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Reason Foundation

Airt Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #76

September 2010

Robert Poole
September 23, 2010

In this issue:


Some New Ideas on NextGen Implementation

A new report from the Aerospace Industries Association suggests a number of policy ideas aimed at speeding up the transformation of the U.S. ATC system by the planned NextGen concept. (“Civil Aviation Growth in the 21st Century: Meeting Capacity and Environmental Challenges,” September 2010, www.aia-aerospace.org/issues_policies/reports_white_papers) Two of the most important proposals concern facility consolidation and aircraft equipage.

On facility consolidation, the report calls for Congress to create a mechanism similar to that employed successfully on several occasions to deal with military base closings. The Base Realignment & Closure (BRAC) process involves an expert commission coming up with a proposed list of realignments and closures which can only be voted up or down—no amendments—by Congress. First proposed by then-Rep. Dick Armey (R, TX), it provides a graceful way for members of Congress to “just say no” to pleas from constituents to let local interests override military needs. The same needs to be done for the large-scale consolidation of ATC facilities that NextGen will permit, and which gaining its productivity-improvement benefits requires.

On aircraft equipage, the proposal is clever but still somewhat vague. Called “cash for carbon,” it proposes a deal between aircraft operators and the government, under which in exchange for the operators committing to the Air Transport Action Group’s plan for Carbon Neutral Growth, they would get some kind of government financial assistance for NextGen equipage. AIA suggests this could be targeted at speeding up equipage for ADS-B In/Out, airline RNP and RNAV equipment, and similar equipment for 22,000 high-performance business jets and turboprop aircraft in the general aviation fleet. I characterize it as vague because AIA says the funding “could come from government grants, government-backed loans [i.e., loan guarantees], simple [government] loans, or a combination of all three.” The estimated cost of the equipment for all this is $6 billion.

I suspect the vagueness reflects lack of agreement among aircraft operators, which exists for very good reasons. Early adopters (such as Alaska, Continental, and Southwest for RNP) have already made significant investments; why should their laggard competitors get government grants to do the same thing? The same is true within business aviation. So if government is going to get involved in “incentivizing” speedy equipage, the only fair way to do so is via loans that have to be paid back. And whether funding should come from the still vague infrastructure bank proposed by the Administration depends critically on whether this will be a real bank, making real loans, or a glorified grant-making entity.

I like the report’s idea of making Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grant funding available for development of airport-specific RNP, RNAV, and GBAS projects, all of which can further incentivize aircraft operators to equip their planes, and many of which can help shrink the airport’s noise footprint (which is already one of the purposes for which AIP makes grants). I also agree with the idea of beefing up the legal basis for qualified private firms to develop RNP approaches; in technical terms, this means going beyond the current “Other Transaction Agreement” process, under which GE Naverus and Jeppeson have gained approval to do this, to the more-robust Organization Designation Authority.

Most of these changes will require congressional action, and Congress has still not enacted an FAA reauthorization after the last one expired on Sept. 30, 2007. So don’t hold your breath.

Wide Area Multilateration Taking Off


Last fall, in Issue No. 67, I wrote about how wide area multilateration (WAM) can replace secondary surveillance radars, providing greater coverage and higher accuracy for less money. The case in point was the new WAM system in ski areas in the Colorado Rockies (Yampa Valley, Steamboat Springs, etc.). Multilateration is a kind of triangulation, that uses an array of ground-based sensors at known locations to figure out where an aircraft is in real time and report that to the appropriate ATC facility, for display on the screen. In the year since I wrote that, WAM has been taking off world-wide.

The virtues of WAM over secondary radar were acknowledged at the ATC Global Conference last March, where its cost-effectiveness was praised and it was cited as one of the cornerstones of future air traffic management. In July the Czech Republic announced the deployment of its third WAM installation, at Brno airport, the country’s second largest. The plan is to connect all three systems, which together will provide nationwide coverage, making the country “the first nation in the European high-density airspace to finish deployment of a seamless and ultra-reliable nationwide multilateration and ADS-B solution.” Secondary radars will then be phased out. And earlier this month, Era, the provider of the Czech system, was selected to provide nationwide WAM coverage for the Republic of Tajikistan. This very mountainous country could never have afforded nationwide radar coverage—but will obtain better than that via nationwide WAM, at far lower cost. Doing likewise is Namibia, another poor and mountainous country with an urgent need for improved air traffic control.

