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Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #80

Rising air traffic controller errors and air traffic forecast

Robert Poole
February 28, 2011

In this issue:

·         Increasing operational errors in US airspace

·         FAA forecast: air traffic will not double

·         RNP procedures still stalled

·         Key ERAM program late and over budget

·         Aircraft equipage: still unresolved

·         News Notes

·         Quotable Quotes

Rising ATC Errors Confound Easy Explanations

Several months ago I wrote about the rising trend of "operational errors" in the U.S. air traffic control system but suggested that this was probably due to a change in the way errors are being reported. For the 12 months of FY 2010 (ending Sept. 30, 2010), the FAA announced there were 1,889 OEs, compared with 947 the previous fiscal year. One important change during this period was the implementation in 2010 of a voluntary, confidential reporting system under which controllers can report errors without fear of punitive action, in the interest of identifying problems that need correcting. The Air Traffic Safety Action Program (ATSAP) is modeled after a long-standing program under which pilots can likewise file confidential error reports. It seemed logical that this change in reporting would lead to an increase in the number of reported errors.

But thanks to information provided to me by a former controller, I stand corrected. It turns out that errors reported via ATSAP are not counted in the statistics released by the FAA. "When a controller reports an OE through the ATSAP process, local management will quite likely have no knowledge of it at all, unless it was also picked up in 'the old-fashioned way': e.g., a pilot complaint, supervisory observation, or automated loss-of-separation detection," he tells me. "ATSAP-reported errors are considered confidential, so are not validated and added to the 'public' error totals. If facility X reports 100 OEs in a year, that number reflects only the errors that became known to management through some means other than ATSAP. If the controllers at facility X reported an additional 500 errors through ATSAP that were not otherwise known to management, facility X is still going to say that they had 100 errors that year, not 600."

This strongly suggests that the problem is even worse than the official numbers suggest. So what is causing the large increase in errors? Reporting by Ashley Halsey III of the Washington Post has identified two possible factors. One is the large number of new hires still undergoing on-the-job training, often at busy ATC facilities. Halsey disclosed an all-hands memo from the acting director of the Potomac TRACON which said that veteran controllers were teaching shortcuts to the new guys, so that "our newer controllers are developing the bad habits of some of our older controllers." And an AP story (Feb. 11th) recounted whistle-blower charges by a TRACON manager in New York about sloppy procedures there (including night-shift controllers allegedly watching movies and playing with electronic devices while on duty).

Another factor is a software problem with TCAS, the collision-avoidance system required on airliners and business jets. In late December the FAA revealed that in busy airspace (which is where OE's tend to occur), TCAS may be losing track of nearby planes for 40 seconds or more. At 400 mph, a plane can cover 4.5 miles in 40 seconds. Halsey reports that the FAA's proposed fix-a software modification--will allow airlines up to four years to complete. That strikes me as far too long, given the seriousness of the situation.

At the same time, we can take some comfort in the fact that the most "serious" errors, where planes come close enough together to require evasive action, have increased less dramatically than total OEs. There were 44 such events in FY 2010, compared with 37 the previous year and just 28 the year before that. But that's still a dismaying trend, indicating a need for serious FAA attention.

FAA Forecast and NextGen

Following the release of FAA's annual aerospace forecast last year, I crunched some of their numbers and concluded that the widely discussed need to implement NextGen because of an expected doubling of air traffic over the next 20 years was not supported by the agency's projections. Their 2010 forecast showed overall ATC activity growing only by 35% (tower operations) to 63% (en-route) by 2030. So with the release of the 2011 forecast earlier this month, I was eager to see how the 2011 forecast of higher aviation growth would affect future ATC activity.

First let's look at the 20-year period covered by this year's forecast: 2011 to 2031. The table below is derived from Tables 31, 32, and 33 in the Forecast document. It shows the ratio of 2031 to 2011 for each category, thereby showing the extent of growth over that 20-year period.

Airlines

Air Taxi & Commuter

General Aviation

Military

Total

Tower Ops.

1.59

1.38

1.28

1.0

1.36

TRACON Ops.

1.59

1.40

1.33

1.0

1.42

Center IFR Aircraft

1.76

1.48

1.33

1.0

1.58

Comparing this year's table with last year's, in the bottom row (which is aircraft numbers using the system for IFR flights controlled by Centers), the growth in the number of airline aircraft is significantly lower than last year-a 76% increase now, compared with 94% in last year's table. By contrast, the air taxi/commuter and GA aircraft numbers are significantly higher than in last year's 20-year forecast. But when we look at numbers of ATC operations at Towers and TRACONs, the numbers are only slightly higher than last year's. The bottom line, per the right-hand column, is that over the next 20 years, FAA expects tower operations to increase just 36% and TRACON operations by 42%. That's way below doubling.

