Air Traffic Control Newsletter #97

FAA weakness, Single European Sky, Remote towers, Cost-effective radar

In this issue:

It’s Not Just ERAM; It’s FAA Management Flaws—Inspector General

While most coverage in the aviation media has focused on the DOT Inspector General’s assessment of delays and cost overruns in the ERAM program, the real message of the report is even more disturbing: FAA still cannot effectively manage major procurements. That’s the most important finding of “Weaknesses in Program and Contract Management Contribute to ERAM Delays and Put Other NextGen Initiatives at Risk,” AV-2012-179, Office of the Inspector General, Sept 13, 2012.

The problems with ERAM are well-known, and while the IG report acknowledges recent progress, the fact remains that this replacement for the ancient Host software that runs all en-route ATC is still four years behind schedule and expected to go $500 million over budget. That would be bad enough in isolation, but since ERAM is foundational for NextGen, its delay will also retard the implementation of ADS-B, DataComm, and System Wide Information Management (SWIM). And the additional $500 million that FAA must spend on ERAM will be reallocated from these and other important programs. At a hearing before the House Aviation Subcommittee the day the report was released, Inspector General Calvin Scovel noted that FAA has not approved total cost, schedule, or performance baselines for any of the key NextGen programs. It’s no wonder the agency’s ATC customers hesitate to install various NextGen systems in their aircraft; there is no way for them to know when FAA’s Air Traffic Organization will be in a position to offer them NextGen services.

But the majority of the report uses ERAM’s problems to explore the underlying reasons for these problems. The bold headline starting this section reads: “ERAM’s Problems Are Attributable to Fundamental Breakdowns in Program Management,” such as:

  • FAA underestimated the complexity of implementing ERAM and ignored early warning signs of trouble.
  • FAA did not adequately test ERAM at the Technical Center prior to accepting the system for the government and releasing the software to key en-route centers. This matters a great deal, because once ERAM passed that “acceptance” milestone, the agency itself (rather than the contractor) has to bear all the costs of fixing its numerous problems.
  • FAA did not set realistic expectations regarding what would be required to implement ERAM.
  • FAA used ineffective milestones for measuring ERAM’s progress.
  • FAA’s Acquisition Management System does not adequately establish criteria for Government Acceptance.
  • Problems with FAA’s management culture contributed to ERAM delays. Specifically, “Staff and managers routinely did not share bad news about ERAM with senior management,” and “senior program officials at the headquarters level actively withheld and suppressed bad news from being reported to higher levels.”

There’s another whole section on poor contract management, including the fact that very high turnover in the acquisition workforce (eight Contracting Officers on the program in nine years) “resulted in a lack of institutional knowledge needed for effective contract oversight.” I will spare you the gory details, but you can read them for yourself on pages 14-23.

I read this report with a strong sense of deja-vu. I’ve been reading GAO and OIG reports like this since I first started researching ATC in the late 1970s. In 1985 the Air Transport Association concluded that the incentives and constraints of a large government bureaucracy are incompatible with managing a high-tech 24/7 organization, so they proposed a reform that would shift ATC to a self-funded national aviation authority, regulated by the FAA. The idea went nowhere, until Vice President Gore’s National Performance Review revived it in the early 1990s. That led to a well-researched 1994 DOT legislative proposal to shift all of FAA’s ATC functions into a self-funded government corporation called USATS. The FAA Administrator and several leading Democrats in Congress supported it, but it went nowhere. Instead, Congress vowed to solve the personnel and procurement problems. So in the 1996 FAA reauthorization act, they included what was portrayed as fundamental personnel and procurement reform. It is that “reformed” FAA Acquisition Management System that the latest IG report cites as having clearly failed.

It’s been 16 years since Congress’s personnel and procurement “reforms”—and yet we are still getting reports such as this one. Isn’t it time to reconsider whether a tax-funded government bureaucracy is the best governance and funding structure for ATC?