Closer to home, besides U.S. installations in Colorado and in Juneau, Alaska, Nav Canada installed WAM prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and other parts of British Columbia. Installations covered the complete 91-mile “sea to sky” corridor between Vancouver and Whistler, Vancouver harbor, and the airport at Fort St. John.

Reading of these events, you might wonder whether anyone would still be ordering secondary surveillance radars in this day and age (which is a separate question from keeping existing ones in service for the time being). Yet Utah papers were full of news in early July about the successful effort of coming up with $4 million in federal, state, and local funding to purchase and install a Raytheon ATC Beacon Interrogator-6, the latest version of a 1980s design. Up till now, the Provo airport has lacked its own radar, which has made it less attractive to potential airline and business aviation customers. It is separated by mountains from Salt Lake City, to the north, so exists in a “radar shadow” which makes planes lower than 8,500 or 9,000 feet invisible to Salt Lake-based radar.

To be sure, the FAA approved the radar in 2007, before there were any WAM installations in the United States. But purchase was held up by funding problems: the FAA would cover only half the $4 million cost. It took the locals nearly three years to cobble together the other half: $1 million from the state, $0.5 million from the county, and the other $0.5 million from the city’s restaurant tax funds. During all that time, didn’t anyone at the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization think to tell Provo officials that they were investing in the past, when they could be investing in the future?

Selecting and Training the Operators of NextGen

As I have written many times, the next generation ATC system really does represent a paradigm shift, as it is implemented worldwide over the next two decades. Instead of radar, it will rely mostly on satellite data for keeping track of where planes are. Instead of manual “control” of every flight movement by a “controller,” process automation will handle many routine aspects of separation, with more decisions made in (or initiated from) the cockpit. And instead of voice communications, routine information exchanges will be via data communications.

We all know and accept this, in theory. But the system in place for selecting and training the people who will operate and manage this new model is still focused on the aptitudes and skills needed for the present manual model of air traffic control. Yet those hired today will be operating the new system in 2030, so the current selection and training process is likely setting us up for trouble.

This problem is (belatedly) getting some attention. The FAA’s Research, Engineering, and Development Committee (REDAC) has been studying these issues, and last spring came up with an important finding and two recommendations. Finding 7 focuses on the significant differences (in the current system) between the job functions and skill requirements of traffic managers—those who work in places like the Command Center, dealing with flow control and related system resource allocation tasks. “They have become specialized in their roles as managers of the NAS assets and flows. This is a very different job from that performed by controllers, but traffic managers are nonetheless selected from the ranks of air traffic controllers and were originally selected with the controller skill set in mind.” So their Recommendation 7a was for a research program to identify the specific skill set required for traffic managers, both today and for the projected 2018 NextGen system. Recommendation 7b called for research to identify skill sets for controllers and airspace managers for 2025 and beyond, since those hired in the next 5 to 10 years “will still be in those jobs in that time frame, but the role of controllers and airspace managers will undergo significant changes in that timeframe.” These recommendations went to the Administrator in May (along with many others). Alas, FAA’s Sept. 16, 2010 response agreed, but indicated no sense of urgency about moving forward.

In July, the FAA announced a research contract under which it will work with researchers at Georgia Tech’s School of Aerospace Engineering on how flight crews and controllers react to automation and also on pilot response to TCAS (collision-avoidance) alerts in a NextGen environment when planes are spaced closer together. Those are small pieces of the overall picture, but should be useful building blocks. But last month the GAO issued a report chastising the FAA for not fully thinking through the human factors aspects of its new en-route software, ERAM, which controllers at the first center where it was installed (Salt Lake) found to be “cumbersome, confusing, and difficult to navigate.” The GAO report also cited human factors problems with earlier systems, including STARS and OASIS. It found that the agency’s coordination with NASA on human factors R&D has improved, but that this effort still has no guiding plan, only a list of current and future projects.

