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Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #43

Topics include: governance reform; responsibility for controller fatique; alternatives for ADS-B; FAA outsources RNP development; overflight fees; and other news.

Robert Poole
April 1, 2007

In this issue:


Governance Reform: Who Will Make Key ATC Decisions?

One of the biggest gripes I hear when talking with knowledgeable people about the FAA's reauthorization proposal is that it does not meaningfully reform "governance" of the ATC system. If Congress were to enact something like the sweeping reform of funding proposed in the measure, thereby aligning the growth of revenue for ATC with the growth of flight activity and hence system workload, it would go a long way toward fixing the funding system's looming structural problem. (That problem is that the main current funding source (the ticket tax) is linked to the number of passengers carried, but the ongoing trend is for those passengers to be carried in smaller and smaller units: narrow-bodies instead of wide-bodies, RJs instead of narrow-bodies, fractionals instead of RJs, etc. But ATC workload (and hence cost) is driven directly by the number of aircraft in the system. Hence, the proposal to shift to direct fees for en-route and terminal-area ATC services.)

Fixing the funding problem without reforming ATC governance has acquired the nickname of "feeding the beast." What that means is pumping greater levels of funding into a system whose inadequate ways of managing and modernizing the ATC system have not been fixed. Hence, I have argued for years that governance reform should go hand-in-hand with funding reform.

The best model I have seen for better governance is the stakeholder board invented for Nav Canada, the not-for-profit corporation that the ATC branch of Transport Canada was converted into a decade ago. That board represents airlines, business aviation, employees, the traveling public, and the government, all of which are key stakeholders in the ATC system. In effect, Nav Canada is a kind of user co-op. The stakeholder board has to balance the sometimes conflicting interests of passenger and cargo airlines, long-haul and short-haul airlines, air taxis and corporate planes, employees and aircraft operators (e.g., when it comes to holding down operating costs), and the traveling public.

The FAA's proposal includes something along these lines: the Air Transportation System Advisory Board. As with Nav Canada's board, it is designed to represent all key stakeholders. The FAA proposal calls for the board to be made up as follows:

Unfortunately, as its title implies, this board is advisory only. It can make recommendations on the ATC user fee structure and rates, on the selection of the Air Traffic Organization's chief operating officer, on the critically important NextGen modernization effort. By contrast, the boards of Nav Canada and the 40-odd commercialized air navigation service providers overseas are all real boards of directors, with the power to develop and approve capital and operating budgets, develop and modify fee structures, and hire and fire the CEO. So it's no wonder the airlines themselves are unhappy that this is only token reform of ATC governance.

And that makes the criticism of this aspect of the FAA's proposal by general aviation groups all the more bizarre. Since last year, long before the proposal was actually unveiled this February, these groups have been denouncing it as a plot to turn over control of the ATC system to the airlines. Now that the proposal has been in circulation for two months, have they changed their tune? Not one whit. The May 2007 issue of AOPA Pilot includes a major article by staffer Tom Horne, "A Bill's Blowback: Congress receives the FAA's and airlines' wish lists." Horne writes, [T]he bill turns the airlines into full partners with the FAA on matters of decision making. It would create a board dominated by airline representatives who would help set up the user-fee pricing schedules and even help run the air traffic control system." [emphasis added] And in the May issue of Flying, editor-in-chief Mac McClellan's lead editorial takes the same line: "[T]he Bush administration seeks to remove the nation's aviation system from the public domain under the control of our elected representatives and hand it to a new type of organization that will be controlled by the airlines." [emphasis added] The same line is being repeated in articles, speeches, and letters by various GA advocates.

I thought you had to have basic competence in math to get a pilot's license. Evidently not. This proposed advisory board would have four members representing airlines out of 13 total members—that's just 30.7%. Business and general aviation would get two seats out of 13 (that's 15.4%, if you don't have your calculator out). If anyone should be complaining about under-representation, it's the airlines, since according to the FAA's latest (and by far most accurate) cost allocation study, airlines and air taxis account for 73.5% of the Air Traffic Organization's costs, while general aviation accounts for 15.6%.

This is clearly not a board dominated by airlines, and in fact GA is represented on it almost exactly in proportion to its use of the system. For leading GA advocates to present it as something else is either ignorance (failure to actually read the legislative language) or deliberate deception. Either way, it's a disreputable performance.

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Controller Fatigue: Who's Responsible?

Earlier this month, on April 10th, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) made an important set of recommendations, stemming from its review of recent runway-incursion incidents (when planes come close to colliding at airports). NTSB cited controller fatigue as a factor in several such incidents, and possibly in last year's fatal accident in which a commuter plane crashed when it tried to take off from a too-short runway at Lexington, Kentucky.

