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Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #96

ATC productivity, Sequestration, Metroplex initiatives shortcumings, and Reducing GPS vulnerability

Robert Poole
September 25, 2012

In this issue:

ATC Productivity Growing in Europe, but Not Here

Although Europe still has a long way to go to achieve cost-effective air traffic control, the latest ATM Cost-Effectiveness report from Eurocontrol’s Performance Review Unit (PRU) documents significant improvements over the last four years. The report provides a number of measures of productivity and cost-effectiveness for European airspace overall and for 37 individual air navigation service providers (ANSPs). Overall EU-wide targets were agreed upon in December 2010 for cost-efficiency, airspace capacity, and environmental performance. This report deals only with the first of these, and its data for the past four years suggest that the target for a Europe-wide decrease in ATC unit costs of 10% by 2015 is achievable.

Over the previous four year-period, controller productivity increased by 8.9%, more than offsetting the hourly labor cost increase of 7.3%. But because support costs (other ATC and overhead expenses) also went up, the overall ATC cost per flight hour decreased only 0.3% over this period, Europe-wide. However, there was considerably more progress in 2010 compared with 2009. Labor cost per controller hour decreased 5.1% while controller productivity grew by 6.6%, leading to an overall 6.8% decrease in ATC cost per flight hour Europe-wide. A considerable fraction of that overall improvement was due to the major ATC labor law reform in Spain, which led to a large increase in regular hours worked and a significant reduction in very expensive overtime.

What I found especially interesting was the huge variation in costs and productivity among the 37 ANSPs. The overall ANSP cost per composite flight hour ranged from a high of €725 in Belgium to a low of €173 in Estonia. The PRU analysts looked into possible causes for this variability, including overall traffic levels, the density of traffic, and the complexity of traffic. Those ANSPs with the highest unit costs tend to have airspace with a combination of high density and high complexity: Belgium, Germany, the UK, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Austria, and the Czech Republic. But most of those ANSPs also have very high productivity, as indicated by the following table:

ANSP

€ per flight –hr.

Flight-hrs./controller-hr.

Productivity Rank

Skyguide (Switzerland)

542

1.08

2

NATS (U.K.)

412

0.99

3

DFS (Germany)

464

0.98

4

Austro Control (Austria)

445

0.96

6

ANS CR (Czech Republic)

420

0.94

7

LVNL (Netherlands)

614

0.90

12

Belgocontrol (Belgium)

725

0.69

22

As you can see, Belgocontrol is clearly an outlier, with much lower productivity and higher unit cost than the other ANSPs dealing with dense, complex air traffic. (The #1 rank in productivity goes to Eurocontrol’s Maastrict district, but since it controls only high-altitude airspace, it is not strictly comparable to the other ANSPs in the table.)

As I’ve written here previously, one of the key means to the end of a more cost-effective Single European Sky is to take advantage of economies of scale by providing air traffic management using far fewer facilities. The PRU’s analysis lends support to this premise, by finding that the least productive (albeit mostly lower-cost) ANSPs are those of small size serving areas with low traffic volume and high seasonality.  “Most of the ANSPs that achieved or are close to the top quartile in [controller]-hour productivity are among the most complex ANSPs. On the other hand, [those ANSPs] which belong to the least-complex grouping . . . show a [controller]-hour productivity which is lower than the [average of] the bottom quartile.”

We don’t have directly comparable figures for ATC productivity and cost-effectiveness in the United States. But I strongly suspect that if someone were to compile data on operations per controller-hour and cost per operation, we would see comparably large variations among the Air Traffic Organization’s 167 TRACONs and 20 Centers. Meanwhile, to get some indication of whether ATC productivity in this country is increasing or decreasing, I pulled together some numbers from FAA documents, comparing en-route IFR operations each year and the FAA’s Operations budget for that year. For the same period 2006 through 2010 in which Europe-wide cost per composite flight hour decreased by 0.3%, in this country the cost per IFR operation increased by 21.7%. (And over the 10-year period 2000 to 2010, that number grew by 42.4%.) The European and American figures are not identical measures; I merely point out the sharply contrasting trends.

The aviation customers (mostly airlines) in Europe are demanding productivity increases, and as challenging as it may be for ANSPs to deliver such increases, they are now under way. When will U.S. aviation customers start doing likewise?

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Sequestration and “User Fees”

On Sept. 17th, the Office of Management & Budget released its “Preliminary Estimates of Sequestrable and Exempt Budgetary Resources,” spelling out which specific line items in the federal budget will be cut if the sequester mandated by the Budget Control Act goes into effect early next year.

