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Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #103

GAO on RNP's slow progress, How cost-effective are ATC providers? and More...

Robert Poole
May 16, 2013

In this issue:

GAO Documents FAA's Slow Progress on RNP

Aviation stakeholders on the RTCA's NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC) have identified performance-based navigation as the most important near-term advance the FAA should be implementing (along with enhanced traffic management and revised separation standards). And the FAA has taken that recommendation seriously, in particular by targeting its RNAV and RNP efforts on 30 "core airports" that are hubs in major metro areas. It now categorizes this effort as Optimization of Airspace and Procedures in the Metroplex and refers to these core airports as OAPM airports.

With FAA's Metroplex initiative well under way, the GAO has provided an assessment in its April report, "FAA Has Made Some Progress in Midterm Implementation, but Ongoing Challenges Limit Expected Benefits" (GAO-12-264). The bottom line, as I will explain, is that FAA's overly cautious approach is producing far less progress on RNP than aviation stakeholders had hoped for by now. In particular, FAA is under-utilizing two key tools that Congress gave it in last year's FAA reauthorization bill.

One of those tools was environmental streamlining. New RNP arrival or departure routes that produce meaningful time and fuel savings will typically alter a flight's ground track, especially at low altitudes near the airport. Congress legislated that such changes below 3,000 ft. altitude near core airports would normally be granted a "categorical exclusion" from having to go through either an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement—absent "extraordinary circumstances." But apparently FAA was so spooked by the possibility of being challenged that it excluded from its mid-term plans all new procedures that would require route changes below 3,000 ft. or very near the airport. RNP experts I've talked to tell me that many such RNP procedures can be designed that would not increase the airport's noise level enough to become an "extraordinary circumstance." (To do that would generally require increasing the size of the airport's 65 DNL footprint or increasing noise by 1.5 DNL within the footprint.)

GAO chided FAA for this overly conservative decision, and also for failing to involve  airport staff early on in community outreach over planned RNP or RNAV routes. Airports typically have extensive familiarity with community noise concerns and lots of experience with community outreach, but "Airport officials in one OAPM metroplex told us [GAO] that FAA had not adequately included them in early planning for new PBN routes."

FAA did follow the NAC's recommendation that it focus its Metroplex effort first on seven top priority metro areas with multiple airports: Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Los Angeles/San Diego, New York/Philadelphia, and Washington/Baltimore. But even though New York is the most congested of all, it is being excluded because FAA is still underway on a painstakingly negotiated airspace redesign that would have to be re-litigated if the agency began work on new RNP procedures there. So for now, the Metroplex effort is focused mostly on the remaining six regions—and with constraints that omit consideration of the most-productive low-altitude RNP procedures.

Fortunately, a separate effort was already under way in Seattle (one of the 30 OAPM airports), the Greener Skies Initiative. It was not constrained from considering low-altitude RNP procedures, and in fact has developed, tested, and will implement this year 27 new procedures, including optimized profile descents and curved RNP final approach paths that reduce the final approach from 15 nm to just 6 nm, saving time, fuel, and emissions. FAA avionics systems branch manager Bruce DeCleene told Aviation Week last fall that this type of procedure "is applicable to all airports with parallel runways"—which is just about all large and medium hubs. Even though the Greener Skies project only designed RNP approaches for the west side of the airport (to avoid noise battles over residential areas to the east), numerous observers consider it FAA's best example of RNP implementation.

The other tool Congress gave FAA was the ability to spend money to contract with third-party developers of new RNP procedures. Unfortunately, instead of positioning this as a way to accelerate RNP at the 30 OAPM airports, the legislation applied it to mid-size airports. For reasons of its own, FAA selected Anchorage, Dayton, Kansas City Downtown (later changed to Buffalo), Milwaukee, and Syracuse. It hired one of the two previously certified firms and authorized it to develop two procedures at each airport, under a $2.8 million contract, and that work is now under way.

