Reason Foundation

Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #66

Air traffic controller fatigue, business jets and NextGen

Robert Poole
September 18, 2009

In this issue:

RTCA Task Force 5: A Bracing Reality Check

Air Traffic Organization (ATO) chief Hank Krakowski did good back in January when he asked the aviation advisory body RTCA to create a special task force to develop consensus recommendations on medium-term NextGen implementation (defined as between now and 2018). RTCA Task Force 5 was established to thrash out the issues of what specific actions should be taken by whom and at what points in time, for the early stages of shifting to the NextGen paradigm-and doing so in a way that makes business sense to those who operate aircraft in the system. In effect, this is the task that a stakeholder board of directors would be doing, were the ATO set up as a business (such as Nav Canada).

The just-released report provides a sobering look at how the customers view the plans for transitioning to NextGen. Given the problem of making significant investments prior to being able to realize significant operational benefits from them, the Task Force put considerable emphasis on figuring out which proposed operational capabilities could begin by using existing equipment on planes, if the ATO changed procedures and provided more training. It also looked into possible ways in which incentives could be offered for aircraft operators to add on-board equipment sooner than they otherwise might. One kind of incentive is financial-low-interest loans, discounts on existing aviation user taxes, etc. But another key emphasis in the report is expansion of the principle of "best-equipped, best-served" as opposed to the traditional "first-come, first-served."

Since I criticized the current Senate FAA reauthorization bill (in the previous issue of this newsletter) for imposing costly and arbitrary equipage deadlines for ADS-B, I was interested to see the Task Force's assessment that the payback period for relatively low-cost ADS-B/Out is considered "long," and payback for the far more expensive ADS-B/In is considered very long. By contrast, digital data communications between pilots and controllers got considerable emphasis as both relatively low-cost and providing a short payback period. The report also puts a lot of emphasis on increasing runway operational capacity, especially for closely spaced parallel runways, increased use of time-based metering (see story below on 4-D trajectories), and greater use of precision navigation such as RNAV/RNP.

It is especially gratifying to see, in tables of recommendations in each functional area, the specific aviation customers willing to pursue implementation (and in many cases, for specific airports or portions of airspace). This includes not only most major airlines but also, in various cases, fractional operator NetJets, NBAA, and in some cases AOPA. And on those recommendations where some of these parties declined participation, they are not objecting to the others moving forward.

Nearly 300 aviation stakeholders took part in this effort, and I'm sure a great many people will be poring over this report for months to come. Since Task Force 5 is only an advisory body, not the ATO's board of directors, what it has produced is only a set of recommendations. But under the current governance and funding arrangements, getting this kind of consensus on how to move forward is a big deal.

Controller Fatigue, Continued

Recent news stories have documented the FAA's current efforts to revise decades-old duty-time rules for airline pilots. A key problem is the limited amount of sleep some pilots get between shifts, which can produce fatigue leading to fatal accidents-such as that of Colgan Air Flight 3407 near Buffalo, NY last February. I'm glad to see the FAA taking action on this. But the equally serious problem of controller fatigue that I wrote about last issue seems to be getting zero real attention.

My article did prompt several vigorous responses. Retired air traffic supervisor Tom Bonacki took his former employer and the controllers union to task for ignoring the issue. "If both sides cared about safety, they could mandate a minimum time off between shifts, say 10 hours. The FARs [federal air regulations] have for years mentioned eight hours between shifts as a minimum; what stops bargainers from going beyond that minimum?"

I also heard from former controller Thomas Anthony, now director of the Aviation Safety and Security Program at the University of Southern California. He sent me a copy of his chilling article, "Wake Me When My Shift Is Over," recently published in the Flight Safety Foundation's magazine AeroSafetyWorld. ( He tells me the 2-2-1 shift I discussed last month (swing-swing-day-day-midnight) is known to controllers as "the rattler," because it can double back and bite those who work it.

In the article Anthony summarizes the science that underlies the decrease in performance due to sleep loss and fatigue. The worst combination is an upset to circadian rhythm, acute sleep loss, and chronic sleep loss-exactly the combination produced by the rattler. He recounts his personal experience, as a controller in the 1980s, working this shift schedule and coping with its severe effects. He says flat-out that this type of shift schedule should be abolished.

