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Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #100

Sequestration and air traffic control, CANSO comes of age, Controller-pilot data link: mixed progress, New approaches to control tower functions

Robert Poole
February 27, 2013

In this issue:

The Sequester: A Call for Change

The FAA’s reaction to the implementation on March 1st of the 2011 sequester law illustrates the perils of leaving the nation’s air navigation service provider—the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization—embedded in a government agency subject to politically determined budget cuts.

The Administration’s marching orders to all government agencies covered by the sequester law (including FAA’s parent, the Department of Transportation) seem designed to inflict maximum pain on the traveling public, in hopes of mobilizing aviation stakeholders, the media, and the traveling public to demand that Congress change the law. I have tried to figure out how a mandated cut of $600 million—under 5%-- in the FAA’s $12.75 billion budget (excluding the exempted airport grants program) could possibly require all-hands furloughs reducing 47,000 daily personnel by 10% and the shut-down of 100 low-activity (mostly contract) towers and ending midnight shifts at 60 or more low-activity towers (which should have been done in any case). This appears to be a classic example of the “Washington Monument” strategy of trying to prevent budget cuts by proposing the worst possible method of coping—rather than finding 5% of the budget that could be eliminated or deferred with the least harm.

But that, I guess, is politics as usual. We should not be surprised that the ATC system is once again being held hostage to the vicissitudes of budget politics in Washington, DC. This has happened again and again—most recently with the partial shut-down of the FAA in August 2011(due to Congress failing to extend authority to collect aviation excise taxes). There was a previous suspension of aviation taxes in FY 1995, and similar suspensions in FY 1981 and 1982. How many times does this kind of thing have to happen before the ATO’s customers—everyone who flies planes in the system—acknowledge that both the funding mechanism and the governing mechanism are broken and need to be replaced?

This kind of political interference in the safe, orderly provision of air navigation services cannot happen in Australia, Canada, Germany, the U.K., and some 50 other countries. Over the past two decades they have all de-politicized their air navigation service providers (ANSPs). Though the specifics vary a bit from country to country, two common elements are (1) direct payments by customers to the ANSP, keeping the money safely outside of the government budget and its annual appropriations process, and (2) arm’s-length safety regulation of the ANSP by the government’s air safety regulator.

The vast majority of these de-politicized ANSPs are government corporations, so nobody can argue that the governments of these countries are failing in their responsibility to make sure that air traffic management is done professionally and in accordance with agreed international aviation law (but note that ICAO also accepts nonprofit ANSP corporations like Nav Canada and public-private partnerships like NATS in the U.K.).

The case for doing likewise in the United States has been made again and again, starting with a serious proposal from the Air Transport Association in 1985, and a very detailed plan put forth by the Clinton Administration in 1994, following initial work by Vice President Gore’s National Performance Review. That proposal was embraced by DOT Secretary Federico Pena and FAA Administrator David Hinson, and was introduced in Congress by Rep. Norm Mineta; it had the endorsement of air traffic controllers union NATCA. But it died because of opposition from various aviation stakeholders, as well as powerful House Aviation Subcommittee Chair James Oberstar. A milder version of this plan, including a bondable user-fee revenue stream, was the unanimous recommendation of the Mineta Commission in 1997, but it, too, went nowhere in Congress (for the same reasons).

Whatever happens with the current sequester law, the ongoing pressures to reduce government spending will be a background condition for federal policymaking for the next several decades. So it’s incumbent upon the customers of the air traffic control system to address the problem, sooner rather than later. The ATC funding and governance system is broken. And it needs to be replaced. Not somewhere off in the next decade, but by the time of the next FAA reauthorization.

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CANSO Comes of Age

The creation of self-supporting air navigation service providers began in1987, when a reforming Labor government in New Zealand created Airways Corporation of New Zealand, Ltd. By 1995 there were a dozen such ANSPs, and Pete Proulx, the Airways CEO, invited his counterpart CEOs to a meeting in Auckland to discuss common issues and problems. Besides Airways, the others attending this meeting were Airservices Australia, NATS (U.K.), AeroThai, DFS (Germany), Austro Control, and the ATC Administration of the Czech Republic. From this meeting emerged a fledgling organization called the Commercial Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO).

Seventeen years later, CANSO has broadened its membership criteria (and replaced the word Commercial with Civil), and now boasts 76 ANSPs as full members and another 77 technology providers as associate members. The large majority of the full members are self-supporting, commercialized ATC corporations, but the other full members are non-independent ANSPs, including the U.S.’s Air Traffic Organization. CANSO’s ANSP members are responsible for more than 85% of the world’s air traffic. The organization has earned its place as the ANSP counterpart to IATA for airlines, ACI for airports, and IFATCA for controllers in dealing with global aviation policy. In addition to its European headquarters, CANSO now maintains an office in Montreal, for interaction with ICAO.