Amazingly, the GAO report then presents a highly misleading cost comparison. It presents without qualification an FAA estimate that it costs the agency an average of just $58,100 to develop, test, and implement an RNP approach. And GAO then takes the $2.8 million contract cost, divides it by 10 (two procedures each at five airports), and concludes that it costs a third-party firm $280,000 to develop each procedure. First of all, the FAA cost number probably excludes various overhead costs. More important, the estimated private-sector cost number ignores the fact that much of the work of assessing the airspace around an airport, identifying possible procedures, doing community outreach, etc. is a common cost, no matter how many procedures end up being produced. (At Seattle, 27 new procedures were developed for just the west approach to the airport.) So the $280K number is an artifact of FAA contracting for only two procedures per airport. Had there been 10 per airport, the cost per procedure would average just $56,000. But opponents of allowing the private sector to supplement RNP development will likely seize on that bogus $280,000 per procedure number.

There is a lot more in this report on obstacles to more timely implementation of RNP, including a lack of controller training, the need to revise the controller handbook, the need to delete obsolete procedures, and much more. Clearly, it is one thing for the aviation customers (as represented by the NAC) to recommend priorities and another thing altogether for the FAA to deliver what those customers want and need.

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How Cost-Effective Are Air Traffic Providers?

Since 2005, the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO) has been working with its member air navigation service providers (ANSPs) to develop and report performance measures. ANSPs in Europe are under serious pressure to improve their productivity and cost-effectiveness as part of the move toward a Single European Sky, and it is widely known that, overall, air traffic control in Europe is significantly more costly than ATC in the United States.

CANSO recently released its 2012 Global ANS Performance Report, with data from 26 member ANSPs for the most recent year (2011) and five-year (2007-2011) trend data. The three main performance measures tracked in the report are IFR flight hours per controller, cost per IFR flight hour, and revenue per flight hour. For this article, I will focus on the cost-effectiveness measure: cost per IFR flight hour. The table below ranks the 15 developed country ANSPs on this indicator, and also shows the average annual change in this measure over the five-year period.

ANSP

Country

2011 Cost/IFR Flight Hour

Average Annual Change

EANS

Estonia

$251

  5.9%

Nav Canada

Canada

$327

-1.3%

Airways New Zealand

New Zealand

$396

 5.3%

Air Traffic Organization

United States

$433

 6.6%

LGS

Latvia

$435

 4.3%

Hungaro Control

Hungary

$565

18.0%

Nav Portugal

Portugal

$570

-2.7%

IAA

Ireland

$604

 6.1%

Finavia

Finland

$607

-5.6%

ANS CR

Czech Republic

$634

-1.6%

LFV

Sweden

$691

 8.3%

Naviair

Denmark

$707

 6.1%

NATS

United Kingdom

$774

 6.0%

LPS

Slovak Republic

$781

 6.2%

AENA

Spain

$801

-4.0%

There is more than a threefold difference between the most cost-effective provider (EANS) and the least (AENA). Interestingly, the FAA's ATO ranks a respectable fourth in cost-effectiveness, behind Airways New Zealand and Nav Canada. Germany's DFS and France's DSNA, unfortunately, did not participate, but the other European heavyweight, NATS, came in quite high at $774. It's also interesting to note the changes over the past five years. Most developed-country ANSPs, like the ATO, have experienced average annual cost increases of 5 to 7%. But several have actually showed impressive cost reductions during that time, most notably Finavia and AENA, but also Nav Portugal, ANS CR, and Nav Canada. The fact that such reductions are possible, despite a downward trend in air traffic during that time period, should serve as a wake-up call to ANSPs whose costs have continued to increase.

While I was reviewing the CANSO report, an analysis of ATO cost-effectiveness came across my screen. In an April 25th update (during the battle over controller furloughs), Transportation Weekly's expert number-crunching editor Jeff Davis reviewed annual air traffic workload data from FAA Aerospace Forecasts from 2000 through 2013, based on annual aircraft-handled totals (ARTCCs, TRACONs, and Towers). These data show a long decline from 166,552,000 handled in 2000 to 128,843,000 in the 2013 report. He compared this with the annual ATO Operations budget, adjusted for inflation (using CPI-U) to 2012 dollars. The result is a measure of the cost per aircraft handled by the ATC system, for each of those 14 years. Alas, that figure climbed from $37.36 in 2000 to $53.99 in 2013, a real increase of 44.5%.

