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Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #105

Inspector General on underlying FAA problems, ATC funding crunch launches fresh thinking, Nav Canada and performance-based navigation, and More...

Robert Poole
August 6, 2013

In this issue:

Inspector General Cites Underlying Causes of Nextgen Problems

In his testimony before the House Aviation Subcommittee on July 17th, DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel laid it on the line. NextGen’s slow progress and cost overruns are not merely the usual challenges inherent in developing and implementing new technology programs. Rather, they stem from “an organizational culture that has been slow to embrace NextGen’s transformational vision.” Both the 2011 Monitor Group study and IG interviews found that “FAA’s highly operational, tactical, and safety-oriented culture can lead to a risk-averse outlook that is slow to embrace change, resulting in an organization that prioritizes day-to-day operations over more strategic and policy-driven change over time.” (“FAA’s Progress and Challenges in Advancing the Next Generation Air Transportation System,” DOT Office of Inspector General, CC-2013-028, July 17, 2013, available on www.oig.dot.gov.)

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, testifying at the same hearing, put the best face he could on areas of incremental progress, but as an aviation colleague commented in an online forum, “Even skimming quickly through [the two testimonies] you’ll see quite a difference. A visiting Martian might easily assume Huerta and Scovel were discussing two entirely different agendas.” (Huerta’s testimony is available at www.faa.gov/news/testimony/news_story.cfm?newsid=14874.)

Among the points in Scovel’s testimony was that, nearly 10 years into NextGen, the agency “continues to lack an executable NextGen plan.” And because requirements for many elements have not been finalized, “decisionmakers and stakeholders lack sufficient information—including reliable cost and schedule estimates for achieving NextGen’s goals of enhancing capacity and reducing delays—to assess progress and risk.” Key NextGen design decisions that FAA has still not made include:

Scovel also pointed to “organizational instability and inconsistent leadership” as undermining a culture that could effectively implement the NextGen vision. Since 2003, he pointed out, the agency has had five Administrators and had only an Acting Administrator for all of 2012. Stakeholders also told the IG auditors that “frequent turnover in senior leadership has hindered a consistent message and a shared vision for NextGen, along with limiting accountability for NextGen problems and lack of progress.”

There’s a lot more in the 12-page written testimony, which you can peruse yourself. That these kinds of problems still persist after numerous attempted fixes by Congress suggests that previous reforms have not corrected the underlying problems that have plagued the FAA for more than the 30 years that I have been reading GAO and OIG reports about the agency. Congress has implemented what it considered four major reforms intended to fix these problems: procurement reform, personnel reform, a fixed term for the Administrator, and creating the Air Traffic Organization to supposedly operate like a business. Yet the GAO and OIG reports you can read today are dismayingly similar to those written in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s—only the program names have changed.

In a forthcoming paper on ATC innovation commissioned by the Hudson Institute, I hypothesize several possible reasons for the FAA’s poor performance. You will have to wait for the paper itself to assess my arguments, but here are the five I’ve come up with:

If I’m right, the solution needs to involve reform that separates the Air Traffic Organization from the safety-regulatory portion of FAA, frees it of civil service constraints, and makes it directly accountable to its aviation customers rather than to myriad oversight bodies and congressional micromanagement.

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Funding Crunch Provokes a New Conversation

In his July 17th testimony, DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel said OIG does not believe funding has been a problem for NextGen thus far, but that could change with the next round of sequestration for the fiscal year that begins October 1st. Administrator Michael Huerta echoed this, saying that likely cuts to FAA’s capital budget will force the agency “to make tradeoffs between maintenance of the current infrastructure and investment in NextGen.”

But even the 2013 sequester cuts, despite being reversed by Congress, have provoked serious rethinking by many aviation stakeholder groups. At a June 27 NextGen workshop cosponsored by the Air Line Pilots Association and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, NATCA President Paul Rinaldi called the sequester “a game changer” that has sparked serious rethinking of how the ATC system is funded and governed. The current funding system is “broken” and needs to be replaced with one that is sustainable and insulated from politics. Although he mentioned Nav Canada as an entity that is far enough ahead technically to potentially take over the North Atlantic (or more), he added that we should not conclude that “NATCA’s signing up for privatization.” But we are, he said, signing up for the conversation on replacing a broken status quo.

