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Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #94

Rocky start for U.S. facility consolidation, Assessing required time of arrival, Office of Special Counsel misses the point

Robert Poole
June 26, 2012

In this issue:

Space-Based ADS-B Competition Heats Up

As I reported in the April issue of this newsletter, two companies are moving forward to provide ADS-B services using satellites to cover the 90% of the earth’s surface where it is not feasible to provide ADS-B ground stations—the oceans, polar regions, and mountainous terrain. June brought announcements from both companies.

On June 13th, Alaska-based ADS-B Technologies announced the results of its first tests of its ADS-B Link Automation System (ALAS). The April tests involved successful tracking of two aircraft “a few hundred feet off the ground in a 4,000-foot deep mountain pass,” sometimes flying in close formation. The ALAS system will use the Globalstar constellation of 24 low-earth-orbit satellites, and will work with both of the signal formats in use by the U.S. ADS-B system: 1090ES and UAT. ALAS has been under development since 2009, and the company says it expects full certification by 2014.

Several days later there was big news from the other system. Iridium Communications announced that it has formed a joint venture company called Aireon, with partners Nav Canada, ITT Exelis, and Harris Corp., to develop and operate its system. As noted in my previous article, this system will involve putting ADS-B transceivers on Iridium’s forthcoming 66-satellite constellation called Iridium Next, to be launched from 2015 to 2017. Harris Corporation will supply those “hosted payloads” for the communications satellites. Exelis will serve as the systems engineering provider for Aireon, based in part on its experience installing the network of U.S. ADS-B ground stations, whose deployment will be completed late next year.

In addition to being a partner in Aireon, Nav Canada intends to be a major customer, as operator of the world’s second-largest air navigation system by volume—and also having one of the largest amounts of airspace (polar, North Pacific, and North Atlantic) lacking radar coverage. The North Atlantic is the busiest oceanic airspace in the world, and it is Nav Canada’s first priority for Aireon service. The ANSP estimates that full ADS-B service on the North Atlantic will generate $100 million per year in customer fuel saving.

Aireon is being advised by an Advisory Board chaired by former DOT Secretary Norm Mineta; also advising the joint venture are Fieldstone Partners and Nexa Capital Partners.

With all that clout behind Aireon, does competitor ADS-B Technologies have offsetting advantages? Two significant points of difference between the two are the way each uses satellites and the signal formats. To take the latter first, Aireon is offering service only for 1090 MHz Extended Squitter (ES) users, which includes all airlines, while ADS-B Technologies offers both 1090ES and the UAT format preferred by most general aviation aircraft operators. Second, ADS-B Technologies requires no payloads on the satellite constellation. It plans to use the Globalstar satellites like mirrors, simply retransmitting the signal received from aircraft to a Globalstar ground station. That should be less costly than a system that requires the construction and launch of payloads on 66 Iridium satellites. Which system will perform better remains to be seen.

Overall, the advent of space-based ADS-B offers a major increase in air safety and air traffic management, by permitting precision, real-time tracking of flights anywhere on the globe. And since competition generally works better than monopoly, I’m glad to see two competing firms gearing up to serve this market.

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Remote Towers Moving Closer to Implementation

Though it received almost no coverage in U.S. aviation media, last fall Saab’s second Remote Tower Symposium took place in Malmo, Sweden. About 70 people from a number of countries gathered to hear presentations and to observe a pilot program demonstration. The latter took place in the Remote Tower Center in Malmo, which is connected to Angelholm Airport, 100 km away. The Center is built like a dome, providing a 360º view, via high-definition video, of what a controller in an actual tower would see. That facility has been in operation for more than a year, stimulating worldwide interest in the remote tower concept. Another trial is under way in Australia. And earlier this month AVINOR, the Norwegian ANSP, announced a contract with Saab to conduct a remote tower trial in that country. AVINOR controllers at Bodo Center will provide non-radar tower services to the heliport at Vaeroy Airport. Saab is also discussing the idea with the Airports Authority of India and that country’s Director General Civil Aviation.

