Air Traffic Control Newsletter #108

Support grows for U.S. ATC corporation, Not much progress on Single European Sky, Reducing arrival delays at San Francisco

In this issue:

Support Builds for U.S. ATC Corporation

Previous issues of this newsletter have reported a growing number of U.S. aviation stakeholder leaders expressing dismay with FAA's dire budgetary situation and the outlook for further cuts, threatening NextGen, facility consolidation, and contract towers. As early as February, the FAA's own Management Advisory Council (MAC) had called for replacement of the current aviation funding system with one that is sustainable and independent of federal budget vicissitudes, as well as the creation of a governing board representing aviation stakeholders.

But in recent weeks, the MAC has moved beyond that initial position. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta had briefed the MAC's 11 members on some of the steps the agency has had to take this year to cope with budget cuts. They include:

  • Postponing various NextGen activities and due dates, including final implementation of ERAM and further progress on the Metroplex initiative;
  • Implementing a hiring freeze;
  • Temporarily closing the FAA Academy, halting the training of new controllers;
  • Deferring maintenance and stretching out inspection of navaids;
  • Shifting $253 million from the AIP grant program to the Operations account, so as to keep 147 contract towers from closing and ending controller furloughs.

He also reported that deferred maintenance already totals $6 billion. And there is good reason to expect the budget situation to be even worse next calendar year, assuming the next sequestration cuts are not averted by an overall budget deal in Congress.

Building on three years of discussions on FAA budget and governance issues, the MAC has now adopted by unanimous vote a revised set of four guiding principles for reform (which I am reproducing verbatim from MAC member Stephen VanBeek's recent article from LeighFisher's Global Outlook (Oct. 11, 2013):

  1. Create a sustainable financial future for the FAA: The most important goal is to establish a funding system that provides dedicated and sufficient user-based revenues to pay for FAA obligations. MAC members believe that general fund support for the aviation industry should be phased out as soon as possible in order to insulate the agency and the provision of user services from day-to-day politics.
  2. Separate a new commercialized Air Traffic Organization (ATO) from the FAA: Modeled after other Air Navigation Service Providers (such as Nav Canada), separate the service-oriented ATO from the FAA and appoint a board consisting of users and aviation stakeholders to oversee [the ATO's] work. MAC members strongly believe that ATO reform must be accompanied by overall aviation policy reform due to the links between policy and funding decisions.
  3. Assess and codify FAA authorities and programs: Simplify statutes, regulations, and policy by reviewing existing rules and procedures and eliminating redundant regulatory oversight. MAC members believe that this process will result in significant savings to the FAA and will obviate the need for a near-term increase in user revenues after the phase-out of general fund support.
  4. Reform the tax structure: Eliminate the current mix of AATF taxes and fees and replace it with transparent schedules of cost-based fees that provide sufficient funding for services such as air traffic control and aircraft certification. MAC members believe that new schedules should be (1) revenue neutral and (2) flexible in their administration in order to gain the confidence of stakeholders and facilitate the transition to the new system.

VanBeek closes his article by mentioning MAC discussions with aviation stakeholders, whose response to these ideas has been generally positive. That's because the stakeholder groups appreciate the dire (and worsening) situation facing the FAA, the ATC system, and NextGen. This situation has not gone unnoticed overseas. The latest Global Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum ranked the U.S. 31st out of 142 nations in the quality of its ATC infrastructure, down from 12th in 2008

The think tank community is also stepping up its involvement in ATC reform. The Eno Transportation Center released a report this month, "Addressing Future Capacity Needs in the U.S. Aviation System." Among other things, it calls for separating the ATO from FAA and possibly corporatizing it as a nonprofit corporation. The Hudson Institute next month will release a study assessing the relatively low level of innovation in the US ATC system and recommending reform of ATC governance and funding.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta has opened the door for discussions along these lines. In a much-discussed speech before the Aero Club of Washington, he called upon his aviation audience as follows: "One thing I think is vitally important is for the aviation industry to start having serious conversations about the structure of our aviation system, as well as the way we fund it, In the past, we have had debates over how to fund our system. I have heard from many of you that these discussions, which have historically been difficult, are starting to happen. And that's significant."

Having written about ATC reform since the early 1980s, I have never seen conditions so ripe for major change.

Note: Steve VanBeek's article is available at www.leighfisher-globaloutlook.com/feature/Aviation/Americas/1615/Now-is-the-time-for-aviation-policy-reform

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Not Much Progress on Single European Sky

In September I reported on the strongly negative reaction of many ANSPs to the European Commission's new plan for "shared services": having Eurocontrol take over a number of ATC-related functions from the ANSPs (presumably services with large economies of scale) and provide them centrally to all European airspace. This approach was proposed as an alternative to the plan for "functional airspace blocks" (FABs) intended to yield economies of scale by merging the airspace of groups of ANSPs and expecting them to consolidate facilities within the FABs. Thus far, the FABs exist mostly on paper.