At least two alternatives exist. As Anthony notes, the Air Force encountered this fatigue problem with fighter pilots doing midnight runs in Vietnam. Their solution was to schedule three straight midnight shifts, separated by days off on either side. And Bonacki notes that when he began with the FAA at JFK tower in 1970s, "Our shifts were a week of swings, a week of days, a week of swings, a week of days, then a week of mids."

Yet in the face of all the evidence, why does the dangerous 2-2-1 shift schedule continue? Bonacki faults FAA leadership for ignoring the issue and controller union leadership for letting member desires for longer weekends conflict with safety. But I still ask why? Especially when the FAA is now moving to change airline pilot scheduling practices to address the very same type of fatigue issue.

I think the answer goes back to the FAA's built-in conflict of interest. When it comes to airlines, the FAA is legally at arm's length from those it regulates-and the same is true for private pilots, aviation mechanics, repair stations, airframe manufacturers, etc. But in the case of controllers, the FAA is essentially "regulating" itself. If the ATC provider (the Air Traffic Organization) were a separate entity, the FAA would become a true air safety regulator, with the same arm's length separation from all those it regulates. It's high time we seriously pursued this change.

Progress on 4-D Trajectories

One of the key concepts of the new air traffic management paradigm being pursued under NextGen in the United States and SESAR in Europe is managing air traffic in four-rather than three-dimensions. The fourth dimension is time. The key insight is that since we now have the technology to keep track far more precisely of where each plane is in three dimensions, in real time, it should be possible to define an optimized flight path for each aircraft, using precise timing as well as precise positional data.

That's the basic idea behind four-dimensional (4-D) trajectories. I've previously written about Continuous Descent Approaches (CDAs), which is the application of these ideas to the descent and landing phase of flight. More recently, the same ideas are being applied to the ascent phase-take-off and climb. In Denmark, air navigation services provider Naviair has spent more than a decade developing Continuous Climb Departures (CCDs) from Copenhagen airport. Under this procedure, the plane is given an optimized flight path to climb continuously from take-off to cruise altitude, rather than having to level off at intermediate altitudes before climbing again. As with CDAs, CCDs save fuel, which also reduces CO2 emissions. Recent simulations by Eurocontrol show that use of CCDs for all departures from Copenhagen would save 10,000 tons of fuel and 32,000 tons of CO2 per year.

The FAA's Air Traffic Organization is rolling out a 4-D tool called Traffic Management Advisor (TMA). Its primary aim is to avoid extra vectoring (to properly sequence planes for landing) when planes near the destination airport. It works by adjusting aircraft speed en-route, to be sure that planes headed toward that airport arrive in the proper sequence. The process begins at departure, when the departure time is entered into the system and software takes into account winds, weather, and other traffic to provide timed guidance for the flight en-route. Thus far, TMA is only operational in some sectors, so its full benefits will not be realized until it is fully operational nationwide.

And starting this fall, Embry Riddle University and the FAA will be doing flight demonstrations of a new on-board flight management system computer designed specifically for 4-D trajectory-based operations.

Business Aviation as a Business Tool

After all the bad press given to business jet use by large corporations earlier this year, somebody needed to take an analytical look at the industry's claims that the use of business aircraft is a vital business tool, rather than a luxury indulgence. Such a study has just been released, by NEXA Advisors, LLC, a consulting firm headed by former Arthur Andersen consultant Michael J. Dyment. "Business Aviation in a Changing Economy" was sponsored by the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, the National Business Aviation Association, Aviation Week, and others.

I have not read the study itself, and am relying here on a summary article in Aviation Week (Sept. 7, 2009). Based on that summary, it appears to be a credible and well-done piece of work.

The key question examined by the NEXA study is whether companies in the S&P 500 that use business aviation (via owning or leasing planes, using fractional providers, or chartering regularly) outperform companies that do not. So the researchers separated the data into 322 "user" companies and 101 "non-users." (The total is less than 500 due to mergers, etc. during the 2003-07 study period; the 423 companies are those in stand-alone existence for the entire period.)

