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Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #86

NextGen modernization held hostage to politics, slow progress for ADS-B, LightSquared even worse than you thought

Robert Poole
August 30, 2011

In this issue:

NextGen Modernization Held Hostage by Politicized Funding

The two-week “tax holiday” during which aviation excise taxes were not collected blew about a $400 million hole in the Aviation Trust Fund, just when NextGen funding should be ramping up to get key transformational programs into operation. Way back in May, the Airports Council International-North America was warning that the Trust Fund’s uncommitted balance could fall to an unprecedented low this year—and that was before the two-week suspension of revenues.

And this wasn’t the first time this has happened. Total Trust Fund receipts in FY 1981 were just $21 million, and only $133 million in FY 1982, due to a much more prolonged political battle during which the taxes were suspended. It happened again in FY 1996, when Trust Fund receipts plummeted from $5.5 billion the year before to just $2.37 billion, due to yet another political battle and suspension of the user taxes.

These fiascos illustrate how harmful it is to have the air traffic control system depend on the annual federal budget process. FAA reauthorization has been postponed 21 times since the previous authorization expired on Sept. 30, 2007—all because of political battles over non-ATC issues. And as of this writing, nobody can say with certainty when Congress will get around to settling House-Senate differences and finally reauthorizing the program. This is no way to plan and manage a $20 billion NextGen modernization.

During previous battles over changing the way ATC is funded, those opposing change argued that the status quo, with Congress playing the role of the system’s “board of directors,” provided a stable source of funding, especially for modernization. I decided to test that proposition, by reviewing how much the FAA’s ATC capital budget (Facilities & Equipment) has fluctuated over time, from FY 1985 through FY 2011. After CPI-adjusting the annual budget numbers, the result was the saw-toothed graph below. In real terms, the average annual F&E amount was $2.93 billion. But the variance is enormous. The peak year, at $3.88 billion, was way back in 1992. And the worst-funded year was 1987, at only $1.6 billion. Stable funding my eye! And if you look at the trend since FY 2002, as NextGen got under way, the inflation-adjusted trend is generally downward. In fact, the FY2011 number, at $2.7 billion, is below the 27-year average.

And the prospects don’t look very good for increasing F&E in coming years. In early August, the Office of Management & Budget asked all federal agencies to develop FY 2013 budget proposals at 5% and 10% below enacted FY 2011 levels. For the FAA, since there is almost zero likelihood of any reductions in the personnel budget, and since Congress fiercely protects the Airport Improvement program, the most likely candidate for cuts is...Facilities & Equipment. So much for ramping up NextGen investment.

No serious developed country allows its ATC system to be held hostage to both politics and general government budgetary vicissitudes. Not Canada, not Australia, not the U.K., not Germany—and the list goes on and on. When I researched this issue for a Reason policy paper on ATC funding in 2005, I found that out of 180 countries reported on by ICAO, only 21 did not charge directly for ATC services—and all but the United States were either very poor developing nations, such as Namibia, Somalia, and Swaziland, or island mini-states, such as the Bahamas, the Comoros, and Tonga. (See Table 4 in the report, “Resolving the Crisis in Air Traffic Control Funding,” http://reason.org/news/show/resolving-the-crisis-in-air-tr.)

The best way to ensure that NextGen is properly funded and developed on time is to remove the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization from the federal budget process, making it self-supporting via fees and charges for its services. That would also enable it to issue revenue bonds for modernization, like its counterparts in Canada, et al. routinely do.

ADS-B’s Slow Progress


ADS-B and DataComm are “cornerstones of airspace modernization,” wrote Graham Warwick in Aviation Week (July 18/25, 2011), making it possible for aircraft to negotiate and carry out four-dimensional (three spatial plus time) trajectories and fly more-efficient paths. But getting these technologies and procedures in place appears to be a long and uncertain process. Currently flight tracking using ADS-B/Out information is operational in only a handful of locations: the Gulf of Mexico, Juneau (AK), Louisville, and Philadelphia. In each of those cases, ADS-B had to be integrated with a different automation system—Host in Houston (for the Gulf), STARS in Philadelphia, Common ARTS in Louisville, etc. Even the new en-route software, ERAM, apparently must be custom-tailored to the numerous eccentricities of each of the 20 en-route Centers where it is being installed. Supposedly, ADS-B/Out processing is to be available nationwide by 2013, but we’ve recently seen the full implementation date for ERAM extended to late 2014, so ADS-B/Out is probably now 2014, too.