Last month Eurocontrol announced that it is going ahead with shared services, after having met with the transport ministers of most EU countries the month before to discuss the program. Director General Frank Brenner told the transport ministers that his agency's cost-benefit analyses show that implementing shared services can save €1.5 to €2 billion over a 10-year period, helping to achieve the EU cost-reduction targets for ATC in Europe.

That has not dissuaded the union organization representing the majority of controllers' unions in Europe. Although ATCEUC called off its previously planned Oct. 10th Europe-wide controllers' strike, the organization has continued to argue that the ATC cost-reduction targets are "over-ambitious, unrealistic, and could put lives at risk." It argues, simply, that "If [ATC] costs are reduced, the risks will increase. Collisions may become more likely. People who are flying should be made aware of this. This is not a price worth paying." While that sounds like over-heated rhetoric, depending on how costs are cut there could be negative safety implications. If controllers are required to handle more traffic and/or work longer hours, with nothing else changed, that could lead to increased fatigue and hence more errors. But that is where productivity-increasing technology could play a significant role—such as providing more sophisticated decision aids to controllers, substituting digital communications for voice, and automating some routine aspects of separation.

While these dramas are playing out, there are bits and pieces of progress to report. The ANSPs of 10 countries, from the Baltics to the Black Sea, have signed a strategic agreement to work together as GATE ONE to provide greater interoperability of technical and airspace systems. The agreement covers the entire airspace of three FABs: Baltic FAB, Danube FAB, and FAB Central Europe. The GATE ONE ANSPs support the goal of a Single European Sky, but point out that the draft regulations for the latest version (SES II+) need "further refinement and detailed evaluation and justification of its elements before it can be put into effect."

French ANSP DSNA announced earlier this month that it has completed consolidation of the lower airspace in the South of France, with approach control for four commercial airports now provided 24/7 by the Montpellier facility rather than each airport separately. And Swiss ANSP Skyguide this month announced the implementation of "electronic coordination" between its two en-route centers (Geneva and Zürich), as a step towards eliminating paper flight strips. One would think that if SES were being taken seriously, a country as small as Switzerland could get by with one en-route center.

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Reducing SFO's Arrivals Delay Problem

Early in my career as a policy analyst, I had to fly from Santa Barbara to San Francisco for a late-morning meeting. I got a very early flight, but as we approached the Bay Area, the cockpit crew announced that SFO was socked in and we could not land. We circled for what seemed like well over an hour and finally put down at San Jose. After a very long and expensive cab ride, I got to the downtown San Francisco office building just as the meeting was breaking up. The entire trip was a waste.

Modest relief is in store for those heading to SFO, since the FAA implemented a new procedure on Sept. 30th aimed at increasing the arrival rate at SFO during low-visibility conditions. As you probably know, SFO's parallel runways are just 750 feet apart, which means parallel landings are allowed only under visual flight conditions. In inclement weather, the previous rule prohibited simultaneous landings altogether, cutting the arrivals rate in half.

The new procedures, approved in general by FAA on June 27th, permit offset approaches to parallel runways like those at SFO that are separated by less than 2,500 ft. Originally called SOIA (Simultaneous Offset Instrument Approaches), the procedure is now dubbed CSPO (Closely Spaced Parallel Operations). Aircraft approaching the parallel runways are staggered by 1.5 miles diagonally between the leading and trailing planes (rather than the traditional 3-mile separation). Thus far, CSPO has been approved for Boston, Cleveland, Memphis, New York (JFK), Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Seattle, in addition to SFO. FAA says CSPO could eventually be used at 17 of the 35 largest U.S. airports.

At SFO, CSPO is predicted to increase arrival rates during low-visibility conditions between one and six flights per hour. That doesn't sound like much, but given how often such conditions exist at SFO, it could make a significant difference overall.

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Automated "Tower" Gives Traffic Advisories

For the past year I have been seeing occasional news stories about a planned "remote tower" in Beckley, WV, but none of the articles provided enough technical details to decipher what was really involved. But thanks to recent detailed articles in Air Traffic Management and AOPA's online news service, I can now explain what this project is and isn't.

It is not a "remote tower" as this term is generally used—i.e., a facility that has controllers in a remote location managing air traffic at several low-activity airports. What has been demonstrated in Beckley is, however, an important development that has implications for numerous small airports that may not be candidates for a remote tower: a way to provide automated traffic advisories at small airports out of reach of FAA radar coverage. The way it was done illustrates creative use of several existing technologies.

