Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #79

January 2011

In this issue:

  • I.G. Slams FAA on Performance-Based Navigation
  • Aviation Committee Ignores ATC ReformSpain Outsourcing Control TowersEU Agrees to ATC Performance Targets
  • News Notes
  • Quotable Quotes

Inspector General Slams FAA on Performance-Based Navigation

It must take a special talent to be an analyst at the DOT Office of Inspector General (and at the GAO, for that matter). These skilled professionals often uncover the most bizarre and dismaying practices at federal agencies, but must describe them with great delicacy. A case in point is the OIG’s Dec. 10, 2010 Report No. AV-2011-025, with the boring title of “FAA Needs to Implement More Efficient Performance-Based Navigation Procedures and Clarify the Role of Third Parties.”

What the report actually reveals is a walking, talking disaster area. Like factories in the now-defunct USSR that churned out hundreds of thousands of unwearable shoes because their only performance metric was the gross number produced, the FAA touts its implementation of over 600 performance-based navigation (PBN) procedures—using area navigation (RNAV) or the more-precise RNP (Required Navigation Performance)—since 2005, beating its target of at least 50 per year. But hardly any of them are used by airlines, since they are (a) mostly “overlays” of existing approach procedures and hence offer no performance or capacity gains, and (b) are mostly located at uncongested airports (e.g., Raleigh-Durham) rather than at the congested hubs where capacity gains would really add value.

And that’s only part of the story. The FAA has also managed to create a real Catch-22 situation regarding third-party development of new RNP procedures, which was proposed way back in 2004 by the Air Traffic Management Advisory Committee (ATMAC) to speed up the introduction of capacity-enhancing changes. In response, as I’ve reported previously, the FAA in 2007 signed agreements with Naverus and Jeppeson to develop and implement public RNP procedures. The two companies received official certification to do this in September 2009.

Yet the OIG report makes clear that FAA has failed to make effective use of this new tool for speeding up implementation of RNP procedures. FAA has recently declared that it, itself, will continue to be the principal developer of RNP procedures, and now claims that the intent of allowing a role for third parties was to fill in gaps—i.e., to do so only in places where existing infrastructure is lacking (e.g., small airports lacking an instrument landing system) or where the airspace is not complex. That rules out all the places where new RNP procedures (such as curved approaches) could add needed capacity at congested hub airports.

Then there’s the little issue of who pays for development of an RNP approach. When the FAA develops a “public” RNP approach (open to all users), the cost is just part of the FAA Air Traffic Organization’s budget. In the past, companies like Naverus have mostly developed “private” RNP approaches, paid for and usable only by a specific airline. But there is no reason for Airline A to pay Naverus or Jeppeson to develop a public RNP approach usable at no charge by all its competitors. So despite strong industry support for third-party development of RNP approaches, it’s not going to happen until and unless the FAA pays the certificated companies to develop them. But meanwhile, FAA can point the finger at the third parties and claim that since those companies are not developing public approaches, FAA must shoulder the burden.

There’s a great deal more in this 25-page report than I can cover here. It provides yet more evidence that despite the creation of the ATO, supposedly as a customer-friendly ATC business, it is clearly not serving the best interests of its principal customers when it comes to speedy implementation of RNP, one of the key near-term improvements promised by NextGen. Foot-dragging within the ATO and conflicts between ATO’s Aviation System Standards office and its nominal FAA regulator (AOV) both illustrate the need for further structural and governance reforms.

I’m sure ATO chief Hank Krakowski is sincere when he says that in coming years, “the FAA plans to concentrate its PBN efforts on helping to decongest the skies over busy U.S. metropolitan areas that have multiple airports.” But that sounds like pie in the sky after reading the OIG’s damning report.

Aviation Committee Backs NextGen—But Not Reforms

Last month saw the release of the final report of the Future of Aviation Advisory Committee, appointed by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Given the group’s diversified membership, it’s not surprising that it was unable to reach agreement on many controversial issues (e.g., overseas maintenance outsourcing). But all the members seemed in agreement that speeding the implementation of the NextGen ATC system is a good thing. The question is whether their recommendations will make much of a difference in accomplishing this.

