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Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #68

NextGen, banning laptops in cockpits, increasing air traffic capacity and future transportation policy

Robert Poole
November 23, 2009

In this issue:

Reduced Separation Standards: Key to Increased Capacity

I’m pleased to report that serious progress is being made by the FAA on figuring out how to reduce the current standards for keeping planes far enough apart to be safe from collisions in all phases of flight. Expanding the capacity of existing runways, en-route airspace over land, and en-route airspace over the oceans by using new technology and new operating concepts is one of the basic premises of the new air traffic management paradigm represented by both NextGen in this country and the Single European Sky in Europe. So figuring out how to do this safely is essential.

Important groundwork for doing so was laid several years ago by the Separation Standards Working Group of FAA’s Research, Engineering, and Development Advisory Committee (REDAC). Its final report, dated Sept. 20, 2006, made 10 findings about separation standards, leading to six recommendations for needed R&D. The findings state that although the current system is safe, most standards have been developed over the years in an ad-hoc manner, based on little real analysis. In particular, some key separation standards are based on avoiding worst-case deviations, called “blunders,” for which the only information is anecdotal. For the kinds of major changes in separations intended by NextGen, REDAC called for developing a rigorous threshold methodology, based on lots of real data, to assess risks.

Fortunately, this report has not just sat on the shelf since 2006. A well-connected source sent me a Powerpoint briefing presented on Aug. 26, 2009 by Stephen Barnes of the FAA’s Flight Systems Laboratory, summarizing the status of a host of R&D projects under way in support of the REDAC recommendations. Among other things, MITRE Corp. is completing two years of data collection on “blunder” incidents during approaches to parallel runways—and it looks as if the REDAC suspicion is correct that serious blunders are rare. A rigorous methodology for developing new separation standards based on the technologies planned for NextGen is also under way.

Two REDAC recommendations called attention to especially tricky problems. One is that the current collision-avoidance system (TCAS) that is required for upper-airspace users (airliners and business jets) will need either revision or the addition of an independent backup system in airspace with reduced separations. The other is the well-known wake vortex problem at airports, which limits the spacing of landings and take-offs to avoid the danger of a plane being upset by turbulence from the wake of the flight it is following. Wake research is under way using a Flight Systems Laboratory simulation tool, and extensive wake data collection is taking place at six major airports.

My informant speculates that for the case of closely spaced parallel runways, the conclusion from the blunder analysis will be that the current 4,300-foot minimum spacing requirement (unless advanced technology like I wrote about last month is installed) is overly conservative and can safely be reduced well below that. Conceivably, this could mean that with the use of advanced technology, it may well be possible to operate closely spaced parallels (like those at SFO) with simultaneous approaches even in poor visibility (which is not currently allowed). And it could even make it possible to add closely spaced parallels at airports (like JFK) where that could only be done under current spacing requirements via large-scale land acquisition. With new closer-spacing standards and precision technology, it may be possible to “pave down the middle” between existing runways.

Why Congress Should NOT Ban Laptops from Cockpits

It’s a recurring theme of this newsletter that well-meaning but poorly informed members of Congress respond to aviation problems by proposing hare-brained interventions. And surely one of the most hare-brained is to ban portable electronic devices such as laptops from airliner cockpits.

To be sure, it was outrageous that two Northwest/Delta pilots flew 150 miles past their Minneapolis destination last month while engrossed in a heated discussion over things they were going over via laptops. (Also outrageous, though getting much less attention, was the failure of ATC to do anything about this flight being incommunicado for more than an hour.) In response, Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D, WV) and Byron Dorgan (D, ND) have introduced the Distracted Flying Act that would ban laptops and other portable electronic devices from the cockpit.

What is unappreciated by these lawmakers is the rapid spread of Electronic Flight Bags (EFBs) on aircraft. The idea is to replace a plethora of maps, charts, and logbooks with compact, quickly-accessible electronic information. The most common form of EFB is called Class 1 and is, in fact, a laptop computer, specific to the aircraft type, including charts, weight-and-balance information, company policies and procedures, etc. More advanced Class 2 and Class 3 EFBs are starting to appear, with the Class 3 units far more specialized and provided as original equipment on new planes such as the Airbus A-380. Meanwhile, for the thousands of planes in service already, Class 1 laptop-type EFBs are the only game in town, adopted thus far by at least five major U.S. airlines, in some cases with federal assistance.