Overall, the study found that companies that use business aviation had better performance on a wide variety of measures: 5-year cumulative annual growth in revenue, in net income, in stock appreciation, return on equity, return on assets, etc. To supplement those data, the study also examined non-financial data sources, specifically lists of "best" companies compiled by various organizations, such as: Business Week's 50 Most Innovative Companies, Fortune's 100 Best Places to Work, and the 100 Best Corporate Citizens, as defined by the Corporate Responsibility officers Association. In each case, the user companies outnumbered the non-user companies on such lists (though this might be due to the 3:1 ratio of users to non-users in the data set).

I'm not surprised by these results, since it seems to me the case for business aviation as a means of time-saving and greater efficiency is a strong one. My only beef with NBAA and its allies is their continued opposition to paying their way in using airports and air traffic control, costs which they could readily afford and which would not significantly undermine the economics of using business jets and turboprops. For details, see my 2006 Reason policy study, "Business Jets and ATC User Fees: Taking a Closer Look."

Progress in Controller/ATO Relations

It's no news to anyone that the FAA and its ATC division, the Air Traffic Organization, have long had a difficult relationship with their air traffic controller employees. The Obama administration came into office promising to fix the most pressing sore point-the contract with controllers' union NATCA that the ATO imposed, per rules established by Congress, after negotiations on a new contract broke down in 2006. This summer, that effort succeeded, when union leaders and the ATO reached agreement on nearly all the issues, and the final three were settled by a binding arbitration panel. Assuming the membership ratifies the new contract, that sore point should no longer poison labor/management relations at the ATO.

More significant for the future, I think, is a separate effort to change the "almost militaristic approach" that has long characterized many aspects of labor/management relations, exemplified in the punitive approach to dealing with operational errors in air traffic control. For many years now at overseas air navigation service provides, the emphasis has been on creating a "just culture," in which an error is treated as a safety problem and the emphasis is on figuring out what went wrong and how to prevent similar occurrences. In this country, the approach has been a punitive one, with the emphasis on affixing blame. Needless to say, this kind of approach does not necessarily produce safety improvements.

In April 2008 the ATO and FAA's Air Traffic Safety Oversight Service (AOV) reached agreement with NATCA on a change in approach. Under the new Air Traffic Safety Action Program (ATSAP), the emphasis is shifting toward the overseas-type "just culture" approach, similar to what already exists for airline incidents (where the voluntary, anonymous reporting program is called Aviation Safety Action Program--ASAP). As of April 2009, some 4,000 controllers at 35 facilities had completed the four-hour class on what ATSAP is all about, what to report, and how to report it.

NATCA regional vice president Bryan Zilonis, who helped negotiate the Memorandum of Understanding that created ATSAP, told Aviation Week that the message is getting across to controllers about the non-punitive nature of the program. Initially, to be sure, controllers were "deathly afraid" to report anything. But he said most of those who've gone through the training are "mindful and trustful of the program and see its benefits." He said it's harder for ATO managers to accept, because they have to give up some control-and he noted that initially, the airlines faced the same kind of resistance to ASAP from their pilots.

AOV vice president Robert Tarter notes that the program's first year produced about 3,000 reports-incidents AOV might not otherwise have known about. He says AOV is trying to build a just culture within the ATO.

The shift to ATSAP and the resolution of the contract issue should be catalysts for changing the historical command/control culture within the U.S. ATC system. And that is critically important for getting the whole organization constructively involved in the transition to NextGen. One possible near-term impact was reported by Scott McCartney in the Wall Street Journal (Sept. 10, 2009). He reports that at New York area airports, controllers had been defensively increasing the spacing between planes approaching the airports. Newark's landings/hour had declined from 45/hour in 2005 to 40/hour in recent years. But this past summer, with ATSAP in effect, the rate was between 48 and 50/hour. That's enough to make a real difference.