Rinaldi’s call for replacing a broken funding system with one that is sustainable and insulated from politics was seconded by ALPA President Lee Moak, Airlines for America CEO Nick Calio and Regional Airlines Association President Roger Cohen. In my own remarks on this panel on funding, I noted the reform principles urged by the FAA Management Advisory Council in March, including both funding reform (a new, sustainable revenue source) and governance reform (a governing board of aviation stakeholders). And I pointed out that no other major infrastructure (airports, electric utilities, railroads) tries to fund major capital programs out of annual cash flow; instead, they issue revenue bonds, so that customers pay for the improved facilities over time, as they enjoy its benefits.

In contrast to the other five panelists, Ed Bolen, President of the National Business Aviation Association, defended what he referred to as stable FAA funding, and repeated his usual arguments that the GA fuel tax is better than any kind of user charge. To my dismay, most media coverage of this panel focused on Bolen’s comments, ignoring Paul Rinaldi’s forthright call for a serious conversation about alternatives, and what appeared to be a consensus among the rest of the panel that the status quo funding model is broken and needs replacing.

I urge you to watch the video of this hour-long (including Q&A) panel on ATC funding and governance: www.youtube.com/watch?v=qhYdnrzKwDg&feature=youtu.be.

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How Nav Canada Approaches Performance-Based Navigation

When I saw a news release about six weeks ago announcing that Nav Canada was contracting with Boeing Jeppeson to develop RNAV and RNP procedures, I was  planning only a brief news note about this development. But because the news release did not specify the contract’s duration or the number of procedures to be developed, I contacted Nav Canada for those details. What I learned suggested a larger story worth relating.

Larry Lachance, VP of Operations at Nav Canada, told me that under the five-year contract with Jeppeson, 50 to 60 procedures would be developed, for four major airports: Calgary, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. There would also be some work on GPS/GNSS approaches. When I started asking him about how they decided these specifics, he mentioned using their well-established consultative process and suggested I talk with Chuck Montgomery, Director of AIS and Flight Operations, for more details.  

Montgomery explained that Nav Canada has not been a first-mover on Performance Based Navigation (PBN, the umbrella term for RNAV and RNP) because it has taken them awhile to work out with their customers where there is a business case for this. One key factor has been the extent of equipage, especially among airlines. WestJet was an early adopter, but when much-larger Air Canada decided on large-scale equipage, the case for developing procedures for the four large airports pretty much fell into place. At the other end of the scale are remote areas and valleys, where the benefits are obvious but implementation remains dependent on the extent of aircraft equipage.

Since Nav Canada did not have much in-house expertise on PBN, they plan to outsource support for design work on instrument procedures; IDS is the main contractor and Jeppeson is another. To assist in defining business cases, Nav Canada has created a PBN Working Group, run out of their Customer Forums. In addition to twice a year sessions involving aircraft operators, airports, and Nav Canada controllers and managers, they are also conducting regional meetings in each flight information region. The point of these efforts, Montgomery told me, is to facilitate conversations between controllers and aircraft operators, to enable the fleshing out the specifics of where and when to implement RNAV, RNP, and GPS/GNSS procedures.

Nav Canada’s approach to PBN looks to me like a model of a customer-focused approach. The PBN concept is great, but it should be implemented when and where the customers agree that the benefits exceed the cost.

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More Progress on Wake Turbulence

Runway throughput is constrained by required separations between aircraft either taking off or landing, due to the danger posed to the trailing aircraft by the turbulent air (wake vortices) generated by the leading aircraft. But recent research results have resulted in ways of increasing runway throughput, thanks to better knowledge about wake turbulence.

The best-known example is the FAA’s RECAT project, which has developed revised separation standards (“recategorization”) based on which type of plane is following another. For wide-bodies, instead of the old rules requiring 4-mile separation behind, say, a Boeing 777 regardless of what size plane was following it, the RECAT rules permit 2.5 miles if the trailing aircraft is also a wide-body. Those changes have been in effect at Memphis since last November and have made a big difference to FedEx’s nightly cargo hub operations. RECAT rules have allowed 18 more FedEx arrivals per hour, since all its cargo jets are in the “heavy” category. Departures have been increased even more.

