Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #47

Topics include: aviation elder statesmen call for fundamental ATC reforms; business/personal jets and ATC congestion; backup for GPS getting closer; airlines' strange new funding proposal; and other news.

In this issue:

Elder Statesmen Challenge Congress to Go Beyond ATC Status Quo

In the wake of House and Senate reauthorization bills that do little more than tinker with ATC funding and governance, a group of former federal transportation officials and aviation trade organization heads has called on Congress to do more. In a Capitol building news conference on September 19th, former CAB chairman Alfred Kahn, former DOT Secretary Jim Burnley, and former FAA Administrator Langhorne Bond called for major institutional changes to facilitate the switch from manual, radar-based air-traffic control to semi-automated, GPS-based air traffic management. Joining them at the news conference were former National Business Aviation Association president Jonathan Howe, former National Air Transportation Association chairman Jim Haynes, and former president of Airports Council International-North America David Plavin. Three other colleagues, unable to attend the news conference, are Aaron Gellman (founde r of GRA, Inc.), Clint Oster (former research director of the Aviation Safety Commission), and James Wilding (former CEO of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority).

The group's statement referred to the now 10-year-old report of the National Civil Aviation Review Commission (commonly called the Mineta Commission) as a blueprint for reform that Congress has largely ignored. The FAA's Air Traffic Organization (ATO) was supposed to be funded directly by its users, and to be able to go to the capital markets to finance major modernization efforts. It was supposed to be run like a business, with a board of directors like any other high-tech business.

Hence, much of what the group recommends is that Congress implement the remainder of the Mineta Commission's recommendations. But in doing so, it makes one major change by calling for the separation of the ATO from the FAA, to become a separate, self-supporting entity within DOT. That way, it would be regulated for air safety at arm's length by the FAA. And it would be headed by a chief executive officer, not a chief operating officer. Its board would represent the various aviation stakeholder groups, rather than being the usual political appointees.

I worked with these outstanding leaders, recognizing that while they might not agree on every detail, they were in broad agreement on the direction that ATC reform should take. They shared my frustration that Congress was doing a nearly business-as-usual reauthorization of the FAA, with only the Senate bill taking a few modest steps in the direction of creating a proto-board and a small, bondable funding stream. My Reason Foundation colleagues made all the arrangements for the news conference. I hope the transportation trade media and members of Congress will pay attention to these much-needed inputs from some of the best leaders we've ever had in aviation.

You can find their complete statement at:

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VLJ Air Taxis Raise ATC Issues

Two start-up companies, DayJet and Linear Air, are both set to start air-taxi service this month using the new Eclipse 500, first of the very light jets (VLJs) to go into service. DayJet will begin with service among five small-size Florida cities, at prices dependent on how flexible you are as to departure times.

As a frequent flyer who's had his share of TSA headaches, delayed or cancelled airline flights, overcrowding, etc., I welcome this new form of competition, and I hope it succeeds. To the extent that it does, though, it will serve to exacerbate the already severe problems of our overloaded ATC system.

That's not what you will hear from the VLJ community, or from general aviation groups like AOPA and NBAA. The latter's Ed Bolen told an AP reporter recently that there will be no such problems because VLJs are "designed to take off and land at airports with little or no commercial activity." That very careful wording is intended to obscure some troubling facts.

As a recent review by the Government Accountability Office points out, the more the VLJ air-taxi model succeeds, the bigger the impact on ATC capacity and delays. First of all, the FAA estimates that the average VLJ in air-taxi service will fly about 1,500 hours per year, versus 1,200 as a fractionally owned jet or 350 hours as a corporate jet. Second, because VLJs have a lower climb rate and a lower cruising speed than airliners (whether regional jet or larger jets), their use "will increase the complexity of the airspace," and "controllers will segregate VLJ traffic from airline traffic if they travel in the same airspace." (GAO-07-1001, August 2007)

Third, what many of the articles about VLJ air taxi companies fail to emphasize is that companies like DayJet will actually offer two different types of service. An individual passenger can bid for service among the small cities in DayJet's network. But anyone willing to pay for all three passenger seats can charter the whole plane to fly anywhere she wants to—say, Orlando to Atlanta. Nobody--not DayJet's Ed Iacobucci or NBAA's Ed Bolen or anyone else--at this point has a clue which form of service will prove more popular. Just because a VLJ can fly into small airports like Gainesville does not means that's the only kind of place it will serve. And trust me: Linear Air and DayJet and Pogo will go where their customers want them to go, not where the Eclipse was "designed to land."

The GAO team reviewed two recent studies on the impact of VLJs on the ATC system's already strained capacity, one by NASA and the other from MIT. The former concluded that the increase in commercial airline delays would be as little as 1.3% if VLJs operate only at non-hub airports—but as much as 9.8% if they don't. ("The Effects of Very Light Jet Air Taxi Operations on Commercial Air Traffic," NASA/CR-2006-214519, October 2006) The MIT study found it was likely that VLJs would have significant adverse effects on air traffic at high-activity metropolitan-area airports, but not at airports outside metropolitan areas, since those airports have excess capacity. ("Investigation of the Potential Impacts of the Entry of Very Light Jets in the National Airspace System," MIT, Oct. 30, 2006.)