Earlier this month, I attended and spoke at CANSO’s first World ATM Congress, held in Madrid Feb. 12-13. There was some skepticism in the aviation community about whether CANSO, with its U.S. partner ATCA, could pull off a major international conference and exhibition, especially one occurring just a month prior to the long-established annual ATC Global conference upcoming in Amsterdam. But the results convinced the skeptics. Total registered attendance in Madrid was just over 5,000, and the exhibition was dazzling. There were 157 exhibitors, mostly as you might expect, technology providers such as Airbus, Boeing, GE Aviation, Lockheed Martin, Harris, Saab Sensis, Thales, etc.

But in wandering the exhibit hall and talking with people, I counted 14 ANSPs with booths, some of them as elaborate (though not as large) as the aerospace multinationals. Why did Airservices Australia, Airways New Zealand, DFS, NATS, and Nav Canada spend the money on such booths and provide knowledgeable people to staff them? Most of the ANSP exhibitors have products or services to sell, based on their growing experience and entrepreneurial ambitions. Sad to say, our own non-commercial ANSP, the ATO, was conspicuous by its absence from the exhibit hall (though it did win one of the eight Jane’s ATC Awards, for its Proactive Safety Management Initiative).

I learned a lot from the conference sessions, as well as from talking with various exhibitors. I will report what I learned in this and forthcoming issues of this newsletter.

Postscript: Based on the success of Madrid 2013, CANSO has already announced its World ATM Congress 2014, March 4-6 in Madrid.

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Controller-Pilot Data Link Shows Varied Progress

Replacing voice communications with digital messages for numerous routine exchanges between controllers and pilots is a key element of both NextGen and SESAR, and is a building block for eventual implementation of user-preferred trajectory-based operations. But as I learned in Madrid, progress on actually implementing controller-pilot data link communications (CPDLC) varies widely between Europe and the United States. This is despite the fact that such communication has been routine on trans-Pacific routes for a number of years.

Let’s look first at Europe. Under a 2009 equipage mandate, airlines are required to be equipped for CPDLC for flights above 28,500 feet by February 2015. ANSPs are supposed to have ground equipment in place by early 2013 in some regions and early 2015 elsewhere. So far only three ANSPs in Europe are ready to provide the service: Eurocontrol (for its Maastrict Upper Airspace), DFS (at its Karlsruhe center, Germany), and Skyguide at its two centers (Switzerland). By 2015 CPDLC will include digital messaging in all phases of flight: pre-departure, climb-out, en-route, approach and landing. Supplier Honeywell expects the reduced workload in en-route communications will add 11% to effective capacity once 75% of aircraft using the airspace are equipped.

The schedule in the United States is a lot slower. Because of delays in getting the new en-route automation system ERAM fully operational, the schedule for full implementation of CPDLC has been pushed back at least two years, from 2016 to 2018 or 2019. Harris Corporation won the FAA’s seven-year Digital Communications Integrated Services (DCIS) contract last fall, teamed with American Airlines, ARINC, GE, and Thales. The initial phase includes only departure clearances, so control towers will be equipped first, with that service set to begin in 2016. En-route digital messages, mostly for in-flight re-routes, won’t begin until 2019. To spur early equipage, the DCIS contract provides the Harris team with $80 million to assist airlines with upgrading the avionics of as many as 1,900 aircraft (about $42K per plane).

In contrast with the relatively slow progress in Europe and even slower progress within the United States, CPDLC is already being provided on a trial basis in portions of the North Atlantic airspace, thanks to pioneering efforts by NATS and Nav Canada. Under their RLongSM project, equipped pairs of aircraft can obtain reduced longitudinal separation (from 10 min. down to 5 min.); participating planes must have FANS 1/A CPDLC (as is common on Pacific routes). Soon to come will be trials of RLatSM, which will reduce the lateral separation between flight tracks to one-half degree (30 nm) from the current one degree (60 nm). These capabilities (for equipped planes) should be in place by 2015. They will not only expand capacity on the North Atlantic; they will also increase flight efficiency, by enabling more flights to operate at fuel-minimizing altitudes.

But the true leader in implementing CPDLC is Nav Canada in its domestic airspace. This year will see the completion of a several-year rollout of CPDLC across Canada. It was first implemented for domestic use at the Montreal center in December 2011; its airspace borders the Gander flight information region where CPDLC is already in use for the North Atlantic. Edmonton center followed in January 2012, followed by Winnipeg in October and Moncton in November. The last two centers will launch CPDLC this year, Vancouver this month and Toronto in May. In each case, the process began with enabling pilots to downlink requests for speed and altitude changes, with digital responses from controllers. Next came controllers uplinking frequency-change messages as aircraft pass from one center’s airspace to the next. The final stage, so far only at Gander and Montreal, is enabling controllers to send “direct to” messages. Thus far CPDLC operates only at 29,000 feet and above, but low-level and terminal airspace will be added where customers desire it, Nav Canada told Aviation Week.