RECAT is expanding as of this month (August) to Louisville, UPS’s major cargo hub. Other airports in line for RECAT include Atlanta, Houston, Miami, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta is justifiably proud of this success. As he told Bloomberg News, “That single, elegant solution allowed us to increase the number of flights per hour without a single piece of new technology or foot of pavement.” But it does rely on solid research with technology such as Lockheed Martin’s WindTracer laser device that helped create a large database of airport wakes. And it was analysis of such data that made possible the recategorization project.

The second project also results from FAA-sponsored research. Wake Turbulence Mitigation for Departures (WTMD) uses algorithms that specify when crosswind conditions will push the vortex trails away from an airport’s runways, permitting reduced separations. FAA modeled the increase in departure rates that could occur at SFO’s closely spaced parallel runways, estimating an increase of 2 to 6 departures per hour. WTMD has been implemented this year at SFO and Houston, with Memphis scheduled for implementation this month. The algorithms are installed in the control tower’s information system, using both forecast and actual wind conditions to determine when it is safe to allow reduced separations on departures from closely spaced parallel runways.

A third effort is getting under way at Dubai International Airport, in a project drawing on research by Sweden’s Avtech and British ANSP NATS at London’s Heathrow Airport. It will use Lockheed Martin LIDAR (laser light) measurement of vortices, detailed meteorological data from AirDat-Panasonic, and flight management system upgrades from Honeywell. The 14-month project will assemble and analyze wake vortex data from aircraft arriving at the Dubai airport. The aim, as in the two US projects, is to develop procedures that can safely reduce separation requirements. It is part of a larger project called Dubai Airport Dual Arrival Stream.

None of these projects reduces or eliminates the generation of wake vortices. But each seeks to implement better-justified separations that can safely increase the throughput of airport runways. That sounds like win-win to me.

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Remote Tower Projects Still Advancing

The idea of monitoring and controlling air traffic at low-activity airports from a remote facility is catching on—in Europe, Australia, Asia, and North America. Updates on most such projects were presented at the recent Paris Air Show.

The pioneers of remote towers are still the ANSPs of Sweden and Norway, LFV and Avinor, respectively. Both are working with Saab Sensis. The company’s remote tower operation for Vaeroy Island Heliport passed site acceptance back in April, soon after site acceptance of the r-TWR system for Sweden’s Sundsvall and Ornskoldsvik airports. LFV expects the latter system to be declared operational by the end of September, and Avinor’s certification activities are under way for Vaeroy Island, controlled remotely from the new Remote Tower Center at Bodo.

In Germany, remote tower efforts are a joint effort of DFS (the ANSP) and the German Aerospace Center DLR. Initial efforts last year were at Erfurt, a low-activity airport in eastern Germany. Trials are also planned for Saarbrucken and Dresden airports between now and 2015.

Airservices Australia has been working with Saab Sensis for several years on a remote tower for Alice Springs Airport in central Australia, to be controlled from a remote tower center in Adelaide, 950 miles to the south. And the company is also pursuing remote tower opportunities in India, where rapid aviation growth is outpacing the ability of the government to build and maintain control towers at smaller airports. A current concept is to group two to five small airports to be handled by one remote tower center. Saab Sensis is also discussing the remote tower concept with aviation officials in China, and with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Nav Canada is pursuing a somewhat different approach that it calls a Networked Tower System, under which airports with little or no night activity (such as Fort McMurray in the oil sands country) have a staffed control tower during busier hours but during night hours have Remote Airport Advisory Services provided by a flight service station or other ATC facility perhaps hundreds of miles away. The company offers Remote Airport Advisory Services to some 40 sites across Canada. Thus far, this service does not include video, but integrating video surveillance into such activities is under study.

The leading-edge U.S. remote tower project is Phase III of the Colorado Surveillance Project, under the designation “Blended Airspace.” Unlike the European projects, it plans to use electronic rather than visual surveillance for traffic into and out of non-towered (and part-time towered) airports in Colorado, particularly those serving the ski country, whose air traffic is highly seasonal. It is a joint effort of the Colorado DOT and FAA. The four airports under consideration at present are Durango, Fort Collins Loveland, Montrose, and Yampa Valley Regional-Hayden.

