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Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #64

Air traffic control modernization and cost-effectiveness, misinformation on user fees

Robert Poole
June 22, 2009

In this issue:


Congressional Micromanagement of ATC, Yet Again

On June 17, 2009 the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization switched on its new operation system, ERAM (En-Route Automation Modernization) at the Salt Lake City center. ERAM is the replacement for the obsolescent Host computer system used to control traffic at all 20 en-route centers. After thorough testing at Salt Lake and Seattle centers, the system will be declared operational there, and over the following 18 months will be switched on at the other 18 centers.

ERAM is a $2 billion Lockheed Martin effort that, in contrast to many previous large FAA procurements, is basically on time and on budget. Although conceived prior to NextGen, it is the key software platform on which key NextGen tools such as ADS-B and controller-pilot datalink will rest. Unlike Host, ERAM has an open architecture, which will make it much easier to add to and upgrade.

The Salt Lake debut took place despite a letter to FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt signed by both Utah Senators and two of its three Representatives in Congress. At the behest of controllers union NATCA, the non-expert legislators repeated NATCA assertions about the “stability of the system,”—as if any of them knew what that meant. But to serve their constituent labor union, they tried to insert themselves into a process they knew essentially nothing about.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens all too often. Practically any change in procedures, employment, or (especially) facilities leads to someone objecting, and to members of Congress intervening to one degree or another. Just sending a letter is relatively harmless (though such letters always carry the implied threat of legislative prohibitions or budgetary restrictions); sometimes legislators try diligently to block planned ATO decisions and actions (e.g., on outsourcing Flight Service Stations several years ago).

When Congress authorized creation of the ATO in 2000, the idea was to reform the management of the ATC system, allowing it to operate much like the high-tech business that it is. Yet what kind of business can operate with a “board of directors” made up of 535 members, most of whom know next to nothing about ATC but always seek to assist favored interest groups? This kind of continual micromanagement would drive any management team crazy, and I’m sure the dedicated leadership at the ATO is no exception.

And here’s another one to keep your eye on. As part of its process for bringing aviation weather information into the 21st century, the ATO is planning to eliminate on-site meteorologists from the National Weather Service (NWS) who currently staff offices at all 20 en-route centers. Real-time weather information would instead be provided out of two NWS centers, one in College Park, MD and the other in Kansas City, MO. As an ATO spokesman told the Washington Post, the current on-site arrangement is based on technology of the 1970s. Today, every en-route center “has up-to-the-minute weather from a variety of sources,” including Doppler radar and surveillance radar. And after all, one of the key precepts of NextGen is the concept of “system wide information management”—providing the same real-time information to controllers, pilots, and system managers. That includes weather information.

Needless to say, this does not sit well with the National Weather Service Employees Organization. Despite NWS’s no-layoff pledge, the union understandably does not want to see members have to relocate in order to keep their jobs. So they have tried to portray the consolidation plan as jeopardizing safety. Fellow union leader Pat Forrey of NATCA, in solidarity with the NWSEO, calls it “a foolish plan that puts cost savings ahead of safety,” and told the Post reporter that “we cannot believe such a reckless idea has gotten this far.”

I’m not aware of any congressional intervention on this one—yet. But I’m not holding my breath. If we can’t figure out a way to stop this kind of meddling, it will play absolute havoc with timely implementation of the enormously complex and disruptive paradigm shift called NextGen.

Is U.S. Air Traffic Control More Cost-Effective than Europe’s?

It’s quite likely that with 66 en-route centers (compared to our 20), and fragmented airspace, Europe’s ATC “system” (actually a collection of 38 ANSPs) must be less efficient than ours here in the USA. The new “Performance Review Report, 2008,” released in May by Eurocontrol, provides a wealth of information on the comparative performance of Europe’s ANSPs, as well as one chapter comparing some aspects of U.S. and European ATC performance. Alas, the Europe-US comparison does not extend to cost-effectiveness data.

But let’s look at what the data do reveal. One clue that, overall, Europe’s system is less cost-effective is the comparative staffing. While the 38 European ANSPs employ 17,000 controllers, the same as our ATO, total staffing is 56,000 in Europe versus 35,000 in the United States. Even if European unit labor costs are significantly lower, the total cost is almost certainly larger (to control about 55% of the IFR traffic). The United States also has more airspace sectors with high air traffic densities than Europe, though a few of the latter are as dense as our congested Midwestern sectors.

