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Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #58

Topics include: call for independent ATO; making better use of closely-spaced runways; Europe moves SESAR forward; reviewing the NextGen executive order; and other news.

Robert Poole
November 1, 2008

In this issue:


CANSO to Washington: Time to Reform ATC

The annual meeting of the Air Traffic Control Association is one of the world's largest aviation get-togethers (apart from major air shows). Usually held in Washington, DC, it is heavily attended by FAA personnel, vendors of all sizes, and ATC professionals from Europe and the Asia/Pacific region. Policy discussions are usually in short supply at these gatherings, but this year's event, in DC the first week of November, was an exception. The most talked-about presentation called on the United States to cease being an outlier by granting autonomy to its air navigation service provider, the FAA's Air Traffic Organization (ATO).

The bearer of these tidings was the Secretary General of CANSO (Civil Air Navigation Services Organization), Alexander ter Kuile. In a keynote address on Nov. 4th, ter Kuile advised that with a new administration about to take over, it was time to consider a "fundamental restructuring" of the air traffic management (ATM) sector. Accompanied by a photo of a 1954 Cadillac, he likened the U.S. system to a classic beauty that has grown rusty with time. Over the past two decades, global ATM has moved far beyond where the United States is today, from the traditional "Stage 1" tax-funded government department to at least Stage 2 (separation of ATC from safety regulation) or beyond. But "as long as governments and politicians interfere in the day-to-day management of an ANSP [air navigation service provider], a nation will remain saddled with sub-optimal performance" in air traffic management, he said. "Politicians should not concern themselves with basic manag erial decisions, such as investments, the allocation of resources, or the location and running of facilities."

But how to bring about such fundamental change? He suggested that "lack of unity among the various stakeholders on essential ATM topics is doing the United States and its economy a dis-service." To outsiders, he said, "the U.S. aviation debate looks utterly blocked by a stalemate between political parties, a stalemate between the various aircraft operator groups, and a stalemate between management and employees." Collaborative decision-making is needed not just for flight operations but also for strategic and institutional issues-the governance framework.

Based on global experience, he and CANSO suggest three key elements that drive excellence in ATM performance:

Though lots of air traffic professionals have thought these thoughts, as far as I know this was the first time anyone of this stature has actually said these things in a plenary session at one of the world's major aviation conferences. You can read the entire presentation, with illustrations, at www.canso.org; click on "CANSO at ATCA." You might also want to read the three-page working paper on the separation of ATC service provision from safety regulation from the September 2008 ICAO Conference on the Economics of Airports and Air Navigation Services (www.icao.int/ceans/docs/ceans_wp_037_en.pdf).

I must admit that getting this issue onto the new Administration's agenda sounds like a long shot. But recall that it was Vice President Gore's National Performance Review that proposed shifting the ATC system out of FAA and transforming it into an autonomous, self-funded U.S. Air Traffic Services (USATS) corporation. And former Clinton White House staffer Dorothy Robyn was the author of the recent Brookings Institution Hamilton Project white paper calling for this kind of change by the new Administration.

Perhaps the bigger challenge is what ter Kuile stressed in his presentation: if the Obama Administration has the courage to take on this issue, will aviation stakeholders put aside their differences and agree to work together to make it happen?

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Breakthrough on Closely Spaced Parallel Runways

One of the factors contributing to congestion and delays at many large hub airports is the usability of closely spaced parallel runways. In clear weather (VFR conditions), simultaneous parallel approaches can take place on those runways. But when reduced visibility prevails, separation criteria are increased, for safety reasons, so effective capacity drops significantly. San Francisco is the best-known example, but a Reason Foundation study early this year by Viggo Butler showed that 18 of the airports on FAA's list of airports needing additional capacity have closely spaced parallels.(See Table 1 in www.reason.org/ps368.pdf.)

The underlying problem is that conventional (rotating) radar doesn't provide aircraft position updates rapidly enough to provide timely warnings if planes on parallel approaches start drifting too close together. In the 1990s, the FAA began installing a Raytheon system called Precision Runway Monitor. Using an electronically scanned (no moving parts) secondary surveillance radar, PRM provides a 4 to 5-fold increase in update rate, along with software to alert controllers of impending deviations. A handful of PRMs have been installed--at Minneapolis, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and San Francisco. But they are costly to purchase and costly to operate, requiring an independent display and a dedicated controller position. So most airports with closely spaced parallels don't have PRM and therefore suffer significant reductions in effective capacity when visual conditions don't prevail.

