulatory in nature. Hence, states may delegate the provision of air navigation services to third parties, as long as they ensure compliance with ICAO regulations. This opens the door to merged ANSPs taking responsibility for cross-border ATC service provision. (You can download Airspace, Quarter 2/3 2008, from www.canso.org.)

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VLJ Air Taxi Pioneer Pushing the Envelope

Despite some financing difficulties that are currently limiting its expansion, the first air-taxi operator of very light jets (VLJs) is becoming a testbed for NextGen ATC operations. On June 10th, DayJet signed a memorandum of understanding with the FAA for a five-year project to implement NextGen technologies and procedures throughout Florida. Taking part in the project will be Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the Florida DOT's Aviation Office.

The move comes amidst new criticisms of DayJet and other planned VLJ air-taxi operators from two aviation unions. A USA Today story a week before the above announcement quoted local NATCA officials in Miami and Jacksonville griping that VLJs like DayJet's Eclipse 500 are much slower than airline jets and can't climb anywhere near as fast, so they could cause big problems if their numbers expand, especially in congested airspace like Florida's. Also criticizing VLJ air taxis was Cory Kay, safety chairman of ALPA, the leading airline pilots' union. One of his complaints was that planes like the Eclipse are not equipped with TCAS, the collision-avoidance system used on jet airliners and business jets.

But these are precisely the kinds of problems the new NextGen testbed is designed to address. By equipping all DayJet planes for highly accurate navigation and control (RNP), these VLJs will be able to fly on their own airways, not holding up the faster 737s and other airliners. And by equipping them with ADS-B/In, DayJet will enable its Eclipse pilots to see other aircraft in their vicinity. Phase 1 (2008-2010) will deploy RNP technology and procedures, along with ADS-B/In. Phase 2 (2009-2011) will implement System Wide Information Management (SWIM), a key NextGen component that provides "middle-ware" that can transfer data from numerous sources among all ATC system participant. Phase 3 (2011-2013) will deploy digital communications for flight planning and flight plan management.

ADS-B ground station provider ITT is focusing on Florida first; by August, it expects to have 11 ground stations operational around the state. Initial services will include traffic information service (TIS-B) which broadcasts radar-derived position information to all equipped aircraft, and flight information service (FIS-B), which gives pilots weather and flight-planning information.

It's encouraging to see these early implementation steps for key NextGen technologies and procedures. And while airlines will also be among the beneficiaries of the Florida testbed, it's somehow fitting that DayJet and Eclipse-both created by former Silicon Valley stars-will be among the pioneers.

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Outsourced Flight Service Stations Doing Better

One of the largest non-Defense Department outsourcing contracts in the entire federal government was the FAA's 2005 contract with Lockheed Martin to consolidate and operate the agency's Flight Service Stations. These facilities provide private pilots with weather briefings, flight plan filing, and other services at no charge. Under FAA operation, they had not been modernized and consequently were very labor-intensive, in addition to being scattered all across the landscape, based on the idea that only local briefers could give pilots locally relevant information. As a result, the annual cost had ballooned to more than $500 million, for which private pilots paid not a penny. LM's winning bid cut that to just $190 million.

Phil Boyer, head of the large and very vocal Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, realized that this big budget number had "target" written all over it. Consequently, he bucked his normal FAA union allies and supported the agency's difficult struggle to prevent Congress from vetoing the outsourcing of FSS. I chronicled that hard-fought battle, and Lockheed Martin's takeover of the service, in this newsletter.

Alas, things did not go smoothly during the consolidation from 58 facilities to just 20. Calls did not always get answered promptly, some of the new briefers did not get up to speed quickly, and many private pilots complained bitterly and at some length. As an advocate for his members, Boyer highlighted the problems and urged the FAA to take action. But to his credit, he did not back down or change his mind that outsourcing was the best way to reduce costs, modernize the operation, and keep the program viable.

Fortunately, Lockheed Martin has taken action to add surge capacity to handle peak periods better, added staff and workstations, and brought back some retirees, on a part-time basis, to beef up training. In his June 2008 editorial in AOPA Pilot, Boyer reports that complaints at Pilot Town Meetings are way down, and 80% are satisfied or very satisfied with the service they are now getting. The FAA is reporting on the level of service every 90 days.

Thus, what started out looking like it might have been a fiasco turned out to be just transition problems. Assuming today's high levels of user satisfaction are maintained, I can't see any political case for attempting to overturn the LM contract.

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Populist Attack on Business Jets

The National Business Aviation Association is apparently outraged over a June 2008 report by two left-wing groups, the Institute for Policy Studies and Essential Action, attacking business jets. The report's title pretty much tells the story: "High Flyers: How Private Jet Travel Is Straining the System, Warming the Planet, and Costing You Money." In five parts it addresses (a) the cost to the environment, (b) the cost to taxpayers, (c) the cost to other travelers, (d) the cost to corporate stakeholders, and (e) the cost to public security and social cohesion.

Much of this is the usual lefty egalitarianism and greenery. IPS is an old-line left-wing think tank based in Washington, DC with a wide-ranging agenda. I'd never heard of Essential Action before, and its website isn't very helpful, but it does publish Multinational Monitor, which I have heard of. Overall, the report is rather amateurish, with nearly all its footnotes referring simply to newspaper articles (rather than primary sources). And no information whatever is provided about the five authors, which suggests that if they had any particular aviation or transportation qualifications, they would have been stated.