Thus, while overall the ATO is still among the most cost-effective ANSPs, this cost trend is disturbing. The ATO's aviation customers are getting steadily less bang for their bucks, in real terms. The missing dimension is serious productivity increases, which is what advanced technology (NextGen) and streamlined procedures ought to be capable of delivering. Will the ATO's customers demand such productivity increases? This question should be central to the emerging debate over reforming the governance and funding of U.S. air traffic control.

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Some Progress on Equipage for NextGen

In both the United States and internationally, consensus has been emerging on which aircraft capabilities should be implemented in which order, to enable the new technologies and procedures envisioned under NextGen in this country and the Single European Sky in Europe. Last November in Montreal, conferees at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) agreed on the outline for four "block upgrades" to airborne and ground ATC infrastructure. The first of these—Block 0—will be for performance-based navigation (PBN) and continuous-descent approach and continuous-climb departures. Block 1 will include controller-pilot datalink and more-precise surveillance via ADS-B.

But the business case for U.S. aircraft operators to fork out potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars per airliner remains difficult, especially since those operators cannot rely on projections from the FAA about which capabilities it will have in operation by which date. And airlines are generally reluctant to be early adopters, especially when meaningful benefits may require at least 60 or 70% of the fleet to be equipped before improved procedures can be routinely offered.

But there are a few encouraging signs. Despite Southwest and Alaska being frustrated early-equippers for RNP, Delta has recently announced a contract to retrofit 182 MD-88 and MD-90 aircraft with RNP capabilities. For $325,000 apiece, Innovative Solutions and Support will update each plane with new flight management systems and displays, GPS/WAAS receivers, and various other electronics. Each upgrade is expected to take four days, and will be performed on-site during regular aircraft checks.

And US Airways has received FAA certification to use ACSS's SafeRoute suite, which includes ADS-B/In, on its trans-Atlantic Airbus A-330s. This will give cockpit crew the capability for interval management, in-trail procedures, cockpit display of traffic information, and surface area movement management. The project is a joint effort of US Airways, ACSS, the FAA, and Eurocontrol, and US Airways sees it as a way to "demonstrate the benefits of NextGen technology."

Those, of course, are just two aircraft types operated by two airlines, and can best be viewed as special cases. What most of US aviation is waiting for is final FAA agreement to the public-private partnership authorized by last year's FAA reauthorization bill. Nexa Capital's NextGen Equipage Fund has been making progress over the past year, with its plan to make volume purchases of equipment packages and lease them to airlines, with the lease payments not due until FAA begins offering the planned services (e.g., usable RNP procedures, ADS-B/In, controller-pilot datalink, etc.). One proposed package for a 737-800 would include equipage for ADS-B Out and In, RNP 0.3, and datalink for about $550,000. Nexa has developed more than a dozen such packages, aimed at various airline makes and models.

Since I last wrote about the Equipage Fund, Nexa has announced two key investors: Exelis and Airbus Americas, with several others apparently signed up but not yet announced. It has set up two funds, the first of which plans to purchase $1.35 billion worth of equipment to lease to passenger and cargo airlines. The second fund will have $550 million in capital to finance four-year loans offered to private plane owners to purchase equipment. According to an article in Washington Business Journal (May 10, 2013), "Nexa is in advanced talks with three airlines, and expects to announce at least one customer by the middle of this year."

Congress authorized the FAA to enter into such public-private partnership arrangements, and Administrator Michael Huerta told the industry at conferences last year that the agency is committed to doing so. They aren't there yet, but let's hope they make good on that commitment.

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More New Ideas for the Single European Sky

In the March issue I reported on some fairly radical ideas for restructuring air traffic provision in Europe, including the idea that certain services should be centralized under the auspices of Eurocontrol and then competitively contracted to ANSPs and private-sector companies. According to an article in the May issue of Aviation Intelligence Reporter, many of these ideas originated in a blueprint for reforming European air traffic management written by Frank Brenner, now Eurocontrol's Director General, back when he was still with DFS, the German ANSP.