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Europe Shifting Gears on Single European Sky

The bad news started back in July, when the European Commission grudgingly accepted all 29 plans from the Single Sky nations, despite most of them missing their agreed-upon cost-efficiency targets—including France, Germany, Italy, Romania, Sweden, and the U.K. By contrast, Portugal and Spain were among the few to meet their targets. The laggards will be expected to catch up during the next performance period, 2012-2014, reducing ATC user charges by an aggregate €2.4 billion ($3.12 billion). The overall goal is to reduce the air navigation cost of an average flight from €800 in 2010 to €690 by 2014, on the way to €400 by 2020.

More bad news emerged in October, with the release of the revised Air Traffic Management Master Plan, covering the technology and procedure upgrades being developed under the SESAR program. Instead of having this all up and running by 2020, the revised due date is now 2030, a whole decade late. And that is just the technology portion. Progress on unifying the airspace, via Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs), has been glacial.

These developments set the stage for a rather blistering Oct. 11th speech by European Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas, at the Single European Sky conference in Cyprus. The speech was titled, “The Single European Sky: 10 Years On and Still Not Delivering.” Overall progress is far too slow, he said, and there is too much national fragmentation. So the European Commission plans several bold steps. First, Eurocontrol, as network manager, will get greater power in that role. Second, if individual member governments don’t get on with meeting performance targets and merging airspace and ANSPs, the Commission will use “infringement proceedings” to take them to court, seeking fines. Third, the Commission will attempt to set up a single safety regulator for all of Europe, to further the goal of a single, unified airspace with unified procedures, separations, etc. This could be either an entirely new entity or a revision of the charter of the existing European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

Kallas was particularly hard on the Functional Airspace Blocks, which exist mostly just on paper but were supposed to be in operation by the end of this year. The only one that is actually functioning, as I have reported previously, is NUAC, the joint venture of Denmark’s Naviair and Sweden’s LFV, now providing en-route ATC in their combined airspace. By creating a single back-office function, NUAC expects to save 15% of total costs. So far, however, there is no public discussion of consolidating the three separate en-route centers serving their airspace (which could save a lot more). NUAC has also spearheaded an alliance (called COOPANS) to procure common ATC hardware and software. Joining the two NUAC members in COOPANS are the ANSPs of Austria, Croatia, and Ireland. LFV and Naviair have also joined with Norway’s Avinor to create the first internationally owned ATC training academy, Entry Point North.

LFV and Naviair are two of the nine ANSPs that have formed the Borealis Alliance to work cooperatively on ATC. Members are the ANSPs of Estonia, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Norway, and the U.K., in addition to Denmark and Sweden. A knowledgeable European ATC observer emailed me that Borealis and NUAC are “beacons of light in the gloom of European air traffic management.” And he adds, “The FABs have done far less to make real progress, while costing far more. It will be interesting to see if the states of FABEC (Belgium, France, Germany, Luxemburg, Netherlands, Switzerland) can convince their ANSPs to take such a bold step as Borealis.”

Late-breaking news: Just as this newsletter was being finalized on Oct. 24th, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on member states to merge national air traffic control airspace in Europe, “urgently.”

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Another Alternative for Collecting ANSP Charges

In almost all countries worldwide, air navigation service providers (ANSPs) charge for their services—for overflight, en-route, and terminal-area services—just as airports charge for landings. In this country, the possibility that IFR flights might one day be paid for directly, rather than indirectly via taxes on fuel and passenger tickets, generates concerns that our ANSP (presumably a commercialized version of the current Air Traffic  Organization) would have to create a “costly new bureaucracy” to handle billing and collections.

Some years ago I pointed out in this newsletter that the ATO itself already charges for overflights (flights which fly through U.S. airspace without landing or taking off here). Charges are made for such flights in either Oceanic or En-route airspace, as the case may be. When I inquired of the agency what sort of staff this billing required (in 2007), I was informed that it took 2.5 full-time equivalents, since most of the work is done by software, using information from each flight plan. I was not able to obtain a unit cost for the billing and collection operation, but with only 2.5 people involved, it couldn’t be much.

Needless to say, scaling that up to cover, say, all IFR turbine flights within U.S. airspace would be a different proposition in terms of volume, but economies of scale would be likely, making the unit cost even lower than for the current overflights charging operation. But if the ATO were actually commercialized, instead of doing this function in-house, it might decide to outsource it. In my 2007 article I suggested that American Express, MasterCard, or Visa have excellent track records in large-scale billing and collections. But I recently learned of another provider, one specifically focused on aviation and already doing billing and collections for ANSP and airports worldwide.