Because the highest levels of U.S. aviation activity to date took place in 2000, I've also compared the 2031 projection with 2000 levels, in the following table.

Airlines

Air Taxi & Commuter

General Aviation

Military

Total

Tower Ops.

1.36

1.23

0.82

0.90

1.01

TRACON Ops.

1.31

1.21

0.86

0,70

1.07

Center IFR Aircraft

1.62

1.62

1.02

0.71

1.42

For the most part, these numbers are only slightly higher than last year's. So they still tell the same story. Compared to the busiest year in U.S. aviation history, the FAA's current forecast of ATC activity at towers and TRACONs in 2031 shows it as being only marginally higher. That's a sobering thought. Assuming Center activity grows in proportion to the number of aircraft flying IFR, there will be 42% growth in en-route ATC activity by 2031-hardly trivial, but far below doubling.

I think there are plenty of reasons to proceed with NextGen with all deliberate speed-time and fuel savings, congestion relief (since those tower and TRACON numbers are aggregates, not reflecting localized congestion near major airports), and potentially large operating cost savings. But we should be careful not to base the case for NextGen on any impending "doubling of air traffic in the next two decades."

Where's the Progress on RNP Procedures?

Last month I criticized the FAA, based on a recent Inspector General report, for failing to make effective use of third-party developers of performance-based navigation, such as RNP approaches and departures. The FAA certified two companies-GE's Naverus and Boeing's Jeppeson-back in September 2009 to develop such procedures. But thus far, all they have been able to do is what they were doing before-get hired by individual airlines to develop proprietary approaches usable only by the airline paying for the development. The FAA seems to be intent on keeping itself in the center of things, even though airlines consider the vast majority of public "RNP procedures" developed by the agency to be useless, since they don't offer the promised benefits of much shorter, more-direct, fuel-saving paths.

In response to the IG report, the FAA had said it would announce a revised policy by February 1st, and a segment of the aviation community (including me) waited eagerly to see what they would put forth. But as of the time of this writing (the last full week of February), nothing has been released. One source tells me that the FAA has asked the IG's office for an extension; another source said the report was done, but that someone at the FAA's Air Traffic Organization had objections.

In an article in Bloomberg Businessweek (Jan. 27th), John Hughes identified the likely group objecting as "the union that represents 300 FAA workers who craft the [agency's RNP] procedures." According to Hughes, the union says it opposes using third parties to develop such procedures "out of safety concerns." But Bill Voss, CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, rejects that claim as spurious, given the global use of RNP procedures, as well as Alaska Airlines' nearly 15 years of safely using RNP approaches in its home state. "The firepower is not in-house," Voss told Hughes. "Help is needed."

Another likely source of FAA resistance is money. There is no current line item in the FAA budget for outside development of RNP procedures, so whatever the agency spends on this activity would have to be taken from some other activity (such as in-house development of useless "overlay" RNP procedures?). But Jeppeson and Naverus are not charities; they need to get paid for their work, and without FAA being willing to purchase the development of public RNP procedures, the companies will be limited to those rare cases where an individual airline is willing to pay for an exclusive-use procedure.

It's time for some outside-the-box thinking on this. In surface transportation, the last decade has seen pretty widespread acceptance of HOT or express toll lanes for congested freeways, such as the $2 billion project under which Fluor and Transurban are adding such lanes to the highly congested Capital Beltway in northern Virginia. Those new Beltway HOT lanes will offer a new option, for anyone willing to pay extra (beyond gas taxes) for a faster and more reliable commute trip. Why not apply the same principle to public RNP approaches and departures?

Under this business model (which almost certainly would require legislation), third-party firms would do market research to identify airports with the greatest demand for RNP procedures and would develop and implement them on a user-pays basis. Aircraft operators would have a choice, just like motorists on the Beltway at rush hour: use the regular lanes at no charge or pay a price to use the premium lanes. It may be too late for Congress to include this in the current FAA reauthorization measure. But it may well be an idea whose time needs to come.

ERAM's in Trouble; Hence, So Is NextGen

At year-end the DOT Inspector General reported to Congress that the $2.1 billion En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) hardware and software project has slipped by four years and will be $500 million over budget. Because ERAM is such a central part of the whole ATC operation, its ripple effects will affect a number of other NextGen elements.

ERAM is being developed by Lockheed Martin to replace the 30-year old HOST computer system. That system has been patched up so many times at the 20 en-route Centers that the new ERAM will have to be customized for each Center. Thus far, it has been introduced only at Salt Lake City and Seattle, where big enough problems have developed that deploying it to the other 18 centers is on hold. The original schedule called for Seattle and Salt Lake to be fully operational by December 2009 and the other centers up and running by December 2010. But that date has now slipped to 2014. The $500 million in additional cost comes from a MITRE Corp. review, and exceeds the FAA's own estimate of $330 million.