Yes, the small print in the senators’ bill provides for exemptions for electronic devices that are used to operate the plane or to enhance its safety (whatever that means). But that still inserts congressional micromanagement into what should be either an FAA safety regulatory decision or an airline flight operating policy decision. One of the reasons Congress created safety regulatory agencies like the FAA is to ensure that specialized knowledge and expertise would be used to shape safety regulation, where difficult trade-offs are nearly always involved. Micromanagement by Congress conflicts directly with this sensible division of responsibility.

Footnote: As I was writing this, a Wall Street Journal news item reached my screen, announcing a bill by Sen. Jim DeMint (R, SC) to allow the use of cockpit voice recording information to monitor and discipline airline pilots. While I’m sure Sen. DeMint (like Rockefeller and Dorgan) means well, this kind of thing runs directly counter to the “just culture” idea under which pilots and air traffic controllers are encouraged to voluntarily report safety problems because they are protected from disciplinary action. If this measure should become law, it would set back the cause of increased air safety thanks to non-punitive reporting of problems.

GPS Landing Systems Being Introduced

I last wrote about Ground-Based Augmentation Systems (GBAS) in February (Issue No. 60). It’s a 21st-century alternative to the current Instrument Landing Systems (ILS) in use at airports all over the world to provide precision guidance to arriving aircraft. GBAS uses GPS signals, augmented for increased accuracy via local antennas at precisely known locations. One GBAS at an airport can provide precision-approach guidance for both ends of every runway—whereas you need a separate ILS for every runway end if you want precision approaches using it. And a GBAS costs less to install and maintain than a single ILS. Moreover, because ILS requires ground equipment that stretches out in a long straight line from the runway end, it cannot be installed for certain runways where that space is unavailable. Plus, GBAS facilitates techniques such as curved approaches that fit well with other precision airborne guidance from RNAV and RNP, which are building blocks of NextGen. So there are plenty of good reasons for GBAS to replace ILS as time goes on.

In September the FAA certified the leading system, Honeywell’s Smartpath. This GBAS was originally developed by Airservices Australia, the commercialized ANSP of Australia, and is now jointly marketed worldwide by the two companies. The first full-fledged U.S. installation is at Newark Airport, for a runway where ILS could not be installed. Test installations have also been made at Atlantic City, Chicago, Memphis, Minneapolis, and Seattle, as well as Guam. Honeywell’s first airport installation in Europe is at Bremen Airport, under a contract with the German ANSP,  DFS. And Airservices Australia has been operating a Smartpath GBAS in a test program at Sydney since late 2006. Now that it’s been certified, further installations are expected at other major Australian airport.

At least two other firms have GBAS products that will soon be seeking certification, Thales and Selex Sistemi Integrati. There’s still further work for all three companies to do, to increase the level of precision guidance. The current systems provide only what is known as Category I guidance (down to a 200-foot decision height above the runway). The goal is to go beyond that to Cat. II and then Cat. III precision, the latter being essentially zero-visibility landing capability (which Cat. III ILSs already provide). The FAA’s target for Cat. II/III capability is 2012. Let’s hope Honeywell and/or a competitor can reach that goal.

Incentives for NextGen Equipage

The question of how best to coordinate the investment of $10-20 billion by aircraft operators with the equipment needed to benefit from the Air Traffic Organization’s own investments in NextGen remains unresolved. It’s a huge timing and coordination problem—airlines and business jet owners don’t want to shell out large sums now for equipment that won’t produce benefits (such as time and fuel savings) until years in the future (if ever, they worry). Likewise, it’s hard for the ATO to justify putting billions into systems that airlines and others won’t be prepared to use for many years.

This was one of the issues grappled with by the RTCA Task Force 15, which submitted its report to the FAA in September. Under the heading of “Incentivizing Equipage,” the report outlined three alternatives. One, which was a major focus of the report, was to start with near-term projects that would rely largely on making use of capabilities already on a large fraction of aircraft. Beyond that, the other two approaches were financial incentives and performance incentives.

Under financial incentives, the options include direct subsidies, low-interest loans, rebates of user fees/taxes, and tax credits. A Nov. 13, 2009 Wall Street Journal article reported intense lobbying by airline/aerospace interests for direct subsidies--$10 billion over five years—for equipage, but also reported strong resistance from the Office of Management & Budget. I agree with OMB that the last thing we should be doing is increasing already unconscionable federal budget deficits via new subsidy programs.  The tax credit and user-tax rebate alternatives would also increase the deficit, and since few airlines have tax liabilities these days, the tax credit would have limited applicability in any event.

