Reason Foundation

http://www.reason.org
http://www.reason.org/news/show/air-traffic-control-reform-news-93

Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Reform News #93

How to implement “Best-Equipped/Best Served”, Getting GPS backup onto the national agenda

Robert Poole
May 21, 2012

In this Issue:

How to Implement “Best-Equipped/Best-Served”

The equipage conundrum looms over NextGen as an unresolved problem. Airlines and business jet operators don’t want to shell out for expensive equipment years before they will derive any tangible benefits from it (e.g., time and fuel savings). They also tend to hang back in hopes that if they are among the last to equip, they will benefit from both technology improvements and lower unit cost as vendors expand volume and exploit economies of scale.

The recent FAA reauthorization bill allows the FAA to develop public-private partnerships that will permit entities such as Nexa Capital’s proposed Equipage Fund to buy, say, ADS-B boxes and lease them to aircraft operators, with payments to begin only once the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO) has in place the procedures and ground equipment to provide operator benefits. That will definitely help. But the other key incentive that’s been much talked about—but thus far ignored by FAA—is something called “Best-Equipped/Best-Served” (BEBS). The idea is for the ATO’s controllers to give priority to aircraft that are equipped with a specified level of NextGen equipment, thereby providing their operators with a competitive advantage.

At last month’s Aviation Week NextGen conference, I talked with a number of people about how BEBS might be implemented. Gary Church, of Aviation Management Associates, followed up our conversation with a four-page concept paper outlining a possible way forward. There is a strong ethos among controllers to retain the traditional first-come/first-served modus operandi. And it’s not just a tradition: Church points out that it comes right out of the FAA Air Traffic Controller Handbook. But he also points out that the relevant section (7110.65, Paragraph 2-1-4) provides for 10 exceptions, including aircraft in distress and diverted flights. The FAA—without needing legislation or rulemaking—could add an 11th exception, such as “NextGen equipped aircraft.” That definition could change over time, but might start out, he suggests, as aircraft with RNP, ADS-B, and Data Comm. Qualified aircraft could be identified as such on their flight plans, so as to be easily recognized by controllers.

All well and good, you might say, but there is still the problem of controllers having to deal with a mixed fleet. Re-sequencing airborne aircraft so that the equipped ones would have priority in the landing sequence poses a lot of practical difficulties at this early stage of NextGen. To deal with this, Church suggests beginning BEBS at departure airports, allowing NextGen-equipped aircraft to go to the head of the departure queue. Especially at routinely congested airports like those in New York, this could provide a very real competitive advantage to those that are equipped, exactly as BEBS is intended to do.

And in fact, that is what Nav Canada has been doing as it introduces ADS-B into airspace that previously offered only “procedural” spacing of aircraft—first for the Hudson Bay polar routes and now across the North Atlantic past Greenland.  Only aircraft with ADS-B and controller-pilot data link (Data Comm) are allowed to use the high-altitude routes over Hudson Bay that provide optimal fuel burn. Initially for the North Atlantic, Nav Canada’s BEBS will apply only during climb-out to cruising altitude, but will later be extended to provide much closer in-trail spacing than is permissible with non-precise procedural separation.

Other people I spoke with at the conference proposed additional ideas for using BEBS to incentivize equipage. One suggestion was that once an airline has equipped a target percentage of its fleet (e.g., 60%), then its entire fleet would receive BEBS priority. Another suggestion was to offer closer spacing on arrivals to equipped planes from the same airline at places where many such planes are likely to be approaching in sequence—at large hubs with 60% or more traffic from a single airline (e.g., ATL, CLT, DEN, DFW). But those suggesting these ideas expected that FAA would not approve such proposals, fearing political opposition in Congress from advocates for non-equipped airlines.

If that’s true, and I think it probably is, here is yet another example of how FAA’s current governance and funding model is an obstacle to timely achievement of NextGen’s benefits. BEBS is being implemented by de-politicized ANSPs in a growing number of other countries. Because they are no longer funded by annual appropriations or micro-managed by legislative bodies, these self-supporting ANSPs can make business decisions without fear of being second-guessed or overruled by politicians. If that were the case in this country, the ATO could make business decisions for sound business reasons, subject only to arm’s length safety regulation. And BEBS would be implemented here, as it is being implemented elsewhere.