That provider is a division of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), called Enhancement & Financing Services. According to an informative article in Air Traffic Technology International 2013, E&F Services was launched 20 years ago, primarily to serve airports and ANSPs in developing countries. Currently it collects about $2 billion a year on behalf of 55 customers around the world. The Airports Authority of India, which provides airports and the ANSP in that country, is among E&F’s larger customers.

E&F provides a complete package of services that include invoicing, collections, and settlement (including a proven dispute-resolution process). E&F first validates the billing data provided by the ANSP or airport. Then it produces the invoices, which are posted on a secure IATA site for airlines and other customers to retrieve. The article did not provide details on collections, but reports that “E&F collects the charges through its highly secure and efficient financial settlement systems.” It also provides comprehensive accounting, reconciliation, and reporting to its clients.

Thus, the idea that direct charges for ATC would add large costs of collection seems highly unlikely. Since practically all ATC services worldwide are being charged for except ours, nobody would have to reinvent the wheel to provide cost-effective billing and collections. Best practices from the ANSPs of Australia, Canada, Germany, and the U.K. could be emulated to expand the ATO’s current overflights billing system. Or the process could be outsourced. Far from being a problem, this should be one of the easiest functions to do efficiently in the revamped organization.

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Remote Towers Move Toward Implementation

One of the earliest implementations of the next-generation air traffic management concept of managing traffic “anywhere from anywhere” will be remote (or virtual) towers—providing tower functions from an off-airport location based on an array of sensing devices and displays, rather than from a physical tower providing out-the-window access.

Not much has been heard about remote towers from the FAA since very promising simulations that took place in 2007 at the agency’s test center in Atlantic City. As I reported in this newsletter’s March 2008 issue, those simulations (using experienced controllers and instructors) demonstrated equivalent performance during VFR conditions, but dramatically better performance at night and under low-visibility IFR conditions. Yet controllers’ perceived workload was less, since the displays and information made their jobs easier.

Most of the recent progress with remote towers has been occurring overseas. At last month’s annual meeting of the Air Traffic Control Association, I watched (along with FAA Acting Administrator Michael Huerta) a dramatic display of Saab Sensis’s remote tower technology. The airport equipment includes a 14-camera high-definition video surveillance pod (which includes two that can pan, tilt, and zoom) plus a light gun for communicating with planes without a functioning radio. Also included are infrared and motion-detection systems. The remotely located control room includes fourteen 42-inch display screens providing a panoramic view, along with standard ATC software including electronic flight strips. Controllers at the center can remotely operate airport systems such as runway lights, alarms, etc. They have normal radio contact with aircraft and ground vehicles at the airport.

LFV, the Swedish ANSP, has worked with the company to develop and test the system at several airports over the past six years. Now Saab Sensis is installing the equipment at two airports, Ornskoldsvik and Sundsvall, about 100 miles apart, to be controlled from a single facility. The certification process will begin in January, and LFV expects approval from Sweden’s air safety regulator by June or July. Saab Sensis has other remote tower projects under way in Australia and Norway.

What may be the first remote or virtual tower in this country is a proposed virtual tower for Beckley airport in West Virginia. This month the Raleigh County Memorial Airport Authority board is due to vote on a proposal it requested from Florida-based Quadrex Aviation to implement such a facility, assuming FAA approval. I have been unable to obtain a copy of the proposal, but it would apparently provide automated information to pilots, using a model Quadrex calls Synthetic Air Traffic Advisory System (SATAS). This appears to be quite different from what FAA and LFV have tested.

In today’s strained fiscal environment, the remote tower concept has many potential applications. Saab Sensis told Aviation Week that it is talking with one potential customer with 42 low-volume airports that it would like to manage from six virtual control centers. With remote towers, small airports with conventional towers that shut down at night due to low traffic could move to 24/7 operation, with several of them operated from a single remote center. And smaller airports in danger of losing their tower due to declining traffic volume could replace the tower with services from a remote location serving several airports.