The concept would rely on local surveillance via Wide-Area Multilateration (WAM) and ADS-B to provide radar-like data. Controllers handling this traffic could be located at a control tower elsewhere or in a nearby en-route center, such as Denver Center. Project Director Bill Payne told Air Traffic Management earlier this year that if the project succeeds, it could open the door for the return of air carriers who have pulled out of such markets due to the lack of a control tower. Moreover, at a time of FAA budget cuts, the prospects of FAA funding even for new contract towers seems, if you will, remote. Thus, the Blended Airspace version of the remote tower concept may well be an idea whose time is about to arrive.

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Upcoming Conferences

Aviation Week’s NextGen Ahead Conference, Sept. 9-11, 2013, Dupont Circle Hotel, Washington, DC (Robert Poole speaking). Details at: http://events.aviationweek.com/current/nextgen/index.htm

58th Annual ATCA Conference and Exhibition, Oct. 21-23, 2013, Gaylord National Resort & Conference Center, National Harbor, MD (Robert Poole speaking). Details at: www.atca.org/58annual

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News Notes

FAA and Nav Canada Collaboration on Space-Based ADS-B. Late in June the FAA and Nav Canada signed a Declaration of Intent to collaborate on technical and operational issues involved with space-based ADS-B. Nav Canada is both an investor in and the launch customer for the planned Aireon system, which will provide global ADS-B coverage via the next-generation Iridium satellite constellation. In other Aireon news, ITT Exelis has been awarded a contract to provide the data processing and distribution component of the Aireon network.

Australia Procuring Joint Civil/Military ATC Platform. On June 28th Airservices Australia, the country’s corporatized air navigation service provider (ANSP), released a Request for Tender for a new air traffic management platform to serve both civil and military ATC needs. Under the “oneSky Australia” concept, the new system will “remove the inherent limitations from separately managed volumes of airspace and the constraints of operating different systems,” according to Airservices CEO Margaret Staib. Contract award is expected in 2015 with full implementation expected by 2020.

FAA Administrator Promises Facility Consolidation Approach Soon. In testimony May 16th before the House Aviation Subcommittee, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said he expects to share with legislators the agency’s “approach” to facility consolidation within the next “couple of months.” His comment came in response to a question from Subcommittee Chair Frank LoBiondo (R, NJ), who pointed out that the agency has not met the deadline for such a plan set forth in last year’s FAA reauthorization legislation.

Cat. III GBAS in Operation at Frankfurt Airport. A ground-based augmentation system (GBAS) developed by Indra Navia under a SESAR research program has been commissioned and is in operation by DFS, the German ANSP, at Frankfurt Airport. It is now undergoing validation testing at the airport, after having been tested earlier this year for interoperability with Honeywell’s competing Cat. III GBAS prototype. GBAS augments GPS signals to increase their accuracy enough to guide aircraft to precision landings, with Cat. III precision as the ultimate goal.

US Airlines Supporting Jones Act Reform. Why would the major US airline association support repeal or reform of a protectionist measure affecting maritime transportation? The answer is that the cost of transporting jet fuel by tankers using federal waterways (intra-coastal and inland) is artificially increased by the Jones Act’s requirements that only U.S.-built, U.S-owned, and U.S.-crewed ships may be used in all maritime service between domestic ports. Citigroup estimates these requirements increase fuel transport costs by $6 to $8 per barrel. Hence, Airlines for America (A4A) is supporting at least revision of the Jones Act to allow less-costly ships produced overseas to be used.

Patrick Ky to Receive Glen A. Gilbert Award. The executive director of the SESAR Joint Undertaking, Patrick Ky, will be this year’s winner of the Glen A. Gilbert Memorial Award, presented annually by the Air Traffic Control Association. The award is named after Gilbert, widely honored as “the father of air traffic control” and author of the first ATC manual. Ky has directed the SESAR Joint Undertaking since 2007.

Indonesia’s New ANSP Invests in Modernization. AirNav Indonesia has announced a $250 million modernization program over the next three years, to replace obsolete systems and expand capacity for this growing island nation. AirNav Indonesia replaces three separate ATC providers formerly providing air navigation services at more than 150 civil and military airports.

