Airt Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #77

October 2010

In this issue:

  • A new way to fund NextGen equipage
  •  Cost of U.S. flight delays
  • Automating departures on closely spaced runways
  • ·Flight Service Station outsourcing success
  • News Notes
  • Quotable Quote

Potential Breakthrough on NextGen Equipage

At the Air Traffic Control Association's 55th Annual Conference this week, NEXA Capital Partners unveiled a provocative proposal to resolve what many have termed the "NextGen equipage paradox." This refers to the big problem of coordinating the FAA Air Traffic Organization's investments in ATC infrastructure with investments by aircraft operators (airlines, air taxis, fractional providers, business aircraft, etc.) needed to take advantage of the new infrastructure. Most of the benefits promised by NextGen will not be realized until a large fraction of the aircraft fleet is equipped. Yet airspace users lack confidence that the ATO will make its infrastructure investments in a timely manner, making them reluctant to lay out the cash to equip their planes.

In a panel on public/private funding for NextGen, NEXA's Mike Dyment laid out the company's plan to launch the NextGen Equipage Fund, which would raise private capital for large-scale purchases of onboard equipment such as ADS-B and DataComm, and provide flexible financing to aircraft operators. The idea would be to jump-start equipage, ensuring that a large fraction of the fleet is equipped by the time the ATO has its ADS-B and DataComm infrastructure in place.

Dyment told the large opening-day audience that in addition to a funding commitment from ITT Corp., NEXA Capital is discussing the fund with other aerospace companies and aims to have sufficient equity commitments in place by year-end to go to the capital markets for debt capital.

ITT is a natural for this approach, having introduced what I termed (in my presentation) the "availability payment" model to aviation infrastructure by means of its current long-term contract with the ATO to finance, install, and operate the ground stations for nationwide ADS-B services through 2025. This model-in which the private sector raises up-front capital to build, operate, and maintain infrastructure-is widely used in Europe for highways, rail transit, and many kinds of public buildings. It is currently the basis for funding two Florida transportation megaprojects: the $900 million Port of Miami Tunnel and the $1.7 billion reconstruction of I-595 in Fort Lauderdale.

The NextGen Equipage Fund has been in gestation for about a year, the brainchild of NEXA Capital founder Mike Dyment and former ATO chief and JetBlue president Russ Chew (with inputs from a number of other transportation experts). In a private briefing following the ATCA session, they gave me further details on the thinking that went into the concept and their plans for rolling it out. They have been in discussions with many of the major U.S. airlines and are optimistic about those prospects. They have also begun briefing U.S. DOT officials, who have repeatedly expressed interest in providing some kind of incentive for airspace users to equip for NextGen but are also facing severe budgetary constraints. 

Ironically, the unveiling of this proposed expansion of the availability payments model comes on the heels of a DOT Inspector General report, "FAA Faces Significant Risks in Implementing the ADS-B Program and Realizing Benefits." (AV-2011-002, Oct. 12, 2010). While pointing out that "The greatest risks to successfully implementing ADS-B are airspace users' reluctance to purchase and install new avionics and FAA's ability to define requirements for the more advanced capabilities," it goes on to criticize the ITT availability payment contract for ADS-B ground stations as possibly not a good deal for the ATO. What the IG's people seem to have missed is the potential for using the same principle to jump-start ADS-B (and other) equipage. If the Equipage Fund succeeds, it will directly address the IG's concern that ITT may get paid for years of ground-station operation prior to the 2020 equipage deadline (on their assumption that most equipage would occur at the last minute), even though the ground stations should all be operational by 2013. And if a critical mass of airlines and business jets do equip early, that fact itself will put pressure on the ATO to halt "requirements creep" and finalize details that may otherwise be studied indefinitely.

The NextGen Equipage Fund is a very promising idea; I will be following it closely in coming months.