Because ERAM must interface with other key NextGen programs, their operational dates will also be delayed. The IG's report singles out ADS-B, Data Communications, and System-Wide Information as being the primary ones affected. But it also notes that these delays will affect development of key capabilities such as trajectory-based operations (TBO), a common automation platform for terminal and en-route operations, and flexible and dynamic airspace.

In his testimony before the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics on Feb. 16th, I.G. Calvin Scovel also addressed other obstacles to timely NextGen implementation. First, the agency has not made key decisions about the design of the system, including:

·         The division of responsibility between controllers and pilots;

·         The level of automation needed to support this division of responsibility; and

·         The number and location of ATC facilities-a major factor in both capital and operating costs.

These matters are absolutely fundamental to any sort of serious business plan for NextGen; without them being resolved, it's no wonder the customer community is not very enthusiastic about the program.

Scovel also reminded committee members that the National Academy of Public Administration, in a 2008 report, had identified 26 competencies needed to implement NextGen that the FAA lacks. In the four and a half years since then, he said, FAA has only developed a workforce plan, but has not begun acquiring these capabilities. And he also cited inadequate planning and joint R&D efforts between FAA and the Commerce Department (over weather data) and between FAA and DOD and DHS (over joint aircraft surveillance requirements). Such coordination was supposed to have been brought about by the creation, in 2003, of the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO), representing all of these agencies.

I hate to report such depressing news, but that is the reality we are faced with. Once again, these findings underscore the fundamental problems with the current governance and funding structure of the air traffic control system in this country.

Aircraft Equipage for NextGen: Still Unresolved

With both houses of Congress nearing completion of their FAA reauthorization bills, those who hoped for federal grants to equip their planes for NextGen have been disappointed. Such funding appears in neither bill, and would be a difficult sell in the current budget-cutting environment. The President's FY2012 Budget Highlights document includes only a single sentence on the issue: "Equipage costs are eligible under the [proposed] Infrastructure Bank.

At this juncture, I would rate the likelihood of Congress creating the proposed Infrastructure Bank as quite low. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D, CA), who chairs the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, has spoken out against creation of such an entity. And since the Administration's proposal calls for this "bank" to be mostly a grant-making entity (and also provides no clue where its $5 billion/year funding would come from), it unlikely to find support in the Republican-controlled House (which will probably simply expand the successful and popular TIFIA credit-support program for surface transportation).

There was a small flurry of interest early this month when the FAA announced a small project with JetBlue, under which it would provide $4.2 million toward equipping up to 35 A320s with ADS-B ($120K apiece), with JetBlue paying the installation and training costs, as well as providing data on the equipped planes' flights between the Northeast and the Caribbean. The aim is to permit the development of two new oceanic (ADS-B-only) routes-an example of the Best-Equipped/Best-Served (BEBS) concept. The FAA also hopes the demonstrated time and fuel savings will help persuade JetBlue to equip the rest of its fleet and will encourage other airlines to do likewise.

The week before the JetBlue announcement, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood, in a speech at the Aero Club of Washington, urged airlines not to wait for government largesse but to take advantage of a provision in the most recent tax bill that allows companies to expense 100% of capital expenditures made during 2011, rather than using standard depreciation schedules.

In researching this article, I also spoke with Michael Dyment of Nexa Capital Partners about the NextGen Equipage Fund they unveiled last fall at the annual meeting of the Air Traffic Control Association. Their concept is to raise private capital for bulk purchases of airborne equipment (e.g., for ADS-B and DataComm) and provide flexible financing to aircraft operators. He told me they are making progress, and will likely have a news conference to announce progress in a week or so, after my deadline for this issue. I still think this is a very promising approach, and will likely discuss this further in next month's issue.

News Notes

Buyers Line up for NATS, but Airlines Object

The U.K. government's plan to sell some or all of its 49% ownership of NATS, the commercialized air navigation service provider (ANSP), is being opposed by the Airline Group (which owns 42%). The airlines argue that in the coming creation of a Single European Sky, NATS would have a weaker hand without at least 25% government ownership. Airline Group chairman Peter Read has even suggested that if the government sells its entire stake, the airlines might sell their stake (which seems counterproductive, to me). The government has yet to announce its specific plans, including how much it plans to sell. Potential bidders include Global Infrastructure Partners (owner of Gatwick and London City airports), control tower operator SERCO, and Lockheed Martin.

Taiwan Joins CANSO

The Air Navigation and Weather Services organization from Taiwan was granted full membership last month in CANSO (Civil Air Navigation Services Organization), the trade group for ANSPs worldwide. The organization now has 56 ANSPs as full members, along with 61 aviation companies involved with various aspects of ATC technology and services.