So it looks to me that the agency has not really come to grips with what the transition to NextGen will really involve, when it comes to transformation of roles and responsibilities.

GPS Augmentation Operational in Europe

Last month saw the first usage of Europe’s equivalent of the U.S. Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), which augments GPS signals to provide more-precise positioning information for aircraft operation. EGNOS similarly will permit precision approaches at airports lacking instrument landing systems (ILSs) and will also permit more direct routings in en-route airspace. Initially, EGNOS is authorized only for en-route and non-precision lateral guidance approaches (LNAV). By November, it is expected to be cleared for precision approaches with both vertical and lateral guidance.

The system uses three geostationary satellites, with four control stations and 34 ranging and integrity monitoring stations. It was developed by the European Space Agency in partnership with Eurocontrol. The ATC signals are being made available by the European Satellite Service Provider (ESSP), a joint venture of European air navigation service providers. Initial services are available in Europe, with planned extensions to North Africa and the Middle East. Trans-Atlantic flights will be able to use a combination of WAAS and EGNOS signals.

EGNOS provides position accuracy of 1 to 2 meters horizontally (versus 20 meters for unaugmented GPS) and 2 to 4 meters vertically. Although initially providing corrections only to GPS signals, if all goes well within a few years it will also be augmenting the forthcoming European Galileo satellite navigation system. The first four Galileo satellites are scheduled for 2011 launches, with another 14 to be deployed in 2012 and beyond. In addition, there are plans (but not yet funding) to make EGNOS interoperable with the Russia’s GLONASS constellation.

Further Thoughts on Boise/Salt Lake Consolidation

In the last issue of this newsletter, I made a brief mention of congressional intervention that led the FAA to withdraw its proposed consolidation of the Boise TRACON with Salt Lake City’s. From afar, this looked like the typical political interference, at the behest of local interests and at the expense of the larger goal of using consolidation to make the Air Traffic Organization more efficient.

But several readers urged me to review the DOT Inspector General’s letter to four members of Congress on this issue—and I’m glad I did. The four had asked the IG and the FAA’s Air Traffic Safety Oversight Service to review the proposed consolidation, and the IG’s June 30, 2010 letter reports on its review and assessment of the FAA’s business case for the consolidation. The IG concluded that “FAA’s business case was flawed and lacked transparency.” It seriously understated the cost associated with relocating the Boise TRACON, including additional controller training that would be required. And when FAA changed from a planned co-location to a consolidation, it did not revise its original business case to take into account that instead of saving over $19 million in staff costs, the revised plan would add more than $19 million in staff costs over 20 years. It also raised concerns about the facility life-cycle costing and the estimated costs of keeping the TRACON in Boise.

So in this case, when critics called out “smoke,” there really was a fire going on. Just because the usual kind of suspects objected to this proposed consolidation did not mean that the business case had been done competently. The reform that created the Air Traffic Organization was intended to allow it to operate as a business.  This case suggests that the ATO still has a ways to go in actually operating in the interests of its customers. The flaws in its business case for this relatively simple facility consolidation are cause for worry about the more complex business cases the ATO needs to be making for various key building blocks of NextGen.

News Notes

ATC System Vulnerable to Cyber Attack, Says IG
In a follow-up to its May 2009 audit of the cyber-security of air traffic control systems, the DOT Inspector General reported to Congress on August 5th that the FAA has fallen behind on implementing intrusion detection systems on critical ATC software. The agency had previously said it would have such systems implemented at all key facilities by the end of 2009, but as of mid-2010 only seven of the 11 ARTS III-E radar facilities had them in place. Moreover, the agency does not have a timetable for installing comparable cyber-security systems at other key installations.

IATA Plans Flexible Long-Distance Routes
The International Air Transport Association has announced its I-Flex program to develop long-haul international air routes in real-time, taking into account winds and weather to optimize flights to minimize fuel burn (and hence CO2 emissions). It will focus on long-haul routes in low-density airspace, such as Atlanta-Johannesburg and Dubai-Sao Paulo. IATA plans proof-of-concept work with air navigation service providers, ICAO, airlines, and governments. Simulations suggest that I-Flex routes could save up to 2% of fuel and cut 6 minutes off a 10-hour flight.