A number of proposed towers for medium and large airports should be re-thought, given the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of remote towers. Airport expansion at places like O’Hare and Los Angeles International means that out-the-window visibility of all portions of the airport will be impaired. Rather than adding a second tower (as ORD has already done) or a third tower (as is now planned there), conversion to an all-airport virtual tower operation would be far more cost-effective.

The fiscal constraints facing both ANSPs and airlines make it imperative that air traffic control productivity be increased, offering aviation customers more bang for the buck. Remote towers, as a fine example of managing traffic “anywhere from anywhere,” should play an important role in such productivity increases.

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More Cost-Effective Radar?

One of the big advantages of ADS-B surveillance over conventional radar is that the former provides position updates about once every second, compared with once every 6 to 12 seconds with a rotating radar antenna. At 500 mph, an aircraft traverses 733 feet per second, so the radar-derived position shown on a controller’s display could be thousands of feet different from the plane’s actual position as identified by ADS-B. Some of the earliest NextGen concepts envisioned replacing all radars with ADS-B, but since ADS-B will not pick up “non-cooperative” targets (a plane illegally not equipped, which could be a threat), national security reasons will require that a set of primary radars remain in place indefinitely.

Keeping a portion of the radar network in place reduces the cost savings once envisioned under NextGen. But could existing 20th-century radars be replaced with a more cost-effective version? Besides their slow scanning rate, traditional ground-based radars are also costly to repair and maintain. Both problems result from their being large mechanical systems. Yet non-rotating, solid-state radars have been in use in the military for decades.

That idea lies behind an ongoing project at Georgia Tech. The FAA and the National Weather Service are sponsoring work by the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) and MIT’s Lincoln Lab on the feasibility of replacing several types of ATC and weather radars with a multi-function phased-array radar. The concept is called a Multi-function Phased Array Radar (MPAR). GTRI’s current contract is looking into the engineering feasibility of combining airport surveillance radar, air route surveillance radar, Doppler radar weather radar, and NWS’s NEXRAD long-range weather radar.

GTRI researcher Tracy Wallace told Air Traffic Management that the central question, to be addressed after technical feasibility, is cost. The final decision, he said, will depend on affordability, based on whether the life-cycle cost savings offset the initial cost of buying and installing numerous new phased-array radars. Antenna cost and effectiveness, as well as the cost of software development, must all be factored into that assessment. A final FAA decision on whether to proceed with something like MPAR is not expected until 2017 or later.

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News Notes

CANSO Offers ATM Jobs Board. The Civil Air Navigation Services Organization is now operating an online search tool to help air traffic controllers and managers link up with air navigation service providers  (ANSPs) with job openings. Controller shortages are a problem in parts of Europe and elsewhere. Interested parties can subscribe at www.canso.org/subscribe.

NATS to Assist Harris Corp. with Data Communications. The U.S. division of NATS, Britain’s ANSP, has become part of the Harris Corporation team that will implement the Data Communications element of NextGen, under the FAA’s Data Communications Integrated Services (DCIS) contract. NATS Inc. will develop new operational procedures and help the team to communicate the goals and benefits of DataComm to airlines and other stakeholders.

Avtech Bringing Advanced ATC Concepts to the Middle East. A division of Avtech (which is deeply involved in performance-based navigation efforts in Europe) will work with the Gulf Center for Aviation Studies (GCAS) to offer training programs focused on performance-based operations, collaborative decision-making, etc. in Abu Dhabi. GCAS is a division of ADAC, the largest airport operator in the United Arab Emirates; it created GCAS in 2009 to provide 21st-century aviation training programs in the Middle East.

Boeing Developing Technology to Enhance GPS Signals. The Naval Research Laboratory has awarded Boeing a follow-on contract to optimize the High Integrity GPS (HIGPS) technology it developed and tested under a previous contract. HIGPS uses the Iridium satellite constellation to enhance satellite navigation when GPS signals are either unavailable or interfered with. New software for the Iridium satellites enables them to broadcast GPS-aiding signals anywhere in the world, even in RF signal-restrictive areas or during jamming attempts. HIGPS receivers will get improved signal integrity, increased precision, and greater jamming resistance.