On the difficult issue of equipping aircraft to operate in a NextGen environment, the report proposed that the federal government “undertake a significant financial investment . . . for accelerated NextGen equipage of commercial and general aviation aircraft.” As if recognizing that this might be a tough sell in the current deficit-cutting environment, the recommendation went on to offer a whole grab-bag of options—grants, loans, leases, and loan guarantees--without stating a preference, but including a lot of possible conditions. In a related recommendation, the report also endorsed the Best Equipped/Best Served concept in order to reward “those who have already invested” in such equipage. But except for one member (former CAB staff economist Severin Borenstein of U.C. Berkeley), the report failed to acknowledge the contradiction between offering federal grants to laggards and providing rewards to early adopters. Only Borenstein took exception to the idea of grants—as do I.

The committee’s report led to some raised eyebrows in its recommendation that the FAA consider adding airport-based NextGen equipment to the list of infrastructure that is eligible for federal Airport Improvement Program grants and funding from locally raised Passenger Facility Charge dollars (the uses of which must be blessed by the FAA). The committee report acknowledged that its airport members think such a broadening of categories should be accompanied by increases in the size of AIP and in the level of PFCs allowed, while airline members disagreed.

Where the committee really missed an opportunity was on the funding and governance of the Air Traffic Organization. Some 25 years ago, the Air Transport Association was the first aviation organization to propose that air traffic control was so different from traditional federal agencies and departments that it should be converted into a user-funded business enterprise, regulated for safety by a revamped FAA. Similar calls emerged from the Office of the Secretary of Transportation during the Clinton Administration, and from outside advisory bodies such as the Baliles Commission and the Mineta Commission. All fell on deaf ears in Congress, which could not imagine giving up the ability to micromanage ATC policy and funding.

Yet today, the very same problems that beset the FAA 25 years ago—foundering modernization programs, FAA conflicts between ATC operations and safety regulation, inadequate capital investment, and above all a lack of responsiveness to customer needs—are still with us. Only now, with the huge transformation implied by NextGen, the stakes are far higher than they were in 1986.
 
Spain Launches Control Tower Outsourcing

In the aftermath of an illegal strike by air traffic controllers on December 3rd, the Spanish government has begun outsourcing airport (tower) ATC services, beginning with 13 small and medium size airports (such as La Palma, Seville, and Valencia). The state-owned air navigation service provider (ANSP) called AENA will conduct a 7-month competitive process, and half a dozen Spanish and international companies have thus far expressed interest. In 2012, tower service at the remainder of Spain’s 47 airports will be put out to bid.

The strike began in reaction to the government’s decision, after nearly a year of fruitless negotiation with the Syndicated Union of Air Controllers, to impose an increase in annual working hours from the current 1,200 to 1,670 (i.e., from 25 hours/week to 35, assuming 48 work weeks per year). The intent is to reduce the huge amount of overtime pay earned under the old rules, under which the average controller made €350,000 (about $455,000), down to an average of €200,000. (By comparison, German controllers average €150,000 and British controllers €120,000.)

The weekend wildcat strike essentially shut down air travel in Spain, disrupting the travel of some 650,000 people. Popular reaction was strongly against the strikers, with even leftist labor organization Workers Confederation characterizing the strike as illegal and irresponsible. University of Seville labor law professor Jesus Cruz Villalon told Time that “What they did was a crime. They have the right to strike, but they have to do it legally, by notifying the proper institutions and guaranteeing minimum services. And they didn’t do that.”

In addition to breaking AENA’s monopoly on ATC services by outsourcing tower ATC, the Spanish government is pursuing leaders of the wildcat strike. After the government put the military in charge of ATC through the end of the New Year’s holiday, Attorney General Candido Conde-Pumpido brought sedition charges against the strike leaders, saying he would recommend prison terms of up to eight years if they are found guilty, with at least three years for all others deemed responsible for the illegal strike.