For the FAA, the news is mixed. Despite fears of major cuts in the Operations account, which pays for operating costs of the agency, including controllers and technicians in the ATC system, the estimated cut is just $377 million—about 3.9% of that $9.7 billion account. That’s because about 60% of that account is exempt, funded from the Aviation Trust Fund. Also exempt, for the same reason, is the $3.5 billion Airport Improvement Program, which makes capital grants to airports, large and small. However, almost the entire $2.8 billion Facilities and Equipment account—the capital budget for the ATC system, including NextGen—which is also funded by the Trust Fund, is “sequestrable,” according to OMB.

I’m not an expert on the ins and outs of the federal budget, but to me (and I’m sure to most airspace users), the idea of a “trust fund” into which user taxes are put for the sole purpose of providing better services for those who pay the taxes should mean exactly that. All such dollars should be exempt from across-the-board budget cuts. But I’m confident that the analysts at OMB know the fine print better than I do, so we appear to be stuck with the fact that NextGen is now being held hostage to the federal government’s looming insolvency. While the projected cut to Facilities and Equipment is only $229 million (8.2% of the $2.79 billion account), it’s a tragedy that just as serious components of NextGen are moving into the implementation stage, the funding for this modernization effort is being cut back. And it could get even worse, if FAA leadership decides that the 3.9% cut in Operations is intolerable and gets permission to take those $377 million from Facilities & Equipment, in addition the basic $229 million cut allocated to that account by OMB.

Our ATC colleagues at Airservices Australia, DFS, Nav Canada, NATS, and the many other corporatized ANSPs must be looking on in bemused amazement that the world’s largest ATC system is still tethered to annual government appropriations and the inevitable cutbacks when the overall government budget is in trouble. Nearly all the other large, modern ANSPs worldwide are now financially autonomous, insulated not only from government budget problems but also from the politicization and micromanagement that inevitably accompanies being line items in a government budget.

And the key to financial autonomy is, of course, receiving their revenue directly from their customers, in the form of fees and charges. That revenue stream, unlike the FAA budget, is bondable, so that large-scale capital expenditures on modernization can be financed up front and paid off over time as the customers reap the benefits of the improved level of service.

Let me hasten to add that I am not thereby endorsing any ad-hoc proposal to simply add a new “user fee” to the existing politically allocated user taxes. Our friends at general aviation organizations AOPA and NBAA are right to be opposing such “feed the beast” proposals that would simply cost users more without fixing what is seriously wrong with the current governance and funding of the Air Traffic Organization. But if the ATO were reformed and converted into something that looks like Nav Canada, it would be appropriate for all those who receive services from this nonprofit utility to pay for those services. Nav Canada’s fees and charges are very user-friendly to business and general aviation, which have benefited greatly from the improvements that ANSP has delivered over the past 15 years. A similar model in this country would safeguard all ANSP revenues for ANSP services, especially if the governing body consisted of aviation stakeholders, as is the case in Canada.

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Metroplex Initiative Comes in for Criticism

In an audit report released August 1st, the DOT Office of Inspector General shined a spotlight on the FAA’s Metroplex initiative, saying it is not living up to the recommendations of an industry task force (“Challenges with Implementing Near-Term NextGen Capabilities at Congested Airports Could Delay Benefits,” AV-2012-167).

The Metroplex initiative’s aim is to improve the airspace and procedures for arrivals and departures in 21 key metro areas nationwide. The starting point for the audit was the RTCA task force report of September 2009, which urged the agency to prioritize near-term benefits that would encourage aircraft operators to equip their planes with key technologies such as RNP and Data Communications, while also streamlining FAA’s processes for developing and implementing new flight procedures. While the report addresses all of these issues, it devotes the greatest attention to the Metroplex initiative.

First, Metroplex is behind schedule. Although seven initial studies have been completed thus far, “problems with selecting FAA managers to fill project lead positions and developing a project plan delayed the design and implementation phases for the first two sites,” resulting in at least 15 months being added to the scheduled implementation dates for all the sites. Second, FAA has reduced the number of sites from 21 to 13 by dropping New York/Philadelphia, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Seattle, and Las Vegas due to other airspace and RNAV/RNP projects and combining several others.

Most disturbing, as one bold heading in the audit states, is that “Airspace users are concerned that FAA’s current Metroplex initiative will not maximize operational benefits.” The problem here is that, once again, instead of implementing the principle of best-equipped/best-served as the RTCA task force had urged, FAA is devising Metroplex procedures “to accommodate the performance capability of the least capable RNAV/RNP-equipped aircraft.” To be sure, nearly all airliners have flight management system (FMS) computers that can do simple area navigation (RNAV), but “nearly half of all active commercial aircraft . . . are equipped to fly RNP procedures with curved approaches.” That figure is already over 80% at Dallas Love Field (part of the DFW Metroplex), yet “FAA has not developed any RNP procedures for Love Field,” and the Metroplex study team recommended only one RNP procedure for that airport “due to the team’s primary focus on deploying RNAV procedures, lack of experience with RNP, and desire to avoid extensive environmental studies.” The IG cites airline concerns that “FAA’s approach offers little operational and financial benefits to the airlines . . . . The approach using RNAV is based on decades-old technology, and [these] carriers can conduct more efficient turns and fly shorter approaches using RNP.” Another problem with the DFW Metroplex plan: it does not incorporate fuel-saving and noise-reducing continuous descent approaches.

