Air Traffic Control Newsletter #106

Budget pressures and ATC reform, Funding ATC like we fund airports, Controller fatigue and the FAA budget

In this issue:

Budget Straits Spur Calls for ATC Reform

Even if a partial government shutdown is avoided On October 1st, the worsening federal budget outlook portends further cuts to the FAA's budget for FY 2014 (and beyond, since the sequester is a 10-year program). And the impact of those cuts on both FAA operations and the NextGen modernization efforts is ramping up talk of reforming the funding and governance of the air traffic control system.

At a meeting of the NextGen Institute on Sept. 24, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta warned of further budget cuts that would delay a number of key NextGen programs. Several weeks before, at the Reuters Aerospace and Defense Summit, former Administrator Marion Blakey (now CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association) noted that the usual pattern when government agencies face budget cuts is to preserve current operations, which means "what has to go is the R&D, the investments." And controllers union NATCA is among those who have noted that even if the new FAA budget avoids controller furloughs, it may still delay such efforts as implementing ERAM at the remaining Centers and implementing performance based navigation (PBN) procedures at key Metroplex airports—due to lack of time and money for collaborative work groups and training.

The RTCA's NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC) last week sent a set of priority recommendations to Administrator Huerta, at his request. In essence, it's an exercise in triage, urging the FAA to protect funding for several key near-term efforts, including PBN implementation at Metroplex airports, multiple runway operations (on closely-spaced parallel runways), time-based flow management, data-sharing for airport surface operations, and implementing revised wake vortex separation standards. Among programs likely to be delayed (or "shifted to the right" on schedule charts) are Datacom, en-route PBN, and ADS-B/Out with reduced separation. And ones almost certain to be deferred until flusher budgets include in-trail procedures via ADS-B, oceanic user requests, and SWIM. The United States was already about a decade behind Canada in implementing digital data communications between pilots and controllers and a half-decade behind Europe; these likely cuts will make that even worse.

There is also considerable concern about FAA's aging facilities and ground-based navigation aids, which will have to be kept in service many years longer as capital budgets are squeezed. For example, the FAA's estimate back in June of when its overall facility consolidation will be completed was 2034. Since the agency has yet to issue the overall plan required by last year's FAA reauthorization bill, we can only guess at how much further to the right that completion date may be pushed—which means that several decades of Facilities & Equipment money must go for interim maintenance and refurbishment instead of modern replacement facilities.

A number of knowledgeable observers are now stating publicly what many have been saying privately for several years. At Aviation Week's NextGen Ahead conference earlier this month, JetBlue COO Rob Maruster said flatly that FAA has a credibility problem, which causes airlines to hesitate about spending money to equip their planes with technology they might not benefit from until years in the future. GAO Director of Civil Aviation Issues Gerald Dillingham noted this problem and pointed out it's not really a new issue. "We've looked at FAA for decades, and part of the problem is the culture—and it's very hard to change the culture."

And those thoughts led Dillingham to make several widely quoted comments. "There are conversations taking place among the stakeholders. All things are on the table, including privatization or corporatization," he told Bloomberg.com, repeating comments he'd made at the conference. Former FAA official Nancy Graham, now at ICAO, speaking as an individual, said that ATC commercialization has been "very, very effective" at a number of air navigation service providers (ANSPs) in other countries. "It provides a business sense, and it provides the business tools that enable private floating of bonds and borrowing of money that enables business decisions." And former FAA official George Donohue, now at George Mason University, told Bloomberg that insulating air traffic management from politics would speed technology development while also providing more-reliable funding for it.

But would Congress consider such a major change? At the Aviation Week conference, Holly Woodruff Lyons of the House Aviation Subcommittee said that both Transportation & Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R, PA) and subcommittee Chair Frank Lo Biondo (R, NJ) are concerned about FAA's ability to modernize the system and are "very interested in thinking big" about alternatives. Bloomberg reporter Alan Levin summarized the successes achieved by Nav Canada as an example of what might be possible if the FAA's Air Traffic Organization were likewise corporatized and made self-funding, with access to the bond market. He also cited NATCA President Paul Rinaldi's comments at a June conference to the effect that Nav Canada is among the options US aviation stakeholders should be discussing.

