Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #83

NextGen held hostage by politics, obstacles to facility consolidation in Europe, more on controller fatigue

In this issue:

  • NextGen held hostage by politics
  • Is the Air Traffic Organization being dismantled?
  • Europe facing obstacles to facility consolidation
  • Controller fatigue, continued
  • RNP approaches . . . some day
  • News Notes
  • Quotable Quotes

NextGen Held Hostage by Politics

Albert Einstein reportedly defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” That quote came to mind as Congress this week passed the 19th short-term extension of federal aviation funding, since expiration of the Vision 100 law in September 2007. The action came despite repeated calls for steady, long-term funding to implement the next steps toward the NextGen air traffic management system. In recent weeks this pattern of endless short-term extensions has been denounced by DOT secretary Ray LaHood, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, Deputy Administrator Michael Huerta, and former House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee chair James Oberstar, all linking the delays to progress (or lack thereof) on NextGen.

So it’s high time the aviation community asks the question: Isn’t there a better way to fund ATC transformation than out of annual cash-flow, especially annual cash-flow that is controlled by politicians, threatened by overall federal budget cuts, and a held hostage to a legion of unrelated issues?

On the latter, here is just a sampling of the scores of non-ATC issues that have prevented agreement in Congress on the FAA reauthorization bill:

  • Inspection of foreign repair stations
  • The employee/contractor status of Fedex truck drivers
  • The National Mediation Board decision on airline unionization
  • The extent of subsidies for small-town air service under the EAS program
  • Slot access to Reagan National Airport
  • Passenger Facility Charges
  • Airport Improvement Program grants
  • Cost-benefit analysis of FAA regulations
  • War risk insurance

And the list goes on and on.

It’s not just congressional disagreements that are holding up the bill, either. On April 1st the White House issued a veto threat if the NMB provision remains in the bill, despite all its rhetoric on the importance of long-term aviation funding and the high priority of NexGen. And the FAA is being forced to live within overall spending caps being implemented to start fixing the federal government’s fiscal incontinence.

Our ATC colleagues in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, the U.K., and dozens of other countries can only shake their heads in amazement at this ongoing sturm und drang over ATC capital investment. Those countries have all succeeded in recent decades in de-politicizing their ATC budgets, by “commercializing” their air navigation service providers (ANSPs). In nearly every case, this has not gone as far as “privatizing” the ANSP, merely separating it from the government aviation department and enabling it to be self-funding, via payments from its customers. That provides a revenue stream that is predictable and dependable enough that the ANSP can issue revenue bonds to fund capital investments in facilities and equipment. That is basically what any utility does, whether investor-owned (Florida Power & Light) or government-owned (Tennessee Valley Authority).

The solution is out there, with a growing track record, as near as our northern border. Nav Canada is making steady progress implementing NextGen-type improvements, funded out of bond proceeds and retained earnings. Like many of its European counterparts, Nav Canada has an investment-grade bond rating.

The way to ensure dependable long-term funding for NextGen is to de-politicize its funding, insulating it from both government-wide austerity mandates and extraneous non-ATC issues. How many more reauthorization debacles will it takes before the aviation community demands this solution?

Is the ATO Being Dismantled?

Back in December 1997, the Mineta Commission issued its sweeping report on both air traffic control and aviation safety regulation. It found that the FAA as then constituted “lacks the organizational, management, and financial wherewithal to keep pace with the dynamic aviation community.” It recommended shifting to a “cost-based” revenue stream for ATC that would free it from the ordinary federal budget process, with safety regulation funding coming from the general fund. Organizationally, it recommended that the ATC portion of FAA be re-organized into a “performance-based organization,” governed by a PBO Board and a Chief Operating Officer. A watered-down version of the latter recommendation was embraced by Congress in the Vision 100 reauthorization act, passed in 2001, leading to creation of the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) within FAA. Neither the board nor the funding reform were included, unfortunately. Russ Chew was hired as the first COO in 2003, and the ATO was formally launched in 2004.

The ATO brought together two major components of the FAA’s budget—the large majority of Operations (controllers, managers, technicians, etc.) and just about all of Facilities and Equipment. Consistent with portions of the Mineta Commission recommendations, it was set up to operate like a business, providing aviation customers with ATC services via nine “service units” (such as En-Route and Oceanic, Terminal Services, NextGen and Operations Planning, etc.), many of them headed by people brought in from the private sector and given titles of “vice president” even though there was no “president” for them to report to, only a Chief Operating Officer. And instead of reporting to a Board (such as one composed of aviation stakeholders), the COO reported directly to the FAA Administrator. Despite these limitations, and the lack of ability to control its own budget, the ATO joined CANSO, the global organization for air navigation service providers (ANSPs), most of which are self-supporting commercialized entities separate from their nation’s aviation safety regulator (as opposed to reporting directly to that entity).

