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Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #62

Topics include: slower ATC growth; new NextGen focus on mid-term; tough sledding for EU ATC providers; Wake Vortex progress; air safety in Canada; and other news.

Robert Poole
April 27, 2009

In this issue:


What the 2009 FAA Forecast Portends for ATC Growth

Everyone expected that when the FAA released its annual aviation forecast this year, most of its numbers would be revised downward from last year, due to the global recession. But I must admit that I was surprised by how much lower the new numbers are. My focus in this article is specifically what the forecast shows for air traffic control operations. ("FAA Aerospace Forecast, Fiscal Years 2009-2025," available at www.faa.gov)

Airline operations at airports are expected to grow at an average annual rate of 2.1% from 2008 through 2025. Airline TRACON and Center operations are shown growing at comparably low annual rates. In fact, if you take the 20-year period typically used for NextGen planning (2005 to 2025), the ratio of 2025 to 2005 airline operations is 1.45 at airport towers, 1.40 for TRACON operations, and1.45 for en-route center operations. In other words, instead of doubling by 2025, airline ATC activity is now projected to grow by less than 50%.

Far lower growth is projected for the other categories of aviation. The air taxi/commuter segment shows a total 20-year growth of only 2% in airport operations, negative 3% at TRACONs, and positive 21% at Centers. And the umbrella category of "general aviation" (which includes both high-performance turbine-powered business aircraft and the far more numerous and mostly recreational piston planes) shows 1% growth in airport activity, 7% in TRACON activity, and 14% in en-route activity. Altogether, including somewhat lower levels of military activity, total airport ATC activity grows just 10% by 2025, TRACON operations 13%, and Center activity by 30%.

These numbers have important implications for the transition from 20th-century ATC to NextGen. Some will read them as removing the urgency from moving swiftly to get NextGen fully implemented by 2025. The dire projections from the Joint Planning & Development Office (JPDO) showing unmanageable congestion at twice (2X) the current air traffic level, let alone three times (3X), now appear to be much farther-off threats. And it's inevitable that some aircraft operators who want to hold off equipping their planes for NextGen operations will use these new projections to argue for even farther off equipage deadlines.

My take on these projections is different. First, they may be an over-reaction, both to the current recession and to the demise of several companies that were going to produce thousands of very light jets (VLJs) and of DayJet and Pogo that were going to use them to provide air taxi service. Second, to the extent that the forecast is accurate, it provides welcome breathing room for implementing NextGen in a less stressful environment than one of truly severe everyday congestion.

This major paradigm shift in how we keep aircraft safely separated and expeditiously routed was always going to be very difficult to pull off. To the extent that congestion is less severe, that huge task may be at least somewhat easier. For that, we should be very grateful.


NextGen Implementation Plan Offers 2018 Goals

Implementing NextGen will be a very complex process, in part because both the ground systems and the avionics aboard thousands of planes need to be implemented in a coordinated manner. Because of the FAA's historic track record of delivering new technologies late (and occasionally not at all—such as the defunct Microwave Landing System), there is a huge "After you," "No, after you" problem. In other words, airlines and business jet operators are reluctant to spend large sums buying and installing new avionics without assurances that by the time it's operational on their planes, the FAA's Air Traffic Organization (ATO) will have done its part by procuring, installing, debugging, testing, and making operational the related infrastructure.

These concerns have led to two recent developments. One is that under its relatively new Senior VP for NextGen and Operations Planning, Vicki Cox, the ATO in February released "FAA's NextGen Implementation Plan 2009" (available at www.faa.gov/NextGen). This document focuses on what the ATO would like to see in place as of 2018—both its own infrastructure and the associated aircraft equipage. And in a relatively plain-language and straightforward way, it walks the reader through which specific pieces of ground infrastructure and avionics need to be in place for each phase of flight by 2018 to provide the described level of improved ATC services. The report also notes that preliminary modeling of this hypothetical system as of 2018 shows total flight delays reduced by 35-40%, with fuel savings of nearly a billion gallons per year.

