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Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #88

Space-based ADS-B, ATC not improving in Europe, Russia agrees to end flyover tax

Robert Poole
December 16, 2011

In this issue:

Space-Based ADS-B on the Horizon

As I reported in the July issue of this newsletter, in June the FAA approved use of the Iridium satellite constellation for ATC voice and data communications, giving airlines and business jets a superior alternative to antiquated HF radio and FANS-1 data link services using Inmarsat. The box needed for Iridium communications is smaller and much less costly than either an HF radio or the box used with Inmarsat.

But in addition to communications in oceanic airspace, satellite networks can also provide oceanic ADS-B surveillance. Instead of oceanic surveillance being far less good than radar surveillance over land, satellite-based ADS-B surveillance should provide position accuracy far better than radar. Iridium this year announced that its next satellite constellation—IridiumNEXT—will include ADS-B receivers that can pick up ADS-B transmissions from equipped aircraft and relay the data to the ANSP centers responsible for the flights in question. The first of these satellites will be launched in 2015, with the full constellation in place by 2018. They are being built for Iridium by Thales Alenia.

Global space-based ADS-B will not only massively improve surveillance in oceanic airspace. It will also bring full coverage to polar routes and to remote and mountainous regions of the globe where installation of a network of ground stations would be costly and difficult (as would be their maintenance). Consequently, space-based ADS-B appears to be a major breakthrough for next-generation air traffic management. Former FAA ATO chief Russ Chew, now with NEXA Capital Partners, told Airspace magazine that “Space-based ADS-B is a real game changer for air traffic control. ATC over remote areas is going to be revolutionized, because the ability to provide radar-like surveillance in these areas has never existed before.”

Late last month the FAA has announced a market survey to identify potential providers of satellite-based ADS-B. An article in Flight Global noted that in addition to Iridium, an Alaska company called ADS-B Technologies hopes to provide ADS-B equipment on a constellation of Globalstar satellites.

Getting back to global satellite ATC communications, another benefit is real-time data-streaming from planes in flight, especially over oceans and remote areas. French safety investigator BEA, as part of its review of the loss of Air France 447 in the South Atlantic in 2009, has proposed mandatory data streaming to supplement the information provided by flight data recorders. This would permit faster location of a downed aircraft and provide diagnostic information even if the flight data recorders are not recovered. Canadian company AeroMechanical Services offers such a system, called Automated Flight Information Reporting System (AFIRS), certified for installation on 25 different types of aircraft including most Airbus and Boeing airliners and many business jets. It has run tests for several years, using Iridium satellites to send the information to the aircraft owner’s ground stations. On October 9th, the company announced that China has approved its operation there, to be handled by a Chinese company called Skyblue Technology. William Garvey in Aviation Week writes that it is likely that China will require data streaming for planes operating in the country’s airspace.

ANSP Performance in Europe Falling Short

As part of gearing up for the Single European Sky, the member governments several years ago agreed to performance targets for their air navigation service providers (ANSPs). From 2012 through 2014 they are supposed to achieve specific targets for: reducing excess miles flown (termed “route extensions”), reducing air traffic delays per flight, and reducing the cost per unit of service delivered. Eurocontrol created a Performance Review Body (PRB) to measure and monitor achievement of these performance targets. Eurocontrol in recent years has been publishing annual Performance Review Reports, about which I have written from time to time.

The bad news came out at the end of November. The member states had delivered their plans to the European Commission in June, and they were analyzed by the PRB over the summer. Based on this, the Commission’s November assessment was that only five small countries—Belgium, Denmark, Lithuania, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands—are on track to meet the targets. The big ones, responsible for the lion’s share of air traffic, were singled out as unsatisfactory: Britain, France, Germany plus Austria and Spain. The others are on track toward meeting only one of the goals. So, the laggards are supposed to be revising their plans and resubmitting them before the end of December.

Two comparative reports on ANSP performance through the end of 2010 illustrate the problem.  The Eurocontrol Performance Review Report (PRR 2010) appeared in May, covering the 27 EU members plus Norway and Switzerland. That was a bad year for European aviation, with the volcanic ash disruptions and a number of aviation strikes that led to large numbers of flight cancellations. As a result, flight delays were the worst since 2001, route extensions got worse (due to deviations to avoid airspace affected by either strikes or ash clouds), and unit costs increased significantly. It will be interesting to see if 2011 results show meaningful improvements.