Upcoming Conferences

Future Flight Technologies: The Wings of NextGen, Sept. 16-17, Arlington, VA, Sheraton National Hotel, sponsored by FAA Flight Technologies and Procedures Division. Details at:

54th ATCA Annual Conference & Exposition, Oct. 4-7, National Harbor, MD, Gaylord Resort & Convention Center, sponsored by the Air Traffic Control Association. Details at

» return to top

News Notes

Continental Also Pioneering RNP
In the last issue, I wrote about the efforts of Alaska and Southwest airlines with RNP equipage and procedures. I inadvertently left out the efforts of Continental, whose fleet (except for the dwindling number of 737 classic planes) is now all RNP-equipped, and is therefore well ahead of Southwest in implementing RNP operations.

American to Design Custom RNP Approaches
The FAA has certified American Airlines to design its own RNP approaches at key airports that it serves. It used approaches to its maintenance base at Alliance Airport in Ft. Worth to demonstrate its capability, and will next develop one for its Tulsa base, before moving on to airports where it believes RNP can produce significant operational benefits.

World's First Virtual Tower Debuts at Heathrow
NATS Services Ltd. has received certification from the UK's Civil Aviation Authority for its Virtual Contingency Facility serving London's Heathrow Airport. Located off the airport in a windowless facility, the VCF's layout and equipment are identical to that of the control room at the top of the Heathrow tower. In the event of any problem that would make the tower unable to function, the VCF can take over and operate up to 70% of normal airport operations; pre-VCF contingency plans permitted only 10% of normal operations.

Two ANSPs Defer Rate Increases
In view of the still-difficult financial position of most airlines, two leading air navigation service providers have frozen their ATC user fee levels. Airservices Australia in August announced a rate freeze until 2011, representing a reduction in real terms of an estimated 7 - 8%. And in Central America, COCESNA deferred a planned 9% rate increase for six months, in response to airline requests. COCESNA provides air traffic services for Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

CANSO Secretary General Stepping Down
The first full-time Secretary General of CANSO (Civil Air Navigation Services Organization), Alexander ter Kuile, will step down at the end of 2009, after completing his third term in this position. During the past nine years he has helped to build CANSO into a well-respected member of the global aviation community.

Another Functional Airspace Block for Europe
The member ANSPs of the North Europe ANS Providers (NEAP) group will submit a proposal for the North European Functional Airspace Block during 2010, the group announced in August. NEAP represents the commercialized air navigation service providers of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Norway, and Sweden.

Metron Aviation Wins Award
ATM 2009, a conference cosponsored by the FAA and Eurocontrol, selected as best-in-session Metron Aviation's paper, "Optimizing Airspace Sectors for Varying Demand Patterns," by Robert Hoffman and Alex Tien. The paper developed an optimization technique to design sector boundaries, taking into account time-varying traffic demand and use of multi-controller operating teams.

Quotable Quotes 

"My first reaction to learning about the rattler shift was, 'Does anybody know we are doing this?' I figured the answer had to be 'no,' since no one would intentionally schedule a controller to work live traffic with only three or four hours of sleep. I found out I was wrong. Not only was it done intentionally, but it occurred regularly in facilities around the Federal Aviation Administration. Imagine my reaction [many years later] after reading about the Comair Flight 5191 accident at Lexington, Kentucky-they're still working the rattler."
--Thomas Anthony, "Wake Me When My Shift Is Over," AeroSafetyWorld, March 2009.

"Business aviation adds great value, but in complex ways. It's incumbent on [company] boards to understand that these are valuable business tools, but boards have fallen down on this issue recently. To sit quietly as flight departments are reduced or eliminated is nonsensical since that destroys part of the value of the company."
--Michael J. Dyment, in "Bizav Pays Off," by William Garvey, Aviation Week, Sept. 7, 2009.

"Air traffic controllers must be engaged in the future concepts of operations and given assurances that their jobs will continue to exist, though their role will change. The transition workforce must understand that their jobs will be different and their location choices reduced as consolidation is addressed."
--Neil Planzer, Vice President, ATM Strategy, The Boeing Company, in "How to Move the Next Generation Air Traffic Control System Forward," The Journal of Air Traffic Control, Spring 2009.

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

Print This