In a presentation at the symposium in Malmo, Dr. Anders Adrem of Quartz+Co. presented a business case for remote towers. The problem to be addressed is the low level of activity at many smaller airports, which leads to two difficulties. First, many airports whose safety could be improved by the addition of a tower do not get one, because both the high capital costs and the high staffing costs cannot be justified given the low traffic levels. Second, many small airports that already have towers suffer from low productivity of controllers, and are at risk of losing their towers due to rising pressures for cost-reduction in air traffic management. Thus, the business case is based on creating a central facility to which real-time information is transmitted, equivalent to what would be available with an on-site tower. Each work group at the center is dedicated to a number of specific airports, with one or more work stations. The number of staffed positions can be varied throughout the day and night, to match overall traffic levels. Anders included graphs and charts from business-case studies, showing the kinds of efficiency gains possible at low-traffic-density airports managed remotely.

The equipment needed at the airport depends on what kind of ATC services are to be provided. For non-radar towers, the basic package would be various cameras, Automated Weather Observation System (AWOS), and Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS). For radar (or equivalent) towers, the package would also include multilateration (MLAT) and ADS-B, to provide radar-like coverage at lower cost.

During the last several months, two U.S. communities without airport control towers have discovered the remote tower concept--Beckley, WV and Pikesville, KY. In Beckley, the Raleigh County Airport Authority has commissioned a remote-tower study from Melbourne, FL-based Quadrex Aviation LLC, with the final report expected in September. In Pikesville, the driving force is Pike County Judge-Executive Wayne Rutherford, who has recommended Quadrex Aviation to the County Airport Authority. Both of these cases would be for the non-radar-tower version of a remote tower.

Saab has produced a three-minute video explaining the remote tower concept, and it’s well worth watching: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gqv8EECMXJM.

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Facility Consolidation Off to a Rocky Start

One of the key premises underpinning NextGen is that with today’s technology, it is no longer necessary to have ATC facilities located beneath the airspace they are managing. Nor do airspace sectors have to be of fixed size, rather than being dynamic, based on the level of flight activity (which varies not only by time of day but also by time of year and from year to year as airlines expand or downsize hubs, etc.). A concise way of representing this is that next-generation air traffic can be managed “from anywhere, to anywhere.”

That premise implies large-scale facility consolidation and the kind of “blended airspace” that I wrote about in the April issue. Done right, such consolidation should produce large savings in capital costs, due to not having to replace one-for-one all 188 of the FAA’s aging Centers and TRACONs. Perhaps even more important, the combination of consolidated facilities and flexible airspace should produce large personnel savings, by significantly increasing controller productivity.

Historically, consolidating U.S. ATC facilities has been difficult. Controllers naturally resist being required to relocate, and members of Congress naturally oppose closing of even small ATC facilities in their districts, just as they do military base closings. But somebody on the House Aviation Subcommittee apparently understands the importance of this issue, because the FAA reauthorization bill that was finally enacted in February mandated that the agency produce a National Facilities Realignment and Consolidation Report to Congress. But the bill set a deadline of 120 days after enactment of the legislation.

Had the agency not begun working on the issue previously, four months would have been a ridiculously short time frame. But subcommittee staffers knew that back in September 2010 the FAA had created a NextGen Future Facilities Special Program Management Office (SPMO), reporting directly to the Air Traffic Organization’s COO and to the FAA Deputy Administrator, to develop a large-scale realignment and consolidation plan based on the envisioned capabilities of NextGen technology and procedures. The basic concept was approved by the FAA’s Joint Resources Council. As described by a recent DOT Inspector General report, it includes two new types of facility, that would largely replace today’s Centers and TRACONs:

Unfortunately, this high-level effort, with the clout to cut across the various silos within the agency, was downgraded last fall. The Future Facilities program is no longer the responsibility of an SPMO. It is now just a function within the ATO’s Tech Ops organization. And instead of fleshing out an overall facility consolidation plan based on the above concept, Tech Ops is focusing all its efforts on what may be the most difficult piece of the program: creating the initial ICF in the New York/New Jersey area.

According to the testimony of controllers’ union president Paul Rinaldi at the Aviation Subcommittee’s May 31 hearing on this subject, “The Future Facilities plan, as originally developed, was rejected for political and financial reasons. The original plan would have taken a segmented approach to realignment, creating a multi-year process costing hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Instead, the program was directed to abandon the segmented process and narrow their scope to only New York facilities, leaving the FAA without the desired comprehensive plan for addressing realignments moving forward.” I’ve heard basically the same assessment from other well-connected sources.