DHS Proposes Toll Booths to Detect GPS Jammers. The well-known problem of GPS interference with the signals needed by a newly installed GPS landing system at Newark Airport took the FAA and FCC nearly a year and a half to resolve, by identifying a truck driver on the nearby New Jersey Turnpike using a GPS jammer. At a workshop on synchronization in telecommunications systems last spring, John Merrill of the Department of Homeland Security proposed that one way to detect and apprehend such jammers (which are illegal) would be to equip toll booths (or overhead gantries, in the case of all-electronic tolling) with jamming detectors linked with the video cameras already in place for toll-enforcement purposes. The civil liberties implications were apparently not discussed.

ICAO to Address Controller Fatigue. The International Civil Aviation Organization plans to take up controller fatigue later this year. ICAO’s Richard MacFarlane told the Air Traffic Control Association’s annual meeting earlier this month that the organization will hold a meeting in December to discuss possible application of its Fatigue Risk Management System, developed for flight and cabin crews, to air traffic controllers. MacFarlane said that while the FRMS had been developed for airline crews, the methodology was designed to apply to all safety-critical personnel, including controllers and maintenance engineers.

Error Regarding Sequestration. Rich Efford of the Aerospace Industries Association pointed out an error in both this newsletter and Aviation Week regarding OMB’s estimated budget cuts under the impending federal budget sequestration. The $377 million cut to FAA’s Operations budget that both publications reported is only the general fund share of sequestered funds. Sequestration would also cut the Trust Fund share of the Operations budget, for a total cut of $792 million. Thus, if the FAA were to avoid cutbacks to controllers by shifting funds from its Facilities & Equipment budget, the impact on NextGen would be that much larger.

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Quotable Quotes

“In our region, I expect a lot of international initiatives to appear because of Borealis. Eventually, old-style national delivery of ATC will be overtaken by a Nordic or international European delivery, resulting in tasks being completed in joint ventures or by one company on behalf of others. The development that will provide the most benefits will ultimately come from working with partners.”
—Morton Dambaek, CEO of Naviair and Chairman of NUAC, in Karl Vadaszffy, “A Fab First for Europe,” Air Traffic Technology International 2013, p. 42.

“The Single European Sky was born out of a political desire to increase air traffic capacity by a factor of three, to reduce unit costs by half, to improve the environmental effect, and to increase safety. The EU governments set and agreed in law performance targets that cannot be achieved without structural changes at a national level. Air traffic capacity and cost is a function of many factors—more runways, less airspace complexity, consistent technologies and procedures, fewer restrictive labor practices, to name a few. Hard decisions will have to be made. Airspace users have a key role to play. Wherever you are based, it’s worth taking a close look at your ATC provider, understanding how it is structured, who the shareholders are, their political constraints, and their agreed objectives.”
—Graham Lake, former Director General, CANSO, in Airline Business, October 2012

“The concept of ‘best-equipped, best-served,’ or BEBS, has been attracting a great deal of attention and debate in the realm of operational and financial benefits delivery, and the encouragement of equipage in the NAS [National Airspace System]. True realization of measurable, operational benefits will come when the technology investments are synchronized with accompanying policies, procedures, and incentives that allow full utilization of those new capabilities. One of the most critical steps to achieving quantifiable benefits will be the agreement on, and implementation of, a set of BEBS techniques as quickly as possible.”
—Fred Messina, Booz Allen Hamilton, in “NextGen, NowGen,” Air Traffic Management, Issue 3, 2012

“[Free Flight] sounds great; there is sufficient technology for some of it, but the FAA is an agency pulled in two different directions. One is the operation of the National Airspace System, where ideas like Free Flight are constantly born; the other is the regulatory side where safety is the only element worthy of discussion. It’s very hard when you consider just how a free-flight system would operate while maintaining the current or even improved levels of safety. Consider current separation standards. It’s still five miles or three miles and 1,000 feet vertically. It has never changed! How is it that so much progress has been made in terms of RNP, RNAV, flight management systems, and ADS-B—the list goes on—yet separation standards remain unchanged? If we can’t get the standards adjusted by the regulator side of FAA with use of this new technology now, we are not likely to enjoy the full benefits it provides.”
—Jack Kies, Metron Aviation, in “Free  Flight,” Air Traffic Technology International 2013, p. 160

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





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