Donohue was one of the key FAA leaders who promoted the Clinton Administration's ATC corporation proposal, which died in Congress in1994-5. He told Bloomberg that while corporatization of the ATO may still be a long-shot, today's budget pressures make a transformation of this kind more probable than ever before.

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Funding ATC the Way We Do Airports

The idea that the customers of an ATC system should pay for it directly, based on their use, still seems strange to many U.S. policymakers. Yet that is precisely how U.S. airports are paid for, in a system that works remarkably well.

The large majority of a commercial airport's budget comes from revenues derived directly from airlines and passengers. Airlines pay landing fees and space rentals, while passengers directly pay passenger facility charges (PFCs) and parking fees, and pay indirectly by patronizing airport retail establishments. Yes, there is a federal airport grant program, but for large, medium, and small hub airports, such grants cover only a fraction of an airport's capital costs for airside and landside improvements. Most airport capital expenditures are financed by the issuance of long-term revenue bonds, the debt service on which is covered by the airport's array of revenues from airlines and passengers.

Until the mid-1980s, only two U.S. hub airports departed from this model: Dulles and National Airport serving the Washington, DC metro area. Those two airports were owned by the federal government and housed within the FAA. Their budgets were line items in the FAA's annual budget that had to be appropriated each year by Congress. Yes, IAD and DCA charged landing fees and space rentals and generated concession revenue. But all those dollars were handed over to the US Treasury. There was no connection between the revenues the two airports generated and the annual budgets appropriated for them by Congress. Since they did not control their revenues, the airports could not issue bonds for capital improvements.

To put it plainly, that system did not work very well. Those with long memories will remember the ancient and grossly inadequate terminal at DCA, which badly needed replacement but never seemed to make it into the FAA budget. The idea of divesting the "DC two" from the FAA, so they could operate like real airports, had been proposed several times. But it was only when Elizabeth Dole became Secretary of Transportation that the idea gained traction. Dole created a commission to study not whether to divest the airports but how to get it done. And after several years of hard work, she succeeded. In 1986, Congress enacted the legislation that divested DCA and IAD from the FAA to the newly created Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which assumed control of the airports in 1987. With control of the airports' revenues and with new bonding authority, MWAA developed the great new terminal at DCA, doubled the size of the main terminal at IAD and expanded its midfield terminals. The divestiture transformed the two airports.

The FAA's Air Traffic Organization is in a similar position today. Unlike all the other air navigation service providers of the developed world, it has no control over the revenues that are used to support its capital and operating costs. Its budget is whatever Congress manages to appropriate each year. Lacking control of its revenues, it cannot finance major capital programs by issuing revenue bonds. Moving the ATO out of the FAA and reconstituting it as a self-funding ATC corporation would be directly analogous to what Congress did in 1986 in freeing the DC airports. And based on the experience of self-funded ANSPs overseas, we have every reason to expect the results to be equally positive for modernization.

Note: The best account of the transformation of the DC airports is the history written by recently retired MWAA CEO James Wilding in 2006. With his permission, I have posted a condensed version at http://reason.org/files/atc_excerpts.pdf.  I urge you to read this fascinating account.

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Addressing Controller Fatigue—and FAA's Operations Budget

As long-time readers of this newsletter will recall, I have several times criticized the FAA, in its safety regulator role, for devoting more attention to problems of pilot fatigue than of controller fatigue. But according to a recent report from the DOT Office of Inspector General, the FAA has made progress on dealing with controller fatigue. The details are in report AV-2013-120, "FAA's Controller Scheduling Practices Can Impact Human Fatigue, Controller Performance, and Agency Costs," Aug. 27, 2013.