And that explains why the ATO’s Chief Operating Officer, David Grizzle, in his testimony at the May 31 hearing essentially told Congress the agency would not be delivering a comprehensive, long-term plan by the required June 14th date.  Instead, “the plan submitted to Congress pursuant to the legislation will only cover the time period into the future for which we have reasonably reliable visibility. As a result, the plan will go out about 5-8 years.”

This represents a huge missed opportunity, given the age and deterioration of Centers and TRACONs. It makes little sense to replace one-for-one the 21 Centers (average age 49 years) and 167 TRACONs (average age 28 years) if most of those facilities are going to be shut down and their functions transferred to a much smaller number of NextGen facilities. One of the virtues of a complete consolidation plan is that it will give controllers and managers plenty of advance notice about whether and when they may need to relocate, enabling them to know whether their retirement date occurs prior to their facility’s shutdown and, in the case of newer hires, whether it might make more sense to rent rather than buy a home, if relocation is in prospect within, say, 5 or 10 years.

For years I’ve worried that when we finally got to the point of planning the NextGen facility consolidation, the main problem would be Congress. It’s dismaying to see that the first problem has arisen within the FAA itself.

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Assessing Required Time of Arrival Technology

Several years ago this newsletter ran a guest article by Michael Baiada, an airline pilot whose second career has been developing a system for managing the flow of aircraft to achieve a pre-defined Required Time of Arrival. The idea is to improve the quality of airline service, defined by an increased probability of on-time arrivals, by making small in-flight speed adjustments. It’s a step toward what some have dubbed the Holy Grail of next-generation air traffic management: 4-D trajectories (in which every flight in the airspace follows a precise trajectory defined by its position in three-dimensional space plus the fourth dimension of time).

Delta was Baiada’s first airline customer for his system called Attila; it has been using that system to manage arrivals into Atlanta since 2006. When I interviewed Baiada recently, I learned that Delta has subsequently implemented the system for its hubs at Detroit and Minneapolis/St. Paul, as well. In today’s fiscally stressed airline environment, that struck me as evidence that the system must be producing at least some of the promised benefits (fuel savings, fewer missed connections, etc.). But I was also impressed to learn that a second airline, US Airways, has also implemented the system, for its hub at Charlotte (CLT). And so has its regional partner, PSA.

One of my original concerns with Attila was that individual-airline implementation would not optimize overall arrivals congestion reduction at major hubs. So I was pleased to learn that Baiada’s company, ATH, has developed a version of the system aimed at air navigation service providers (ANSPs). Moreover, the FAA has installed what ATH dubs Attila Exchange (as opposed to the airline-specific Airline Attila) at CLT. That system acts as an “honest broker” to optimize the flow of all aircraft approaching a hub. For each flight, airlines electronically submit their requested RTA (required time of arrival) and, using procedures similar to those used in collaborative decision-making, the system “equitably allocates” arrival RTAs to each airline, to be relayed by its dispatcher to the en-route aircraft via airline data-link. (This will presumably change once controller-pilot data-link is finally implemented as part of Next Gen.)

Attila Exchange has been in service at CLT since June 2011. And its performance has been evaluated by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University under an FAA contract (it’s Task J, “Aircraft Arrival Metering System,” of ERAU’s overall Florida Test Bed project). The evaluation period covered June through December 2011, though the system continues to be used at CLT. But thus far the report has not been released, and I was unable to find anything else about the project or the report on the FAA website. I hope this report is released soon, so that we can all learn how much of a difference this kind of system can make.

One cautionary note, however. In an article in The Journal of Air Traffic Control, Summer 2011, Lance Sherry of the Center for Air Transportation Systems at George Mason University summarized the Center’s recent research on airline passenger trip reliability. Their modeling found that actual flight delays account for only 41% of total passenger trip delays, with other causes being flight cancellations and missed connections. And a key finding was that “the way airlines design their networks has a significant impact on total passenger trip delay,” including such factors as the ratio between direct and connecting itineraries, the time between banks of flights at hubs, and the target load factor. These can all play significant roles in determining passenger trip reliability. They are certainly things airlines should consider tweaking, along with making use of tools such as Airline Attila.

