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Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #91

Forecasts even slower ATC growth, ANSP mergers in Europe, Congress’ NextGen mandates

Robert Poole
March 22, 2012

In this Issue:

FAA Forecast: Even Slower Growth in Air Traffic

Headlines about last month’s release of FAA’s annual 20-year Aerospace Forecast focused on slower growth in airline passengers: the billion annual passengers mark is not expected to be reached until 2024, rather than 2021 as in last year’s forecast. Missing from the popular news was the forecast numbers for air traffic control. They also reflect slower growth, as did last year’s compared with the previous year.

As I did last year, I’ve pulled out numbers from the new Forecast’s Table 32 (tower operations), Table 33 (TRACON operations), and Table 34 (Center IFR aircraft) as indicators of ATC activity levels. In the summary table below, I compared FAA’s projected numbers for 2032 with their estimates for 2012. To spare you a sea of numbers, I present just the ratio of the 2032 and 2012 figures.

2032 vs. 2012 ATC Activity Levels

Airlines

Air Taxi & Commuter

General Aviation

Military

Total

Tower Ops.

1.51

1.38

1.09

1.0

1.25

TRACON Ops.

1.51

1.40

1.08

1.0

1.30

Center IFR Aircraft

1.54

1.46

1.19

1.0

1.51

From the far-right column, we can see that over this 20-year period, FAA now expects tower operations to increase by only 25% (versus 36% in last year’s projections), TRACON operations by 30% (vs. 42% as of last year), and Center activity by 51% (vs. 58% last year). And last year’s numbers were all reductions from the previous year’s projections—for example, 20-year airline IFR Center growth was 94% in the 2010 Forecast, 76% in the 2011 one, and just 54% in the 2012 Forecast.

Even more dramatic is the comparison of this year’s 20-year projections with actual ATC activity in 2000, the busiest year ever for US air traffic. The table below uses the same format as the previous one, but the ratios are 2032 vs. 2000 (a 32-year projection).

2032 vs. 2000 ATC Activity Levels

Airlines

Air Taxi & Commuter

General Aviation

Military

Total

Tower Ops.

1.29

1.18

0.70

0.91

0.91

TRACON Ops.

1.21

1.15

0.68

0.68

0.95

Center IFR Aircraft

1.56

1.61

0.88

0.53

1.35

Thus, compared to the busiest year in U.S. aviation history, the FAA’s latest Forecast projects slightly less tower and TRACON activity in 2032, and only 35% more en-route activity. What especially pulls down the overall numbers is the shrinkage of general aviation and military aviation to significantly less than they were back in 2000. Only airlines and air-taxi/commuters show significant growth over this longer span of time.

When NextGen was first conceived, early in the 2000s, overall ATC activity was expected to at least double (and some even said triple) within 20 to 25 years. That was clearly an over-reaction to the boom years of the late 1990s. I still think there are ample reasons to proceed with the dramatic revamping of air traffic management represented by NextGen and its counterparts in Europe and elsewhere. Even the 51% growth in Center activity in the 2012 Forecast represents growth that the current system could not handle cost-effectively. And because the TRACON figures are aggregates, they don’t highlight the strains on some of the most congested airspace above the largest metro areas. In addition, if implemented with an emphasis on productivity gains, there will be long-term cost savings (e.g., in ATC cost per flight hour) as well as fuel consumption and emission reductions thanks to direct routings, reduced noise exposure due to RNP approaches and departures, etc.

There is no longer a credible case for advocating NextGen because of a “doubling or tripling” of air traffic in the next 20 or 25 years. The temptation now will be for various parties to accept further FAA delays in implementing vital NextGen building blocks, using these projections as a rationale to keep kicking the can down the road.

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ANSP Mergers and Functional Airspace Blocks

One of the main goals of the Single European Sky (SES) is to reduce the high cost of air traffic control that stems from Europe’s vast over-supply of en-route control centers. That’s because each of the 27 EU member countries has its own air navigation service provider (ANSP), and each divides its airspace up into a number of flight information regions (FIRs), each with its own center. A key component of the planned reform is therefore the creation of “functional airspace blocks” (FABs) that transcend national borders and provide only as many centers as are truly needed. The 27 member governments have agreed on nine FABs, and have committed to having them organized by the end of 2012. But while all nine exist, mostly on paper, there are few signs of any serious plans to consolidate centers.