The other key development was the creation last fall of the RTCA NextGen Implementation Task Force, representing essentially all of the key aviation stakeholders, including airlines, business aviation, general aviation, and controllers. In many respects, this body is where the real plan will be thrashed out, since the Implementation Plan depends critically on not only what the ATO can implement by 2018 but what its customers can be convinced makes sense to buy and install on their planes. One informed observer told me that the Implementation Plan at this point "is not a plan at all." It might better be described as what the ATO hopes can be done by 2018.

How can aircraft operators be persuaded to equip? This will depend, in part, on how credible a case the ATO can make that it can actually deliver what it's laid out as its own infrastructure capabilities as of 2018, and how valuable the business case says those capabilities would be for various types of customers. One key principle the ATO hopes to implement (though some will resist it) is "best-equipped, best-served." In other words, those aircraft operators that equip in sync with the NextGen schedule will be given priority in operating in the system, to take full advantage of the new capabilities.

ATC veteran Frank Frisbie has suggested that all aircraft operators be paid by the ATO to equip their planes (see Quotable Quotes, below). That strikes me as both overkill and extremely unlikely, politically. But it also highlights the obstacles to successful implementation of NextGen under current institutional arrangements. If the ATO were, instead, a commercialized entity funded directly by fees paid by its customers and governed by a board representing all the key aviation stakeholders, that board could work out deals to speed equipage by those who might otherwise be laggards. One example might be low-interest loans, funded as part of a revenue bond issue and repaid over an N-year period, as the aircraft operator enjoyed the benefits of improved operations. Early adopters, by contrast, could receive discounts on their ATC user fees. Under the status quo, however, laggards have the power to delay thi ngs considerably, by refusing to go along with other stakeholders (thereby violating the requirement for consensus) and threatening to go to Congress if their wishes aren't respected.

There will be many examples over the next few years (e.g., large-scale facility consolidation) where the need for governance and funding reform to implement NextGen successfully will become more and more evident. You can be sure this newsletter will keep pointing them out.


European ANSPs between a Rock and a Hard Place

Two news releases crossed my desk in recent weeks. One was headlined "EU Presses for Reduction in Air Traffic Control Fees." It reported that the European Parliament approved legislation in March setting performance requirements on air navigation services providers (ANSPs). The European Commission will now be tasked with putting together specific regulations, aimed at reducing ANSP costs and hence the rates charged for ATC services. Several weeks later came a news release from CANSO, the ANSP membership organization. This one bore the headline: "CANSO European Members Forecast EUR 1 Billion Loss in 2009 and Propose Measures for Air Transport Recovery." In addition to recounting various cost-saving steps the ANSPs are taking, and their commitment to the Single European Sky, it points out that due to reduced airline flight activity, ANSP user fee revenues are down, in some cases by 10% or more. In 2008, revenues decreased by EUR 400 million, with the 2009 loss projected to be double that sum.

The underlying problem is not the ANSPs' reliance on user fees (which are ubiquitous in air traffic control—except in the United States). Rather, it's that governments throughout Europe require ANSPs to operate on a strict cost-recovery basis. That works fine when economies are growing and hence flight activity is increasing. But when recession strikes and airlines cut flights, it's difficult for ANSPs to reduce their variable costs enough to still operate at break-even.

The best approach to this inherent problem is what's been standard practice in Canada ever since the creation of Nav Canada in 1996. While operated as a not-for-profit company, it is allowed to set aside funds in good years in a Rate Stabilization Fund, from which the company can draw to help cover operating costs in recession years when air traffic activity is reduced. Such reserve funds should become standard practice for all ANSPs, and should be included in the design of a future commercialized ATO in the United States.


Wake Vortex Progress

A long-time reader of this newsletter (and an 18-year FAA veteran) wrote me recently with some perspective on the trade-offs between building new runways and getting more out of the ones we already have. For one thing, runways are very large investments; at large hub airports, a new runway can cost (including all sorts of environmental mitigations) upwards of $5 billion. Moreover, there is a risk in making such investments that by the time you complete the process, the demand that led to the project may not be there. He notes that seven of the last 13 airports to install new runways had a drop in demand of more than 10% after they were completed (and this was prior to the current recession). An extreme case is St. Louis Lambert, after American absorbed floundering TWA and took down its hub there.