The RTCA report also discussed a NextGen Equipage Bank, which could make loans for equipping planes with specific NextGen-critical capabilities such as datacom, GPS, RNAV/RNP, ADS-B/In, etc. To avoid giving an unfair advantage to late adopters, at the expense of those who have gone ahead at their own expense to install some of these capabilities, the program would allow borrowers to select from a menu of projects (and presumably not allow any one user to get loans for all of them). A recent GAO report on NextGen challenges (GAO-10-188T) provides some thoughtful suggestions for what such a program should and should not do.

What I find most promising, however, is not financial incentives but performance incentives. In FAA and RTCA terms, these go by the name “Best-Equipped/Best-Served (BEBS).” In other words, instead of sticking with its historic approach of first-come/first-served, the Air Traffic Organization would give priority in landings, take-offs, altitude changes, etc. to aircraft that can take best advantages of NextGen capabilities thanks to timely equipage. The Task Force report points out that this principle has actually been in use since the late 1990s in the Collaborative Decision Making (CDM) process, which gives participating airlines and business jet operators “an operational advantage over non-participants in a wide variety of circumstances and locations throughout the [airspace].” BEBS is included as a “governing principle” on p. 12 of the FAA’s 2009 NextGen Implementation Plan and is discussed in several places in that document.

BEBS strikes me as the most realistic approach in today’s fiscal environment. It will incentivize both aircraft operators and the Air Traffic Organization to focus NextGen capability introductions on specific portions of the airspace, where properly equipped users can readily reap the benefits of priority service. I was dismayed at the somewhat critical way the above GAO report pointed out disadvantages, such as that lesser-equipped aircraft would suffer delays if BEBS is implemented. Yes they would, but that’s exactly the point! You only incentivize by providing real incentives.

Do We Need (Another) National Air Transportation Policy?

I got a very bad feeling when I saw the announcement that DOT Secretary Ray LaHood had convened a closed-door meeting of aviation stakeholders. And my misgivings only increased when I read the follow-up opinion piece by Bob Crandall and Kevin Mitchell in Aviation Daily’s Nov. 17th edition.

Crandall and Mitchell, both of whom I know and generally respect, got it wrong in this piece, both in their statement of the problem and their proposed solution. They claim that airline deregulation has been a disaster, producing nothing good except lower airfares. I guess they aren’t impressed by the dramatic reduction in accidents and fatalities over that three-decade period or the variety of new airline business models that have emerged. They also lament the loss of “well-paid jobs and a secure career” for airline employees, ignoring the fact that under the cartel conditions maintained by the CAB prior to deregulation, airlines and their employees were locked into Detroit-like wage and work-rule agreements that were no more sustainable long-term for airlines than they were for auto makers.

But what really concerns me is their discussion of “the industry,” as if all companies were knee-deep in red ink and none had viable business models. Quite a few carriers, primarily low-cost carriers, are making profits, which means they have figured out business models better suited to an environment of competition than most of the legacy carriers, still encrusted with business models that have not adequately adjusted despite three decades of competition. On the basis of this glossing over of critically important differences, they call for development of a “national air transportation policy” that would “reshape [the industry’s] future” around some kind of consensus about air transportation public policy objectives.

I respectfully disagree, and hope that Secretary LaHood’s new Federal Advisory Committee on the Future of Aviation does not adopt that grandiose central-planning approach. Instead, the members of this body would be wise to dust off two previous national commission reports, both produced during the Clinton administration. The more far-reaching was the 1993 Baliles Commission, which called for commercializing the ATC system so as to facilitate real modernization, keeping deregulation intact, relaxing restrictions on overseas investment in airlines, and promoting Open Skies initiatives. Most of that sound agenda remains to be accomplished. The other report was produced by the Mineta Commission in 1997. Narrower in focus, it called for more aggressive FAA safety programs, increasing investment in airport capacity, and a watered-down version of ATC commercialization. That report did inspire creation of the Air Traffic Organization, but its even more critical ATC funding reform recommendations remain unaddressed.