India Tapping European ATC Expertise

The Mumbai airport authority has contracted with NATS, Ltd. from the U.K. to study how airport collaborative decision-making could be applied to improve operations at that airport. NATS won the contract based on its successful implementation of such a program at London's Gatwick Airport. And at Cochin International Airport, an RNP approach is being developed by Airbus subsidiary Quovadis and the French Civil Aviation Authority. Training of controllers began in November, and the system was aimed at going operational by the end of February.

Nav Canada CEO Named to Aviation Hall of Fame

The president and CEO of Canada's commercialized ANSP, Nav Canada, will be inducted into Canada's Aviation Hall of Fame at a ceremony on May 26, 2011. John Crichton has been president and CEO of Nav Canada since it took over ATC operations in 1996. Prior to Nav Canada, Crichton had been president and CEO of the Air Transport Association of Canada, following a career as an airline executive. Crichton received the Glen A. Gilbert Memorial Award from the Air Traffic Control Association in 2008. He and Nav Canada have won a number of other awards.

ANSPs Bidding for Control Tower Contracts in Spain

Several overseas ANSPs are teaming with Spanish infrastructure firms to bid for contracts to operate control towers at the first 13 of 47 Spanish airports where such contracts are to be offered. Sweden's LFV has joined forces with Spanish construction company FCC, while the UK's NATS is teaming with Spanish infrastructure developer/operator Ferrovial.

Real-Time Flight Data via Satellite

Aviation Daily reported last month that Toronto-based Star Navigation Group has developed a cockpit data recorder with GPS tracking software. The device will transmit data on key flight variables at regular intervals during a flight, along with the plane's position at the time of transmission. Datalink standards which devices such as this will use are being developed under both NextGen in the United States and SESAR in Europe.

Colorado WAM System Certified and Commissioned

The innovative use of Wide-Area Multilateration to provide radar-like surveillance to Colorado mountain airports was commissioned into the National Air Space System on Dec. 10, 2010. The project was implemented and funded jointly by the Colorado DOT, the involved airports, and the FAA. That project was Phase 1, covering airports at Craig, Hayden, Rifle, and Steamboat Springs. Phase II is now under way, and will extend coverage to Durango, Gunnison, Montrose, and Telluride.

Indonesia Creating Single ANSP

In conjunction with the launch of an integrated ADS-B surveillance system among Australia, Indonesia, and Singapore, the three entities currently providing ATC services in Indonesia are planning to merge into a single ANSP by January 2012. The entities are AP1, AP2, and portions of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation.

Quotable Quotes

"What is really missing is an air traffic control network that will allow the industry to save millions upon millions of dollars by increasing the productivity of the airplanes they own and the airport's capacity to accommodate traffic. Not only are we burning unnecessary hydrocarbons and wasting fuel, we are flying thousands of unnecessary flight hours and paying thousands of employees to waste time needlessly. I can think of no greater improvement to the productivity of the air transportation system than the establishment of a 21st century ATC system. We've made tremendous headway in every facet of the industry these past 20 years, but we're still stuck in the 1960s when it comes to take-offs, landing, routing, and spacing airplanes to use every bit of the airspace productively and safely."

--Gordon Bethune, "Leadership Perspectives," Airline Business, December 2010

"This week's passing of economist Alfred Kahn, 93, has brought tributes for the Cornell professor's key role in the 1970s deregulation of U.S. airlines. That achievement saves Americans a stunning $20 billion annually. . . . After being appointed chairman [of the Civil Aeronautics Board] by President Jimmy Carter in 1977, he characteristically read-and rejected-bureaucratic gobbledeegook. He wrote his staff: 'Please try very hard to write Board orders in straightforward, quasi-conversational prose-as though you are talking to or communicating with real people.' His gambit was clear: 'If you can't explain what you are doing to people in simple English, you are probably doing something wrong.' When he caught the agency 'hiding behind a cloud of pompous verbiage,' he smelled a rat. Indeed, the CAB did not protect the public, but fleeced it, raising airfares and squandering productive assets. Under Kahn, its charter collapsed. Fares were deregulated, and the CAB closed shop-by a 1978 act of Congress-in 1985. . . . Fred Kahn passed away in Ithaca, New York, on December 27th. On the previous Thursday, he was downloading articles for a new article on antitrust law. When he then took a turn for the worse, a piano was brought into his room. He was singing with friends and loved ones on Sunday. His legendary humor did not fail him, but his journey had come to an end. Prof. Alfred Kahn served as living proof that there need be nothing dismal about the science he loved."

--Thomas W. Hazlett, "Fred Kahn's First-Class Flight," Financial Times, Dec. 31, 2010


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


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