The NextGen Advisory Committee, operating out of RTCA, has recommended that the FAA set equipage deadlines for three successive packages of equipment: basic GPS plus RNP 0.3 capability for all airliners and WAAS-LPV for general aviation, ADS-B/Out, and DataComm. The estimated price tag for all three packages is $6-7 billion. Hopefully, much of that could be handled via NexaCapital’s NextGen Equipage Fund.

FAA is taking a modest step toward use of the “best-equipped/best-served” (BEBS) concept via its pilot program with JetBlue. The airline is installing ADS-B/Out on aircraft used for flights from Boston and New York to points in Florida and the Caribbean. Thanks to the more-precise position reporting from ADS-B, those flights will be assigned to what amount to express lanes in the sky, aimed at saving time and fuel. In a proposed second phase, those JetBlue cockpits would be equipped with ADS-B/In capability in the form of ACSS’s SafeRoute applications, to enable merging and spacing, as already used by UPS in Louisville. (Merging and spacing has now been dubbed Interval Management—IM).

The hope is that small pilot programs like this will demonstrate benefits and motivate other airlines to become early adopters. But there is still a lot of uncertainty in the airline community over FAA’s ability to have planned capabilities in place when promised, causing budget-stressed airlines to hold back on equipage spending. Deputy Administrator Michael Huerta acknowledged this in a long article by Ashley Halsey in the Washington Post, July 4th. “How can they be sure that FAA will deliver on its commitments? That’s a fair question,” he told the reporter. Halsey also quoted former Air Traffic Organization chief Russ Chew as saying, “NextGen is threatened. Everyone knows it. The FAA budget is under pressure. Even they will say that NextGen is on track but it’s not.” Added Deputy Associate Administrator John Hickey in Aviation Week, “The budget stands to be the biggest obstacle to implementing NextGen as rapidly as we want to.”

I still think NextGen makes sense and is worth doing. But it’s becoming more and more obvious that a different funding and governance approach is required.

How Many Commercialized ANSPs Are There?

In case you came in late, “ANSP” has become the global term for providers of air traffic control services—Air Navigation Service Provider. The term has been popularized by CANSO, a membership organization for ANSPs. The Civil Air Navigation Services Organization emerged in the early years of the “commercialization” of ANSPs—i.e., their separation from state transportation agencies and conversion into self-supporting entities, like utilities, based on charges for their services. Airways New Zealand, Airservices Australia, Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS), Nav Canada, and others saw value in creating a membership organization to represent their common interests in dealing with airlines (via the International Air Transport Association—IATA), airports (via Airports Council International--ACI), and governments (via the International Civil Aviation Organization—ICAO).

CANSO has become a serious player, creating regional affiliates to foster improvements in air traffic management in less-developed parts of the world, taking an active role in the development of the Single European Sky, and representing ANSP interests in discussions at ICAO and elsewhere. Practically from the start, CANSO has had Full Members (ANSPs) and Associate Members (companies with a business interest in ATC that are not ANSPs). In the early years, being a full member of CANSO was synonymous with being a commercialized ANSP. But as the organization grew, it decided that it would better represent the shared interests of ANSPs by opening its membership to all ANSPs, commercialized or not. Hence, the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization is a full member, despite its not being commercialized.