IATA’s director for industry charges, Hemant Mistry, told Aviation Week earlier this month that IATA “sees little that is significant in terms of infrastructure rationalization or opportunities for that [to occur].” Adds Eurocontrol Director General David McMillan, “Finding the right mechanisms [for ANSPs] to act as one [entity] is proving quite challenging.” He notes that each ANSP has its own charging system, rate structure, accounting system, as well as its own cost structure, union agreements, etc.

Still, there are discussions going on about possible joint ventures and even mergers of ANSPs, which could lead to the kind of rationalization of airspace and centers intended by the FAB vision. The largest FAB is FABEC, which includes the ANSPs of Germany, France, Belgium Luxemburg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, but that is not where the action is, at least for now. For that, you have to look at some of the smaller groupings in northern Europe. The first FAB to present a detailed integration plan to the European Commission is NEFAB (Estonia, Finland, Latvia, and Norway). Nearby, the ANSPs of Denmark and Sweden have incorporated a joint-venture company called NUAC, which is aiming to be certified as a full-fledged air traffic provider by July 1st of this year. It will take over and provide integrated upper-airspace ATC for the two countries using (initially) three en-route centers. Even more visionary is a plan that so far exists only on paper for a much larger integrated provider called Borealis. As currently conceived, it would be a joint effort of NEFAB, NUAC, and the FAB of the U.K. and Ireland. 

I was not aware of the Borealis effort when I wrote a commentary article last fall for Air Traffic Management’s first-quarter 2012 issue. In “Crossing the Border,” I suggested that FABs would fail to rationalize European airspace and centers unless there were a significant number of ANSP mergers and acquisitions. In addition, I suggested that this would be unlikely as long as each EU government insisted on regulating the ANSP operating within its airspace; that would not work if there ended up being five ANSPs regulated by 27 countries!

As I was completing that article, news reports in Germany and Britain disclosed that Germany’s ANSP—DFS—was seriously interested in acquiring an ownership stake in the UK provider, NATS, which the UK government plans to offer sometime this year. The same Air Traffic Management issue that includes my opinion piece also carries an article based on an interview with Peter Read, chairman of Airline Group—the consortium of UK-based airlines that owns 42% of NATS. Airline Group’s initial response to the government’s plan to sell some or all of its 49% stake was negative, but the consortium now seems receptive to the possibility of NATS acquiring part-ownership. Read points to a history of DFS/NATS cooperation on airspace issues, seeing overlapping ownership as furthering the Single European Sky objective. “FABs are not meaningful at the moment,” he told ATM. “Everyone needs to move to a much more radical merging of operations and a higher level of cooperation between sovereign territories.” By contrast, at present, “where there is an FAB, I would suggest there is a very high degree of cosmetic appearances, evidence of which is the low level of progress in consolidating and stripping out major layers of costs.”

If DFS does buy a large stake in NATS and the NATS-Ireland FAB eventually joins NUAC and NEFAB to create Borealis, would DFS and NATS have the clout to bring about consolidation and rationalization of Northern European airspace? If so, the model will be in place for the rest of Europe’s FABs to emulate.

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ANSPs’ In-House Technology Development

So far this month, two news releases have crossed my screen with a common theme: a leading air navigation service provider has agreed to sell technology it developed in-house to another ANSP. In the first such case DFS—the German ANSP—announced the sale of its fusion and flight-tracking system to Nav Canada. The second news release reported Nav Canada’s sale of a suite of data management technology to the Civil Aviation Department of Hong Kong.

The DFS system fuses surveillance information from radar, ADS-B, multilateration systems, and video. It will replace Nav Canada’s existing radar data processor at all seven area control centers across the country. In turn, Nav Canada’s four-part system will provide the data management system to manage and display Hong Kong’s ATC information. It consists of the real-time NAVCANInfo system to drive controller displays, using three subsystems: Management Information Display System, Collaborative Decision Making Gateway, and ATC Data Network.

This kind of thing has been going on for more than a decade, as the larger ANSPs opt to develop some new technologies in-house. Nav Canada’s release on purchasing the DFS system cites it as consistent with the company’s policy of “avoiding duplicate development by purchasing proven technology which can be quickly implemented in its own operating environment.” But these technology flows go in both directions.