One of the factors that limits the throughput of existing runways is wake turbulence. Aircraft moving through the air generate large masses of swirling air, with the vortices generated by larger planes being powerful enough to disrupt the flight path of smaller planes—sometimes even flipping them over and causing them to crash. This has led to spacing rules between different sizes of planes landing and taking off. Those rules are the same, regardless of wind conditions. Yet we know that when there are crosswinds on a runway, the vortex may be blown away making closer spacing possible—thereby increasing runway throughput.

One of the premises of NextGen is to use better technology and real-time information, not only about aircraft position but also about weather. So with real-time crosswind information, it should be possible to adjust vortex-related spacings when wind conditions permit. Research by the FAA and MITRE Corporation is developing a system called Wake Turbulence Mitigation for Departures (WTMD). An article in the Fall 2008 Journal of Air Traffic Control by Jeffrey Tittsworth and Clark Lunsford reported an analysis showing that WTMD is likely to be usable from 10 to 30% of the time at a set of candidate airports with closely spaced parallel runways, which would increase departure capacity from 3 to 13% during busy periods.

Aviation Daily reported last month that five such airports with closely spaced parallel runways have been approved to implement reduced spacing for landings, based on similar wind-speed data. The FAA has been doing research on wake vortex detection using Lockheed Martin's WindTracer system since 2001. (This system uses Doppler LIDAR—Light Detection and Ranging—basically laser light pulses, to measure wind.) The new rules will permit reduced spacing using WindTracer at Boston Logan, Cleveland Hopkins, Philadelphia, St. Louis Lambert, and Seattle Tacoma airports.

These may seem like small changes, but along with a number of other NextGen features, they will squeeze more effective capacity out of existing runways, thereby reducing delays.


Air Safety Sets Record in Canada

On April 14, 2009 the Ottawa Citizen reported on 2008 air safety data from Nav Canada. A key measure used in Canada is "loss of separation" incidents. For 2008, there were 86 such incidents, which works out to just 0.74 per 100,000 aircraft movements. That number represents the continuation of a long downward trend since the former ATC division of Transport Canada was transformed into Nav Canada in late 1996. During its first year of operation, the loss of separation rate was 1.36 per 100,000 movements. Thus, in 12 years it has been cut nearly in half.

Moreover, as in the United States with "operational errors," there are several levels of seriousness of such incidents. In Canada, a "critical" loss of separation is one estimated at 250 feet or less vertically or 500 feet or less laterally. The last time such an incident occurred in Canada was 2005.

These results are consistent with the findings of the comprehensive 10-country study of the performance of commercialized ANSPs, before and after commercialization, "Air Traffic Control Commercialization Policy: Has It Been Effective?" (www.mbsottawa.com) Figure 5.2 in that report plots the trend in "serious safety incidents per IFR movement, ATM-related" in the 9 of the 10 countries for which these data were available. The general down-trend is evident in the figure.

This safety performance is important, because some Americans (including some members of Congress) may still recall a report commissioned by U.S. controllers union NATCA and released in 2003, opposing what it called "privatization" of ATC. Among that report's charges was that air safety was being degraded in countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom that had commercialized their ATC systems. It made misleading comparisons between figures defined differently in the various countries. The large volume of data that has emerged since then (such as the MBS Ottawa study) has pretty thoroughly debunked such concerns.

I'm glad to see that Nav Canada's safety culture is continuing to deliver such good results.


News Notes

NextGen Video and Poole Commentary. The FAA's new six-minute video explaining NextGen is posted on YouTube. It's not bad, and you can access it (along with my brief commentary) from the Reason Foundation blog. Go to: www.reason.org/blog/show/1007408.html.