This report devotes considerable attention to reviewing recent human factors research on the relationship between shift schedules and human alertness and performance. It includes graphs from the FAA's Fatigue Risk Management Work Group quantifying decreases in performance during midnight shifts for four different controller schedules: 2-2-1 counter-clockwise rotation, 2-2-1 clockwise rotation, weekly rotation, and straight midnight shifts. The 2-2-1 clockwise rotation presents the least fatigue risk, but this alternative has been unpopular with controllers because it reduces the amount of time off-duty between work weeks.  FAA has chosen not to mandate use of this least-risky schedule, but has instead increased the minimum time off between shifts from eight hours to nine hours (but the report also finds this change is not always being enforced).

A second key finding from research on shift rotations and fatigue is that fatigue can be mitigated with napping during the midnight shift. FAA's former policy forbade controllers to sleep "while on duty." After the much publicized "sleeping controller" incidents, the wording was changed to say that "Personnel performing watch supervision duties shall not condone or permit individuals to sleep during any period duties are assigned." The OIG report points out that this language is ambiguous, and that naps during midnight shifts are allowed at some facilities but not others.

The third key finding is that part of the answer to fatigue on midnight shifts is to eliminate midnight shifts at those facilities that should not be open all night due to very low aviation activity. The FAA itself has identified 72 such facilities that do not meet long-established activity levels justifying all-night staffing, but which are still in operation, including 20 that had a second controller added at night via a DOT policy decision in response to the political flap over "sleeping controllers." It appears that FAA took that course rather than not operating the facilities at night due to at least 26 previous instances of political pressure exerted by members of Congress to keep such facilities open at night.

The OIG report suggests that FAA consider adhering to its own performance standard, which would also save an unspecified amount of the Operations budget by shutting down those 72 facilities overnight. And these are not all little control towers in out-of-the-way places. Exhibit C in the OIG report lists the 20 that had only a single controller on the midnight shift prior to the DOT order to add a second one. They include towers such as Burbank, Ft. Lauderdale, Ontario, Reno, Richmond, Sacramento, San Diego, San Juan, Tucson, and Washington National, as well as TRACONS at Omaha and Pensacola. Shutting all 72 such facilities overnight would both reduce controller fatigue and prevent other cuts in the Operations budget. That sounds like a win-win to me.  

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Europe's Single Sky in Big Trouble

From the outset, the idea of creating a Single European Sky for air traffic management has entailed a basic contradiction. A key goal, in addition to modernization of technologies and procedures (a la NextGen in this country) is to increase the efficiency or productivity of European ATC provision to U.S. levels. Given that Europe has 40-odd ANSPs (compared to our one), about 17,000 controllers compared to our 15,000, and 64 en-route centers compared to our 20--but only 60% as many flights--achieving this goal would mean doubling IFR flights per controller. And since air traffic is not growing very much in Europe, that would require large-scale consolidation of ATC facilities and reductions in the overall workforce.

Until recently, the plan for achieving that productivity increase has consisted of two parts. First, consolidate the airspace into nine functional airspace blocks (FABs). And second, impose annual cost-reduction targets on the numerous ANSPs. The latter is the stick, while the former is supposedly the carrot. But so far the cost-reduction targets have not been met, and the FABs exist largely on paper, with very little real functional consolidation and no cross-border consolidation of any centers.

In frustration, the European Commission in June released a new proposal, called SES2+. Among other things, it seeks to enforce the cost-reduction targets but also proposes an alternative to large-scale cross-border consolidation of ANSPs and facilities. Under a new "Centralized Services" approach, Eurocontrol in its role as Network Manager would take over some or all of nine specific ATC functions from the ANSPs (such as 4-D trajectory flight profile calculation and data communications services; Eurocontrol already operates Europe-wide en-route billing services). Eurocontrol would either operate these services itself or put them out to bid (with bids presumably coming from the more entrepreneurial ANSPs or from the private sector).