The potential breakthrough comes from the ASDE-X collision-avoidance system which the FAA is rolling out at major airports. Made by Sensis Corp., ASDE-X uses a technique called multilateration to keep track of the positions of aircraft on or near the airport as well as ground vehicles. (This is essentially a three-dimensional form of triangulation, similar to what GPS does.) In 2005-06, FAA and Sensis tested multilateration as a lower-cost alternative to PRM at St. Louis. In side-by-side testing, they found multilateration to be at least as effective as PRM, but at about one-half the cost. As prototyped at STL, the system can use a modified STARS display, eliminating the need for an independent display.

The first regular installation of multilateration to replace PRM is now underway at Detroit Metro airport. It's due to become operational by next July at the latest. I checked the list of capacity-short airports with closely spaced parallel runways against the list of airports getting ASDE-X and found that 15 of the 18 either already have ASDE-X or are scheduled to get it within the next two years.

It looks to me like those 15 airports are excellent candidates for replicating what's now taking place at Detroit, namely taking advantage of the multilateration capability inherent in ASDE-X to make possible safe use of those closely spaced runways during low-visibility conditions. It can take decades to implement a new runway. But squeezing more effective capacity out of existing ones can be done quickly, and at modest cost, thanks to multilateration.

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Europe Moves SESAR Forward

I've written before about the superior institutional basis for implementing next-generation ATC in Europe. In principle, their problem is even greater than ours, since there are 27 sovereign national airspaces involved, each with its own ANSP. But the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) effort is being jointly funded and carried out by aviation stakeholders, Eurocontrol, and the European Commission (EC). Thus, everyone is inside the tent, involved in making decisions that led to completion of key documents such as the SESAR Master Plan and the SESAR Integrated Work Program last year. Those documents were approved by a larger group of 400 stakeholders at a Rome meeting in May 2008, and their those documents were then formally ratified by EU transport ministers last month (Oct. 9th).

The 2008-2013 Work Program will now move into the implementation stage under a new entity, the SESAR Joint Undertaking. Key features will include introduction of 4D trajectories and the use of system-wide information management (SWIM), just as in the planned U.S. NextGen system. ADS-B/Out will be required on all turbine-powered aircraft by 2015, five years earlier than in the United States under current plans, though the pace of installing ground stations will be slower than in this country.

The most difficult challenge for Europe is integrating its airspace to create the "single European sky." The current approach is to create functional airspace blocks (FABs) that transcend national borders and individual ANSPs. The plan calls for just nine FABs, providing seamless trajectories and air traffic management catering to user-preferred, fuel-minimizing routings. Because a top-down approach is considered very difficult politically, the current approach is bottom-up-meaning that individual ANSPs from contiguous countries are getting together to define FABs. The first was set up by the U.K. and Ireland, and the most complex is under development by Belgium, France, Germany, Luxumbourg, The Netherlands, and Switzerland. Their FAB Europe Central would cover 1.7 million square kilometers and handle over 5 million annual air traffic movements. The FABEC feasibility study was completed this year, after a two-ye ar effort involving 240 experts. This month the six member governments signed a treaty that's being described as a declaration of intent; a formal agreement is supposed to be in place by 2010 or 2011.

It's not yet clear what is supposed to happen to the individual ANSPs, when things like FABEC actually come into being. Many existing centers will become superfluous, with their functions and staff consolidated into the streamlined, integrated system that promises $6.5 billion per year in aircraft fuel and time savings. Will these ANSPs, nearly all of which are commercialized but in a variety of different organizational structures, be merged into one for each FAB? Will the strongest one in each FAB absorb the others? If anyone knows the answer to such questions, they aren't talking!

But if Europe can pull this off, it will put to shame the United States, where large-scale NextGen facility consolidation within our single Air Traffic Organization is considered nearly impossible, politically, thanks to the power of members of Congress to protect jobs in their states or districts. If even dirigiste France can be persuaded to cooperate with the creation of FABs and the Single European Sky (in the name of large-scale fuel savings and CO2 reduction), will members of Congress be able to block comparable changes here with a straight face?