Even if the plans did include RNP and curved approaches, the FAA is lagging on developing guidance and training for controllers to safely manage RNAV and RNP operations during the inevitable transition period when planes using a given airport will have different capabilities. FAA has not yet updated its controller handbook, for example, and its Nav-Lean effort to streamline the development and implementation of NextGen procedures “could take as long as five years.” On this leisurely schedule, and assuming Metroplex projects remain on schedule, whatever improvements Metroplex makes will be already implemented by the time the 21 streamlining recommendations have been implemented. Moreover, controller training on RNAV and RNP has “often only consisted of briefings rather than comprehensive training” using simulators. And, as we have already observed at airports like Atlanta, “without adequate training and familiarity with new instrument flight procedures, controllers are reluctant to allow pilots to use these new procedures, especially in a mixed equipage environment.”

So I had to laugh when I read news coverage here in Florida, based on last week’s announcement that the FAA would soon begin its Metroplex study covering Miami, Tampa, and Orlando. “A much anticipated but frequently criticized new flight guidance system known as NextGen could be operating in Central and South Florida within three years,” was its opening sentence. If wishes were horses . . . .

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Reducing the Vulnerability of GPS

Since I wrote last issue about growing concerns over the vulnerability of GPS-based NextGen to jamming and spoofing, there have been a number of developments. NPR reported in mid-August that the FAA had become “a little bit more forthcoming” on the issue. The agency noted that as NextGen has begun phasing in, “it has never recorded a spoofed or ghost plane.” OK, but the argument was about future vulnerability, not present. NPR reports that FAA will validate ADS-B signals in three ways: comparing them with radar returns, checking that an ADS-B signal is coming from the location where the plane is supposed to be, and using multilateration to verify where the airborne signal originated. NPR quotes Air Force Institute of Technology researcher Dominic Magazu worrying that these techniques might not help pilots spot fake ADS-B signals quickly.

Building protection into GPS receivers, so they can only receive valid signals, is one possible approach. Rockwell Collins has developed such a device, called MicroGram, a miniature protected GPS receiver that it says is tamper-proof and relatively inexpensive. And the GPS constellation itself will soon be upgraded, with the first of an eventual 32 GPS III satellites scheduled to be launched in 2014. The new satellites will produce signals that are eight times stronger, which makes them harder to interfere with. The revised GPS system will be interoperable with Europe’s Galileo and Russia’s Glonass, meaning that more signals will be available to next-generation GPS receivers, which should also reduce vulnerability.

As for deterring the use of jammers (such as that used by a truck driver on I-95 which interfered with Newark’s new GPS-based landing system), ITT Exelis earlier this month announced a GPS Interference, Detection, and Geolocation (IDG) system that can quickly identify the location of a jammer, to direct law enforcement efforts to apprehend the jammer. Exelis hopes to install IDG sensors around airports, seaports, and utility grids. The system is not yet in production, but is planned for product launch in 2013.

Finally, BAE Systems in June announced a possible alternative or backup for GPS positioning information. The technology named Navsop would pick up medium-wave radio frequencies (mobile phones, wi-fi, radio, television) to identify the receiver’s location by multilateration, providing an alternative when GPS signals are either jammed or unavailable. No commercial product is yet on the market; Navsop is a project of BAE’s Advanced Technology Center in the U.K.

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News Notes

Best-Equipped/Best Served Article Now in Print. Gary Church’s useful idea on how the Air Traffic Organization can begin implementing best-equipped/best-served (BEBS) as an incentive for aircraft operators to equip their planes with various NextGen capabilities appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of The Journal of Air Traffic Control, published by the Air Traffic Control Association. The key idea is to begin the process of implementing BEBS by allowing “NextGen-equipped” planes to have priority in departure queues. There is a lot more in this article, making it well worth reading.

United Testing ADS-B/In. On oceanic routes, United Airlines is testing a Honeywell system that provides in-cockpit displays of air traffic within 200 nautical miles. Once all such aircraft are equipped to generate ADS-B/Out signals, they will show up on such ADS-B/In displays. That will permit 15 n.mi. separations on oceanic routes, rather than the current 50 n.mi. With full implementation of ADS-B in oceanic airspace, United estimates it will save $190,000 per year for each equipped plane.