SES2+ has produced mostly negative reactions from aviation stakeholders. Understandably, many ANSPs feel threatened by what they see as dismemberment, and many object to continued cost-reduction targets, on the grounds that their traffic and revenue have been shrinking, making it harder for them to afford needed technology upgrades if they cut their rates. CANSO, which represents the ANSPs, has called on individual European governments to agree on uniform regulations for air traffic management, for rationalizing airspace independent of national borders, and for allowing ANSPs to operate as normal businesses. Presumably the latter would include allowing cross-border mergers and acquisitions, as well as leaving ANSPs free to close down redundant facilities as business, rather than political, decisions.

But the harshest reactions have come from aviation unions. Back in June, the radical European Transport Workers Federation (ETF) issued a blistering condemnation of SES2+, saying that it "cannot accept a unique model for FAB establishment based on consolidation and integration of service provision, which will reduce the number of ANSPs and control centers, the State authority and sovereignty, and the number of jobs." A more moderate response came from a much larger set of four union groups: ATCEUC (on behalf of 28 unions representing 14,000 controllers), ECA (European cockpit unions representing 38,000 pilots), IFATCA (a global organization of controller unions representing over 50,000 controllers in 134 countries), and IFATSEA (the organization of ATC electronics specialists, with 20,000 members in 50 countries). Their detailed statement objected to the lack of a shared vision for the Single European Sky, lamented states' dragging their feet on FABs, called for a reform of the charging regime to ensure better funding despite declining air traffic, and called for "adequate consultation of and input from stakeholders" as preconditions for successful reform. Their statement also pointed out the contradiction between an integrated, Europe-wide system and national ANSP performance targets.

But this month comes word that ATCEUC is calling for its 14,000 members to join a pan-European action (presumably meaning strike) on October 10th, protesting against SES2+. This follows a previous "action day" by the more radical ETF on June 12th. In its news release, ATCEUC adopted the kind of language previously used by EFT, lambasting SES2+ for seeking to "liberalize the provision of air navigation services, to deregulate the working conditions of thousands of staff, and eventually to put this essential public interest service in the hands of a few wealthy individuals and companies that have been lobbying to this effect"—presumably a reference to either ANSP mergers or Eurocontrol outsourcing.

The bottom line is that a Single European Sky, in a meaningful sense, looks farther off than ever.

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Retaining Ground-Based Navigation Aids

In August, the FCC levied a $38,000 fine on the man whose truck-mounted GPS jammer interfered with the ground-based [GPS] augmentation system at Newark Airport. Jamming like this, mostly from trucks on the adjacent I-95, had prevented use of the GBAS for precision landings at Newark, until the equipment was relocated to avoid the interference.

That incident highlighted the vulnerability of a great deal of the NextGen program to interference with the GPS signals on which key systems such as ADS-B depend. The problem is so large that the FAA has dramatically revised its original plans for NextGen, part of whose business case was to have been the retirement of much of the aging and costly-to-maintain ground-based navigation aids: VORs, NDBs, DMEs, ILSs, and potentially most of the radars (except for enough primary radars for the military to be able to spot and track "non-cooperative" targets).

FAA is now well along on its plan for an Alternative Position, Navigation, and Timing (APNT) system to provide basic navigation in the event that GPS signals are not available. While some decisions are still to be made, it appears that about half of the 1,047 VORs will be retained (and probably be replaced with newer models). All existing ILSs will be kept in operation, rather than being replaced with GBASs. And while NDBs are in the process of being phased out, DMEs are considered essential for both airlines and general aviation in a non-GPS environment. In addition, all secondary surveillance radars (which interrogate aircraft transponders) will be retained, rather than being replaced by the ADS-B system, which means planes will need both ADS-B/Out and their existing transponder. Put it all together, and one whole piece of the cost-savings part of the business case for NextGen has been wiped out.