Back in 2003 Nav Canada successfully marketed its in-house Integrated Information Display System/Extended Computer Display System (IIDS/EXCDS) to the UK’s NATS, which installed it in the control towers at Gatwick, Heathrow, and Stansted Airports. That system was developed in-house and became operational at major Canadian control towers starting in 1998. It provided controllers with touch-screen displays and eliminated paper flight strips. Previously, Nav Canada sold NATS a version of its Gander Automated Air Traffic System (GAATS), which became the basis for NATS’ Shanwick Automated Air Traffic System (SAATS). By using basically the same system, the two ANSPs have made air traffic management across the North Atlantic more seamless. Data communications and ADS-B are also being jointly implemented across the North Atlantic, in an effort involving NATS, Nav Canada, Iceland’s Isavia, and Denmark’s Naviair (for some of the Greenland ground stations).

Airservices Australia pioneered the development of a ground-based augmentation system (GBAS) to replace legacy ILSs with more-accurate GPS-based landing systems. In this case, the ANSP then partnered with Honeywell to market the system globally, with Honeywell handing North America and Europe and Airservices covering Asia and the Pacific. Honeywell got the system certified by the FAA so that it can be used in this country.

Going even further back, when Airways New Zealand needed a new oceanic system, they adapted a system developed by another ANSP. Subsequently, when the FAA decided to upgrade its own oceanic system, in the program called ATOP, the winning bidder (in 2000) was Lockheed Martin, whose bid was a proposal to customize the Airways system. ATOP ended up requiring far more customization than either FAA or Lockheed Martin had expected, and ended up becoming operational years late and considerably over budget. NATS encountered no such problems when Nav Canada helped it adapt GAATS to become SAATS.

There is a marked contrast to the way in which self-supporting ANSPs develop and procure new ATC technology and the way FAA does it. This is another demonstration that “user-pay means user-say” really does make a difference.

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Congress Tries to Redesign NextGen Implementation

With what I’m sure are good intentions, Congress has attempted (in the FAA reauthorization bill) to speed up the implementation of certain NextGen elements. Specifically, the legislation orders the FAA to do the following:

As one who embraces the paradigm shift from 20th-century air traffic control to 21st Century air traffic management, I’m all in favor of ADS-B/In, GBAS, and RNP. Along with digital controller-pilot datalink, they are all key building blocks for the transformed system we seek. Those few in Congress who know enough about aviation to understand what these systems can do undoubtedly think they are helping speed the transition by imposing these mandates on the FAA and on aircraft operators. I disagree.

For example, the aviation experts on the 200-member Aviation Rulemaking Committee appointed to advise FAA on ADS-B/In spent two years studying the issue and released their report last fall. The ARC concluded that because FAA has not yet defined procedures for how ADS-B/In would be used, nor certified the needed on-board equipment for mass production, it is premature to set an equipage deadline. Second, using existing information to assess the likely business case for such a mandate, the ARC estimated that it would take 18 years before the operational savings equaled the cost of equipage. Thus, Congress’s ADS-B/In mandate looks like a classic unfunded mandate, imposing costs far in excess of benefits.

The ARC report did hint that a “best-equipped/best-served” approach would be more practical, but that approach relies on incentives, rather than a mandate, to spur equipage. And that would be in keeping with developments actually going on in aviation, such as the joint Airbus/Boeing/Eurocontrol project called ATSAW (airborne traffic situational awareness), under which 25 airliners from British Airways, Delta, Swiss International, US Airways, and Virgin Atlantic are being equipped with ADS-B/In to make use of the North Atlantic ADS-B network being installed by Nav Canada, Isavia, Naviair, and NATS. On Feb.7th, a Swiss A-330 made the first scheduled commercial trans-Atlantic flight using an ADS-B/In cockpit display of other air traffic, flying from Zurich to Montreal. Another example is UPS having equipped its entire fleet with ADS-B/In displays and software to facilitate merging and spacing on approaches to their logistics hub at Louisville.