Under Russ Chew and his successor Hank Krakowski (both recruited from the airline industry) the ATO made considerable progress, but it was never fully accepted within FAA, including by many ATO employees. And under the current Administration, steps are being taken to blend the ATO back into FAA proper, under the rubric of “One FAA Culture.” Last fall the FAA hired consulting firm Monitor Group to do an organizational review of FAA, including extensive surveys of employees and managers. As good consultants do, it picked up on the rather awkward fit between ATO and FAA, as well as discontent from some long-time FAA employees who never really adapted to the idea of being part of a distinct, “performance-based” service provider.

Consequently, when the Monitor report was unveiled in February, it identified areas of “duplication” between ATO and FAA, and its number-one recommendation was to “optimize shared services.” Another was to “build one FAA culture.” That’s pretty standard organizational consultant stuff, but it was likely arrived at by consultants who were never asked to read and understand the Mineta Commission’s detailed case for creating the ATO as a separate entity. Specifically, under the shared services heading, the ATO would be stripped of the following functions:

  • Information Technology
  • Finance
  • Acquisitions

All three are critically important not only in everyday operations but especially in implementing NextGen over the next decade or two. In addition, Monitor recommended creation of a Chief Administrative Officer for the entire FAA. If this reorganization is put in place, it will basically strip the ATO’s COO of the principal tools needed to run a business-like organization. All that will be left is Operations and some project management of individual NextGen projects.

This is precisely the wrong direction to be going. Readers of the outstanding book, Managing the Skies, by Clinton V. Oster and John S. Strong (Ashgate, 2007) will learn chapter and verse why Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand have all created separate, self-supporting  commercialized ANSPs over the last 15 years, and why such an approach would solve the major problems ham-stringing the FAA’s efforts to operate and modernize air traffic control effectively. Rather than taking down the ATO, the needed path forward is to go the rest of the way toward this model, as recommended by the Mineta Commission (and even more completely by the Clinton Administration’s ATC corporation proposal, USATS).

Fortunately, the FAA cannot implement the Monitor Group changes by itself. They will need the approval not only of the DOT Secretary but also of Congress.

Europe Faces Major Facility Consolidation Challenge

Earlier this month, seven Central European governments announced the formation of Functional Airspace Block-Central Europe. Austria, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovak Republic, and Slovenia agreed to work together on airspace rationalization without regard to country borders. This is the fourth of a planned nine Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs) aimed at bringing about the Single European Sky.

But as a major news article in the Wall Street Journal (May 4th) pointed out, the ultimate test will be the extent to which the ANSPs and their governments can agree to consolidate the numerous en-route centers across the continent. The WSJ article includes a handy chart, comparing ATC in the 4 million sq. mi. of the United States and the 4.4 million sq. mi. of Europe. With 39 countries and ANSPs, Europe has 64 centers, compared with just 20 in the USA. Europe’s ANSPs employ 16,900 controllers to handle 9.4 million IFR flights, versus 15,770 U.S. controllers handling 15.9 million flights. That works out to only 556 flights/controller/year in Europe, versus over 1,000 in this country. And the operating cost per flight hour is $723 in Europe versus $410 in the USA.

So the real challenge in achieving the Single European Sky is facility consolidation. In the May issue of Aviation Intelligence Reporter, Andrew Charlton reports the result of a survey carried out by Helios at the ATC Global conference in Amsterdam in March. The question posed was: How many en-route ATC centers does Europe need? The most commonly given answer was one per FAB—i.e., nine. That answer came largely from airspace users, suppliers, and regulators. Attendees from ANSPs answered one per country, i.e., 39. Only about one percent of respondents agreed with the current number of 64 centers.

Charlton followed up with some provocative ideas on possible ways to achieve consolidation, despite the political obstacles. First, Germany’s commercialized ANSP, Deutsche FlugSicherung (DFS) has just two en-route centers, for Dusseldorf and Frankfort. They are located in the same building—but operate entirely separately. But if you can control anywhere from anywhere, you could also have controllers located in several places controlling traffic that has been consolidated into a single large airspace by software—what he dubbed virtual centers. (This could also be used as a transition strategy, to avoid requiring experienced controllers to move if they are within N years of retirement.)