Specifically, NTSB found that "controllers were operating in a state of fatigue because of their work schedules and poorly managed utilization of rest periods between shifts . . . . [F]atigue has contributed to controller errors." The agency urged the FAA and the controllers union, NATCA, to find ways to provide controllers with adequate rest periods for restorative sleep, and to develop shift rotation schedules that minimize sleep disruptions, which can degrade cognitive performance.

Current shift schedules reflect two things: FAA regulations and the practices allowed by the contract between NATCA and the agency. The regulations provide that controllers may be scheduled for up to 10 hours on duty (8 regular plus 2 overtime) and that they must have at least an 8-hour rest period between shifts and at least one full 24-hour day off per week. But the contract allows shifts to be developed and assigned at the local facility level, via a bidding process based on seniority.

Last fall (issue #37) I reported that a retired FAA manager, once a controller himself, had told me (following the Lexington crash) that prior to the NATCA era, controllers typically worked alternating weeks of five day shifts and five evening shifts, with an occasional week of midnight shifts. (When I was a boy, my dad worked a shift like that as a mechanic at Eastern Airlines.) Today, thanks to NATCA, the common practice is for a controller's week to be two evening shifts, two day shifts, and a midnight shift on the last day of the work week. That gives the controller a very long weekend, say from 6:30 AM Friday to 4 PM Monday. You can see why controllers would like this.

But that kind of schedule flies in the face of what we know about rapid rotation of shifts. In 1999, the FAA Civil Aerospace Medical Institute did a study of ATC shift work and fatigue. As Frances Fiorino reported in Aviation Week (April 16, 2007), they found that rapid shift rotations led to accumulated sleep deficits and deterioration in cognitive performance. Look again at the typical schedule above. A controller on this schedule would have two rapid rotations within the week: first, doing a day shift only eight hours after an evening shift, and again doing a midnight shift only eight hours after a day shift. That's a prescription for sleep deficits, fatigue, and reduced sharpness.

That FAA management allowed this NATCA-demanded scheduling to continue for eight years after the 1999 report is inexcusable; evidently, nobody was willing to face up to the union on this. In 2002, the FAA "issued multimedia educational tools to help combat fatigue." But you don't combat sleep deficits by reading about them; you combat them by eliminating their cause. What the NTSB is recommending is long overdue.

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Key NextGen Technology Will Break New Ground

Both the FAA and Nav Canada are in the initial stages of implementing what the former considers "the backbone" of the Next Generation ATC system: ADS-B. Basically, it's a replacement for radar, with ground stations that cost about one-tenth as much install and maintain as radar. ADS-B also provides vastly better performance. An ADS-B-equipped plane sends out its GPS-based position, velocity, and direction once per second (compared with only once every 14 to 36 seconds for radar returns), thereby providing much greater precision about where planes are and where they're heading. That makes it possible to reduce the buffer zone around each, which means the same airspace can safely contain more planes.

The FAA is under way with a major program to procure about 500 ADS-B ground stations for nationwide installation over the next decade. In a very innovative approach, instead of specifying all the details of the equipment, it has instead defined the services to be provided, and will leave the details to the winning bidder to work out. Yes, you read that correctly: instead of buying 500 precisely defined boxes, it will instead contract for the provision of ADS-B services (downlink and uplink to planes, plus interfaces with ATC centers). The first areas to be equipped will be the Gulf of Mexico, Philadelphia, Louisville, and Juneau—each of which poses unique challenges.

Nav Canada has already selected Sensis Corp. to install six ADS-B ground stations in the Hudson's Bay region (which currently lacks radar coverage). The contract includes options for up to 200 ground units, which would provide nationwide coverage. Nav Canada plans to begin in the north and then gradually move south.

ADS-B is being implemented in Australia, and will likely become the worldwide replacement for radar. However, the United States has been out of sync with the rest of the world in one key respect. For the system to be able to replace radar, all aircraft in the relevant airspace must be equipped. However, for the 100,000+ small general aviation planes in the U.S. fleet, it's been generally believed that a standard ADS-B system would be too large and too costly. So in its pioneering Capstone program in Alaska, begun in 2001, the FAA introduced a lower-cost unit just for such planes, called the Universal Access Transponder (UAT). It broadcasts on a frequency different from the worldwide (ICAO) standard for ADS-B. That means once all planes in U.S. airspace were equipped with cockpit displays, airline displays would show only other airliners and business jets, and small GA plane displays would show only other such planes. Not acceptable.

So the FAA's request for proposals called for the ground stations to be dual-mode, able to convert either type of signal to the other type, so that all displays—for controllers on the ground as well as pilots in the air—would display all traffic.

But now comes the first benefit of the FAA's more flexible approach to this procurement. Raytheon, one of the three bidders, submitted an alternative approach, under which UAT would be discontinued and all planes would get the same type of on-board equipment. It argued that newer technology could reduce the size and cost of units for small GA planes to acceptable levels, and presumably that there would be cost savings in not having to produce dual-mode ground stations. Because UAT provides GA pilots with weather information, Raytheon proposed providing free weather service, via XM Satellite, as part of the package.