Nav Canada Signs New Controller Contract. The commercialized air navigation service provider (ANSP) in Canada announced earlier this month that its controllers union had ratified a new contract. The controllers there are represented by the Canadian Air Traffic Control Association Local 5454, an affiliate of the Canadian Auto Workers. The agreement, which runs for two years, provides for four pay increases, totaling 4.5% over that time period.

CANSO ANSPs Now Total 53. The global association representing mostly commercialized air navigation service providers added its 53rd full member this spring, when Luxembourg ANA joined the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization. There are 101 total members, including 48 associate members, mostly aerospace supplier companies.

United in Oceanic ADS-B Demonstration. The FAA and United Airlines have announced a joint demonstration project in oceanic airspace in the Pacific. United 747s and 777s equipped for ADS-B will use that equipment to manage their own spacing (in-trail) in that airspace. Many of those planes have already been equipped with ADS-B to obtain preferential routing from Nav Canada in the latter's Hudson's Bay airspace, which lacks radar coverage but is now equipped for ADS-B operations.

FAA Delegates RNP Authority to Alaska Airlines. Alaska Airlines has announced an agreement under which the FAA is allowing it to conduct its own validation flights to test the use of Required Navigation Performance procedures for specific airports. Generally, airlines have to submit a large documentation package to the agency for 6 to 12 months of review, prior to making the flights. Alaska can now do the flights and then submit the documentation package, speeding up the review and approval process. Alaska was the first airline to develop RNP procedures, in the mid-1990s.

Contract Tower for New Branson Airport. The new privately developed airport for country-music mecca Branson, MO will open May 7th. The control tower, built to FAA specifications by the airport company, will be operated by Midwest ATC, one of several companies that operate control towers under the FAA's Contract Tower program.

AOPA Spending $$ Fighting a Phantom. The Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association is using members' dues to pay for a $1.5 million advertising effort aimed at fighting a mythical threat of user fees being imposed on light aircraft. While the Obama Administration has released no details of the $7 billion per year user fee line item in the FAA budget starting in FY 2011, no previous budget proposal has called for such fees on general aviation aircraft—and it's highly unlikely that this one will, either.


Quotable Quotes

"Unfortunately, the whole [NextGen] thing rests on the premise that users will play along and buy/install the corresponding pieces [avionics] that permit the user and the system to enjoy the fruits of the technology. We have no historical basis to assume that this will ever happen! . . . I think there is only one way out of this standoff. The FAA ANSP needs to buy its way into the NextGen era by paying every aircraft owner to upgrade his/her aircraft, including any expense for recertification and compensation for down time. This payment should have no ‘needs test' other than that the aircraft is used in controlled NAS [national airspace system] airspace and should not discriminate against government aircraft. The payment requires the aircraft to be fully compliant by a date certain or it doesn't fly the NAS. I am emboldened in suggesting this approach by the fact that there is a compelling business case to be made if only from shutting down all the old stuff (VOR, TACAN, DME, ILS, ASR, ARSR, etc., etc.) without having to put a value on the increased capacity of the system and the contribution to efficiencies that derive from that."
--Frank Frisbie, "The Cold War," The Journal of Air Traffic Control, Winter 2009, pp. 9-10.

"Increasing the retirement age above 56 has already proven effective. President Clinton allowed for some fired PATCO controllers to return. They worked past the 56-year age limit, and the FAA knows it. Whether some controllers retain the mental and physical abilities beyond age 56 is quite like pilots working to age 65. In some cases it's OK; others, maybe not. But there is nothing wrong with the FAA establishing better and more frequent testing to make individual choices to retain over age 56 or not. Not only that, in many places controllers do not handle heavy and difficult traffic, and therefore will not need youthful faculties. . . . Aside from offering bonuses and more pay to get the best controllers to the busier places, the FAA can retain older controllers deemed unfit to work demanding traffic by offering incentives to get them to the less busy facilities. . . . This is not new thinking, at least n ot in the field facilities where I served. But it requires HQ to be staffed with forward-looking folks, and for them to get out of DC and talk to people in the field."
--Tom Bonacki, retired FAA ATC center manager, email to Robert Poole, March 30, 2009.



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


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