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Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #104

U.S. still lagging on data link, RNP and noise: some progress, and More...

Robert Poole
June 20, 2013

In this issue:

U.S. Continues to Lag Behind in Controller-Pilot Data Link

Last month, on a short Florida vacation, my wife and I were waiting at a stoplight, when she pointed to a police car in the adjacent lane, noting the computer terminal to the driver's right. Yes, I explained, those were introduced in the mid-1970s, when I was a young analyst at Public Safety Systems, Inc.  Frequency congestion was a major problem for public safety radio in those days (which is why the 10-code system of abbreviations—10-4, 10-7, etc.—was developed to reduce the length of voice messages).

Fast forward nearly 40 years and we find that frequency congestion is still a problem for communications between pilots and air traffic controllers, most of which are done via old-fashioned voice radio. Voice messages are also a safety problem, given the possibility of mis-hearing or of not hearing the message the first time—and in some cases, of limited proficiency in English. Airlines for decades have had digital communications between pilots and their dispatchers, provided over a system called ACARS. And since the 1990s, long-haul jets flying in oceanic airspace have been equipped with a package of equipment called FANS-1/A, including controller-pilot data link. But until very recently all domestic ATC communications have been voice only.

The Wall Street Journal's Scott McCartney wrote a long piece published May 16th about how far ahead Nav Canada is on data link. "Canada's In-Flight Texting Makes Pilots Smile" gave a detailed explanation of how and why the commercialized air navigation service provider expanded controller-pilot data link from the Gander Oceanic airspace (where it's been used for more than a decade) to—as of now—the flight information regions of Gander Domestic, Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Montreal, with Toronto soon to follow. Equipage of planes in domestic airspace ranges from 65% in Gander Domestic to 25% in western Canada, but continues to increase as airlines and pilots experience the benefits. In Gander Oceanic, data link helps enable reduced longitudinal separation, when combined with more precise surveillance thanks to ADS-B. That gives more planes access to optimum altitudes, saving fuel and reducing emissions.

The United States might today be as far along as Canada, instead of just beginning trials of its first modest application of data link: delivering pre-flight clearances to planes before they push back. Roll-out of that function to control towers will begin in 2016, with data link installation at en-route centers not beginning until 2019. Back in 2002, the FAA began a pilot program with American Airlines and Miami Center, but for reasons that were never explained to many people's satisfaction, the program was cancelled in 2004. It was finally resurrected last year, a decade later, as Digital Communications Integrated Services, with a seven-year contract awarded to a team led by Harris Corporation.

It's a pretty sad commentary on what used to be the world's most advanced air traffic control system that it is now bringing up the rear, after Canada and Europe, in implementing the kind of digital communications that police departments were adopting 40 years ago.

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RNP and Noise: Some Progress, but Not Enough

June 4th brought two news articles about the FAA implementing new RNAV or RNP routes despite community protests, one at LaGuardia and the other at Boston's Logan Airport. In both cases the FAA put the new, much narrower, departure paths into place to save aircraft operators time and fuel, but the unavoidable side effect was to reduce the noise footprint's area but concentrate the exposure onto a smaller number of homes—and those residents are protesting. In the LGA case, they already have two members of Congress on their side.

Last month I summarized a recent GAO report on the FAA's slow progress in implementing RNP departure and arrival routes—key components of NextGen aimed at saving time and fuel via more-precise performance-based navigation. In discussing the FAA's Meroplex effort, which focuses on major metro areas, GAO noted that in last year's FAA reauthorization bill, Congress included an environmental streamlining measure that exempts new RNAV and RNP departure and arrival routes from environmental studies (by giving such changes a Categorical Exclusion from having to do either an Environmental Assessment or an Environmental Impact Study). But as I interpreted the GAO report, that provision applies absent "extraordinary circumstances," as judged by the FAA Administrator.

It turns out to be more complicated than that. As explained in a special report to FAA from RTCA's NextGen Advisory Committee released earlier this month, the FAA legislation contains not one but two Categorical Exclusion provisions relating to RNAV and RNP. CatEx 1 requires FAA to consider extraordinary circumstances in deciding whether or not a categorical exclusion is warranted, whereas CatEx 2 does not. The CatEx 1 provision applies to the set of 30 airports designated by FAA as "core airports" as well as those in the same Metroplex, while CatEx 2 applies to all other airports. Thus, FAA was not being overly cautious in considering "extraordinary circumstances" for airports in its Metroplex efforts, though I would agree with GAO that it was overly cautious in ruling out all such procedure changes near Metroplex airports, rather than going through an "extraordinary circumstances" review for each potential route.