The problem Congress is trying to address with mandates is not fixable with mandates. An Aviation Daily article last fall was headlined, “Senate Adds ERAM Funding, Tells FAA to Improve Management.” But you don’t get improved management by giving orders. You get improved management by changing the governance and funding model, preferably to one in which the aviation customers are the ones who must be listened to, not an assemblage of well-meaning but non-expert politicians. More than 50 countries have enacted that kind of ATC governance and funding reform over the past 20 years. But Congress plods along in the same old way, still trying to be the ATC system’s board of directors.

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A Bizarre Argument for Fuel Taxes to Pay for ATC

AVweb, an aviation site I peruse occasionally, posts a “Letter of the Week” from among the comments it receives from readers. At the end of January, the letter they selected was titled “The Case for Fuel Taxes”—as opposed to some other kind of charge for air traffic control services.

The letter started out with a bold assertion: “The ‘user’ of the ATC system is not the airline or airplane, but the person traveling. The person needs ATC to get him or her safely to his or her destination. If you want to charge per flight, you should charge per passenger on that flight. In that case, an airliner carrying 200 passengers should pay more than a corporate jet carrying four passengers. In fact, it should pay 50 times more.” Letter writer Reid Sayre went on to assert that since “a whole new bureaucracy” would have to be developed to charge passengers, the second-best solution is fuel taxes.

There are two huge problems with those assertions. To begin with the obvious, it’s the plane that needs to be kept safe from colliding with other planes, mountains, etc. In all the rest of the world, this simple fact is recognized in law and policy, which is why governments and ANSPs worldwide charge planes—not passengers—for air navigation services. Planes that use little or no ATC services don’t pay such fees, no matter how few or how many people may be on board. High-performance planes that use a lot of ATC services are charged for those services.

And as it happens, paying for ATC per passenger is the cockamamie way the FAA does it now, as required by Congress. It’s called the ticket tax, and it does not require any large bureaucracy to collect. It’s simply added onto the ticket price, kept track of by airline computers, and remitted periodically in a lump sum to the U.S. Treasury. But airlines have learned to game that system, by making all kinds of services that used to be included in the ticket price into extra-cost options (food, extra legroom, carry-on bag, etc.). So a declining fraction of what people actually pay for air travel ends up getting taxed, which is why the Aviation Trust Fund is in big trouble. Moreover, the ticket tax system bears no relationship to the ATC services provided to the flight. The passengers on a Spirit 737 likely pay only half as much for their tickets as those on an American 737—but the two 737s receive identical ATC services. How is that fair?

As for shifting all ATC costs to a fuel tax, the DOT Inspector General’s Office analyzed that idea back in 2008 (“Use of the National Airspace System,” Report No. CR-2008-028, March 3, 2008). The incidence of cost responsibility, according to the analysis, would be little different from today’s system under which airlines pay ticket taxes and business and general aviation pay fuel taxes. For example, in long-haul nonstop markets, the current system ends up with air carriers on those routes paying 98.8% of the aviation taxes while accounting for 92.3% of the flight activity. Under a fuel tax system, the airlines’ share would decline marginally to 96.9%, while business and general aviation’s share would nearly triple, from the current 1.2% to 3.1%. That’s not what I would expect a GA advocate like reader Reid Sayre to be advocating.

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Upcoming Conference

Aviation Week 2012 NextGen Ahead Conference, April 23-25, Washington, DC, Marriott Metro Center. Details at: http://aviationweek.com/events/current/nextgen. (Bob Poole speaking)

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News Notes

FAA Planning VOR Reductions. The comment period closed March 7th on the FAA’s plan to reduce the legacy system of VOR facilities to a “minimal operational network” by 2020. The plan is part of the transition to NextGen, with “Area Navigation (RNAV) everywhere and Required Navigation Performance (RNP) where beneficial.” Because there is no comprehensive backup system for GPS either in place or planned, FAA will retain an “optimized network” of 20th-century navigation aids—DME stations and the minimum operational network of VORs--to ensure that in the event of a GPS failure, aircraft will still be able to navigate safely to an airport with an approach independent of GPS.

Another Use for WAM, in South Korea. The Republic of Korea Air Force has selected a Saab Sensis wide angle multilateration (WAM) system for surveillance in the vicinity of the Lotte World Tower, one of the world’s tallest skyscrapers now under construction in Seoul. The building is near Seoul Air Base, and the system will be used by Air Force controllers to monitor the airspace within 10 to 15 nautical miles of the structure. It will include a conflict-detection and alerting tool, the first operational deployment of this function in a WAM system.  Unlike radar, WAM has no moving parts; it provides surveillance using triangulation based on signals from an array of ground stations.