I'm not at all surprised by these findings, because they reflect the way general aviation aircraft are used today. Contrary to NBAA and AOPA claims, the impact of GA flights on the airspace around hub airports is quite large. I recently examined a dataset from the FAA's OpsNet database for 2006. It breaks down terminal-area instrument flight activity in the airspace of 169 TRACONs. Take the busiest one, Southern California. The "GA" category in this TRACON's airspace accounts for 37.1% of all IFR activity. In the Potomac TRACON (the DC area), it's 36%, and 38.5% in the Northern California TRACON. If you scan the list of the top-25, you will find the GA fraction is 45.2% at Orlando and 48.5% at Tampa. To be sure, many of those GA flights are not going into the principal air-carrier airport. But they are adding considerably to controller workload in these congested terminal air spaces.

Moreover, those "GA" numbers don't include air taxis. It's not easy to quantify their impact, because what OpsNet records under its separate AT heading is all planes under 60 seats or 18,000 lbs. That includes a lot of RJs. But if, say, 20% of what's listed as "AT" in OpsNet is actual air taxi activity, then the total of GA plus adjusted AT balloons even more. Southern California climbs to 40.8%, DC to 41.7%, and northern California to 42%. Congested Atlanta and DFW, respectively have 30.3% and 30.6% non-airline traffic in their terminal airspace.

Just because a small jet or turboprop can operate only at secondary and reliever airports doesn't mean that it will. And even when it does, a lot of its flight activity may be adding significantly to airspace congestion and ATC workload in the busiest patches of sky.

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A Real GPS Backup Is Getting Closer

Last fall (in Issue No. 38) I wrote about the need for a backup system for our future GPS-based ATC system, given that GPS is vulnerable to jamming and other possible interruptions. I commended a report that suggested enhanced LORAN (eLORAN) as a good candidate for the backup function. At the time, I didn't realize how controversial this position is. Although the general aviation community likes it (many GA planes have LORAN equipment, which would simply need to be upgraded), the airline community does not. Airbus and Boeing and their airline customers already have invested in inertial navigation systems (INS) which can be the basis of a backup capability in the event of GPS failure. Needless to say, I heard from these people in response.

There have been quite a few developments since then, one of which I'd especially like to bring to your attention. The NGATS Institute, an affiliate of the federal government's Joint Planning & Development Office (JPDO) developing the NextGen system, commissioned ITT to do a comprehensive study of how best to provide GPS backup capability. ("Satellite Navigation Backup Study," ITT Advanced Engineering & Sciences Div., TR07011, July 6, 2007). Though focusing mostly on aeronautical positioning, it properly included the broader question of the use of GPS and other space-based systems for navigation purposes.

The ITT engineers defined and prioritized the major requirements for a backup system into Level 1 (essential), Level 2 (strongly preferred) and Level 3 (preferred). They used the Level 1 criteria to narrow down the list of possible alternatives to three: DME/DME/INS, GNSS/INS, and eLORAN. The first of these is a system usable over land, requiring that an aircraft be within reach of at least two DME ground stations, from which it can derive its position; that information is integrated with the onboard inertial navigation data. GNSS/INS refers to using signals from more than one satellite system (e.g., Europe's Galileo or Russia's GLONAS) along with INS. And eLORAN is the upgraded version of the long-established, ground-based LORAN navigation system using digital technology and including a messaging channel.

They weighed each of these against an array of criteria, including life-cycle costs, seamless "failover" from GPS to the backup mode, long-term flexibility, global harmonization, etc. Each system scored highest on at least one criterion, but the overall highest score (by a small margin) was eLORAN. It scored best on seamless failover, long-term flexibility, spectrum efficiency, and key infrastructure protection, and a close second on life-cycle costs. For the longer-term (2025) solution to the backup requirement, the study recommended "eLORAN and GNSS/INS as capable and complementary solutions." This is partly due to uncertainties about eLORAN internationally and strong airline support for GNSS/INS, based on previous investments in equipage.

Decisions will have to be made soon on LORAN's future. The Coast Guard, which operates the system, would prefer to shut it down rather than upgrade it to eLORAN. It is currently carrying out a "programmatic environmental impact statement" (PEIS) on the alternatives of shutting it down, maintaining the status quo, upgrading it to eLORAN, or transferring it to another entity. It held hearings last month at three locations, and will hold another one in December to review its draft findings.

Everyone concerned about timely implementation of a GPS-based NextGen ATC system should pay close attention to these developments.

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The Airlines' Strange New ATC Funding Proposal

I've been called many things in my public policy career, but one of the strangest occurred last year when a GA-oriented publication referred to me as "a sock puppet for the ATA," the major airlines' trade association. This is particularly odd, since during the 25 years I've been researching air traffic control issues, I favored commercialization before the ATA endorsed the idea in 1985, still favored it when they came out against it in 2001, and still favor it in 2006-07 as the airlines have talked about shifting from aviation excise taxes to user fees and reforming the ATO's governance with some kind of a user board. But in the current debate, ATA has not advocated the separation of the ATO from the FAA, or a stakeholder board structure like what I've been writing about for years.