Horizon Air Equipping Planes for WAAS. Some observers have characterized WAAS as a program of use only to general aviation and have questioned it on cost/benefit grounds. (WAAS augments GPS to permit vertical guidance on landings without relying on ground equipment.) So I was interested to learn that Alaska Airlines division Horizon Air announced last month that it will equip all 48 of its Bombardier Q400 turboprops with WAAS by year-end. Horizon’s technical pilot Steve Bush told Aviation Daily that the system will allow the planes greater access to airports that it serves, whether or not they have instrument landing systems (ILS). He also said that the payback period for this equipage will be two years or less.

UK-Ireland FAB Testing Direct Routings. The UK-Ireland Functional Airspace Block (FAB) will run simulations of direct high-altitude routings through its combined airspace in October and November. The High Level Project Team, a joint effort of the two ANSPs (NATS and IAA), has drafted a number of airspace designs that permit direct routes, based on cooperation between the en-route centers in Shannon, Prestwick, and London. According to Air Transport World, the aim of the project is to increase the region’s high-level capacity by 5%, while saving fuel and reducing CO2 emissions by about 10,400 tons per year.

FAA Surveying Controllers re Integrated Control Facility. The FAA early this month sent a survey to everyone working at the TRACON and the en-route Center serving the New York area (N90 and ZNY). It asks their input on a number of questions related to the planned Liberty ICF (Integrated Control Facility) that will replace at least those two existing facilities. The cover email announcing the survey was signed by the ATO’s Chief Operating Officer David Grizzle, NATCA president Paul Rinaldi, and PASS president Tom Brantley. Responses are due Sept. 25th.

Metron Hires Former Airservices CEO. Metron Aviation last month announced that Greg Russell, until recently CEO of Airservices Australia, has become its Executive Aviation Advisor for the Asia-Pacific Region. His long career in aviation includes senior management positions at airports (Athens, Sydney) as well as leading Airservices during years that produced major modernization of air traffic management in Australia. He also served as Vice Chair of the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO). Metron is a subsidiary of Airbus Americas.

CANSO Announces Two New Full Members. ENANA-EP (Angola) and Airports Fiji Limited (AFL) are the two most recent air navigation service providers (ANSPs) admitted to full membership in CANSO. AFL manages 6 million square kilometers of mostly oceanic airspace, encompassing Fiji, Tuvalu, New Caledonia, Kiribati, and Vanuatu; it also owns and operates Nadi International Airport. ENANA-EP provides air traffic management for the Luanda Flight Information Region and also operates Angola’s airports. Both AFL and ENANA are government corporations.

Two ATC Conferences Still Dueling. In response to my News Note last issue, a reader associated with the ATCA/CANSO conference in Madrid emailed to offer a correction. The long list of exhibitors listed on the Amsterdam conference website in early summer, he pointed out, were from the 2012 conference, not the upcoming one in 2013. That list no longer appears on the ATC Global conference website. I have emailed that organization asking for a current list of exhibitors, but at press time had not received a new list. Meanwhile, the World ATM Congress update sent out at the end of August announced 27 more exhibitors, in addition to the 85 previously announced. To help you keep things straight, World ATM Congress is Feb. 12-14 in Madrid, while ATC Global is in Amsterdam March 12-14.

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Quotable Quotes

“The airline industry, like ANS [air navigation services], is also highly regulated. Yet consolidation is increasingly widespread. Airlines are merging to form global mega-carriers. Even where merger is prohibited by law, international alliances have been formed to deliver economies of scale and to develop product offerings that match market demands. . . . We are starting to see alliances develop in ANS too. The financial crisis enveloping much of the developed world will not pass us by. States looking for solutions are already showing signs of disposing of their assets to raise cash. Airports are high on the list for disposal. It would be reasonable to expect that some States will seek to leverage their ANSP asset, through sale or some form of shareholder dividend. Equally, money for investment in next-generation ATC systems will be even harder to come by. Economic necessity creates political will.”
—Graham Lake, former Director General, CANSO, “The Bigger Picture,” The Controller, January 2012

“One of the main requirements under the SES [Single European Sky] initiative is for States to separate the regulatory function from the service provision function. Designated service providers must be formally independent from the organization in charge of regulating and supervising the providers’ activities. In practice, most European States have complied with this obligation by setting up a national ANSP in the form of a public or private law corporation, the ownership of which usually remains with the State, while the regulatory function remains exercised by a governmental authority.”
—Francis Schubert, Chief Corporate Officer, Skyguide, “Regulation of Air Navigation Services in the Single European Sky,” November 9, 2009

“There are reasonable techniques you can bake into the GPS receivers and navigation systems . . . . While they won’t prevent sophisticated attacks, they would make them much harder. The fact is, anti-spoofing is hard. There’s no quick and easy and cheap solution, but there are cost-effective measures we can take in the short term.”
—Todd Humphreys, University of Texas at Austin, in Graham Warwick and Jen DiMascio, “Untrustworthy Utility?” Aviation Week & Space Technology, Aug. 6, 2012

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


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