Outsourcing of control towers, while not commonplace, exists in a number of countries. Tower ATC is contestable in the U.K., in New Zealand, and also in the United States for so-called Level 1 towers (under the FAA’s Contract Tower Program, which currently includes 245 towers). Sweden last month announced the result of its first competition for tower ATC, which was won by Aviation Capacity Resources. ACR’s contract operation of towers at Orebro, Vasteras, and Vaxjo airports is the start of a competitive process that will include all 35 Swedish airports with towers.

ATC Performance Measures Agreed in Europe, After All

In the previous issue of this newsletter, released at the beginning of December, I reported on the rejection of EU-wide targets for improved ATC performance. The targets drawn up by Eurocontrol’s Performance Review Body had been rejected at the end of October by the Single Skies Committee (consisting of the regulators of the ANSPs in each EU country). Like many other observers, I considered this a serious threat to the whole Single Sky project, which is intended to radically simplify European airspace, concomitant with phasing in NextGen-like technology and procedures.

But within a few days of this newsletter’s appearance, the Single Sky Committee met to consider a revised proposal from the PRB, which they adopted. It retains the original targets for capacity increases and environment, under which during 2012-2014 there should be 500,000 tonnes per year less CO2 emitted by aircraft in EU airspace than in the 2009 baseline year and 150,000 tonnes per year in fuel savings, both due mainly to shorter and more direct routes, thanks to increased cooperation among ANSPs and the military to de-fragment EU airspace.

The main sticking point was the cost-effectiveness target. Under the original proposal, the average EU-wide unit-rate (for en-route ATC charges) was to have declined by 4.5% per year; the revised target is 3.5%. Still, the overall cost savings for users during the three years (fuel and time savings plus reduced ATC charges) are estimated at $1.35 billion. Airline reaction was mixed, with the Association of European Airlines (AEA) generally supportive, but the International Air Transport Association (IATA) expressing disappointment that the original target was not retained. Due to the huge number of ATC centers in Europe (thanks to fragmented airspace), the current en-route charge is about double what the equivalent en-route charge would be in the United States, if this country charged directly for ATC services like everyone else does.

The far bigger challenge is yet to come. For the period after 2014, targets for further unit-rate reductions will be set for individual ANSPs. As AEA Secretary General Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus told Air Transport World, “There are some serious underperformers who will be expected to close the gap on their more efficient counterparts.” I imagine he was thinking of Spain’s AENA, in particular.

News Notes

Remote Towers Being Deployed in Sweden
In a global first, the Swedish ANSP LFV will deploy a remote ATC system to handle traffic at two small airports in 2011. Air traffic at Sundsvall and Ornskoldsvik will be monitored by a system of cameras and sensors at each airport and managed from a joint control center located (on the ground) at Sundsvall. The system was developed jointly by LFV and aerospace firm Saab. Testing was done over several years at Angelholm and Malmo airports. Saab’s Per Ahl told Military & Aerospace Electronics, “Instead of keeping several air traffic control towers open, resources can be co-located. With fewer control towers, you can also invest more in modern technology that helps air traffic controllers.” For example, the new system automatically detects incoming aircraft and marks them on the screen so the controller can follow them more easily, even in low-visibility conditions.

Six EU States Sign Largest FAB Agreement

There is welcome progress in creating functional airspace blocs (FABs) in Europe, with the mid-December announcement that six countries have agreed to create Functional Airspace Block Europe Central (FABEC). Comprising Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, FABEC will handle about 55% of all flights in Europe. The consolidated airspace includes all six countries’ military airspace, and the respective militaries are represented on the FABEC Council. In November, its members announced 115 shorter night-time routes, which will save 4,800 tonnes of fuel per year.