Just a few weeks ago the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO) released its second annual performance report, covering 2010 as well as 2006-2010 trends. It is based on voluntary reporting from 29 member ANSPs, many from Europe but also the United States, Canada, Mexico, India, New Zealand, Thailand, and South Africa, among others. I was most interested in the productivity and cost figures, which are broken down by individual ANSP. On the basic measure of IFR flight hours per controller in operations, by far the highest-ranked is GCAA of the UAE. But among the largest ANSPs, the FAA ATO ranks first, at 1,803, followed by Nav Canada (1,619), Mexico’s SENEAM (1,394), and Nav Portugal (1,275). The trends from 2006 through 2010 show nearly half making single-digit gains in productivity over this period, while those with lower productivity in 2010 had mostly small losses. Over the same period, nearly all showed increases in cost per IFR, either of single or low double-digit percentages. The range of that cost measure was enormous; in 2010, ranging from a low of $260 (Estonia) and $297 (Canada) to $1,419 in the Netherlands, $875 in the UK, and $870 in Spain.

Outmoded labor practices are certainly one cause of high cost and low productivity. But another is certainly the huge oversupply of airspace sectors and control centers in Europe, dictated by having an ANSP for every country. That’s something the Single European Sky is supposed to be fixing, but progress on that has been glacial.

No Mandate for ADS-B/In, Say U.S. Airspace Users

When a controversial issue arises, the FAA often appoints an “aviation rule-making committee” to make recommendations on how to proceed. That’s what the agency did with respect to ADS-B/In. Last year it set a deadline of 2020 for all aircraft flying in controlled airspace to be equipped with ADS-B/Out (sending out precise GPS-derived locational information). That will give controllers better information on their displays, but it offers no direct benefits to aircraft operators. Those benefits will only come with the installation of additional equipment (enabling ADS-B/In) that will provide pilots with cockpit displays of traffic (not provided at all now) and comprehensive weather information (to supplement nearby data from the plane’s own weather radar).

Should the FAA set an equipage deadline for ADS-B/In? That’s what the agency asked the ARC it appointed for this purpose. And the answer came back last month: No. While it’s true that the only direct ADS-B benefit for users will come with the /In version, the ARC concluded that a sufficiently strong business case for making the equipage investment does not yet exist. For one thing, by the time all planes must have ADS-B/Out, many older airliners and business jets will be retired (too old or too fuel-guzzling) or have only a few remaining years of useful life. By contrast, the newest generation of airliners (B787, A350, and the re-engined versions of the 737 and A320 series) will come equipped for ADS-B/In.

The ARC did not leave it at that. To provide the makings of a business case, it urged FAA to move faster to develop equipment standards and certification guidelines for avionics manufacturers. It should also run more ADS-B/In demonstration projects for things like cockpit traffic situational awareness, oceanic in-trail procedures, and flight deck-based interval management and spacing. UPS has been doing a lot of this at Louisville, using the ACSS Saferoute package on 11 of its freighters. Another version of Saferoute has been tested by USAirways at Philadelphia, and the carrier is now installing it on 20 A330s. By summer 2012 they expect to be using it for in-trail spacing across the North Atlantic. JetBlue is also using a version of Saferoute on 35 A320s between points in the Caribbean and New York and Boston. Delta and British Airways plan to use ACSS packages for in-trail spacing on the North Atlantic in 2012-13.

I agree that FAA should encourage more of this, by figuring out how to actually implement the much-discussed idea of Best-Equipped/Best-Served. That would provide a more realistic case for real benefits from ADS-B/In equipage. And accelerated development of equipment requirements and certification guidance should help manufacturers get going toward volume production.

Russia Agrees to End Siberia “Royalty” Tax

In exchange for gaining EU support for its application to join the World Trade Organization, Russia has agreed to drop, as of 2013, a “royalty” tax for flights that overfly Siberia, thereby cutting many hours off flights between Europe and the Far East. It was first imposed by the Soviet Union in the 1980s, basically taking advantage of European airlines willing to pay tens of millions of dollars to save hundreds of millions on fuel and other operating costs due to shorter flight tracks.

This royalty tax is not and never has been an “overflight fee.” Such fees are charged by virtually every country (or its ANSP). Overflight fees are a legitimate charge for the ATC services provided to such flights, traversing the airspace of a country without landing or taking off in it. Even the United States charges for overflights, despite not charging directly for any other ATC services. Russia has long had genuine overflight fees to help pay for air traffic control.

European airlines had to pay the royalty tax in addition to the ATC overflight fees. And the proceeds of the royalty tax were given by the USSR government to monopoly state-owned Aeroflot. After the demise of the Soviet Union, the royalty tax proceeds continued to be turned over to airlines, with the large majority of the money still going to Aeroflot, by far the largest carrier. The EU argued, correctly, that this practice contravened EU antitrust laws as well as ICAO charging principles. But Russia did not budge, until joining the WTO became a priority.

U.S. airlines were not subject to the royalty tax, probably because few US-Far East routes would have gained much by overflying Russia.