The RTCA Task Group on CatEx 2 was given the task of recommending how FAA should proceed in implementing what Congress set forth in that part of the statute—specifically that any proposed performance-based navigation procedure (at a non-core airport) "shall be presumed to have no significant effect on the quality of the human environment, and the Administrator shall issue and file a categorical exclusion for the new procedure" if the procedure "would result in measurable reductions in fuel consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, and noise" compared with existing instrument flight rules procedures in the same airspace.

The report recommends that FAA adopt what it defines as the "Net Noise Reduction Method"—basically, estimating the number of people who would experience reduced noise compared with those who would experience increased noise at levels greater than DNL 45 dB. It illustrates how the procedure would work using examples from Seattle's Greener Skies program and proposed changes at Chicago Midway. In the former case, the calculations show a large net noise reduction and no noise-sensitive areas exposed to DNL 65 dB or higher—justifying a CatEx 2 exclusion. But the Midway case, despite showing a net reduction in people exposed to noise, and despite having fewer noise-exposed people overall, would increase noise at DNL 65 dB for more people than would experience decreases—and hence should not get a CatEx 2 exclusion.

While that may be a workable compromise on the principle of the "greatest good for the greatest number," I can imagine what a negative impact on my quality of life it would be if short-radius curved RNP approaches to the Ft. Lauderdale airport started occurring over my house, replacing a large fraction of the long, straight-in ILS approaches that have been standard practice for decades (and which people living in houses under them presumably knew when buying there, getting their home for a lower price). The sudden imposition of a large, ongoing noise exposure on a relatively small number of people should not be grounds for preventing the larger net benefits (in fuel, CO2, and time) from RNP procedures. But they might well be grounds for compensating those impacted by the new noise.

One interesting compensation idea was proposed several years ago in a paper titled "The Price of Silence: Tradeable Noise Permits and Airports," by Thierry Brechet and Pierre Picard of the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium (http://ssrn.com/abstract=1010621). They suggest setting up zones near airports that would be assigned tradeable property rights to noise exposure. With a number of possible alternative RNP flight tracks, competition among zones would prevent monopoly pricing of overflights. As I wrote about this paper last year in Airport Policy News, this may not be "the" answer to the airport noise impact problem, but it looks to me like an idea worth considering.

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FAA's STARS Still (Again) Over Budget and Behind Schedule

Like the bad penny that keeps on turning up, the FAA's effort to modernize the hardware and software in all of its 172 TRACONs, called Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS), staggers on, still a long way from being completed. It was begun in 1996, but due to cost over-runs and schedule slips, was later limited to just 47 installations. Instead of STARS, an "interim" replacement called Common ARTS (or CARTS) was developed for the remaining facilities. The overall effort was redesignated as TAMR (Terminal Automation Modernization/Replacement) in 2004, as a key enabler of such NextGen capabilities as ADS-B. By 2008, the last five STARS installations were complete and the CARTS upgrades were proceeding. But later in 2008, the agency decided that, despite its problems, STARS should, after all, be installed at all 108 of the remaining non-STARS sites to replace CARTS, in two phases. First would be the 11 largest TRACONs, to be followed by 97 smaller installations.

On May 29th, the DOT Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released its audit of TAMR (Report No AV 2013-097).  Alas, it reads like scores of previous OIG and GAO reports I've read over the years, suggesting that for all the supposed procurement reforms and the creation of the Air Traffic Organization, nothing much has changed. FAA faces significant risks in developing and implementing the technical requirements for TAMR, because STARS now lacks some of the capabilities that have been added, piecemeal, to CARTS over the years (such as adding ADS-B capability at New York TRACON—a capability not currently in STARS). FAA at first identified 94 "gaps" between STARS and CARTS capabilities, but more keep being identified.