The Baliles and Mineta Commission reports should be the starting point for the new Commission. Besides highlighting the portions of their recommendations that remain to be implemented, the new body could also call for serious rethinking of the burden that poorly justified TSA regulation puts on commercial aviation. My main point is that all this ground (except security) has been well-trod twice before. There’s no need to re-invent the wheel. Let’s take advantage of the considerable research and hard thinking that’s already been done.

News Notes

Reason.TV Explains Air Traffic Delays
My colleagues at Reason Foundation’s Reason.tv have released, just in time for the Thanksgiving travel rush, a short video titled “Your Flight Has Been Delayed—and It’s Washington’s Fault.” It includes excerpts from interviews with me and with former Clinton administration reinventing government guru Bob Stone, one of the architects of what became the proposal for a U.S. ATC corporation called USATS. Check it out at http://www.reason.tv/video/show/faa.

Shutting Down Navigation Beacons?
In the very early days of ATC, during the Great Depression, beacon lights on hilltops and mountaintops marked out the first airways. You may be as surprised as I am to learn that seven of these beacons are still in service. One of them, on Rich Mountain in West Virginia, is currently inoperative, and would require $35K to repair. But such is the sensitivity of shutting down any piece of obsolete equipment that the FAA has called for public comments on whether it should be repaired or shut down—and needless to say, the locals are arguing for it to be repaired. Should you disagree, you can submit comments to the FAA’s Eastern Service Center, Operations Support (AVJ-E2), Non-Rule Case No. 09-AEA-124-NR, P.O. Box 20636, Atlanta, GA 30320. As Dave Barry would say, I’m not making this up (though I wish I were).

CANSO Moving Into Caribbean and Latin America

Over 100 delegates from 25 air navigation service providers and aviation authorities registered for the first-ever Caribbean and Latin American ANSP Conference, held Nov. 10-12 in Curacao. There are currently no Caribbean or Latin American members of CANSO (Civil Air Navigation Services Organization), most of whose full members are commercialized ANSPs. CANSO Secretary General Alexander ter Kuile said that “From the response of aviation leaders in the region, the appetite to engage with CANSO is extraordinarily high.”

Nav Canada Tower Automation Expands in UK
Beginning in 1998, Nav Canada began installing its control tower automation system (EXCDS) in 31 major facilities, including 21 control towers and all seven en-route centers. In 2004, EXCDS was purchased by the UK’s air navigation service provider, NATS, and installed in the towers at Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, and Stansted airports in London. And this year, the system is being installed in the three busiest towers in Scotland (also operated by NATS): Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. This system was one of the first in the world to eliminate paper flight strips and to substitute data for voice communications for routine transactions.

Quotable Quotes

“The centrally funded government model [for air traffic control] has not served this industry well—it leads to mediocrity. When you have to earn money from what you do, that creates pressure that leads to innovation and an openness to change. It allows for a clear decision-making process, and we can move quickly where necessary. Not having to go cap in hand to government is a major advantage. ANSPs that have to do that often end up having to defer investment and change.”
--Ashley Smout, CEO, Airways New Zealand and Chairman, Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO), “Time for the Next Leap Forward,” Air Traffic Management, Issue 1, 2009.

“Operating costs in Canada are somewhat higher than in the US but not substantially so. Landing fees may run about $1,000 for a G-IV-size aircraft, and Nav Canada fees may run several hundred dollars when crossing the country. FBOs in Canada often waive handling fees if you purchase sufficient fuel. You may get only one day’s parking included . . . . Parking at major Canadian airports can be rather pricey, and you can expect to spend $250-400 per day for a G-IV.”
--Grant McLaren, “Canadian Flights—Regs, Challenges, and Tips,” Professional Pilot, October 2009.

“[A]t Nav Canada we’ve always been big on automation. Typically, for most air navigation service providers around 70-75% of your operating cost is spent on staff, so finding ways to reduce that spending is important. Our head count, for example, dropped by almost 20% when we stopped being run by the Canadian government. . . . That kind of approach was, for example, behind our moves to develop our automated tower systems with features such as automated data transfer to all stations—avoiding human voice contact, which is prone to error, also provides other efficiencies—as do touch screen technology and our paperless strip system, which is now a source of revenue as we now sell the product.”
--John Crichton, CEO, Nav Canada, “Turning Theory into Practice,” Air Traffic Management, Issue 1, 2009.


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


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