Neil Planzer of Boeing suggested a goal for Europe of three centers, with a fourth for backup, and proposed that they be able to compete with one another. Graham Lake of CANSO suggested that in exchange for controllers having the right to strike, other ANSPs could take over the territory of the struck ANSP for the duration of the strike, thereby maintaining ATC services throughout the Single European Sky.

Given the major technical and cost-saving benefits of large-scale facility consolidation, along with the obvious political resistance, it will be interesting to see whether Europe or the United States solves this problem first.

Controller Fatigue, Continued

I have probably received more feedback on last month’s article on controller fatigue than on anything in this newsletter in several years. I’ve learned a lot more, and am happy to share this additional knowledge with you.

First, several readers disputed my account that controllers’ unions were the prime movers in making the 2-2-1 shift rotation schedule widely used (since gives controllers three-day weekends). One former operations manager tells me that at the center where he worked, the FAA imposed 2-2-1 after the 1981 strike, replacing the previous schedule of a week of swing shifts, a week of days, then a week of midnight shifts. In the first few years after the strike, he says, it was actually 2-2-2, since they went to a six-day week due to being so short-handed.

I did some online reading at Skybrary and learned of research by FAA’s Civil Aero Medical Institute documenting performance degradation due to 2-2-1, especially on the fifth day. That research also supported at least 12 hours off between shifts (and other studies say 10 to 13 hours) to avoid sleep loss. That compares with the previous FAA standard of only 8 hours, just raised to 9 hours in reaction to the sleeping-controller incidents.

Several readers also commented on my critique of black-background display screens in darkened control rooms on midnight shifts. A European reader tells me that display screens there are generally pale gray, and display data in various colors. “I watched an American controller in a European centre last week,” he wrote, “and it was like watching a kid that had only had a black and white TV look at a colour one.” But a U.S. controller emailed to say that at the center where he worked midnight shifts, there were individual light controls at each position, and most were kept at a reasonable level all the time. He estimated that 50% of those working the “mids” turned the lights up then, adjusting the brightness of the display to compensate for the extra ambient light.

On the subject of short naps during breaks, especially on midnight shifts, this is apparently fairly common at other ANSPs. CNN reports that Nav Canada has researched and implemented strategies to mitigate controller fatigue, including naps. It quotes one controller as follows: “We actually have a lounge where Nav Canada provides us with reclining chairs so we’ll use them for naps. And if you go over there in the morning, you’ll often see a controller who’s had a long commute; they’ll slide away on their breaks and take a 10 or 15-minute nap to re-energize.” Lots of research, in Europe and the United States, supports this as a fatigue remedy. NATCA is entirely right in pushing FAA to agree.

Finally, I also received a lot of information on obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a surprisingly common medical condition in which sleep is repeatedly interrupted by upper airway obstruction, causing the person to awaken just enough to breathe again—a process that prevents deep sleep. Safety experts, including the National Transportation Safety Board, have for many years urged that all transportation workers be screened for OSA and given treatment, if necessary. The FAA itself has a publication on this subject . . . for pilots. (Publication No. AM-400-10/1, written by J.R. Brown of FAA’s Civil Aviation Medical Institute) There is nothing of this kind directed at air traffic controllers. The Air Traffic Controllers medical certification does not address OSA. By contrast, controller applicants in Europe with OSA or just daytime sleepiness are classified as unfit until they are treated for it.

So my underlying point in last month’s article—that FAA seems to have more stringent safety standards for pilots (which it regulates at arm’s length) than for controllers (which it “regulates” internally)--still stands.

RNP Approaches Can Yield Big Savings...Whenever

One of the key near-term NextGen elements is Required Navigation Performance (RNP)—precisely guided approaches and departures using GPS and a plane’s flight management system computer to fly very precise approach paths that are shorter than the traditional long, straight-in approaches, saving time and fuel. GE Aviation (incorporating the RNP experts from the former Naverus) released a study earlier this month giving us some quantitative analysis of RNP benefits.

Their study, “Highways in the Sky,” focused on 46 medium-size airports (such as Jacksonville, Indianapolis, San Antonio, Albuquerque, Sacramento, and Portland). They were picked either because they already have at least one published RNP procedure or have significant flight activity by RNP-equipped aircraft. Data from six types of aircraft operated by 12 national airlines were used in the study. GE assumed average time savings of 3 minutes for planes flying RNP rather than conventional approaches. The headline numbers were that full use of RNP approaches at those airports would yield:

  • 12.9 million gallons of jet fuel savings per year;
  • $65.6 million in annual airline direct operating cost savings;
  • 137,000 tons of CO2 savings per year; and
  • 747 days of flight time savings annually.