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Office of Special Counsel Misses Structural Problems at FAA

Early last month the media were full of stories about the federal whistle-blower agency—the Office of Special Counsel—sending a report to the White House calling attention to the very high prevalence of whistle-blower complaints filed by employees of the FAA. Whereas the average federal agency generates about five such complaints per year, in the years since 2007 the FAA has averaged 17 per year. Moreover, OSC’s report to the White House expressed concern about “a pattern of insufficient responses by the FAA”—either taking a very long time to take corrective action or making insufficient changes. “The FAA frequently delays taking necessary steps to address problems after they have been identified and even after the allegations have been confirmed through an investigation,” said Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, in the Washington Post’s May 8th story on the issue.

The OSC’s report focused on seven specific cases to illustrate its point. Five of the seven concerned air traffic control, including controller misbehavior at New York Center, unsafe routing of planes departing from Teterboro, inconsistent rules for landings on parallel runways at Detroit, and unauthorized deviations of foreign aircraft into U.S. airspace near Puerto Rico.

What accounts for the FAA’s far higher extent of whistle-blower complaints, and its record of late and sometimes inadequate responses? The OSC report did not attempt to answer that question, and both it and the media reports all called for tougher oversight, the usual conventional wisdom. But I think at least part of the answer is due to the FAA’s built-in conflict between being the aviation safety regulator and the operator of the ATC system. Instead of being regulated at arm’s length by the safety regulator (as are airlines, private pilots, etc.), the ATC system is part of the FAA family. That fact, I believe, has led to an organizational culture in which, for example, airline pilot fatigue got far more attention than the equally serious problem of controller fatigue.

The OSC report is yet another wake-up call to Congress and the U.S. DOT that there is a structural problem at the FAA. It’s a structural problem that nearly all other developed countries have addressed in recent decades by separating their ATC system from their aviation safety regulator. The separated ATC entities are now known as ANSPs—air navigation service providers. They are now regulated for safety at arm’s length, just like airlines, business jets, airframe producers, engine producers, airports, and overhaul facilities. Organizational separation of ATC from aviation safety regulation is also prescribed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), to which the United States is a signatory.

This reform is long overdue. Maybe the next Congress will take it seriously.

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News Notes

FAA Market Survey re Equipage Incentives. Following a public meeting on FAA’s new authority to proceed with a public-private effort to provide incentives for aircraft operators to equip their planes with NextGen capabilities (such as data-link and ADS-B), the agency has released a Market Survey to parties interested in participating in such a program. It consists of 10 questions. Responses, limited to 10 pages, are due via email by July 11, 2012, to dennis.scanlon@faa.gov. More details are available at: www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/equipage_incentives.

Controller-Pilot Data Link in Canada. Canada’s air navigation service provider Nav Canada has begun domestic use of controller-pilot data-link communications instead of voice radio. NavCanada has been using CPDLC in its oceanic airspace for a decade, but last December marked its first use in Canada’s domestic airspace, in the Montreal air control center. The initial use was for hand-offs of a flight from one center’s airspace to another. In January, CPDLC was expanded to the Edmonton ACC, making the service available in about two-thirds of Canada’s domestic airspace so far. Extensions to other ACCs are likely later this year.

Progress on Wake Vortex Separation. Aviation Daily recently reported two developments aimed at making aircraft separation less arbitrary when it comes to the impact of wake vortices. AeroTech Research has received a U.S. patent for a real-time wake vortex encounter detection and reporting system. If flight testing verifies simulation results, the information generated by such a system could be used with an ADS-B based merging and spacing system to adjust spacing between planes based on actual atmospheric conditions (e.g., when winds cause wakes to dissipate rapidly). And Avtech Sweden has received a Swedish government grant to study a performance-based approach to wake vortex separation standards, to be used in advanced systems such as NextGen and Europe’s Single European Sky.