» return to top

Two Steps Forward for Required Navigation Performance

A key concept of next-generation air traffic management is “performance-based navigation,” leading to “trajectory-based operations” in which the entire flight, from take-off to landing, can be choreographed along an optimal flight track selected, to the greatest extent possible, by user preferences (e.g., to minimize fuel burn or to minimize flight time, etc.). A key building block towards this is flight procedures based on aircraft and crews capable of “required navigation performance.” RNP is not a device; instead, it is a measure of how precisely the equipment on an aircraft can fly a prescribed flight track. RNP 0.1, for example, means the plane can stay within +/- 0.1 nautical miles of the intended path. One of the most promising near-term applications of RNP is to develop far more precise approaches to and departures from airports, which can be shorter (less time and fuel) and can also minimize noise exposure on the ground by (a) keeping all such flights on a narrow track rather than being far more widely dispersed, and (b) whenever possible, routing such approach tracks over water or industrial areas rather than residential areas.

The FAA claims to have developed and implemented hundreds of RNP approaches in recent years, but the vast majority of them simply replicate existing approaches; at best, their value is in giving FAA engineers practice in working with the concept, but they offer no real benefits to aircraft operators or neighborhoods around airports. Several private-sector firms (e.g., GE Naverus, Boeing Jeppesen) have been certified by FAA to develop real RNP procedures, but since the agency did not hire them to develop public-use procedures open to all users, their only U.S. market has been to get airlines to hire them to develop proprietary RNP procedures tailored to that airline’s needs at a particular airport.

That dismal situation has changed a bit, thanks to the recent FAA reauthorization bill. It required FAA to begin hiring such firms to develop public-use RNP procedures. And earlier this month, the agency announced the first such contract. The team of GE Naverus and ITT Exelis will develop public-use RNP approaches at five airports, under a $2.8 million contract: Anchorage, Dayton, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Syracuse. One knowledgeable observer I asked about this scoffed that these are not exactly the kinds of congested airports where RNP might make the greatest impact, but in my view, this is still a long-overdue breakthrough. FAA should do more of this, and soon.

There is also good news from Seattle, where a joint industry/FAA effort to develop RNP approaches to SEA-TAC has made slow but steady progress. It began in 2008 as a joint effort of RNP pioneer Alaska Airlines, Boeing, and the airport. FAA came aboard in 2010, and has devoted considerable effort to the project. SEA-TAC is a good place for such a project, for several reasons. First, 70-80% of the airliners using the airport are already RNP-capable (Alaska, Horizon, and Southwest, in particular). Second, the airport is adjacent to Puget Sound, so that many approaches can be over water. Third, since RNP will reduce both fuel use and noise exposure, it should be popular with environmentally conscious residents of the area. Accordingly, the project is named Greener Skies.

After four years of effort (or two years, per FAA involvement), next month will see the first flight trials of two new STARS arrival routes (area navigation, not yet RNP) and the first RNP flight trials should begin in July. If all goes well (including a favorable environmental assessment), the new procedures could become official by next March. While that seems to be an agonizingly long development period, the project should be viewed as an important learning experience for all involved. Alaska’s Sarah Dalton, who spoke about the project at last month’s Aviation Week NextGen conference, told me that Seattle-area controllers, after initial hesitation about feasibility, have become enthusiasts for the project. She thinks it helped that the project manager is someone who has actually served as an air traffic controller professionally and was therefore able to gain the controllers’ confidence.

Another interesting aspect of Greener Skies is that both equipped and non-equipped aircraft will use the same runways. Those using the RNP approaches will follow much shorter, curved paths than the non-equipped planes (which will still have to follow today’s 18 to 25-mile downwind tracks before making their turns for final approach).  Hence, flights reaching the vicinity of SEA-TAC at the same time will typically touch down sooner if they are RNP-equipped (due to their shorter approach tracks). While the FAA officially says this is not an example of best-equipped/best-served, it sure looks like that to me. Over time, that difference should encourage the other operators to become RNP-compliant as well.