And the FAA's supposedly businesslike Acquisition Management System was not really followed in making the investment decision to proceed with the current changeover from CARTS to STARS. The schedule lacks key milestones and completion dates, and that schedule differs from the one negotiated with contractor Raytheon. And FAA's cost estimates are unreliable, "because FAA omitted major program cost elements from its cost baseline." It has also not included the ongoing $270 million cost of maintaining and updating CARTS during the long transition to STARS at all 108 sites.

There's a lot more gory detail in this audit report, but I won't put you through a recitation—you can download the report from www.oig.dot.gov. The larger question that needs to be asked is whether U.S. aviation can afford to go on like this, with a well-meaning agency that cannot seem to manage technology procurements in a competent manner. It's no wonder that the Air Traffic Organization's customers hesitate to invest in equipping their aircraft with various NextGen equipment when they have little basis for confidence that the ATO will have the hardware, software, and procedures ready to go by the time they have completed the equipage. If this report were the exception, rather than the rule, it would be one thing. But these are the same problems you can read about in OIG audits and GAO audits dating back several decades.

Isn't it time to start figuring out a better organizational model?

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Whither the Single European Sky?

There was considerable coverage of the two-day strike by French air traffic controllers last week, but far less discussion of what lay behind it. The controllers struck to protest efforts to put teeth into faltering efforts to bring about a Single European Sky, with a unit cost cut in half, to about U.S. levels. The strike was timed to coincide with the announcement from the European Commission of its revised plan to move things forward, dubbed SES II+.

The plan combines a number of measures, including the "unbundling" of ATC support services (opening them to competition from both the private sector and other ANSPs), provision of some services centrally (by Eurocontrol), and a revision of the floundering Functional Airspace Blocks to permit ANSPs to be members of more than one FAB and to work with various partners to streamline European airspace. Eurocontrol's Performance Review Unit would be strengthened to allow it to impose penalties on ANSPs that fail to meet agreed-upon performance targets, including cost reduction.

Union opposition to such reforms was telegraphed back in January at a meeting of the European Economic & Social Committee (EESC) in Brussels. At that event, Ricardo Rubini of the European Transport Workers' Federation was quoted in Aviation Intelligence Reporter as saying, "Don't talk to us about further consolidation. The number of centers in Europe is exactly right now at 62." The Federation represents about 250,000 aviation workers, including 25,000 controllers in various countries. Last week it issued a statement saying that it rejects "the unique model for FABs, based on consolidation of service provision that will lead to the reduction in the number of ANSPs, the reduction in the number of ACCs [centers], and the forced mobility and finally the reduction of the number of jobs."

Those are certainly real concerns, but that's not the end of the story. First, only the French controllers actually went out on strike. And in a few other countries (Belgium, Hungary, and Slovakia, by one account), controllers expressed solidarity with their French counterparts by working-to-rule. But in the large majority of countries, there were no strikes or slowdowns.

Air traffic control in Europe is hardly the first industry where costs are unduly high and productivity needs to be increased dramatically. And that, over time, means fewer people doing the jobs whose productivity can be increased. For example, the plan put forward in February by the airline group IATA calls for reducing the number of centers from 62 to 40, reducing the support staff ratio in ANSPs from 2.4 per controller to 1.6, and opening up support services to competition. Were that plan to be implemented over the next decade, that would definitely mean both fewer controllers and fewer support staff at the end of the decade than at the beginning.

Other industries have gone through such transitions, including the railroads and the airlines, following deregulation of each. And numerous governmental services have been competitively contracted over the past several decades, in Europe as well as the United States. Employee transitions, if not done all at once, can be designed to minimize the pain. If there are large numbers nearing retirement age, hiring fewer replacements is one part of the solution. So are voluntary buyouts, offering significant one-time financial packages to those willing to either take early retirement or use the funds to change careers. Governments often give preference in related job openings to those displaced due to downsizing.

A European colleague sent me a presentation given by the EESC at the ATC Global conference in Amsterdam in March. EESC is a body tasked by the EU to assist on social issues related to EU regulations, and appears to be committed to getting the Single European Sky implemented. It called for more "social dialogue" as part of the process, warning of palpable "risk of deadlock with trade unions" unless they become part of the process. At the same time, EESC is supportive of unbundling ATC support services, as proposed by the airlines and the European Commission.