But for those of us interested in keeping track of ANSP commercialization, it was frustrating not to be able to tell, from published CANSO lists, how many of the full members are commercialized entities. But thanks to some diligent work by Carter Brockman of NexaCapital, who shared his findings with me, we now know the answer to the question. In the application process for full membership, Brockman learned, there are two categories. Category 1 is for ANSPs separated from government, while Category 2 is for ANSPs inside government. What “separated from government” means is not necessarily (or even usually) privatization. It means (1) financially self-supporting via charges for its services, and (2) regulated at arm’s length for safety by a government agency. Thus, the large majority of Category 1 members are government corporations that meet those two criteria.

So—how many full members are in each category? Of the 63 full members as of August 2011, 51 are Category 1 and just 12 (including the FAA ATO) are Category 2. Category 1 includes the ANSPs of Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, India, Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Switzerland, and most of the rest of Europe. Category 2 members include Cyprus, Luxembourg, Greece, the Maldives, and the FAA ATO. That’s a very substantial amount of commercialization, since Airways New Zealand got the ball rolling in 1987.

A Subtle Approach Towards Computer-Assisted Controllers


One of the concerns I’ve heard for many years is that the productivity of air traffic control has been unchanged for decades. Today’s controller is responsible for essentially the same maximum number of aircraft as a controller 20 or 30 years ago. A basic premise of NextGen and SESAR is to change that, by means of automation of routine separations, under which the controller would evolve into more of a traffic manager and conflict resolver. But experts tell me that computer-generated conflict-resolution advisories are typically rejected by controllers, who have their own approaches to dealing with conflicts under stress and don’t trust what the computer may have worked out. This is the kind of human-factors problem that I don’t think NextGen planners have paid sufficient attention to.

By contrast, the situation seems to be more promising in Europe, where a technique developed under the acronym ERASMUS has been tested, and is planned for early implementation as part of SESAR. Sometimes called “subliminal control,” it relies on a ground-based computer calculating minor speed adjustments, aimed at avoiding predicted conflicts, and sending the suggested change directly to the pilot via a digital datalink. If the pilot accepts the change, it is implemented automatically by the plane’s flight management system (FMS). A three-year research project in France found that these minor adjustments can resolve a large fraction of potential conflicts, reducing stress and workload for controllers and leaving them free to deal with the rest. Indeed, the final report from Eurocontrol’s Experimental Center in France found that ERASMUS would reduce the number of conflicts that must be handled by controllers by up to 85%--to one actual conflict every 20 minutes in a sector, rather than six every 10 minutes without the system.

Now renamed “trajectory control by minor speed adjustments” (TC-SA), it has become part of SESAR’s 4-dimensional “business trajectory” approach, and is planned for implementation in Europe in 2013-14. Last April the SESAR Joint Undertaking carried out a real-time demonstration at the Aix-en-Provence control center.

The inventor of ERASMUS, former French ANSP official Jacques Villiers, sent me his most recent paper on the subject, as well as articles from Aviation Week (Jan. 5, 2009) and The Controller (October 2010). They appear to confirm his claim that ERASMUS has been well-accepted by controllers, which is critically important in moving toward ATC productivity increases. Thus far, however, despite the involvement of U.S.-based Honeywell in the ERASMUS project, it appears to have been ignored by NextGen planners. This strikes me as odd, given what I expect will be major human factors challenges in getting controllers comfortable with the paradigm shift that NextGen represents. It’s true that with huge turnover of controllers as the legacy generation retires this decade, the new recruits who have grown up with video games may be more comfortable with aspects of process automation. Nonetheless, they are all being trained by legacy controllers. I don’t think complacency about the human factors challenges is at all warranted.

The LightSquared GPS Fiasco: Even Worse than You Thought

My commentary last issue on LightSquared suggested that its outrageous proposal only got as far as it did due to political connections. Since then, those connections have been documented in considerable detail. I will spare you a recitation, but if you want to pursue that aspect of the story, the most detailed account I’ve seen was the July 25 article by John Aloysius Farrell and Fred Schulte, “Politically Connected LightSquared Pushes Wireless Internet Plan Despite GPS Interference Concerns.” (www.thecuttingedgenews.com). A shorter treatment of the subject appeared in the Aug. 4th Economist blog, The Difference Engine, titled “Off the Radar.” (www.economist.com/node/21525248)

My main focus here is the report prepared by the FAA at the request of the President’s Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing Executive Committee, “LightSquared Aviation Impacts,” dated July 12, 2011. The company has responded disingenuously to this report’s powerful findings, contending that the agency was not evaluating LightSquared’s revised June 30, 2011 plan under which it would begin operations using only the lower 10 MHz band in 2012, and would start using the upper 10 MHz band in 2014. But that is precisely the plan analyzed by the FAA.