» return to top

Getting GPS Backup onto the National Policy Agenda

GPS is critically important to NextGen and its counterparts in other parts of the world. ADS-B depends on GPS; RNP depends on GPS; GBAS landing systems depend on GPS, as does the WAAS/LPV guidance system for general aviation aircraft at small airports. Hence, the growing threat of GPS jamming should have the entire aviation community mobilizing in support of robust GPS backup. But that is not happening. And the FAA’s pathetic effort to develop a U.S. aviation-only backup should be stopped in its tracks.

GPS jamming made the news early this month, when serious jamming was reported in South Korea, most likely originating from North Korea. Flights by Korean Air Lines, Cathay Pacific, Fedex, and Japan Airlines all had to resort to legacy navigation systems during these jamming incidents. This kind of attack on South Korea has been going on for years. But GPS jamming is becoming a global problem. One UK report found that during a six-month period last year, 20 GPS signal monitors picked up between 50 and 450 deliberate interference events every day. And although possession of GPS jammers is illegal in both the UK and the United States, recent estimates are that several thousand are in use in the UK and more than 100,000 in this country. The best-publicized U.S. aviation example is interference with a new GBAS landing system at Newark Airport, due to truckers using such jammers on the adjacent highway.

In March the FAA released its 200-page report on an aviation backup approach for GPS. It would require large aircraft to be equipped with a DME scanner, to use signals from two or more legacy DME ground stations. GA aircraft would have to rely on legacy VOR stations and legacy transponders. These kinds of requirements significantly worsen the business case for NextGen, since they would (1) require aircraft operators to retain or add legacy equipment in addition to new NextGen equipment, and (2) require FAA to keep in place a huge array of costly-to-maintain legacy ground equipment that was supposed to be retired under the original NextGen concept—VORs, DMEs, and a large fraction of secondary surveillance radars (which read legacy transponder signals).

The FAA’s U.S. aviation-only approach should be rejected, for two reasons. First, it’s far too costly, for both FAA itself and for aircraft operators. Second, since aviation constitutes only about 10% of all GPS usage, an aviation-only solution is grossly sub-optimal. GPS serves as a precision timing source for mobile phones worldwide. It provides the basis for timing used by the Internet and for all financial transactions. It’s used for car navigation, for managing electricity transmission networks and telecommunications networks, as well as for surveying and in agriculture. And the same is increasingly true worldwide. The growth of comparable global navigation systems (Galileo, GLONASS, etc.) does not help, since they all operate on the same principle as GPS and use essentially the same frequencies and low power.

During the past decade, study after study focused attention on GPS vulnerability (both intentional and unintentional), and in 2004, National Security Presidential Directive 39 required development of backup systems or procedures for all of GPS’s uses, not just aviation. The government’s National Institute for Standards and Technology did a major report on timing backups for GPS mid-decade. That and other studies helped make the case by a joint DOD/DOT Independent Assessment Team in 2007 that the best and most cost-effective all-uses backup for GPS would be developing a replacement for the worldwide LORAN system, dubbed eLORAN. And in February 2008 DHS announced that eLORAN would be developed as the GPS backup system.

Yet that well-justified decision did not survive the change of administrations. Budget cutters at OMB, who had long wanted to kill what they viewed as an obsolete and redundant Coast Guard LORAN system, succeeded in building into the budget the termination of all LORAN funding. Since Congress did not object, the Coast Guard ceased transmitting LORAN signals in February 2010, and work on eLORAN ceased.

But you don’t un-invent a worthwhile technology simply by not funding it. Nor do you destroy the widespread consensus of GPS experts worldwide that eLORAN is the most cost-effective backup approach. Implementing eLORAN would strengthen the business case for NextGen by allowing legacy avionics to be retired from aircraft and legacy ground equipment to be scrapped, with major ongoing maintenance savings. But is there any hope of reviving eLORAN as the GPS backup?

Consider the recent all-out effort by the U.S. GPS user community that succeeded in derailing the ill-conceived LightSquared plan for mobile broadband service that would have caused massive interference with GPS. Why couldn’t the entire U.S. GPS user community mount a similar effort for a cost-effective all-uses GPS backup plan? I’d like to see aviation take the lead on this, but the effort could involve a huge coalition, including the financial industry, automakers, navigation system vendors, farm organizations, surveyors and civil engineers, etc. The LightSquared threat was very near-term; GPS jamming is not yet a major threat, but it will loom larger and larger in coming years. The time to get this effort organized is now.