CDAs Moving Forward in Europe
Fuel-saving (and noise-reducing) continuous descent approaches (CDAs) are now available at 33 airports in Europe; 13 others are carrying out flight trials, and a total of 83 such airports in 25 European countries are committed to implementing CDAs, well along toward a goal of 100 airports by 2013. That effort is being coordinated by the Air Transport Action Group and Eurocontrol, with the aim of reducing CO2 emissions by 500,000 tons per year.

CANSO Adds Jordan as 56th Full Member
Civil Aviation Regulatory Commission of Jordan has joined the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO), the global body representing air navigation service providers. CARC becomes the 56th full member of CANSO, whose member ANSPs are responsible for 85% of world air traffic.

Gate-to-Gate Operations Advance in Europe and Australia
Europe’s Atlantic Interoperability Initiative to Reduce Emissions (AIRE) project has moved on to a second phase, AIRE 2, adding nine more countries to the original five. And seven of its 18 projects will involve timed gate-to-gate operations, encompassing both departures and arrivals using four-dimensional trajectory management. One such project will include Airbus, Air France, NATS (U.K.) and Nav Canada, with a series of trans-Atlantic A-380 flights on 4-D trajectories. Meanwhile, Airservices Australia has selected Metro Aviation’s Traffic Flow product to be the foundation of its planned gate-to-gate Collaborative Decision Making (CDM) vision. Metron’s contract will run for up to 15 years.

Quotable Quotes

“The [FAA] Facilities & Equipment budget in 1982 was increased to $2.5B to address the upgrades to the National Airspace System that were packaged as the ‘NAS Plan.’ Now we find ourselves 28 years later with an F&E budget of $2.97B (an 18% increase in 3 decades). . . . In addition, since the F&E budget in FY 2009 was $2.94B (about the same as the FY 2011 request), one can calculate that the NextGen increase from $695M in 2009 to $1.14B in 2011 comes at the expense of other items in the F&E portfolio. I conclude from this that in challenging fiscal times, the Administration is serious about putting the funds into . . . programs that bear the NextGen label. Where my skepticism comes in is that the overall total for capital improvement is magically the same year after year. . . . The old NAS infrastructure of 20,000 navigation, communications, surveillance, and weather systems on the ground is still in place and providing the underpinning of air transportation and commerce every day. Logic tells us that this stuff needs to be upgraded/sustained/refreshed while we deploy the NextGen overlay, yet we are shifting funds away from that infrastructure in favor of the yet-unproven promise of NextGen.”
--Frank Frisbie, PE, “The Myth of NextGen Funding,” The Journal of Air Traffic Control, Summer 2010.

“The reality is that we don’t know the exact steps we will need to take to ‘change a controller’s role from tactical to strategic.’ We need much more sophisticated simulation work in labs, both fast time and real time. However, I believe the underlying technologies we are planning to deploy are key (ADS-B in and out, DataComm, upgraded automation, SWIM). It is tough to take the critique that we don’t have the next steps figured out, as they are very complicated, and choosing an exact path now would be fruitless. What we seem to need now is a much more honest discussion of risk and potential payback. This is a Real Options problem where the uncertainty around costs and payback are high. But if we are to move to the next level of air traffic management, we need to take these initial steps. 2035 does seem much more realistic than 2025. Of course, laying out the uncertainty just kills the momentum for funding. The improvement pool is huge, however, and we can quantify the benefits of addressing known constraints in the ATM system (IMC capacity to VMC, better use of available airspace during convective weather, increased sector capacity, moving necessary delay to the most fuel-efficient phase of flight). Truth is, moving to NextGen is far more complex than it was going to the moon. When we talk about where we will be beyond 2020, I think it is more appropriate to call it the NextGen Vision, as opposed to Plan.”
--Name Withheld (ATO manager), email response to Issue No. 75, early August 2010.


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


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