LightSquared Tests Show Serious GPS Interference

Between Oct. 31 and Nov. 4, further tests of potential interference with GPS devices by LightSquared’s proposed broadband wireless telecommunications system took place. The testing was carried out in an anechoic chamber at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, for the National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) Systems Engineering Forum, a multi-agency advisory body. The tests were requested by the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, part of the Commerce Department. Both the FAA and DOD took part in the effort, as did GPS makers Garmin and Trimble, and users Deere & Co. and GM’s OnStar division.

Although the tests were only run on low-precision receivers, such as used in motor vehicles and boats, they interfered with 75% those GPS devices at a range of 100 meters, according to a summary report that was leaked to Bloomberg News and released Dec. 14th.  High-precision GPS devices (presumably including aviation and scientific applications) are set for testing after the first of the year. But even the completed tests were bad enough for DOD and DOT to release a joint statement the next day citing the extent of GPS interference with the tested devices. The statement added: “Separate analysis by the Federal Aviation Administration also found interference with a flight safety system designed to warn pilots of approaching terrain”—presumably the ground proximity warning system.

It’s pretty obvious by now that the forthcoming tests of high-precision GPS devices will also show serious interference. The uncertainty created by the LightSquared cloud hanging over GPS is already discouraging investment in NextGen systems. FAA’s deputy associate administrator for aviation safety, John Hickey, told attendees at the Air Traffic Control Association’s annual meeting in October that the company’s proposal is having a “chilling effect” on the rollout of NextGen. “Operators will wait several years down the road to see what happens,” he told the audience. And he added, “This is the most intractable problem I have been involved with in 31 years in aviation.”

The Coalition to Save Our GPS has urged the FCC to cut the uncertainty by flat-out banning LightSquared from using the upper 10 MHz band that’s adjacent to the band used by GPS receivers. Thus far, the company has offered only to hold off on using that band until 2015 and hopes to start using it then. In its FCC filing, the coalition argues that a clear decision barring use of the upper band would clear the way for an agreement on using the lower band, which tests have shown poses little interference threat to aviation and most other uses.

One would think that the DOD and DOT together have more clout than a minor agency like the FCC. But I suppose anything can happen in Washington, DC.

News Notes

Taiwan Consolidates Airspace and ATC Facilities
As part of upgrading its ATC system with the Thales Eurocat product, the Air Navigation & Weather Service of Taiwan has consolidated its airspace and ATC facilities. The project includes the creation of two consolidated control centers (north and south), 11 remote towers, and several other remote sites. All terminal approach controls and en-route functions are now handled by the north and south centers.

Swedish Tower Competition on Hold
LFV, the Swedish ANSP, in October announced a postponement of its plan to open the
provision of control tower services to outside bidders. Parliament in 2010 granted LFV
the authority to outsource control towers, and LFV began the procurement process earlier this year. But it soon became clear that the legislation did not spell out whether terminal airspace is included, or just actual tower operations. LFV has asked for legislative guidance before finalizing the scope under which bidding will take place. Other EU ANSPs are expected to bid, as is LFV itself.

WAM to Provide Nationwide ATC in Kyrgyz Republic
A wide-area multilateration (WAM) system has been selected as the most cost-effective way to modernize air traffic control in the Kyrgyz Republic, which lacks nationwide radar coverage. The winning bidder, announced mid-November, was the Raytheon/SaabSensis team. The competition was handled by the USAF Electronic System Center, and the system is the first provision of WAM technologies under the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program. Excellent background on WAM is provided by the article “Wide Area Multilateration: Bridge to Tomorrow’s ATM Surveillance Network,” by Ken Kaminski, Khalid El-Seed, and David Gordon, The Journal of Air Traffic Control, Summer 2011.

Primer on GPS Modernization for the Military
The Congressional Budget Office has produced a useful report on alternatives to the Defense Department’s current plan for upgrading the constellation of GPS satellites. CBO sketches out three alternatives and weighs their pros and cons, including resistance to intentional jamming. “The Global Positioning System for Military Users: Current Modernization Plans and Alternatives” is available on the CBO website.

RVSM Implemented in Eastern Europe and Eurasia
As of Nov. 17th, reduced vertical separation minima (RVSM) became operational in the airspace of Eastern Europe and Eurasia (including Afghanistan, Mongolia, Russia, and China). The planning effort dates back to 1997, with final coordinated implementation worked out by the ICAO Eurasia RVSM Task Force. The reduced vertical spacing applies to flight levels between 29,000 and 41,000 feet, and doubles the number of available altitudes. Thanks to more flights being able to operate at optimal cruising altitudes, fuel savings are expected to average at least 10%.

Ads on Control Tower Approved
The city council of Medford, OR in mid-November approved the airport director’s proposal to allow an advertising sign measuring 25’ by 25’ on each of the four sides of the city-owned control tower. The airport is offering the four spaces as a branding opportunity to a single corporation. Airport director Bern Case says he is negotiating with an aviation company for the ad space, at a rate of $3,000 per month.