» return to top

Creating a Supportive Culture for NextGen

NextGen (and comparable transitions in Europe and elsewhere) is far more than just replacing older avionics and software with newer versions. It’s intended to be at least as big a paradigm shift as the introduction of radar after World War II and the shift to flight plans and controlled airspace following a series of mid-air collisions in the 1950s. The transformation will involve automation of routine separations, dynamically reconfigured airspace, and air traffic management that can take place “anywhere, from anywhere” rather than from facilities directly beneath the airspace involved.

This will require significant changes in the organizational culture of the Air Traffic Organization, and of the relationships between cockpit crews and air traffic specialists on the ground. To look into what this might require, in late 2010 the FAA’s Research, Engineering, and Development Advisory Committee (REDAC) was asked by the Administrator to “identify cultural issues that could impact successful implementation of NextGen.” The REDAC created a Culture Change Work Group, chaired by Dres Zellweger and co-chaired by Steve Zaidman, with seven other members from academia, NASA, MITRE Corp., and the FAA. Its report was transmitted to then-Administrator Randy Babbitt on Oct. 5, 2011, but seems to have disappeared into a black hole since then. That’s unfortunate, because it makes some very good points.

Its findings appear very straightforward—that the transformation will require the involvement of all stakeholder groups, embracing a common vision for what the transformed system will be; that “cultural differences” among stakeholder communities must be recognized and bridged; that change begins with joint development of values and a vision that everyone buys into; and that even with a shared vision, strong leadership will be required over a long period of time to get it implemented. That may sound like just a bunch of clichés, but the Work Group put some meat on the bones when they translated those findings into recommendations.

Recommendation #1: Engage the stakeholders to develop the common vision, operations concepts, and implementation plans. For example, this was done when users came to FAA with ideas for what became collaborative decision-making (CDM) to allocate delays fairly when ground delay programs had to be put into effect at major airports.

Recommendation #2: Foster leadership for specific initiatives both within and outside the agency. The Work Group cited the example of the Colorado ski cities working with FAA and the Colorado DOT to develop an innovative multilateration program that increased those airports’ capacity.

Recommendation #3: Create bridges across internal hierarchies and stakeholder groups. Cited as an example here is the development of Optimized Profile Descents, which cut across several ATO entities; the report notes that OPDs could be implemented at many more airports if “FAA could break a lot of silos . . . by taking the initiative” in such cases.

Recommendation #4: Build trust via open communications and avoiding “blame games” when things go wrong. Among the examples cited here are the successful implementation of reduced vertical separation minima (RVSM) and the negative example of FAA developing RNP procedures mostly as overlays.

Recommendation #5: Put serious focus on training during the entire long implementation period. Among the examples cited here was the program put in place to cope with traffic at JFK when a major runway had to be closed down for reconstruction, and a joint user/FAA training team for collaborative decision making related to summer storms.

Another useful perspective is a recent piece in the ATCA quarterly about the key role in culture change of front-line managers in air traffic facilities, by James Enders of Booz Allen Hamilton (see Quotable Quotes, below).

Culture change will be a major factor in how well NextGen and similar transformations succeed. I hope the FAA will give this issue the attention it deserves.

» return to top

News Notes

FAA Launches NextGen Performance Snapshot. At last month’s Aviation Week NextGen conference, the FAA unveiled a new website, aimed at giving evolving data on key performance indicators as the transition to NextGen takes place. It is intended to provide system-wide data on environment and safety plus data on capacity and efficiency at the level of metroplex regions and for 30 core airports. When I tried using the site on May 17th, I was unable to click on individual airports or metroplexes, or to do the promised performance comparisons between pairs of airports or metroplexes. Perhaps it will work better when you try it. (www.faa.gov/nextgen/media/npsOverview.pdf)

NATS ATC Delays at Record Low. Ten years after the UK’s NATS was restructured as a self-supporting ANSP via a public-private partnership, its ATC-related delay figures have been reduced to an all-time low, reported Air Traffic Management earlier this month. Such delays averaged only 1.2 seconds per flight in the first quarter of this year, compared with 132.1 seconds per flight for the comparable period a decade ago. Flight volumes increased only modestly between 2002 and 2012, from 452,000 to 497,000.