In terms of moving toward full capability for trajectory-based operations, of which CPDLC is a key enabler, I’d give the Pacific airspace a grade of A, the North Atlantic a B+ (getting close), Europe’s domestic airspace as a C+, Canada’s domestic airspace as A- and, alas, U.S. domestic airspace as, at best, a D. But hey, CPDLC by 2019 is better than not at all.

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New Approaches to Control Tower Functions

One of the hot topics at the World ATM Congress in Madrid was fresh thinking about how to provide tower services. One aspect is the growth of contracting for the operation of towers; the other is continued progress of the remote tower idea, in various forms. And several of those I talked with envision remote towers being embraced by the contract tower companies.

Two contract tower providers were exhibitors in Madrid: NATS and DFS. As I have reported previously, NATS formed a joint venture with Ferrovial that won the lion’s share of the initial batch of control towers that were outsourced by Spanish ANSP AENA. Paul Reid of NATS responded to my question by explaining that while FerroNATS was set up specifically for contract operations in Spain, NATS is independently seeking tower contracts in other countries—and he sees a number of opportunities elsewhere in Europe. Germany’s DFS has created a subsidiary called The Tower Company, which so far holds tower operating contracts at eight German airports. It, too, is looking at opportunities in other countries. Neither Dirk Mahns of The Tower Company nor Reid of NATS would disclose where they thought the next opportunities were, but there was talk elsewhere at the conference about towers becoming a contestable service more widely in Europe. Another source told me that Sweden’s delayed RFP for contract tower services is now on the street.

The two main companies offering remote tower capabilities at Madrid were Saab Sensis and Searidge Technologies. Saab Sensis this week announced that their initial site in Sweden, for LVF, the Swedish ANSP, has passed Site Acceptance Testing—a first for remote towers anywhere. They had an elaborate display with showing the kind of multiple LCD displays used at the Remote Tower Center in Sundsvall, which display real-time high-definition video from a suite of fixed and zoom cameras located on the airfields of Sundsvall and Ornskoldsvik. They hope to receive full certification by mid-summer. Another test site exists in Norway, and testing is also going on at Alice Springs in Australia.

Searidge, which is affiliated with Nav Canada, distributed a large brochure called Remote Tower Solutions. By marrying its surveillance video expertise with Nav Canada’s suite of NAVCANATM products, Searidge can offer a varying amount of remote surveillance capabilities:

As examples, the brochure cited DFS’s decision not to build a conventional tower to serve the distant third runway at Munich, relying on advanced video surveillance instead, as well as Malta Air Traffic Services’ use of intelligent video to manage traffic in the apron area which is not visible from the airport’s tower.

In the United States, the closest we have come to remote tower implementation is the Colorado Surveillance project’s implementation of what it has called “blended airspace.” As I have reported in previous issues, this joint effort between the Colorado DOT and the FAA has used various technologies, including Wide Area Multilateration (WAM), to provide radar-like separation for a number of remote mountain resort-area airports without control towers. Actual ATC is provided from Denver Center. As Bill Payne reported in Madrid, Phase 3 of this project is exploring the development of video surveillance-based remote tower functions, with the participation of controllers and support from NATCA headquarters.

As these technologies gain acceptance, they offer many possibilities for improved ANSP performance, including avoiding the expense of adding towers at large airports that expand beyond line-of-sight from their original tower (e.g., Chicago O’Hare, Munich), adding tower-like services at remote and seasonal airports, and providing 24/7 coverage at low-activity airports by serving several of them from a single remote tower location.

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Upcoming Conference

ATC Global 2013, March 12-14, Amsterdam Rai, Amsterdam, The Netherlands (Robert Poole presentation being delivered by Graham Lake). Details at: www.atcglobalhub.com

News Notes

Advisory Panel for Space-Based ADS-B. Aireon, the company developing a global network of satellite-based ADS-B services, has announced the creation of an eight-member advisory committee to ensure adequate customer input in bringing the system into being. The members will include representatives of airlines, ANSPs, and IATA, and the announcement was welcomed by IATA Director General Tony Tyler.

U.K. Considering PBN Mandate. The U.K. aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, is developing a Future Airspace Strategy (FAS) aimed at increasing airspace capacity and improving flight efficiency. As part of FAS, the CAA is considering a mandate to implement performance-based navigation (PBN) in certain portions of the U.K.’s controlled airspace, such as for arrivals and departures at major airports. Basic PBN capability is already mandated in en-route airspace.