Still, they managed to get their numbers about costs and revenues mostly correct, based on media reports on the most recent FAA air traffic control cost allocation study. That study bent over backwards to be fair to business aviation, by allocating all fixed costs to the primary users (airlines) and only allocating variable costs to all users, in proportion to use. Those numbers showed that passenger plus cargo carriers provided (in FY 2005) 91.5% of the revenues for ATC while using only 66.3% of ATC services. General aviation-turbine (which is where nearly all corporate jets and turboprops are counted) used 9.7% of ATC services while providing only 2.9% of the revenues. If you add in the air taxi and fractional users who pay the ticket tax, the combined numbers for business turbine planes comes to 16.9% of ATC services but just 8.2% of the revenues.

"High Flyers" actually mixes things up a bit, claiming that airlines pay 95% of the costs while using only 73% of the services. That's pretty close to the totals for all those who pay the ticket tax (airlines plus air taxis and fractionals), which is 73.5% of the costs and 96.8% of the revenues. But they correctly report combined general aviation totals (those who pay only fuel tax) as accounting for 16% of the transactions (15.6%) while providing just 3.2% of the revenue. All the egalitarian arguments they make against "corporate" jets should apply with equal force to fractional and air taxis using the same planes, but that distinction seems to be lost on these presumably non-aviation authors.

NBAA's over-the-top news release puts forth a number I'd never seen before, claiming that airlines actually provide only 77% of ATC revenues. I managed to figure out how they arrived at this. If you exclude foreign passenger carriers (which pay 9.4%) and cargo carriers (which pay 5%) you do get 77.1%. But then you also have to eliminate those groups on the services-used side, too. So by this definition of US passenger carriers only, they do provide 77.1% of the revenues but use only 57.8% of the services. The large disparity between revenues and costs still exists.

Actually, I'm amazed that it's taken the Left this long to discover business jets as a target of opportunity. If this segment of aviation at least paid its way in using the ATC system-instead of getting a large cross-subsidy from airline passenger ticket tax payers-they would still attack it for outsize CO2 emissions and allowing fat-cats to bypass TSA security lines. But at least the bizjet sector wouldn't be criticized for getting ordinary Americans of modest means to pay for more than half of its ATC costs.

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News Notes

Commercialized ANSPs Reduce Rates, Again. Recent weeks have brought news of the latest in a string of rate reductions by two of the world's most respected air navigation service providers, DFS (Germany) and Nav Canada. News accounts of DFS's 15th anniversary noted that DFS reduced its en-route charges at the beginning of 2008, thanks to a financially successful 2007 in which it had increased its rates. Even then, the 2007 rates were lower than those of 2004. And in June Nav Canada announced that the temporary 1% reduction it put n place last year would continue past its scheduled Aug. 31 expiration date. That reduction was preceded by a 1.8% rate reduction in 2006 and a 3% reduction in 2007, in addition to the temporary 1% cut.

China to Use Airways New Zealand Billing System. Aviation Week reported (May 26, 2008) that the Civil Aviation Administration of China has purchased Airways New Zealand's Flight Yield system to extract flight data from ATC operations and send bills for ATC services provided to users. It is expected to provide billing for about 300,000 flights per month. Airways New Zealand's system is also in use in Papua New Guinea and for billing for overflights of Tonga, Samoa, the Cook Islands, and Niue Island. ANZ was the first of more than 40 ANSPs to be commercialized. Incidentally, ANZ was the winner of the International Air Transport Association's 2008 Eagle Award, for its outstanding ATC services.

Eclipse Incident at Midway. A software glitch which VLJ maker Eclipse quickly took care of led one of its Eclipse 500 VLJs to make an emergency landing at its destination, Chicago's Midway Airport. I'm glad this was a very minor, and easily fixable, problem. But the fact that the flight was going into Midway (instead of the purported VLJ market of serving small, suburban and rural airports away from the mainstream) illustrates a point I've made previously. Yes, that small-airport market is one that VLJs can serve, but we cannot make public policy or design an ATC system based on how a plane can be used. We have to take realistic account of how it will be used. And it seems likely that many of those who will buy a VLJ, charter one, or use a VLJ air taxi service will want to make some of their trips to big-city airports, just like other business jets do.

NATCA's Heavy-Duty Lobbying. The Associated Press reported last month that in the first quarter of 2008, air traffic controllers union NATCA spent $300,000 on lobbying the federal government over workplace issues, including its opposition to the current contract with FAA. That is nearly keeping pace with the $1.3 million it spent on lobbying in 2007.

Sensis and Honeywell Win Award. I'm glad to add my congratulations to Sensis Corporation and Honeywell for their development and testing of a system that transmits runway incursion data generated by ASDE-X (normally reported only to the control tower) directly to an aircraft's flight deck. The companies received the Future Systems Award for this achievement at the 2008 Global ATC Exhibition, held March 11-13 in Amsterdam.

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Quotable Quotes

"If the honey bees were controlled by fragmented air traffic controllers, we wouldn't have honey any more in Europe. We fly 6% longer routes than we should, and we spend billions more than we should; we have holding patterns and we just destroy value there."
--Lufthansa CEO Wolfgang Mayrhuber, at the IATA annual meeting in Istanbul, BBC News, June 3, 2008

"A key principle CANSO pursued from its foundation more than ten years ago is the clear separation between [ATC] service provision and regulation. While separation has been introduced in many states, there is still a lot to be gained by changing the institutional set-up for service provision, regulation, and supervision. What is a recognized principle in many nations will need to be applied also at the level of international organizations."
--DFS CEO Dieter Kaden, "The CEO Column," Airspace, Quarter 2/3, 2008

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


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