In terms of performance, for the 34 largest airports in each, Europe’s average flight has 94 passengers, vs. 72 in the USA. Runway utilization is about equal, but because our airports average more runways than Europe’s, our airports average 28% more annual passengers and 65% more annual flights than Europe’s. In terms of on-time performance, at the 34 largest airports, arrival delays are about the same, on average, but the USA does better on punctual departures. On the other hand, when delays do happen they are a lot longer in the USA, and the variability in arrival and departure times is larger in the USA.

When it comes to cost-effectiveness comparisons among European ANSPs, there is large variation among the 38 providers. Commercialization, which has been widespread in Europe over the past decade, has probably fostered the ongoing decrease in European ATC en-route cost per kilometer flown—an impressive 3.4% per year from 2003 through 2007. Due to the current recession, the report projects a slowdown in this downtrend, to an estimated further reduction of only 2.2% for the entire three-year period 2008-2010. And remember that this is a 38-company average; the average cost reduction would have been greater, had not one of the five largest ANSPs, Spain’s Aena, experienced a large increase in controller costs that was not offset by increases in productivity.

There are some older data on comparative (Europe/USA) cost-effectiveness, though not in the en-route sector of ATC. Back in Issue No. 28 (July 2005) I reported on the International Terminal Air Traffic Control Benchmark Study, jointly sponsored by Eurocontrol and the FAA. It examined matched pairs of terminal-area ATC facilities in the United States and six countries with commercialized ANSPs—Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. On average, the U.S. controllers handled 12.5% more traffic than their overseas counterparts, but at higher cost: $36 per air traffic movement in the USA versus $27 overseas.

I hope Eurocontrol’s next performance report will add cost-effectiveness comparisons for U.S. and European en-route air traffic control. My guess is that the trends will be opposite directions: while commercialized ANSP cost per movement has been declining, it has likely been increasing during the same period in the United States.

Are Airliner Black Boxes Obsolete?

One of the core concepts of the new paradigm for air traffic management, per NextGen and the Single European Sky, is network-centric information management. Aircraft will be equipped to generate and transmit, in real time, a lot more (and better) information than they do today, permitting far more precise tracking of exactly where they are at all times. That is the key to reducing spacing in all three dimensions, thereby making much more efficient use of airspace.

The loss of the Air France A-330 in the South Atlantic and—thus far—the inability to retrieve its cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder (the black boxes) has led to considerable discussion among aviation experts about a high-tech alternative: real-time streaming of that kind of data to airline control centers on the ground. That way, the data on what happened would not be lost if the black boxes were destroyed or could not be located. Since air safety is generally enhanced by figuring out what went wrong in a crash, the result would be an increase in air safety.

But is it do-able, at an acceptable cost? Well, to begin with, nearly all airline aircraft (at least for major carriers) are already equipped with a system called ACARS, which transmits data about the status of various aircraft systems to its maintenance base. Reports on the Air France crash have recounted the kinds of information received from Flight 447 in its last minutes. But there is a much larger volume of data collected on the two black boxes, so having enough bandwidth to transmit all of that in real time is a potential problem. But data compression techniques exist, and a spokesman for Canada’s Aeromechanical Services has suggested that a system it makes could transmit 10 times as much data per second than the uncompressed data sent via ACARS. And spokesmen for black box makers Honeywell and L-3 Communications agree that this is a realistic prospect.

ACARS was developed by ARINC, and now both ARINC and competitor SITA offer various competing communications services. Given the importance of learning everything we can about the causes of crashes, this kind of real-time data-streaming—either to supplement or replace black boxes—should be seriously explored as part of NextGen.

Outrageous Fabrications on ATC User Fees

Somebody apparently bamboozled well-meaning volunteer pilots at the great organization, Angel Flight, into spouting anti-user-fee propaganda. I only learned about this via the email update service of the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association (AOPA). I have no direct evidence that AOPA put these ideas into the Angel Flight pilots’ heads, but somebody did, and in an organized manner. Stories taking this line appeared on TV all over the country; I Googled “Angel Flight” and “user fees” and got 724 hits.

The two TV stories that AOPA linked to—one on San Diego’s NBC station and the other on the IndyChannel in Indiana—featured different pilots and medical patients, but had exactly the same story line. Each featured a heart-rending patient with a weak immune system who relies on an Angel’s Flight volunteer pilot with a single-engine plane to fly her to where she can get medical treatment. And in each case the pilot lamented the threat that the FAA will impose user fees on such flights, making them harder for the pilots to afford. The other stories, across the country, were quite similar—as if following a script.