Moreover, I have supported greater airport autonomy with respect to passenger facility charges (PFCs) and using pricing to allocate scarce landing and takeoff slots at highly congested airports, both positions the ATA has argued against. So it should be no news to anyone when I now criticize the most recent funding proposal from ATA.

Instead of their previous proposal to replace ticket taxes and fuel taxes with cost-based user fees for all high-performance aircraft operating in controlled airspace, in July ATA came forth with a different approach. The good part of the proposal for ATC funding is that it is still somewhat cost-based: it reflects the approximate split of ATC costs as about 50/50 between en-route and terminal area services. But from there on, they lose me. In terminal airspace, all planes would pay the same departure charge; that makes some sense, on a purely cost basis. But it's also completely unrealistic as a general rule for all terminal airspace. I've supported this kind of flat-rate pricing in the special cases of highly congested airports (like LaGuardia)—and ironically, in those cases ATA has opposed such pricing.

The en-route portion of ATA's proposal is even more troubling. It would charge based only on the distance between a passenger trip's origin and its destination. Thus, as many critics (including JetBlue) have pointed out, it would charge the same for a nonstop flight between Washington and Kansas City as for a connecting trip via DFW. Whatever happened to cost-based charging? The trip via a hub requires two flights instead of one, and hence more flying, more ATC contacts, and more total traffic in the system. But those effects are ignored in this proposal.

Furthermore, there would be no charge at all for the first 250 miles of any flight—a move intended to curry favor with advocates of service to small communities. But that would mean the popular shuttle services between New York and Boston and between New York and Washington would pay no en-route charges to use some of the most congested airspace in the world. Again, whatever happened to cost-based charging?

I won't speculate on the thinking that may have led to this kludge, but it seems no more likely to go anywhere in Congress than the ATA's original user fee proposal—which at least had the virtue of being consistently cost-based. Given that fact, why not stick with a principled proposal, and then try to get pieces of it (like the Senate bill's $25 per IFR turbine flight) approved as a starting point?

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News Notes

NATCA Loses on Unfair Labor Practice Charges. Last year controllers' union NATCA filed a whole raft of "unfair labor practice" charges with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, alleging that the FAA had unlawfully engaged in bad-faith negotiations over the new labor contract and had unlawfully submitted the resulting impasse to Congress. Wrong on all counts, declared FLRA on July 27th, finding that the FAA had bargained in good faith and had followed the law in submitting the impasse to Congress. Unfortunately, that has not stopped the House from including provisions in its reauthorization bill that would overturn the new contract and force FAA and NATCA to go back to square one.

Does the FAA Face a Shortage of Controllers? NATCA claims the FAA is having to resort to "desperate measures" to recruit enough new people to replace controllers who are now reaching mandatory retirement age. Their latest evidence of this is a $20K recruitment bonus offered to candidates with at least one full year on-the-job experience as a certified controller (e.g., in the military). Given that training of raw recruits, both classroom and on-the-job, can take a number of years, it makes sense to put special emphasis on recruiting those who already have solid experience. Given that the median salary of controllers--$105,820—is 16th highest of all US occupations (surpassing, among others, petroleum engineers, astronomers, and engineering managers and nearly as high as lawyers), it's not surprising to find that the FAA Academy is running at full capacity, on two shifts, and that the FAA is being flooded with applications.

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Quotable Quotes

"We need a revenue stream that is tied to the actual cost of our operations. We need a revenue stream that's equitable and rational. Our financing system should be balanced, fair, and provide predictability, reliability, and stakeholder involvement. . . . [Hence,] we proposed a hybrid system of cost-based user fees, cost-based taxes, and a general fund contribution to pay for the cost of specific public services. The key to such a financing system is to have a clear link between costs and revenues."
--Marion Blakey, departing FAA Administrator, testimony before Senate Finance Committee, July 12, 2007

"Seems to me there is a poster child for how to commercialize a government function, and that's the Postal Service. USPS does its thing without much of any Congressional meddling, and it makes a modest profit on some of the lowest rates in the world. (Its customer service could use some work, but you can say that about a lot of big companies, including airlines.) About 20 years ago, Fedex made a really funny TV commercial that slammed postal workers, and it was offensive enough that they had to withdraw it. But these days you never hear the talk show comedians blast the USPS. It has become a massive non-problem. Why can't we at least attempt to do the same with the FAA's air traffic control system?"
--Ira Gershkoff, founder/CEO JIT Airline Resources LLC (on Mifnet, 8-03-07)

"Much of the lack of awareness or even skepticism over what might be possible in the future is based on assumptions that the rules of today are based on real physical limitations. They are not. Today's [separation] rules are based on wide safety buffers needed for 40-50-year-old technologies and procedures. When these are replaced by shared precision information, the old rules become wasteful inhibitors to available efficiency. . . . With precision navigation and surveillance, there's no aircraft performance or control reason why the operational pace needs to slow down in any visibility condition."
--Michael S. Lewis, Boeing Air Traffic Management, in Aviation Week, July 30, 2007, p. 42.

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