Another idea on dealing with employee transitions was put forth in Amsterdam by Lord Soley of Hammersmith, a UK socialist. As reported by Graham Lake in Airport Business (April 2013), Soley suggested that countries that lose ATC centers should "win jobs in research, manufacturing, planning or training" for ATC modernization. To me that implies a kind of cross-country industrial policy that would be as unworkable as it is unwise.

Finally, let's compare the acceptance of facility consolidation (with the accompanying employee transitions) in Canada and the UK with the "hell no" attitude of the French controllers. One key difference is the governance structure of the Canadian and UK ANSPs, compared with that of France and many other EU countries. Employees own 5% of the shares in NATS, so they have at least some say in key decisions at the board level. Nav Canada is a non-share, not-for-profit corporation governed by a stakeholder board, including employee representation. Giving employees seats at the table might go a long way towards devising sensible approaches to employee transitions.

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Is the General Aviation Community Rethinking an ATC Corporation?

First it was the planned shut-down of 149 contract towers due to sequestration that really riled up the general aviation community. But after that problem was temporarily solved (through Sept. 30th), the cash-strapped FAA hit GA with a new blow. This year, the agency announced early this month, instead of simply beefing up local ATC for the huge annual AirVenture event in Oshkosh, WI, the FAA plans to send the sponsor, the Experimental Aircraft Association, a bill for $500,000. While protesting mightily about this unprecedented charge, EAA Chairman Jack Pelton said it will pay, if that's the only way to guarantee that the event can occur safely with ATC services.

But that did not prepare me for a June 18 blog post by EAA's Mac McClellan, former editor of Flying magazine and highly respected aviation journalist. Its title is "Time to Privatize ATC?" Citing the FAA's bill for Oshkosh and general unhappiness with its bureaucratic ways, McClellan describes the highly successful Nav Canada which charges airspace users for its services. But unlike many GA opponents of ATC corporations, who cite high per-transaction fees charged to GA operators by many European ANSPs, McClellan actually did his homework, explaining to readers that in Canada for planes up to 3 metric tons (6613 lbs.), there are no per-transaction fees—just a single annual fee based on aircraft weight, running less than $100/year for most single-engine piston planes. He also describes his experience both flying within Canada and overflying Canada on certain routes between northerly US cities.

In wrapping up the piece, he notes that "Nav Canada has earned a reputation for being nimble in terms of new technology, and responsive to those who use their system. That's not what anybody would say about the FAA ATC system, where every new program drags on for years, is over budget, and often is never completed." And he closes by asking readers to consider the possibility of shifting from taxpayer-funded ATC to something along the lines of Nav Canada. (http://macsblog.com/2013/06/time-to-privatize-atc)

In last month's issue I quoted from an interview with AOPA president Craig Fuller, criticizing the FAA controller furloughs and the barely-averted shut-down of contract towers, and suggesting that the aviation community needs to start thinking about something like ATC commercialization. It may just be that the long history of GA groups defending the FAA status quo and opposing ATC corporations is coming to an end.

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Upcoming Conferences

Users' Perspectives on NextGen Symposium (ALPA/NATCA), June 27, 2013, Capital Hilton, Washington, DC (Robert Poole speaking). Details at: http://nextgenconference.alpa.org

Aviation Week's NextGen Ahead Conference, Sept. 9-11, 2013, Dupont Circle Hotel, Washington, DC (Robert Poole speaking). Details at: http://events.aviationweek.com/current/nextgen/index.htm

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News Notes

German ANSP Seeks Part-Ownership of UK ANSP. Bloomberg reported June 4th that DFS, the corporatized air navigation service provider of Germany, has bid for a stake in the Airline Group that owns 42% of NATS, the corporatized ANSP of the U.K. The Airline Group is in the first phase of accepting offers for a portion of its stake; previously, Ireland's ANSP had also expressed interest in bidding. DFS's CEO, Klaus-Dieter Scheurle, stated at a news conference in Frankfurt that combining the operations of DFS and NATS would enable more efficient ATC services, especially on routes linking the United States and Europe.

Six ANSPs to Offer Free-Choice Air Routes in Northern Europe. The ANSPs of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Norway, and Sweden announced June 13th that they are working together to provide Free Route Airspace above 28,500 feet. Airlines using the service will be able to select the optimal route for each flight, whether to minimize flight time or to minimize fuel consumption. Full implementation is planned for November 2015.