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Executive Order Raises NextGen Priority

In issue No. 56 I wrote about the mini-tempest over the FAA's action in reorganizing to begin implementing NextGen. In brief, some members of Congress were upset that they were not consulted about the decision to put implementation under a new ATO Vice President for NextGen, reporting to the ATO's Chief Operating Officer, rather than to the FAA Administrator. This move, they said, would not give NextGen high enough visibility and priority. But the White House has just upped the ante by giving more power over NextGen implementation to the Secretary of Transportation.

The Nov. 18, 2008 Executive Order (Transformation of the Air Transportation System) makes it the DOT Secretary's job to lead the way on NextGen implementation. In particular, it calls for the Secretary to work closely with other key cabinet members (DoD, DHS, Commerce, and NASA) via the existing Senior Policy Committee. But it also requires the Secretary to create a support staff within DOT and an advisory committee (presumably including aviation stakeholders). The other agencies are directed to provide staff and other resources and for the new NextGen support unit within the Office of the Secretary.

Aviation Daily (Nov. 19) assesses these changes as making the ATC modernization effort "a much higher priority for the transportation secretary and heads of other departments." That opinion is shared by former DOT Under Secretary for Policy Jeff Shane, who championed NextGen during his years at DOT during the Bush Administration. He tells me "The E.O. puts the White House squarely behind" NextGen, and adds, "A transformation of this magnitude should be presidential, and now it is. I hope our new President understands the importance of the initiative, and more importantly, the importance of White House leadership and discipline, without which NextGen will take a long time to deliver." He went on to explain that what may look like replication of provisions already in the law creating the JPDO and NextGen should give much higher priority to the issue, especially in the requirement for progress reports on implementation to the President by the Senior Policy Committee and getting OMB more directly involved.

I'm glad to see these implementation-oriented changes being made. The JPDO has done good work developing the concept of operations for NextGen, and will continue working on the longer-term technologies. Meanwhile, it makes good sense to have the Air Traffic Organization be charged with near-term implementation-with high-level, interdepartmental support from the Secretary of Transportation.

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News Notes

Southwest Gears Up for NextGen. Several months ago, Southwest Airlines became the first major airline to announce plans to equip its entire fleet for Required Navigation Performance (RNP) precision flying. It will make hardware and software changes to its entire fleet of 737s and is contracting with Naverus to develop customized RNP approaches for every airport in its system. When fully implemented by 2015, the use of RNP will reduce annual emissions by 156,000 metric tons and save $25 million in fuel costs each year. The estimated cost of the six-year program is $175 million.

Facility Consolidation for Flight Service. The FAA announced in October that five satellite Flight Service Stations, operated under contract by Lockheed Martin, will be closed by February 1, 2009. The move is part of the plan to reduce costs while not reducing service to private pilots. Most calls are already handled by the system's three hubs (Ashburn, VA; Fort Worth, TX; and Prescott, AZ), making the satellite facilities less necessary. The FAA and Lockheed Martin will continue to monitor pilot satisfaction with FSS services via their complaint hotline.

More ANSPs May Be Commercialized. Discussions are continuing in India and the Czech Republic about separating the air navigation service provider from the government agency where each now resides, according to Air Traffic Management. In the case of India, that agency is the Airports Authority of India. Two government panels and KPMG have all recommended divestiture. In the Czech Republic, "privatization" of Czech Air Navigation Services has been debated in parliament, but the transport minister says he would like to transform the ANSP into some form of corporation, probably still owned by the government.

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Quotable Quote

"Many ANSPs throughout the developing (and developed) world are at Stage 1 . . . funded out of a central government budget; there is little separation between the regulator and the ANSP; governance may be an issue; the customer is a minister or a bureaucrat (not an airline) . . . . In this environment, it is hard for [a chief executive] to move quickly to implement much-needed change. That is why CANSO is such a strong advocate of the separation of the ANSP from the regulator, and a move towards a more commercial and performance-based relationship with the airlines. When some form of commercialization occurs, then there can be a move toward national efficiency. If all funding remains in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats, it is really hard-not impossible, but really hard-to make timely investment decisions. Just ask the FAA."
--Ashley Smout, CEO of Airways New Zealand and chairman of CANSO, Air Traffic Management, Issue 4, 2008.

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


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