Update on NetJets and Aviation Taxes. Shortly after last month’s issue went out, with a story on the legal dispute between the IRS and NetJets over payment of ticket taxes and segment fees, the Wall Street Journal published a detailed article on the situation, providing new information. Tucked within the FAA reauthorization bill enacted earlier this year is a provision backed by Ohio members of Congress that changes fractional providers from “commercial” (subject to the ticket tax and segment fee) to “noncommercial” (subject only to the much smaller tax on jet fuel). The change lasts only until the expiration of the reauthorization in 2015, but is expected to save fractional providers $83 million between now and then, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. This is yet another illustration of the bizarre nature of how ATC is paid for in the United States.

Brussels Implements Continuous Descent Approaches. After a two-year development and testing period, the B3 consortium (Brussels Airport, Brussels Airline, and Belgian ANSP Belgocontrol) are going operational with Continuous Descent Approaches at the airport. Five airlines took part in the test phase, which ended last October 30th and represented about 9% of all flights during that period. Testing showed that CDAs produced meaningful savings in fuel consumption as well as a 3 dB noise reduction 15 km. from the airport.

Affordable ADS-B for General Aviation. Several readers responded to last month’s article on ADS-B/In. First, they point out that low-cost ADS-B receivers are available for under $1,000. Coupled with an iPad for use as a display, a GA pilot can obtain real-time displays of traffic and weather. These appear to be non-FAA-certified devices that can be used for situational awareness only—but would still provide much better information than otherwise available to pilots. Another reader noted that the biggest obstacle is the lack of an affordable FAA-certified ADS-B/Out device “even for ADS-B/Out applications in VFR GA aircraft that are operating in airspace where ADS-B is not required, even after 2020.”

Russia’s Aggressive Facility Consolidation. The huge expanse of Russian airspace used to be controlled from 118 en-route centers. Thanks to an aggressive consolidation effort in recent years, that number has declined to 69, with a target of replacing those with 13 new regional centers by 2015. The first two of those, at Moscow and at Rostov-on-Don, were opened in 2010, and the third opened in Khabarovsk in 2011. A major report from CANSO and Boeing (“Accelerating Air Traffic Management Efficiency: A Call to Industry”) reports that the consolidation effort is on track to reach the 2015 completion date.

» return to top

Quotable Quotes

“The core issue that will start the ball rolling towards the original NextGen concept is facility consolidation. Without movement there, the technology and procedures used in ATC will remain the same. It is too politically explosive to deal with that issue, and I suspect that I will never live long enough to see it squarely tackled. Have you been inside one of the FAA’s Enroute Centers lately? It is an embarrassment! The buildings continue to deteriorate and are old, falling apart, dirty, probably unhealthy—yet there is no visible plan to do anything about that. The FAA continues to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to maintain these old buildings while ATC technology has left them in the dust. I believe most of the buildings are now 50+ years old, and when compared to a Center in Europe are an embarrassing relic of the past.”
—Name withheld by request, subscriber email to Bob Poole, April 19, 2012

“Air traffic controllers will soon be inundated with change from NextGen and other initiatives, some of which have already arrived. ADS-B, trajectory-based operations, airport surface management systems, en-route automation modernization – the list goes on. Each of these new procedures and technologies will be largely implemented at the controller level. The responsibility for their effectiveness on a day-to-day basis will fall upon the front-line employee. Many of the specific work rules will be negotiated through the union, but the ultimate success of the FAA’s ambitious air traffic modernization will require something far more. The controllers will need to buy into these large-scale changes and take ownership of them. They will be required to use their creative energies to figure out how new procedures and emerging technologies can be optimized and continually improved. If the air traffic system is to be truly transformed, the controllers must have an interested and active hand in the change.”
—James Enders, “Leading through Change at the Front Line,” The Journal of Air Traffic Control, Fall 2011.

» return to top


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


Print This