Because GPS is needed for a vast array of functions in the rest of the economy (including its vital timing signals), an aviation-only solution to GPS vulnerability is quite possibly sub-optimal, as economists would say. Because of this larger concern, the Administration has asked the National Space-Based Position, Navigation, and Timing Advisory Board to assist with a project led by the Department of Homeland Security to update the National Infrastructure Protection Plan. As part of a multi-agency effort, the National Coordination Office (NCO) for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing has asked the PNT Advisory Board to monitor the progress of these efforts and advise them on alternative approaches. Brad Parkinson of Stanford University, considered the father of GPS, co-chairs the Advisory Board. He told Inside GNSS that he was alarmed to find that "there are some people, apparently within the federal government, who are talking about GPS in ways that I don't think are enlightened or constructive." He told the board about one official who'd encountered the view that "GPS is so vulnerable that it had to be abandoned and replaced—which is a pretty extreme view."

Under Parkinson's leadership, an interagency task force in 2007 produced a report examining a wide range of alternatives for backing up the position, navigation, and timing functions of GPS for all users. Its conclusion at that time was that a modernized version of LORAN (called eLORAN) was the best overall solution. But for reasons that have never been explained, that approach was abandoned by the Obama Administration early in the President's first term. In the past year, however, both South Korea and the UK have begun deploying eLORAN as their GPS backup.

Several aviation experts I've been in touch with disagree that eLORAN is best for aviation, and the FAA has a study under way for an alternative to its current plan to retain large portions of its legacy navaids for GPS backup. One alternative is wide angle multilateration (WAM), as recently implemented to provide radar-like aircraft separation in mountainous regions of Colorado. Another might be developed based on a large network of "pseudolites"—such as the system developed by Australian company Locata; its system includes a precise timing signal.

Retaining legacy navaids strikes me as a very poor solution to GPS vulnerability. It's costly to maintain, provides only basic navigation, and leaves all the myriad other GPS users to find some other solution. Surely we can do better than that.

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Upcoming Conferences

58th Annual ATCA Conference and Exhibition, Oct. 21-23, 2013, Gaylord National Resort & Conference Center, National Harbor, MD (Robert Poole speaking). Details at: www.atca.org/58annual

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News Notes

Competing Bids for Stake in NATS. U.K. news reports say the £200 million stake in British ANSP NATS will go either to Germany's DFS or to a UK pension fund. The German ANSP has reportedly submitted the highest bid, but the bid from Universities Superannuation Scheme (US) is favored by some members of the Airline Group, which owns 42% of NATS, of which a portion is on offer. A win by DFS is seen by some as a step toward a possible future merger of NATS and DFS. A previous bid by the Irish Aviation Authority was withdrawn in August.

Airservices Selects Metron for Collaborative Decision Making. After helping ANSP Airservices Australia deploy air traffic flow management (ATFM) domestically, Metron Aviation has been selected to assist the ANSP in working with international stakeholders on collaborative decision making (CDM). The aim is to target the arrival time of international flights dynamically, to save time and reduce fuel consumption.

Lisbon Airport Expands Multilateraton System. SaabSensis has completed the expansion of the wide area multilateration (WAM) system at Lisbon International Airport to provide surveillance in the terminal maneuvering area. Previously the system had been used for surface movement guidance and control between the runways and the terminal area. With additional sensors in the latter area, it now supplements the terminal area radar to keep track of aircraft and ground vehicles.

Honeywell to Provide Real-Time In-Flight Monitoring. Keeping track of aircraft "health" in flight worldwide is the aim of a new system being developed by Honeywell. Based on its recently FAA-certified HUMS monitoring system for helicopters, the company plans to offer a similar service to airlines, using Inmarsat's Global Express satellite network. The "health and usage monitoring system" will be offered to airlines and business jet operators.

Airways NZ Deploys Integrated Flow Management & Arrivals System. In what it says is the "world's first deployment of an integrated flow management and arrival management system," Airways New Zealand announced on September 6th that the system has been deployed and is now operational. Barco Orthogon developed collaborative flow management (CFM) system aimed at reducing delays and optimizing flight profiles for arrivals into Auckland's international airport. The project integrated Barco's OSYRIS arrival manager into Airways' Collaborative Flow Manager.