U. S. Flight Delays Cost $33 Billion per Year

Media coverage of a new report on the annual cost of U.S. flight delays has been mixed. Some focused on the estimated cost to airlines ($8.3 billion/year); others did likewise just for the cost to passengers ($16.7 billion/year). And some commentators were rather dismissive about it as just another academic study based largely on assumptions.  Few journalists seemed to appreciate that this FAA-funded study is a rigorous and thorough assessment by a highly qualified team of aviation researchers.

"Total Delay Impact Study: A Comprehensive Assessment of the Costs and Impacts of Flight Delay in the United States," released in October 2010, is a product of the National Center for Aviation Operations Research (NEXTOR), a consortium of five universities (including MIT and UC Berkeley). To the best of my knowledge, it is the most detailed and comprehensive study of this subject yet, and likely to become the benchmark for  assessing the impact of future delay-reduction measures, such as NextGen and various forms of market pricing. So it behooves everyone dealing with aviation policy to become familiar with this important piece of work. (www.nextor.org/pubs/TDI_Report_Final_10_18_10_V3.pdf)

Most previous studies of the subject have focused more narrowly: some only on the cost to passengers; others on the cost to airlines. The Total Delay Impact (TDI) study goes beyond that to also estimate the costs from lost demand (as marginal passengers choose not to fly) and the impact on GDP from a less-efficient air transportation system. While the latter two costs ($3.9 billion and $4.0 billion) are smaller than the airline and passenger costs, their inclusion is necessary to capture the full economic impact. And the TDI estimate of passenger costs is higher, at $16.7 billion, than the $12.1 billion estimated in a 2008 study by Congress's Joint Economic Committee. That's because, in contrast to previous studies, the TDI project team also estimated costs incurred by passengers due to flight cancellations and missed connections; those two factors contribute $4.7 billion to the $16.7 billion passenger delay cost.

One reason we are moving forward with major investments to modernize the ATC system is to increase its capacity, to permit continued aviation growth without crippling levels of congestion and delay.  It is well-known, as the TDI authors point out, that delay increases non-linearly as demand approaches the capacity of the system. While no one expects that ATC modernization will eliminate delays, it's important to consider the full annual cost of congestion as we assess how much it's worth investing in ATC upgrades. The TDI study gives us an important new benchmark.

Automating Departures on Closely Spaced Parallel Runways

It's becoming pretty widely understood that the greater barrier to continued growth in flight activity is airport runway capacity, not en-route ATC capacity. And while it's agreed that the paradigm shift represented by NextGen will increase en-route capacity, it's not as widely understood that NextGen can also increase runway capacity.

One example of how this can be done concerns closely spaced parallel runways. Such runways exist at 19 of the 35 busiest U.S. airports. They operate pretty well in good weather, which is termed visual meteorological conditions (VMC). But in poor weather, dubbed instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), their throughput goes down considerably, due to increased spacing requirements that apply during IMC, for safety reasons. One goal of NextGen is to enable such runways to operate at close to the same throughput in IMC as they do in VMC. How? ADS-B will provide far more accurate real-time position information, nearly as good as seeing the plane in clear weather. And automation of decisions about when a flight can take off can shave important time when every second counts.

One way of doing this, including detailed simulation modeling, is described in a paper by Isaac Robinson and John-Paul Clarke of Georgia Tech, "The Departure Regulator: A Working Paper." It is posted on a Georgia Tech website: http://atl.coe.gatech.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/departureRegulator_workingPaper.pdf.

The authors modeled the typical way in which such parallel runways are operated, with one handling arrivals and the other departures. Under the best circumstances, with experienced controllers, a departure on Runway 2 can be cleared for take-off as soon as the arriving plane heading for Runway 1 has descended below what is called its "decision height"-the altitude at which a pilot must be able to see the runway and commit to a landing (rather than going around in a "missed approach"). Depending on the type of Instrument Landing System at the airport, the nearby terrain, and how the aircraft is equipped, the decision height can vary, but is spelled out for each airport. Under IMC, the rule says that the departure on Runway 2 cannot begin until the arriving plane has actually touched down on Runway 1. And in practice, the authors note, during IMC, controllers often add a time buffer. Together, these factors lead to much lower throughput during IMC.