Good Resource on U.S. Contract Towers. The Congressional Research Service has produced an excellent background report on the FAA Contract Tower program. With sequester cuts in prospect at the start of the new fiscal year, Oct. 1, 2013, the report is intended to inform members of Congress on the specifics of this program. “Proposed Cuts to Air Traffic Control Towers Under Budget Sequestration: Background and Considerations for Congress,” was written by aviation specialist Bart Elias and released on May 16, 2013. (www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43021.pdf)

FAA Aiming for Electronic Flight Strips. In its forthcoming Tower Flight Data Manager program, one of FAA’s objectives is to bring controller flight strips into the 21st century by replacing paper strips with electronic ones. With electronic flight strips having been used for more than a decade by a number of overseas ANSPs, it’s embarrassing that the FAA is only now in the planning stages for implementing them. Still, better late than never.

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Quotable Quotes

“This week’s vote [on the Transportation-HUD appropriations bill] proves that House Republicans lack the votes to implement the sweeping domestic spending cuts called for in the House-passed Ryan budget plan on their own, without any Democratic support. And this week proves that Senate Democrats don’t have the 60 votes needed to implement the domestic spending increases (above the level required by the Budget Control Act, as revised) that their leaders want, without at least some Republican support. . . . Both sides in this overall dispute have repeatedly been guilty of false claims on the big picture. House Republicans defend their budget as if its level of domestic spending cuts is required by the Budget Control Act, which they are not. And Senate Democrats point to the House’s Ryan budget and say those spending cuts are the reason to get rid of the Budget Control Act, when in fact the BCA says something quite different.”
—Jeff Davis, “Update: Senate Transportation-HUD Bill Short of Votes as Well,” Transportation Weekly, Aug. 1, 2013

“Ken Button, director for George Mason University’s Center for Transportation, Policy, Operations and Logistics, said the debate over whether to tax [airline] ancillary fees misses the point. The real issue, Button said, is that the country’s aviation system is funded through taxes that he said don’t accurately reflect usage, as opposed to a user fee that could be linked to the costs the government bears to direct an airplane through the air traffic control system. The current system of taxes on airfares is ‘the way things used to be priced in Russia—it’s quite a sad indictment,’ he said. He added that it may be an opportune time to switch to a system of user charges, as difficult as that change may be.”
—Katherine A. Wolfe, “Airline Fee Revenues Climb, Drawing New Tax Scrutiny,” Politico Pro, June 19, 2013

“How I see it is that the Single European Sky is basically a consolidation program. And you are either a driver or the object of a consolidation approach. Due to our size, standing, and capabilities, we think we should play an important part of the future. That is, after all, what our workforce expects from us as managers. To do that as a partnership would not be attacking anyone. We already discuss the SESAR technology program with NATS, and NATS’ structure is similar to ours, so definitely I can see a way to collaborate with NATS beyond simply FABEC functional airspace block considerations.”
—Klaus-Dieter Scheurke, CEO of DFS, in Aimee Turner, “Breaking Down the Walls,” Air Traffic Management, Issue 2, 2013

“In essence, European countries are propping up inefficient state-owned air navigation service provider (ANSP) monopolies over the needs of travelers and the economy. Most European ANSPs did not meet soft cost-efficiency targets for 2012-2014. And, under pressure from national governments, the European Single Sky Committee endorsed weakened Performance and Charging Scheme regulations for air navigation services for 2015-2019.  . . .  By rationalizing the number of air traffic control centers (ACCs), regrouping and re-organizing air navigation services, and unbundling many of the non-core functions of ANSPs and opening them to competitive service tender, the goal of a 50 percent reduction in ATM fees can be reached. A comparison with the United States is pertinent. The US, which covers a broadly similar airspace to the EU in size and complexity, but handles 67 percent more flights, requires only 23 ACCs and a ratio of controllers to back office staff of 1 to 1.4. The EU, by contrast, requires 63 ACCs and a ratio of 2.4 to 1. Our analysis suggests that a reduction of European ACCs to no more than 40, and of the back office-frontline staff ratio to 1.6, is perfectly feasible. And under this scenario, no reduction in the number of controllers is required.”
—Hemant Mistry, IATA, “Stand and Deliver,” Air Traffic Management, Issue 2, 1013

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


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