Australian ANSP Outsources Flight Inspection
In August, Airservices Australia signed a 10-year contract with AeroPearl to handle all of its flight inspection services. Under the $10 million contract, the company will provide two new Beech King Air B350s, equipped with Aerodata’s AeroFIS system, which can handle both legacy and ADS-B and GBAS functions.

New Book Chronicles 1981 Controller Strike
Oxford University Press has released Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America, by Joseph McMartin. I have not yet read the book, but judging from several reviews, it appears to be a perceptive and fair-minded recounting of the story and its aftermath.

Kenya’s ANSP Joins CANSO
The Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO) has welcomed KCAA as a full member, bringing the number of ANSPs in the organization to 65. KCAA provides nationwide ATC services and also operates eight airports in Kenya. KCAA became a state corporation in 2002, but still carries out regulatory oversight of civil aviation in the country, unlike most ANSPs which are separated from safety regulation per ICAO standards.

Quotable Quotes

“Aircraft are separated by a distance of three nautical miles as they approach airports and five nautical miles when en-route. . . . Do you know why? Because that is what it has always been. In a fascinating paper by the official FAA historian, it is clear that we use these distances for no good reason whatsoever. To add insult to injury, so immutable have these distances become that it is almost impossible to imagine the safety case required to change them. . . . Prior to World War II, before the invention and application in civil aviation of radar, we used these separation distances. But in a great tradition of air transport, we didn’t let the introduction of technology get in the way. When radar was introduced after WWII, we kept on using three miles for terminal movements . . . . Everyone was comfortable with a three-mile approach because it was calculated that three miles was the distance a DC-3 flew in the time it took another DC-3 to clear the runway ahead of it. So as you can see, it is an ideal distance to use today. It is the aviation equivalent of mandating speed limits on the road by reference to the Model T Ford.”
--Andrew Charlton, “UMVs, Unmanned Metro Vehicles Arrive, but Where Is the Outrage?” Aviation Intelligence Reporter, December 2011

“With one aircraft, 4-D is a walk in the park—you just need an aircraft with an FMS [flight management system] that can get it to a specific location at a specific time, and get it there by the most efficient route. With multiple aircraft in the air, it’s a very complex problem. That’s where the need for infrastructure comes in. Everybody in the airspace needs to become a node on the network.”
--Bob Witwer, Honeywell Aerospace, “Unchain the System,” by Graham Wawwick, Aviation Week, July 18/25, 2011

“The NextGen [Implementation] Plan is part of an effort to wrap ATC modernization into the FAA’s vision ‘to reach the next level of safety, efficiency, environmental responsibility, and global leadership.’ The global leadership part is debatable, because many air navigation service providers (ANSPs) around the world are in much more advanced stages of ATC modernization. In the U.S., NextGen funding remains hung up in FAA reauthorization legislation, which has been extended 19 times and remains bogged down by legislators’ incessant penchant for adding burdensome special-interest riders onto the legislation. Many ANSPs in other regions are funded through user fees, which might explain why they are able to adopt new technology more quickly, but that’s an entirely different issue.”
--Matt Thurber, “NextGen Benefits Are Coming, Slowly but Surely,” AIN Online, June 29, 2011

“I believe the quality of our airspace should be considered as critical an asset as our motorways and our coastline. So on the back of that concept, I’m keen to explore another concept—that of tiered levels of ANS [air navigation service] delivering real value to customers. I’m talking here about premium and economy class airspace: we package it and price it according to the demands of our customers. It’s the same philosophy airports use to sell slots—except that we’d be selling slots in the sky rather than on the ground. A low-cost ANSP model aligns to the more successful airlines’ business models, and they would simply on-charge according to the product being purchased. Using the airlines’ LCC model to develop a contestable airspace product for ANSPs will help future-proof our business, though I have no doubt it will take some very robust modeling and debate to turn this idea into a global reality.”
--Ed Sims, CEO of Airways New Zealand, “Using Crises to Drive Organizational Change,” Airspace, Quarter 4, 2011

“The question isn’t whether the FCC will allow LightSquared to proceed with its commercial roll-out now. With the DOD and the DOT mak[ing] a public announcement like this, all of the letters from all of the state legislators in the nation isn’t going to put enough pressure on the FCC to let planes fly into mountains and force millions of people to replace their GPS devices. No, folks at the FCC and the White House are going to start preparing for the congressional investigation into their decision to allow LightSquared to pursue this in the first place, along with all the connections between LightSquared, its parent Harbinger, and the Obama administration—an investigation that Sen. Charles Grassley has been pursuing all along.”
--Ed Morrissey, “LightSquared Flunks Again,” HOTAir Blog, Dec. 15, 2011


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


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