A number of previous studies indicated that, in principle, the more accurate real-time position data from ADS-B would make it possible to increase throughput on closely spaced parallel runways. However, no one has to date presented an implementable concept. In this paper, the authors describe an automation system called "the regulator" whose aim is to use ADS-B information to increase the departure rate under both VMC and IMC, by coming as close as possible to conditions that exist under ideal VMC conditions. They model three different means of communicating the decision of the "regulator" on when to allow the departure. A semi-automated clearance is one in which the software tells the controller "now," and the controller relays that by voice to the departing pilot, which requires the pilot to verbally respond. The first automated alternative is to have computer-generated voice give the clearance to the pilot, eliminating the controller's response time. And the third way is to simply have runway lights flash green to authorize the start of the take-off roll.

The model was run with a typical fleet mix, to take into account the different spacings required between larger and smaller planes, and using data on voice communications times between controllers and pilots for the baseline case. The results were impressive. Using the runway lights, there would be a 31% increase in departures on the departure runway during IMC. Automated voice and controller verbal authorization yielded increases of 15% and 13%, respectively. Even the latter are significant gains in effective runway capacity, and the fully automated (runway lights) version is very impressive. The authors plan further simulation runs to further explore the system's potential.

For those still convinced that the only way to increase runway throughput is to build more runways (which is sometimes neither affordable nor politically possible), these results suggest some of the potential of NextGen-type improvements.

FSS Outsourcing: A Real Success

Five years ago, after major political battles, the FAA's Flight Service Station (FSS) system was outsourced to winning bidder Lockheed Martin. October marks the fifth anniversary of the start-up of the outsourced operations. Accordingly, AOPA Pilot's October issue carries a long article assessing the results. ("Flight Service Five Years Later," Mike Collins, AOPA Pilot, pp. 89-92.)

FSS provides services used almost entirely by general aviation (GA) pilots: flight plan filings, opening and closing of flight plans, distributing various kinds of information (NOTAMS, HIWAS, TIBS), and offering in-flight assistance to pilots. At the time of the outsourcing competition, FSS was costing about $600 million per year. It was operating out of 58 FAA facilities, employing 2,300 employees. Today, Lockheed Martin is providing all the same services (except for walk-in briefings, used then only by a small fraction of pilots) out of six facilities and with just 642 employees. That is made possible by the company's significant investment in better technology.

And no, it is not cutting corners. There was a bad period in the summer of 2007, when major facility consolidation was going on, but service has improved dramatically since then, and both the FAA and the GA community are very pleased with the service. The contract includes 22 performance measures, as well as penalties and bonuses depending on the scores on those objectives.

Reading AOPA's glowing report on the success of the program makes it hard to believe how much of a political furor it raised in 2004, holding up an FAA reauthorization bill over attempts to include an amendment forbidding any such outsourcing. And when the winning bidder was announced, not only did one of the losers (along with a group of FSS employees) file a formal protest, but none other than Socialist Rep. Bernie Sanders (I, VT) introduced a bill to overturn the outsourcing.

Let's hope the success of FSS modernization eases the way for similar steps in implementing NextGen. The combination of advanced technology and facility consolidation promises major gains in productivity (output per employee), which means aviation can continue to grow without ballooning infrastructure or payroll costs.