CANSO 2012 Report and Directory Online. The Civil Air Navigation Services Organization has released the 2012 edition of its annual Air Traffic Management Report and Directory. In addition to 100 pages of articles by industry leaders, it includes air traffic statistics comparing 2011 with 2010, ANSP performance data, a directory of CANSO’s full members (ANSPs) and associate members (industry suppliers), and background information on CANSO. It is available at www.canso.org/yearbook.

India Still Considering ANSP Spinoff. The Economic Times reported on May 17 that the Airports Authority of India is still reviewing the recommendation of a 2008 study that its air traffic management functions be “hived off” into a stand-alone ANSP, consistent with ICAO recommendations. This was first proposed in 1976 and was recommended again by the Naresh Chandra Committee of 2004. Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh has told Parliament that the government has decided to do this, so as to focus the new organization’s undivided attention on modernizing the system to keep pace with the huge growth of air traffic in India.

Dubai Airport Implements Surface Movement Guidance System. Dubai Air Navigation Service this month approved the startup of an advanced surface movement guidance and control system (A-SMGCS) at Dubai International Airport. The system will fuse surveillance data from a Saab Sensis surface multilateration system and other sources for use by the A-SMGCS provided by Indra Navia. Dubai International is the Middle East’s busiest airport.

HungaroControl to Manage Air Traffic Over Kosovo. NATO on June 19 announced that Hungary’s ANSP, HungaroControl, is the successful bidder to re-open the upper airspace over Kosovo. If all required conditions are met, the air navigation services will begin in spring 2013. The services will be provided remotely from HungaroControl’s new control center, which is set to open at the end of this year. (Hungary and Kosovo do not share a common border, being separated by Serbia.)

India Implementing Controller-Pilot Data-Link. GulfNews.com reports (June 21st) that the Airports Authority of India has begun trial operation of a system providing pre-departure clearance of aircraft via data-link rather than voice. Initial operations will be at Mumbai airport, with additional systems being installed at the airports in Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad.

Argentina’s ANSP Joins CANSO. DGCTA, which is the air navigation service provider for Argentina, has become a full member of CANSO, the global ANSP organization. This brings the total of full members (providers of air navigation services) to 73.

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Quotable Quote

“The bad news is that out of the $11 billion designated for modernization of the ATC system in February, only about one-third, or $4 billion, will likely be dedicated to NextGen programs and will require four years of annual congressional appropriations. Who in this room has any reasonable degree of confidence that we’re going to actually get the funds necessary to implement NextGen by 2020? . . . The private sector certainly has the capability and the capacity to make large multi-year financial commitments. It has the human and computational assets to perform on a large system-of-systems integration task. And it has the proven ability to attract capital to fuel investments in growth. However, to attract this investment from private-equity sources, a reasonable return will be expected for the risk taken. . . . [Without a new approach] we are doomed to hear the same luncheon keynote speech like this one every year for the next 10 years.”
—Clay Jones, CEO, Rockwell Collins, quoted in Bill Carey, “AIN Blog: Rockwell Collins CEO Urges New Approach to NextGen,” AINOnline, June 6, 2012

“I think it’s important to take a step back and realize just how complex and technologically sophisticated an achievement it is . . . that we, the traveling public, make it safely from departure gate to arrival gate day-in and day-out. It’s really quite impressive, especially considering that today’s air traffic network is based on systems developed more than 60 years ago. This is both good news (the system is resilient) and bad (the network is old). . . . Thankfully, though, innovation and technology are advancing at a rate faster than any previous generation thought possible. We now live in a world whose aviation technology needs are light-years ahead of those in which our current aviation systems were first implemented. The landscape has changed, and our aviation technology must change with it if we are to address the aviation challenges of tomorrow.”
—Hilary Kramer, “Building the Runway to the Skies of Tomorrow,” Forbes.com, May 22, 2012

“We welcome the European Commission’s efforts to push through the Single European Sky, but we are furious that the largest EU member states are simply not delivering. This fragmentation is ridiculous and unacceptable. The Commission must stand firm, rejecting every national performance plan that falls short of the EU-wide target. We will give them our full support in this initiative.”
—Christoph Franz, CEO, Lufthansa, quoted in Aimee Turner, “Airlines Vent Fury at European ANSPs,” Air Traffic Management online, May 24, 2012

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


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