And those numbers are conservative. The fuel cost savings (41% of the total) were based on 2009 jet fuel prices, which were a good deal lower than today’s (and probably the next decade’s) fuel prices. And the cost savings were only in airline direct operating costs, ignored indirect airline savings and the value of time savings to passengers.

A growing percentage of the airline fleet is equipped for RNP. A recent article in Flight International (April 26) focused on RNP pilot training at USAirways. Its Airbus fleet was delivered with GPS on board, and pilots use Class 3 electronic flight bags for a display that depicts the position of the plane’s position at all points during the approach. All 216 Airbus A319/A320/A321 aircraft and 15 Embraer EMB-120s are now equipped, but the airline is awaiting FAA authorization to actually fly RNP approaches. Southwest has also equipped its entire fleet and trained its pilots.

But as I reported here in February, there is a big impediment to realizing the widespread savings estimated by the GE Aviation study. Although the FAA has developed large numbers of what it calls RNP approaches, most of them “shouldn’t even be called RNP procedures,” says an experienced pilot friend of mine. They “violate some of the most basic and fundamental original principles of RNP (e.g., to place the path in the best place to fly).” Instead, they are mostly “overlays” of existing conventional approaches, providing little or no savings of distance or time or fuel—the very benefits quantified in the GE study.

Since FAA-developed RNP procedures appear to be useless, airspace users have pinned their hopes on RNP procedures developed by third parties that have been certified by the FAA. The agency has blessed four such companies, including GE Aviation and Boeing’s Jeppeson. Most of the procedures they’ve developed thus far have been proprietary—a single airline pays for an RNP procedure to be developed at a specific airport, and the FAA approves it. But nobody else can use it. The companies are allowed to develop public-use RNP procedures, but no airline is going to pay for such a procedure when all its competitors get to use it at no charge. So what’s really needed to jump-start RNP is a process by which the FAA itself hires approved companies to develop public-use procedures.

After being slammed by the DOT Inspector General for not making effective use of private RNP developers, the FAA promised it would unveil a revised policy by the first of February. That date came and went with no announcement. I queried a recently retired FAA official earlier this week, and he told me that a union representing the FAA people who develop RNP procedures hates the idea of privately-developed public-use RNP procedures—and says they have effectively killed it. Another source told me that FAA had responded to the OIG by saying its people are capable of doing everything needed on RNP over the next several years—and it appears OIG considers the case closed.

But perhaps there’s still a ray of hope. In researching this piece I paged through all 185 pages of something called the “FY2011 ATO Business Plan” that I found on the FAA website. It included the following: “Strategic Initiative: Third-Party Development of RNP Procedures,” with the Activity Target reading, in full: “Work with third-party vendors who established Other Transaction Agreements in FY2010 to complete qualification process for end-to-end procedure development for RNP SAAAR approach procedures.” The due date is Sept. 30, 2011. I’m not sure exactly what the language means, but maybe something meaningful is still moving forward on third-party development of public-use RNP procedures.

News Notes

Austria to Deploy Nationwide WAM Network
Wide-Area Multilateration will be deployed nationwide in Austria to provide highly accurate aircraft surveillance, providing coverage in mountainous areas without radar coverage and providing improved coverage elsewhere. The system, developed by Sensis Corp., will interface with all aircraft transponders as well as ADS-B. WAM is both less costly to procure and less costly to maintain than radar, in addition to being more accurate. The Sensis system was selected by Austro Control, the air navigation service provider (ANSP) for Austria.

Two More ANSPs Join CANSO
DCA Cyprus and Maldives Airports Co. Ltd. have become the two newest full members of the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization, the trade association for ANSPs worldwide. Both ANSPs provide both domestic and oceanic air navigation services. CANSO now has over 60 full members.

STARS Going into 11 Large TRACONs

Raytheon’s Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS) will be installed in the nation’s largest TRACONs after all, the FAA decided in March. The program has had a long, troubled history of cost overruns and late deliveries, leading to it being cut back from the original plan to upgrade all TRACON facilities. After critical reports from the GAO and the DOT Inspector General, FAA decided to limit the installations to medium-size TRACONs and come up with something else for the larger and smaller ones. But after STARS worked well with ADS-B at Philadelphia TRACON, the FAA decided to return to the original plan for the 11 largest ones, since it wants STARS in place at all such facilities before they get ADS-B. The agency has still not decided on the system that will be used for the smaller TRACONs.