Its report documents the extensive current usage of GPS in U.S. civil aviation, and also the virtually complete dependence of NextGen on GPS in coming decades. Since LightSquared transmissions in the upper frequency band would essentially make GPS useless, the FAA estimated the 10-year safety impact of the loss of GPS, based on the reduced aviation fatalities thanks to GPS over the last five years compared with the previous five, when GPS was far less widespread in aviation: 794 lives and $4.9 billion. It also estimated that FAA and civil aviation would face the loss of use of installed equipment worth $6-7 billion. Planned NextGen investments of $17 billion over the next decade would have to be replanned and redesigned, leading to a delay estimated at 10 years.

The report also states that use of the upper frequency band “is unacceptable at any power level, since the LightSquared upper channel interference exceeds the GPS receiver MOPS-related environmental limit by a factor of 4,000 to 80,000,” thereby resulting in “the complete loss of GPS aviation capabilities.” Use of only the lower band (which is not what LightSquared currently proposes) is considered high risk, since the type of filtering needed may not be feasible, since such filters “reject and interfere with the GPS signal in addition to the LightSquared signal.” A possible solution would be to replace both the GPS receiver and the antenna, at an estimated $6 billion cost differential.

The more we learn about this ill-conceived proposal, the worse it seems to be. The FCC should never have granted LightSquared the waiver—and should now put it out of its misery.

News Notes

Contract Towers Lawsuit Dismissed
A long-running legal challenge to the FAA’s contract tower program appears to have run its course, after 17 years. In mid-August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit affirmed a lower court’s ruling to dismiss the case. The challenge was filed in 1994 by NATCA, the controllers’ union. It argued that ATC is inherently governmental and therefore not eligible to be outsourced under OMB guidelines. The Clinton administration had expanded the contract tower program, but in December 2000, shortly before leaving office, President Clinton issued an executive order that declared ATC “inherently governmental.” That language was deleted by President G.W. Bush via E.O. 13264 in June 2002. The Court of Appeals ruled both that FAA does have the authority to outsource control towers and that NATCA lacks standing. There are currently 240 contract towers, and NATCA members are in place at 62 of them.

Airbus Buying Metron

Metron Aviation, a highly respected U.S. company in air traffic management, is being acquired by Airbus SAS, based in Toulouse, France. The acquisition is part of Airbus’s strategy of creating a division focusing on air traffic management. Airbus is part of the SESAR program in Europe, aiming for a NextGen-like transformation of Europe’s fragmented ATC system. The new Airbus unit is called ProSky.

FAA Seeking Data Comm Proposals
The FAA is seeking a contractor to provide ground-to-ground and ground-to-air segments of the data network for its planned Data Communications Integrated Services (DCIS) program. The services will link FAA ground facilities with data-comm-equipped aircraft. The agency plans to deploy data communications in towers for departure clearances by 2015 and for en-route communications from centers by 2018. The DCIS contractor must also administer a Data Communications Avionics Equipage Initiative, funded at $80 million, to equip selected airline and commuter aircraft with the necessary on-board equipment for Data Comm.

Redefining “Airspace Sovereignty” in Europe
In an effort to overcome obstacles to creation of Functional Airspace Blocks that transcend country borders, the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO) has issued a position paper that argues for a “mature understanding of sovereignty,” and which states that “Delegation of services is an act of sovereignty.” The two-page statement, “Airspace Sovereignty,” is available at www.canso.org.