To its credit, the FAA on February 23rd deemed Raytheon's proposal responsive to the RFP, so it can proceed to the final stages of the competition, along with Lockheed Martin and ITT. Observers are now wondering whether the other two will submit revised proposals along similar lines.

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Outsourcing Approach Path Development

In previous issues I have sung the praises of the FAA's concept of required navigation performance (RNP). This is another example of a functional specification, under which the FAA tells aircraft operators that they can fly certain paths using automation if they can demonstrate that the plane can maintain a required degree of accuracy. In issue no. 35, I criticized the agonizingly slow pace at which FAA was approving RNP routes into and out of airports and contrasted this with the situation overseas. In Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, the commercialized air navigation service providers have authorized private companies to work with airlines and airports to develop and certify such routes, in an expeditious manner. Why couldn't we do that here, I wrote?

Now I'm pleased to commend FAA for agreeing to do just that. In March it selected Naverus, Inc. as the first approved RNP consultant. That company, which was launched by former Alaska Airlines pilots who pioneered some of the first-ever RNP approaches, has designed some 350 RNP approaches in Australia, New Zealand, China, and Canada. Nearly all such approaches have been developed for the use of specific airlines using specific aircraft, though FAA has created a public RNP approach to Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC. The agency's own goal is to implement 25 such public approaches this year, but that relatively slow pace will now be supplemented by potentially hundreds more developed by Naverus for specific airlines and airports.

By making use of GPS and other precision information, RNP permits an approach path to follow a very narrow track, repeatable each time. This can save on fuel and also reduce noise exposure to nearby communities. RNP is another building block toward the overall NextGen system.

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Overflight Fees: Prototype for the Coming ATC User Fees

Part of the mythology being spread by business and general aviation groups, in their campaign against ATC user fees, is that administering and complying with such fees would be costly and cumbersome. We're told that FAA would need to create a "huge new bureaucracy" to administer the fee program, and that it would impose a costly burden on aviation users (over and above the cost of the fees).

This argument falls apart as soon as you start looking at it carefully. First, in principle there is no reason for FAA's Air Traffic Organization to create anything new. It already charges and collects overflight fees from airlines traversing U.S. airspace—just like all other countries do. Billing and collection are simple and low-cost, as they are in the more comprehensive user-fee systems of Nav Canada and Eurocontrol. And should the large increase in volume from adding en-route and terminal fees for domestic users threaten to overwhelm the ATO's in-house capabilities, this would be an easy task to outsource. There are, after all, many firms that issue and collect millions of bills every month, such as American Express, Visa, and MasterCard.

On the aviation user end, these days airlines use sophisticated route-planning software, as Susan Carey described in a detailed article last month in the Wall Street Journal (March 6, 2007). For each international flight every day, dispatchers use the software to take into account the latest data on winds aloft and other weather conditions, plus current information on overflight and other ATC fees. The software then works out the least-cost route, minimizing the total of fuel cost, fees, etc. In other words, the overflight fees—while certainly something to pay attention to—are just another cost to be minimized.

Under the current FAA funding proposal, only airlines, air taxis, and fractional jets would pay those en-route and terminal fees. The information needed to create the bill would come right off the flight plans, electronically, presumably overseen by airline and company dispatchers. If and when fees were extended to business jets, the information would flow between the corporate flight department and the ATO. And our several hundred thousand private pilots would continue to pay their share of system costs via the fuel tax, as they requested via AOPA while the FAA proposal was being drafted during the past year.

In short, there is no big deal about billing for, or getting billed for, ATC services. It happens every day, all over the world, with little fuss and bother. Even here.

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News Notes

Nav Canada Cuts Rates—Again. For the second year in a row, the commercialized air navigation service provider in Canada has reduced its user fee rates. The April 12 announcement was for a 3% reduction, effective Sept. 1, 2007. Last year Nav Canada's rates went down 1.7%, as of Sept. 1, 2006. Once the latest decrease goes into effect, Nav Canada's overall rate level will have increased only 7% in nominal terms since 1999. After accounting for inflation since then, the real change in user fee rates works out to minus 13%. As a not-for-profit corporation, Nav Canada uses any annual surplus either to reduce the next year's rates or for investment in the business.

Donohue Gets Award. Aviation guru George Donohue, now at George Mason University, received the Embry Riddle Pinnacle Award in March, for his key role in creating the FAA's Capstone program in Alaska, to pioneer the use of ADS-B for general aviation in a very demanding environment.

ATC Studies Available On-Line. Three previously published studies of ATC reform are now available to be downloaded, at no charge. They are:

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


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