Improving Flight Data Recording
The International Civil Aviation Organization is seeking new international standards for cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders, in the wake of the 2009 Air France crash in the South Atlantic. In the near term, the plans call for making the radio beacons used to locate the black boxes transmit three times longer than the present 30 days, and increasing their signal strength to be heard up to 6 miles away. Longer-term, ICAO seeks solutions that would have aircraft transmit key performance data to safety authorities in real time via satellite.

CNN Features NavCanada

If you’re not already familiar with Canada’s highly successful commercialized ANSP, Nav Canada, CNN’s Paula Newton did a first-rate story on April 28th, which is still on-line as I write this in late May. It’s called “Canada Flies on Top Air Safety Record,” and includes both a written feature article and a nicely done video. Go to:

Honeywell Integrates TCAS and ADS-B
Honeywell’s new SmartTraffic system combines a collision-avoidance system (TCAS) with ADS-B, and will permit equipped aircraft to fly in-trail procedures on trans-oceanic flights. It has received European certification and will be available on Airbus A320s, A330s, and A340s that are equipped with the TPA-100B traffic computer. It can be installed as an upgrade during routine aircraft overhauls. Boeing and Honeywell are doing flight trials of the system on 747-400s, in a one-year trial that extends through April 2012. Longer-term, Honeywell aims to add ADS-B/In capabilities, to provide cockpit displays of traffic information.

Investors Business Daily on FAA’s ATC Problems
In a well-researched article, John Merline of IBD asks the question: “Can the FAA Be Trusted to Fix Air Traffic Control?” This provocative headline refers to the agency’s built-in conflict of interest as both the nation’s air safety regulator and the operator of its ATC system. It appeared on May 17, 2011. (

FAA and Sensis Win Award for ASDE-X

The Jane’s Airport Review Runway Safety Award for 2011 was awarded to the Federal Aviation Administration and Sensis Corporation for the development and deployment of the successful ASDE-X system at 35 major U.S. airports. The award was announced at the ATC Global conference in Amsterdam in March.

Quotable Quotes

“[Hank] Krakowski’s treatment will hardly make the [COO of the ATO] position any easier to fill. After all, he had done a good job fine-tuning the ATO’s operations and getting important modernization programs on track, and was highly regarded within the aviation community. He had to deal with meddling from Congress and the past two administrations on many fronts, including labor relations. It certainly appeared that Krakowski’s hands were tied when it came to negotiating with the controllers’ union. . . . It would not be surprising if the next COO has less of an airline-focused background, and strong organizational oversight credentials. And if someone with more government experience is selected, that might signal that the ATO is being pulled further back into the FAA fold.”
--Adrian Schofield, “Dropping the Pilot,” Aviation Week, May 9, 2011

“Too many regional air traffic control centers adjoin the metropolitan airspace, each employs many constituents, and each is defended vigorously by local politicians. This means that the airspace is cut into a series of byzantine corridors and shelves that make little sense in a system overview. This can be fixed only with major realignment of facilities and jobs that will be felt as far away as Oberlin, Ohio; Nashua, New Hampshire; and Leesburg, Virginia. I wish there were a NextGen application to deal with congressional outrage. We’ll need one when we start this process. In 2008, Bobby Sturgell, then FAA acting administrator, was trying to rationalize airspace usage, rearrange it so it made more sense, only to be subjected to vicious and persistent attacks by interest groups and attorneys who were determined not to allow a single flight path to be moved a single mile. Make no mistake. NextGen will be amazing and is very necessary, but it must climb a steep gradient to successfully summit Capitol Hill.”
--William R. Voss, “The Future of Air Traffic Safety,, April 28, 2011.

“I don’t believe that an industry funded by central government can have a long-term strategy, competing for funds against more politically-sensitive sectors such as health and education. The only commercial relationship that works is user pays—the airlines, the major customer group, should pay ANS charges direct, and then have a say in prioritizing ANSP programs. Any other system is sub-optimal.”
--Ashley Smout, “Parting Thoughts,” Airspace (CANSO), Quarter 2, 2011.

“Aviation does not even rank among the top 20 White House strategic priorities. To be very blunt, there is no long-term vision. Instead, the U.S. aviation policy agenda is dominated by short-sighted half-measures that focus on micromanagement. . . . It is difficult to imagine how such an important program to improve competitiveness [NextGen] could be tied up in politics.”
--Giovanni Bisignani, quoted in James R. Asker, “Truth Sayer, Part 1,” Aviation Week, April 4, 2011.

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