Nav Canada System Now Deployed at Scottish Airports
The U.K. air navigation service provider NATS last month completed deployment of its electronic flight progress system to Glasgow, the last of the three major airports in Scotland to be equipped. EFPS is a version of EXCDS, developed by Nav Canada and deployed nationwide at Canadian ATC facilities. In addition to Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh in Scotland, EFPS is operational at Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, and London City airports in England.

Video Spoofs NextGen Progress
Making the rounds in aviation circles is a droll video interview on the future and benefits of NextGen. While some will characterize it as unfair, some of its points reflect recent reports on the subject from the GAO and the DOT Inspector General—though in plainer language. If you have 13 minutes to spare, you might want to take a look. “NextGen Briefing” is at: www.youtube.com/user/JustPlaneGeek.

WAM Operational in North Sea Airspace
The U.K. Civil Aviation Authority has certified a Wide Area Multilateration (WAM) system from Sensis Corp. for keeping track of flights over 25,000 square miles of the North Sea. Some 25,000 helicopter flights per year serve offshore oil and gas platforms mostly beyond the reach of radar, previously requiring “procedural” separation. The WAM system relies on non-rotating sensors on 16 offshore platforms to locate aircraft positions via triangulation. It can use signals from either transponders (Mode S or Mode A/C) or ADS-B, and therefore does not require any new equipage. Controllers at Aberdeen Airport are now using WAM inputs in the same manner as traditional radar inputs to monitor offshore flights in all weather conditions.

NATCA President Joins ATC Advisory Council

In a long overdue move, the president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Paul Rinaldi, has been appointed as one of 13 members of the FAA’s Management Advisory Council. The NATCA chief joins a number of other key aviation stakeholders on this body mandated by the 1996 FAA reauthorization. It meets four times a year to advise the Administrator on topics relevant to the management of the FAA.

Nav Canada as Beacon

That’s the headline on a well-written article that appeared the day before Christmas in Canada’s Financial Post. Writer Scott Deveau provides a good overview of the changes that have come about thanks to converting Canada’s ATC system from a government department to a user-funded, user-managed ATC corporation. If you’re looking for a quick introduction to Nav Canada from an outside source, this would be a good place to start. (www.financialpost.com/m/story.html?id=4022200)

Quotable Quotes

“It is efficiency, fuel savings, and emissions that will ultimately spawn the degree of system thinking and understanding that will carry the day. I think one way to ensure the highest level of service provision is to have a similar business model for all ANSPs, and it’s all about fee for service. I think the lack of that element in the U.S. airspace limits the kind of forward progress that is so desperately needed. If ‘necessity is the mother of invention,’ it will only be a matter of time before these things occur.”
--Jack Kies, “State of the Nation,” Air Traffic Management, Issue 3, 2010.

“Another step for us is the FAA’s Partnership for Safety with the unions that represent air traffic controllers and our specialists in technical operations organization. We have had a wary relationship with our unions for years, but today we are working on building trust with one another. We have to work together and rely on each other to realize our common mission of safety. And you know what? It’s working. To have a real safety culture, people need to be able to raise any issue without fear of reprisal. You should be able to raise your hand and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t working.’ That’s even if your boss came up with the idea.”
--FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, speech to National Business Aviation Association, Oct. 19, 2010 (www.faa.gov/news/speeches/news_story.cfm?newsid=12018)

“You’re putting me on the spot, but the best-run ANSPs in my opinion are . . . Nav Canada, DFS, NATS . . . by the way, I’m thinking internationally here! From a productivity standpoint, with the ‘massiveness’ of the system, it’s the FAA. I could spend weeks telling you the things they do wrong, but they do a phenomenal job when you think that they’ve got something like 45% of global traffic in those lower 48 states. For all the problems, it’s a really well-run system, safety-wise and efficiency-wise. There are others, smaller, but they do well . . . Scandinavia, Australia, for instance in really using ADS-B to get an early payback.”
--Neil R. Planzer, “Speaking Words of Wisdom,” Air Traffic Management, Issue 3, 2010.

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





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