Aircraft Retirements Bode Well for Equipage. Aviation Week reports that aviation consulting firm ICF SH&E expects 6,000 to 8,000 commercial jetliners to be retired this decade, up from about 4,000 last decade and just 1,700 in the 1990s. Since new airliners tend to come equipped with the latest technologies for NextGen and SESAR, this trend will reduce the burden on airlines to retrofit equipment such as controller-pilot data link and ADS-B into their cockpits.

ARINC for Sale by Carlyle Group. The company that developed the very first U.S. air traffic control facilities and procedures, ARINC (originally Aeronautical Radio, Inc.), is now on the market, after having been owned by Carlyle Group since 2007. Based on a Reuters report, Air Traffic Management reports that among those expressing interest are General Electric, Rockwell Collins, Thales, and private equity firms. First-round bids were due June 10th.

DOT and FAA Face "Huge Shortfall in Acquisition Workforce". According to a report in Washington Business Journal, the U.S. DOT faces massive shortfalls in its acquisition workforce in coming years, due to looming retirements. FAA, with the largest acquisition workforce in the department, is facing a 54% shortfall in contract specialists, based on a January report from the Government Accountability Office. The estimates come from data reported last year by DOT to the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

ANSP Productivity Comparisons. A reader who is on the board of a European ANSP provided feedback on last issue's article on comparative ANSP cost-effectiveness. "I am not sure that focusing on Cost/IFR Flight Hour is really all that helpful. The problem is that ANSPs have a wide range of ownership and governance structures, which substantially affects costs. The treatment of pension costs alone distorts the figures for comparison purposes. There is also the issue of the complexity of the airspace under control. Costs/productivity are likely to vary considerably between a country mainly dealing with simple overflights and one with the congestion of, say, the Frankfurt or London areas. I wonder whether if productivity is the main interests, IFR flight hours per controller might be a better measure." I plan to revisit this question in a future issue.

Follow-up to Wake Turbulence Story. A reader who was involved in MITRE Corporation's development efforts on wake turbulence (WTMD) responded with a correction to last month's story on this subject. MIT Lincoln Laboratory developed the Wind Forecast Algorithm as part of the overall  collaborative WTMD effort that included MIT-LL, MITRE, DOT's Volpe Center, and FAA's Wake Turbulence Research Program. I'm glad to set the record straight.

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Quotable Quotes

"ADS-B reports . . . over Iridium's satellite network . . . could in many cases completely replace the need to have ground infrastructure. Immediately, you can examine the cost of establishing your own network compared to just subscribing to the service for the segments of the airspace for which you are responsible. You receive the position reports delivered as a service rather than from a network that you run yourself. The redundancy network could arguably be a far less dense network than if you ran it without this sort of technology. This paradigm shift offered by emerging technology is creeping up on us, and I am convinced that if you roll out SESAR on the basis of old-fashioned ATM architecture, we will struggle to make the business case. Right now, demand for additional capacity is not that high, while demand for greater flight efficiency is very high. So the cost of building new infrastructure at a time of stable traffic growth makes it nearly impossible to make the business case in each and every center."
—Bo Redeborn (Eurocontrol) in Aimee Turner, "Central Concerns," Airtrafficmanagement.com, April 8, 2013

"The bottom line is that 5-year depreciation is not a tax 'loophole,' as some in Washington assert. It is a long-standing, accepted accounting practice applicable to all business-use capital assets. And it is outrageous that some of our politicians now refer to it as a 'subsidy' in order to vilify business aircraft operators. All capital equipment carries its own specific depreciation schedule set forth by the IRS in the tax code—some as short as 3 years. The current method of depreciating business aircraft has been in place now for the better part of 3 decades. It is clearly and emphatically not a tax loophole, much less a subsidy."
—Lou Seno, Professional Pilot, April 2003

"There is a lot that we can do to improve efficiency in military air traffic management, and we are having some good discussions with the military team. One of the things we are discussing is doing the Falkland Islands air traffic control from the U.K. You don't need people to be physically located there; you obviously still need the tower people, but for area control, you can do that from here."

—Richard Deakin, NATS, in Tony Osborne, "Four Dimensional Thinking," Aviation Week, March 4/11, 2013

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


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