New Equipage Fund for General Aviation. Nexa Capital, which has been developing the NextGen Equipage Fund to help airlines finance on-board equipment for NextGen capabilities, is launching a sister fund aimed specifically at general aviation, including Part 91, Part 135, and experimental aircraft. It aims to provide low-cost financing to equip such planes for ADS-B, Datacomm, RNAV/RNP, and GPS WAAS. The new fund’s initial capital is $550 million. J. Robert Peart is president and CEO of the new fund.

Stake in NATS Part Owner Is for Sale. A 12% stake in the largest non-governmental shareholder of the U.K.’s ANSP, NATS, is on the market, and the current holders—leisure travel groups Tui and Thomas Cook-- hope to raise $193 million for their shares. They have instructed investment bank Rothschild to find a buyer. According to the Sunday Times, early interest has come from pension funds, infrastructure investors, and ANSPs such as Germany’s DFS. The shares are in the seven-member Airline Group, which owns 42% of NATS, rather than NATS itself.

Reduced Spacing Yields Benefits at Memphis. Revised spacing requirements between arriving aircraft and between departing aircraft at Memphis International Airport, recently approved by safety regulator FAA, are producing significant benefits for FedEx at the airport, its principal hub. Overall efficiency of operations has been increased by more than 15%, leading to reduced taxi-out times, and reductions in fuel use, emissions, and noise. The new wake turbulence separation standards will be rolled out this year at Atlanta, Louisville, and San Francisco, the FAA announced on January 30th.

St. Louis Will Join Boston with Ground Vehicle Tracking. The system at Boston Logan Airport that tracks ground vehicles to prevent runway incursions (last month’s lead article) will be installed at St. Louis’s Lambert Airport as well, following FAA certification last November. Because the ITT Exelis system uses the universal access transceiver (UAT) to broadcast ground vehicle position, that position information appears not only on controllers’ display screens and on tablets in the ground vehicles but also on ADS-B/In displays in aircraft cockpits that are equipped. The programs at Logan and Lambert are being funded by the airports, not the FAA.

31 Controllers for Cross-Country Flights. The USA Today feature “Ask Air Traffic Control” in January answered the question: How many controllers must a pilot talk to on a cross-country trip from LAX to JFK? The answer, provided by NATCA Director of Safety & Technology Dale Wright, was a minimum of 31 controllers. This includes tower controllers at LAX (3), controllers at Southern California TRACON (2), en-route controllers at seven en-route centers across the country (another 21), New York TRACON (3), and JFK tower (2). Each of these hand-offs requires voice communications on sometimes congested radio frequencies, creating the possibility of errors or a need to repeat due to noise or other interference. This situation cries out for controller-pilot datalink and for consolidation of both airspace and facilities, all of which will be possible with NextGen.

First Undergraduate Degree in Commercial Space Operations. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has announced a new B.S. program in Commercial Space Operations. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first such degree program anywhere in the world. Interested readers can get further information from Dr. Lance Erickson, Erickson@erau.edu.

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Quotable Quotes

“Improved airspace design, new technologies, and operational concepts and procedures will all help with the pressing need for improved ATM performance. But to realize their full potential, these solutions require facilitation and support from much-improved institutional and regulatory arrangements. . . . [B]efore the expected billions of dollars can be invested in ATM modernization programs, we need robust business cases to justify these huge financial outlays. New business models, governance structures, and funding mechanisms need to be introduced to support the transformation of ATM performance.”

—Jeff Poole, Director General, CANSO, in “Collective Vision Needed,” Aviation Week, Feb. 18, 2013

“Why is our aviation safety regulator, the FAA, also the provider of air traffic services? Anybody think there might be a conflict of interest there? Hardly any other country vests a single agency with both of those responsibilities. Why do we think we need a government agency to run the air traffic control system? Safety? Who’s more important to you when you’re flying, the controller or the pilot? Would you feel safer if the pilot were a GS-15? Most other industrialized nations have moved their ATC systems into corporatized entities, like the one the Clinton Administration proposed but then had to drop. We need to pick that effort back up and get it done. A fiscal crisis, as has been said so often, is a terrible thing to waste. Some 20-30% of the money that supports our aviation system is appropriated each year out of the General Fund—i.e., it’s not just the ticket tax. That’s typically based on the military’s use of the airspace. Will Congress have the wherewithal to continue making that contribution, given competing priorities and dramatically shrinking resources?”

—Jeff Shane, former Under Secretary for Policy, U.S. DOT, private email communication (Jan. 31, 2013), used with permission

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


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