Two More ANSPs Join CANSO. The global membership organization for air navigation service providers has admitted two more ANSPs as full members. Indonesia’s Angkasa Pura I provides air navigation services in eastern Indonesia, as well as operating 13 airports and two cargo terminals. Also joining as a full member is Israel Airport Authority, a public corporation that provides air navigation service and operates six civil and two military airports. The Civil Air Navigation Services Organization, founded in 1996, represents ANSPs responsible for 85% of the world’s airspace.

New PBN Routes in Brazil. As of this month, Brazil’s DECEA introduced new air routes for travel among Sao Paulo, Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, Vitoria, and Rio de Janeiro. The change provides more direct routes and parallel airways in this region, to be consistent with the introduction of performance-based navigation (PBN) in April 2013. In addition to PBN, DECEA will introduce dynamic sectorization, in which size of airspace sectors will be adjusted to the level of traffic demand.

German Towers Not Devolved—Correction. In a News Note last month, I commented on the strike by apron-control staff at Frankfurt Airport, owned by Fraport. Based on a news article that said some of the strikers worked “in the actual air traffic control center,” I concluded that the reporter must have meant the Frankfurt control tower, which implied that Fraport itself runs the tower. Subsequent news articles, including a Bloomberg story on Feb. 28th, reported that the striking ground-controllers’ union had asked control tower controllers who work for DFS, the German ANSP, to join their strike. That action was prohibited by a labor court ruling. Thus, my original interpretation was incorrect; control towers in Germany are operated by DFS.

FAA Software Correction. In last month’s article about the FAA’s troubled project that is replacing the obsolete HOST software at en-route centers with ERAM, I reported that HOST uses ancient JOVIAL and BASIC software. A reader pointed out that it is not BASIC, but IBM Basic Assembler Language. I apologize for the error.

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Quotable Quotes

“ANSPs are responsible for the efficiency and performance of the aviation market. As a network industry, serving a well-functioning and competitive market, ATM [air traffic management] should allow airlines to grow and enjoy economies of scale. The reality, however, is that the provision of ATM services in Europe remains too fragmented—inspired by national monopolies, confined by national borders, and subject to sovereignty principles. . . . Airspace blocks depart from national boundaries but confirm borders of flight information regions, the ICAO sovereign airspaces. National priorities still predominate and prevent SES [single European sky] to become a reality. It is undeniable that, in an ideal scenario, regardless of legacy constraints, FABs [functional airspace blocks] would have been defined differently, including their geographical shape, airspace design, and sector structure. . . . Institutional and organizational changes should go hand in hand with the reform. . . . Existing governance deficiencies should be removed through a clearer separation of roles between public authorities and ANSPs.”
—Siim Kallas, Vice President, European Commission, “The Single European Sky Is at a Turning Point,” Airspace, Quarter 1, 2012

“[R]ather than forming into geographically based units, ANSPs should have the flexibility to offer services that meet their customers’ requirements, such as offering trajectory management from the airport of departure to the airport of arrival. The city pair approach to ANSP services and technology implementation can be successful and will be a significant change to our current paradigm. There are a number of areas where this might be of particular interest. Long-haul trips across many FIRs [Flight Information Regions], for instance a flight between the UK and New Zealand, or trans-Atlantic flights between the USA and Europe, are examples of such areas. Offering airlines integrated management of their trajectory, with an agreed time of arrival, will give certainty and schedule reliability to our customers.”
—Neil Planzer, Vice President ATM, Boeing Flight Services, “Towards Competition in Air Traffic Management Services,” Airspace, Quarter 1, 2012

“NATS is the poster boy for commercial thinking within the ANSP owners—it is both corporatized and partially privatized already. Other ANSP owners—‘governments’ to the likes of you and me—might well be looking at NATS. The thought of selling some or all of the equity they hold in such prime assets might just be on the agenda in these cash-strapped, austerity measure-driven times. Economic reality may soon drive all sorts of realities.”
—Andrew Charlton, “Great Expectations,” Air Traffic Management, Issue 1, 2012.

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


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