News Notes

Ground-Based GPS for Precision Landings

When ground-based augmentation systems (GBAS) were introduced about a year ago, to provide differential corrections to GPS signals for approach and landing, they were believed accurate enough only for the less-stringent Category I operations. But Eurocontrol recently reported on tests it carried out in cooperation with the Technical University of Berlin. Those tests showed that "existing GBAS Cat. I standardized systems would be suitable for Cat. II and OTS (Other than Standard) Cat. II operations." The tests were carried out in an Airbus 330 full motion simulator. (www.eurocontrol.int/eec/public/standard_page/ETN_2010_2_GBAS.html)

Runway Incursions Cut in Half

Congratulations are due to the FAA, controllers, and pilots for dramatic progress on serious runway incursions. The number in FY2010 was only six, compared with 12 the previous year and 67 in FY2000. In addition to greater awareness of the problem, the reduction appears to have come about thanks to the increased installation of technology-specifically the ASDE-X collision-avoidance system and more recently runway status lights.

Personal Calls in Control Towers?

The National Transportation Safety Board questioned the professionalism of the Teterboro Airport controller, for having made a personal telephone call that distracted the controller, thereby playing "a central role" in a midair collision over the Hudson River on Aug. 8, 2009. Because the call distracted the controller from his duties, he delayed communications to the Piper plane and failed to correct its pilot after he read back the wrong frequency. Yet nowhere Aviation Week's full-page write-up on the NTSB report was any mention made of a potential rule forbidding controllers to make personal phone calls while on duty.

Brazil Joins CANSO

The Department of Airspace Control (DECEA), which is the air navigation service provider for Brazil, joined up last month as a full member of CANSO-the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization, the global trade group for ANSPs. DECEA controls 8.5 million sq. km. of domestic airspace and more than 22 million sq. km. of oceanic airspace, making it one of the world's largest ANSPs. With DECEA's accession, there are now 57 full members of CANSO.

 

Honeywell Helping Define 4-D Trajectories

Trajectory-based operations are a key element of the new air traffic management paradigm to be implemented in the United States under NextGen and in Europe via SESAR. Honeywell has recently won a contract to help the FAA's Air Traffic Organization define standards and demonstrate benefits for four-dimensional trajectory-based operations. The company is engaged in similar work under the SESAR program in Europe. The latter plans to start regular en-route and descent trajectory-based operations in 2015-16, while current FAA plans target 2018.

UAVs Able to "See and Avoid"?

AvWeb (Oct. 18) reports that the Air Force is making progress on getting unmanned aerial vehicles ready to operate in airspace with conventional air traffic. The hold-up has long been concern that a UAV, lacking an on-board pilot, cannot "see and avoid" other traffic. USAF wants exclusive use of a 35 x 45-mile area in North Dakota for its latest Predator squadron, but does not yet have FAA permission. Brig.Gen. Leon Rice told AvWeb that this generation of UAVs has two sensor balls, one to scan towards the ground and the other for scanning the airspace-each with a dedicated human operator on the ground. While data and procedures for see-and-avoid using this capability are not yet in place, Rice believes this will be do-able within two to five years, and that UAVs will be integrated into normal airspace within 10 years.

Quotable Quote

"The U.S. ATC service is far more efficient, cheaper, and causes far fewer delays than Europe's mismanaged, unproductive ATC providers. Europe's airlines and passengers have suffered all summer long while the German, French, and Spanish [controllers] have either gone on strike, failed to show up for work, or when at work insist on applying ludicrous work-to-rule practices which impose totally unnecessary flight delays and penalties on Europe's airlines and passengers. The European Commission and Parliament keep banging on about passenger rights during flight delays, when in reality most of this summer's flight delays have been caused by European governments' abject failure to manage their ATC services, with the result that Europe's airlines and passengers are blackmailed by ATC strikes, go-slows, and the feeble management which runs Europe's national ATC monopolies. These inefficient national monopolies should now be opened up to competition (in the same way that airlines were deregulated 20 years ago). We must allow the best and most efficient ATC providers to offer their services across Europe. This will ensure that Europe's airlines and passengers are no longer held to ransom by striking ATC [workers] . . . . We must now let competition succeed where these ATC monopolies have failed."

--Michael O'Leary, CEO, Ryanair, news release, Sept. 23, 2010.

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





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