And look at this ominous language from IndyChannel reporter Rafael Sanchez: “Right now, the pilots pay a federal tax on fuel, but the FAA wants to add a list of user fees to pay for air traffic control. They would include charges for every call to the tower for weather reports and during landing and take-off.” I’m sure Sanchez, who is just a reporter (as opposed to an aviation expert) simply took these points from the volunteer pilot that he interviewed. And that pilot evidently got them from some source that disseminated them widely among Angel Flight pilots. And whoever that may be is deliberately spreading falsehoods. As follows:

There is no FAA plan for user fees, only a White House budget proposal almost certainly drafted by OMB. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, so far that “plan” includes only annual revenue totals, aimed at covering the approximate annual budget of the ATO. No ATC user fee plan that has ever been put forward by the DOT or the FAA has ever applied to any general aviation aircraft, and certainly not to single-engine piston planes like those flown by most Angel Flight pilots. And no one, including me, thinks it would make sense to charge private pilots for weather reports or even to charge per-transaction fees of any kinds to the piston-engine segment of general aviation (as opposed to business jets). This kind of deliberate creation of fear and loathing among some of our most honorable private pilots—and the desperate patients--is outrageous and unconscionable.

News Notes

$2.7 Billion for EU ATC Modernization
Europe’s SESAR endeavor (counterpart of the U.S. JPDO) announced in mid-June the award of contracts worth $2.7 billion for initial technologies to modernize European airspace and air traffic management, in pursuit of the Single European Sky goal.

Europe’s First Integrated Airspace Block Announced
The governments of Denmark and Sweden have announced that they will integrate their airspaces in creating the first of a planned set of European Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs). The air navigation service providers (ANSPs) Naviair (Denmark) and LFV/ANS (Sweden) are creating the NUAC Company as a 50/50 joint venture. NUAC will plan and implement the FAB, providing for a single ANSP in one common airspace.

Follow-up on eLoran as GPS Backup
Despite OMB having zeroed out funding for eLoran in the Administration’s proposed FY2010 budget, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in mid-June voted to restore eLoran funding. It added $37 million to the Coast Guard’s budget to enable the continued modernization of existing Loran stations to eLoran, the designated backup system for GPS.

Mexico’s ANSP Joins CANSO
Servicios a la Navigacion en el Espacio Aereo Mexicano (SENEAM) in June became a full member of the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO), the global trade association for ANSPs. SENEAM began life as RAMSA (Radio Aeronautica de Mexico, SA), a nonprofit airline-owned company created following World War II with assistance from ARINC (which pioneered ATC on that basis in the United States in 1935).

Followup on Virtual Tower at Aspen
The FAA has approved the proposal by Aspen-Pitkin County Airport to use closed-circuit video cameras to monitor the south end of its runway, rather than building a much taller control tower when the runway is extended by 1,000 feet.  This is an important step in the direction of the “virtual tower” concept, one of the building blocks of NextGen.

No Rate Increase at Nav Canada
As of now, commercialized ANSP Nav Canada can afford to hold off on any increase in user fee rates for the balance of 2009, the company announced on June 17th. Nav Canada has achieved enough operating cost savings--$20 million in fiscal 2009—to preclude the need for a rate increase, despite this year’s decrease in air traffic. The company also reported that it is close to achieving its target of $94 million set aside in its rate stabilization account, a rainy day fund on which it can draw during downturns to minimize the need to increase user-fee rates at times when customers can least afford them. That target represents 7.5% of recurring expenses.

More CDAs, Says IATA
The International Air Transport Association has called for expanded use of Continuous Descent Approach landing procedures in Europe. While only five such airports today can handle CDAs, IATA wants to see this number increased to 29 by year-end, and to 100 by 2012. CDAs rely on advanced technology to permit smooth, continuous descents at minimal power settings, saving time and fuel.

Quotable Quote

“Imagine, for a moment, how our air traffic system might have evolved differently throughout aviation’s first century if pilots were given direct access to highly accurate airborne surveillance of their surrounding traffic, regardless of visibility, range azimuth, or altitude. It raises all sorts of interesting questions on how roles, responsibilities, and even basic procedures might have developed differently. Would controllers still be providing traffic separation as one of their primary functions, or would this function have become merged with pilot responsibilities for flight safety, such as terrain and weather avoidance? Assuming the latter case, the interaction between pilots and controllers could have developed quite differently regarding the basic management of trajectories. Would controllers still be authorizing each change to the trajectory, or would pilots have more authority and operational flexibili ty to make ‘autonomous’ changes within certain limits?”
--David J. Wing, guest editor, “Foreward: Airborne Separation Assistance System,” special issue of Air Traffic Control Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2009 (www.atca.org)


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


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