WAM System Expands in Colorado. Three more Colorado airports—Durango, Gunnison, and Telluride—have joined the wide area multilateration system that brings radar-like surveillance to airports where radar coverage has not been possible due to mountainous terrain. The Colorado Surveillance Project is a joint effort of the Colorado DOT and the FAA. Airports previously in the program are Montrose (2012) and Rifle, Craig, Steamboat Springs, and Hayden (2010). The WAM system provides surveillance information to controllers at Denver Center in Longmont.

NASA Contracts for NextGen Operational Challenges. System technology gaps that have been identified in NextGen planning will be addressed by Boeing, Honeywell, Rockwell Collins, and SaabSensis, each of which has received a $9.5 million, two-year contract. A focus of the research will be increasing situational awareness by controllers and pilots via real-time electronic information. Human factors will be an important part of the research, which is to include both simulations and flight tests.

Brazil Contracts for RNP Procedures for 10 Airports. Brazilian ANSP Decea has contracted with GE Aviation to develop public-use RNP procedures at 10 key airports, including those in Brasilia, Sao Paulo, and Santos. GOL will be the launch airline for the effort, and thanks to reduced flight tracks expects to save $24 million over five years just at Brasilia. The RNP procedures will be developed on a city-pairs basis among the 10 airports, leading to shorter routes in addition to shorter approach paths.

FAA NextGen Plan Available Only Online. The 2013 version of FAA's NextGen Implementation Plan was released in mid-June and is now all-electronic It can be accessed at www.faa.gov/nextgen/implementation.

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Quotable Quotes

“There is a big difference between a governmental enterprise that employs business- like techniques to pursue its mission, and an enterprise that really is a business. During its federal days the [Washington, DC] airports organization used business-like techniques to operate, but was, in reality, a government operation. It relied on appropriations, had no real link between its revenue and expenses, used governmental personnel compensation systems, etc. After transfer to the Authority, we were, in fact a business. There is a world of difference. Governmental operations are set up a certain way for a reason and they march to the beat of a certain drummer. Businesses march to the tune of a different drummer, again for good reasons. The airport experience has made me much more aware of the perils of trying to mix those two different models in a single mission. No matter how important or how complex the mission, those in any organization deserve and need absolute clarity on who they are, why they are doing what they are doing, and what tools are available to them. I am very skeptical that a mixed model can deliver those answers. The unfortunate, and largely unwarranted, disdain for ‘government’ in many places has pushed some organizations in government towards a nether world between the two models. I am thinking in particular about the evolution in recent years of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization. My concern is that the overlapping beats of the different drummers is more likely to obstruct rather than assist an organization that tries to keep one foot in each model.”
—James A. Wilding, “A History of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and of Its Two Airports, National and Dulles,” August 2006

“Lack of a yardstick for measuring the operating efficiency of the ATC system in terms of the services provided is highlighted by RTCA SC-104 report. In the 1955-1960 period, civil aircraft registrations increased 39.3%, while CAA/FAA costs per aircraft increased 244.5%. IFR traffic handled grew 25.3% from 1957 to 1962, while CAA/FAA costs of providing this service grew by 223.8%.”
—Jessica A. Salerno, “August 1963 News,” Business & Commercial Aviation, August 2013

“In the UK, there is a consultation under way to consider [a technical and regulatory framework for wireless communication on mobile platforms]. The aviation regulatory community should watch and learn. . . . The aviation industry might then have the good grace to hang its head in shame. Passengers on aircraft will be able to talk to the ground, use the internet to look at news and . . . weather. Meanwhile, in the front of the aircraft, the pilots will rely on forecasts several hours old and then try to decipher instructions sent to them by controllers on VHF radios. ‘Safety’ says the aviation industry smugly. Aviation has special spectrum protected by being in the ‘safety of life’ bands. Because knowing what is going on, having up-to-date and accurate weather information and being able to communicate simply is clearly not safe. . . . So, at the front of the plane, the really important part of the aircraft, we carry on as if it is 1950, because we don’t want competition or innovation.”
—Andrew Charlton, “Aviation Regulation: Refusing to Answer the Call?” Aviation Intelligence Reporter, September 2012

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





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