Eurocontrol is now working jointly with IATA, the Association of European Airlines, CANSO, Swiss ANSP Skyguide, and the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers' Associations (IFATCA) to move that vision forward. A key building block of the vision is Skyguide's concept for a cloud-based Virtual Air Traffic Control Center. The idea appears to be that instead of going through all the disruptions of physically consolidating the majority of Europe's 64 control centers, their functions could be combined—but without having to relocate hundreds or thousands of controllers. This might also be an alternative to the glacially slow process of making real the nine on-paper Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs).

This concept takes advantage of the paradigm shift made possible by SESAR and NextGen technologies—more precise surveillance, performance-based navigation, digital communications, real-time weather information, etc., all stitched together via system-wide information management (SWIM). Together they make possible air traffic control anywhere from anywhere. As an example, Aviation Week reports that NATS is considering doing Falklands Island ATC from the UK. "If the U.S. can operate Reapers [UAVs in Afghanistan] from Nevada, then we should be able to do Falklands air traffic from Swanwick [England]," said NATS CEO Richard Deakin. "As long as you can see the airspace, it doesn't really matter where the people are."

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Wake Vortex Mitigation Developments

In Issue No. 98, I wrote about the FAA's Recat program to devise and implement more data-driven separations standards to protect a following aircraft from the wake vortices generated by the aircraft ahead of it (e.g., on take-off). In actual operation at Memphis last year, those new standards increased runway throughput for Fedex night operations by 15 to 20%.

But what if vortices could be dissipated before they could upset a following aircraft? That is the aim of a promising effort by the German Aerospace Center (DLR). It has patented and tested a system called Plate Line that appears to dissipate vortices generated by a plane's takeoff, making it possible to land the following aircraft sooner. Plate Line involves placing a set of parallel four-meter-long plates near the runway threshold, arranged one after the other. When the primary vortex hits the plates, secondary vortices form on the plates, which help to dissipate the primary vortex.

DLR recently tested the system using low-altitude fly-bys of its HALO research aircraft, a Gulfstream G550. According to a report by AirTrafficManagement.net (May 1, 2013), the system performed similarly to their previous simulation runs. The next step will be to install and test the system at a commercial airport. The next version will likely include larger plates, to deal with the stronger vortices produced by large commercial aircraft.

DLR has also developed a wake vortex prediction and observation system, as a complement to Plate Line. That system has been tested at Frankfurt and Munich airports. The agency views Plate Line and the prediction system as complementary.

Meanwhile, the FAA is launching one-year pilot programs of its Wake Turbulence Mitigation for Departures (WTMD) algorithms for use at airports with closely spaced parallel runways. Developed by MIT's Lincoln Laboratory, WTMD measures wind conditions and advises controllers when winds will push vortices away from the runways to permit more closely spaced departures. Trials will begin May 15 at San Francisco, May 20 at Houston, and August 5 at Memphis.

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News Notes

Airspace Redesign Enhances NZ RNP. Queenstown, New Zealand, was one of the world's first airports where RNP arrival and departure routes were implemented to improve access to and from this tourist destination in mountainous terrain. Last fall, GE Aviation and Airways New Zealand introduced revised RNP arrivals and departures, and have now completed an airspace redesign based on them. The redesign reduced average flight delays from more than 6 minutes to less than 1 minute per flight, while also significantly reducing diversions due to low visibility. The redesign also allows for simultaneous approaches and departures, which were not possible previously at Queenstown.

DFS Implements Wide Area Multilateration at Frankfurt. German air navigation service provider DFS has begun operating its new Precision Approach Monitor at Frankfurt International Airport. The system is based on a Wide Area Multilateration (WAM) system from Thales that updates the display of aircraft positions on controllers' screens once per second, rather than every 5 seconds based on radar signals. The system uses 34 sensors distributed around the airport up to 150 km. away, providing coverage for nearby Hahn airport as well.

South Korea Implementing eLORAN to Back Up GPS. Faced with ever-increasing GPS jamming attacks since August 2010, South Korea's government decided last month to implement an enhanced LORAN (eLORAN) system that will cover the entire country by 2016. It will procure the system via international competitive bidding. The plans for the system were presented at the European Navigation Conference in Vienna on April 23rd. In 2012, over 1,000 aircraft and 254 ships in South Korea experienced GPS disruptions due to North Korean jamming. South Korea hopes to subsequently extend the system's coverage to all of Northeast Asia, in cooperation with Russia and China.