Setback on BARR Changes

The Administration’s proposed changes to the Block Aircraft Registration Request (BARR) program are going ahead, at least for now, since the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on July 26th denied a motion for an injunction to halt the changes. Until the matter can receive a full hearing on the merits (on which the appeals court did not rule), BARR will be limited to those aircraft operators dealing with specific security threats. Many companies have used BARR to prohibit the dissemination of real-time flight activity by their business aircraft on grounds not only of security but also to avoid disclosure of potential business transactions that might be inferred from flight activity. AOPA and NBAA are seeking a prompt hearing on the merits of the change in rules.

FAA Reinstates Controllers-in-Cockpits Program
Prior to 2001, air traffic controllers were able to use on-duty time up to several times a year for what was called Familiarization training, riding with cockpit crews on airline flights. The program was suspended following 9/11. The FAA and TSA have worked to develop a replacement program, which was announced August 1st. Called Flight Deck Training,  it will allow approved controllers to take up to two such flights per year, in domestic airspace; they must complete pre-approved training objectives during such flights. NATCA’s Doug Church points out that about 40% of current controllers were hired within the past six years and most have never been in a cockpit or observed ATC procedures from the pilot’s perspective.

Viggiano to Head Saab Sensis
Long-time Sensis executive Mark Viggiano has been appointed President and CEO of Saab Sensis Corporation. Prior to the acquisition of Sensis by Saab earlier this year, Viggiano was Senior VP and Director of Corporate Development at Sensis, and had previously served as its Chief Operating Officer.

Quotable Quotes

“Here we have a stalemate beyond parallel in aviation. The FAA, the world’s largest ANSP by flight hours managed, is funded differently than most of the world’s ANSPs, specifically by the taxpayer, rather than by user charges...The FAA’s international stakeholders are watching with dismay and alarm, concerned that the FAA will fall behind, dragging overseas programs down. Such uncertainty is unthinkable for any other country in the developed world. What we have seen can only be described as political interference in the ability of the FAA to deliver its legislated responsibility as part of a global system. This is wrong...Government policy makers should reflect globally accepted best practices for [ATC] service provision when creating and applying legislation. It’s time to take steps to protect the FAA’s ability to operate effectively and establish an operating and funding structure for the vital role that the FAA is empowered to fulfill...Enough is enough...[T]he FAA urgently needs a new politically independent funding structure to prevent this shutdown from happening again!”
--Graham Lake, Director General, CANSO, Graham Lake’s CANSO Blog, August 5, 2011

“It’s a dead end to build a service to move people and cargo from, say, Philadelphia to Kentucky if there is no infrastructure, if you can’t fly efficient routes and can’t be on-demand. The need to fit into the soda straws of an incredibly rigid airspace system is a big constraint on inventing new business models for moving things by air.”
--David Vos, Rockwell Collins, in “Unchain the System,” Graham Warwick, Aviation Week, July 18/25, 2011

“The big block to capacity is the archaic air traffic system. You need to have cockpit controlled collision avoidance—rather than listening on the radio to someone who knows your license plate and tells you when to turn. Do you know how well that works at a crowded intersection? We have relatively unpopulated skies—you see them arriving into hubs because the system itself crowds them together.”
--Burt Rutan, in “Time Travel,” Guy Norris, Aviation Week, July 18/25, 2011

“In 2018, just seven years away, we will leave NextGen’s mid-term phase and enter its third and final phase on the run-up to 2025. As we make the transition, what new technologies and systems can we expect to see? What new air traffic management procedures will have been introduced? What new avionics might we need? Unfortunately, as the FAA and its Joint Program and Development Office will admit, no one knows. The increasing pace of technology advance makes forecasting difficult and major government investment decisions even more perilous. On the other hand, if those new systems are anything as complex as Lockheed Martin’s ERAM (still mired in software development problems after eight years and not expected to be operationally ready for another three), then we are already running late, even before we’ve announced what the future system is going to be.”
--Andrew Wood, “The Dark Side of NextGen,” Aviation International News, June 2011


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


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