NATS Considering Steep Heathrow Arrivals to Reduce Noise. Middle Eastern airline Emirates has proposed that its A-380s approach Heathrow at a steeper angle, estimating that this would reduce noise by 15-20%--which it hopes would permit later flights at night and earlier morning arrivals than allowed by the airport's current 11:30 PM to 6:00 AM curfew (except for 18 daily flights allowed between 4:30 and 6:00 AM). The proposal calls for 5.5 degree descents rather than the current 3 degrees, permitting the plane to land a kilometer further down the runway. Air navigation service provider NATS is studying the proposal, and the UK government is considering a new night flying regime for Heathrow.

Largest FAB in EU Ratified. FABEC, the functional airspace block for Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, completed its formal treaty process in April, and will enter into force as of June 1st. Including Eurocontrol's Maastricht Upper Area Control (MUAC), FABEC handles 55% of all European air traffic transactions.

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Quotable Quotes

"The air transportation system in this country is vital to economic growth. Safely running it is vital to everyone's interest. . . . To operate it this way [the sequester] is beginning to raise concern among all of us in the community. We are the only air traffic control system that's run entirely by government, in the developed countries. Other countries have commercialized or privatized their systems and taken them out of the political process, if you will. We've always felt that Congress provides appropriate oversight, and the system works pretty well. But they shut down the FAA, sort of, about a year ago, because they couldn't agree on a budget. So no funding for the FAA was their answer for a few days. Now you have this reduction in funding for contract towers. In over 30 years they closed down only three towers; then they decided in three months to shut down 149. It really makes you wonder whether we've got the right approach. . . . I do think questions are being asked increasingly around Washington about what the future should look like and how we go forward. And I think those questions should be raised. . . . There's a lot of things that go along with [commercialization] that would have to get resolved. But the long-term funding that our ATC system needs, and the continuity of that funding, to invest in things like NextGen, are very difficult under a political system where you have these ups and downs and shifts backwards and forwards all the time. Whether we could find a way to do it, with something that's tied to government but less run by government, probably over the next couple of years we're going to have to address."
—Craig Fuller, "Craig Fuller on Controller Furlough, FAA Funding," AOPA Live, May 5, 2013 (aopalive.aopa.org/?Watch={78AF57CF-79F0-4319-825A-FB5582DCE4BD})

"Other countries have long used [a different] model. A private nonprofit corporation has been responsible for air traffic control in Canada since . . . 1996. It receives no public funding. Britain made the strategic decision to separate its air traffic control system from [safety] regulation in 1992; full privatization followed in 2000. A similar privatized system in this country could protect the nation's air traffic control system from the vagaries of congressional budget battles. By consolidating air traffic control centers—which the FAA owns but, politically speaking, would not be able to consolidate—and speeding up implementation of the satellite-based NextGen system, a privatized system could also provide more efficiency without compromising safety."
—Joshua Schank, CEO, Eno Transportation Foundation, "Air Traffic Control Shouldn't Be a Government Responsibility," The Washington Post, April 25, 2013

"The airspaces of different countries are in the process of becoming unified in the next few years, and the competition between providers of air navigation services will intensify. This will also require Finavia to constantly make investments, improve its efficiency, and demonstrate an ability to make reforms in order for Finavia to meet the EU's requirements. When Finavia succeeds in this, it may have an increasingly important role in the liberalizing market of European air navigation services, because our competence and technical systems are of a high standard."
Raine Loujus, Senior Vice President, Finavia, in Aimee Turner, "Finavia Completes Work on Unified ATC System," AirTrafficManagement.net, April 18, 2013

"The U.K. has been privatizing assets for years, but it's an odd concept for some countries to think that part of the critical infrastructure can be privatized. You only have to look at the progress we have made on everything from cost reductions, savings, and quality of service to think that actually the best way to improve, even in Europe, is to have a bit of commercial competition. After all, regulation is just a substitute for competition. People introduce regulation into markets where there is no competition."
—Richard Deakin, CEO, National Air Traffic Services, in Tony Osborne, "Four-Dimensional Thinking," Aviation Week, March 4/11, 2013

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


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