The concept is called a Synthetic Air Traffic Advisory System (SATAS) and is the brainchild of Dr. Dave Byers, who is a professor and airport consultant via his firm, Quadrex Aviation. The concept uses a low-cost primary radar to detect aircraft, a secondary surveillance system based on multilateration, software to process aircraft data and develop traffic advisories, and a radio system to broadcast those advisories to nearby planes.

For the live demo in July, the primary radar was a portable avian (bird) radar provided by DeTect. The multilateration system is being developed by Passur Aerospace and will provide surveillance of both the airfield (supplemented by video cameras) and the nearby airspace, interrogating transponders. There is no FAA radar coverage at Beckley because the nearest FAA site is 50 miles away in Charleston and cannot see below 5,000 ft., thereby missing Beckley, which is in a valley. The airport has two scheduled flights a day to and from Dulles International Airport, served by United Express regional jets. Nearby is a West Virginia Air National Guard base where eight UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters are based. General aviation planes and C-130s also use the Beckley airport.

The July demo took place at a time of higher than normal air traffic, due to the national Boy Scout Jamboree being held just six miles from the airport. The helicopters made regular trips between the airport and the Jamboree. Signals from the SATAS prototype were transmitted to the controllers in Charleston, just so they could witness its capabilities.

Byers is trying to raise $3 million to complete development of SATAS, by developing the full software suite and buying hardware for a complete prototype, which he hopes to have vetted by FAA. He told AOPA that he is aiming for a system that could be marketed to small airports without towers for $1-1.5 million, with annual operating & maintenance costs of about $50,000. He clarified for AOPA that as an automated advisory service, SATAS would not be allowed to give directions to aircraft; it would simply advise them of nearby traffic, enhancing their ability to see and avoid.

Byers is also pessimistic about the future of contract towers, and especially about any expansion of the program to more towerless airports. He sees SATAS as a cost-effective improvement for such airports, analogous to automated weather advisories.

In researching this article, I learned that the FAA Tech Center had built and tested a prototype of a radar-based automated tower in the 1970s, but the project never went beyond that because in those days few GA aircraft had transponders. I hope the agency, in its current budget difficulties, looks favorably on this kind of innovation emerging from the private sector.

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Space-Based ADS-B: Now There Are Three

Previous issues of this newsletter have followed the progress of Aireon, the joint venture between Iridium and Nav Canada, to provide global ADS-B service via Iridium's next-generation satellite constellation, to be launched from 2015 through 2017. Aireon is now working with the FAA to jointly develop the standards, technical requirements, policies, and procedures to ensure compatibility of the system with US requirements. I have also reported that Alaska-based ADS-B Technologies, Inc. is offering a competing approach, which mounts no equipment on satellites but will use the existing Globalstar constellation to relay signals between equipped aircraft in flight and the company's ground stations—a very different technical approach.

Last month a new, Europe-based competitor was unveiled. It appears to be following the Aireon model of putting key payloads onto a satellite constellation. The program is a joint venture of German Aerospace Center DLR, Thales Space Germany, and SES Tech Com of Luxemburg. The announcement came after a successful launch of the ADS-B payload developed by DLR, attached to the Proba V satellite. SES Tech Com has signed a long-term agreement with DLR and Thales to operate the system's mission processing and analysis center, which SES Tech Com has developed. The launch and initial operation of the system were described by Prof. Hansjorg Dittus of DLR as a "proof of concept mission." The European Space Agency has contracted with Thales Germany to develop the next generation ADS-B system.

While the emergence of a third entrant into the space-based ADS-B market will complicate things for Aireon and ADS-B Technologies, competition in general is a powerful force to stimulate innovation and drive down costs. And fact that this brand-new field now has three players should convince any remaining skeptics that the potential of space-based, global ADS-B is very real.

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GBAS Tests in Europe Aim at Category III Precision Landings

Recent tests in Germany and France look very promising for GPS-based precision landing systems to achieve the highest level of precision now possible with conventional instrument landing systems (ILSs): Category III. Existing Ground-Based Augmentation Systems (GBAS) have been certified for Category I operations in the United States and Germany, and are in operation now at Houston Intercontinental and Newark International Airports, as well as Frankfurt, Germany. There has been considerable skepticism over whether GBAS could achieve Cat. III precision, but recent tests in France and Germany look very promising.

The testing is being done at Frankfurt and Toulouse Airports, under the auspices of the SESAR program (the European counterpart of NextGen). Tests were carried out in September at both airports, using an equipped Falcon 900EX business jet. Project participants include Airbus, Eurocontrol, two ANSPs (DFS and DSNA), two avionics firms (Honeywell and Thales), and two ground system producers (Indra-Navia and Thales). The trials tested a variety of different conditions and scenarios, including multipath evaluations, full-scale deviations, and Cat. III to Cat. II regression and back. According to SESAR's October 30th news release, all tests were successful. Further testing, to cover the full validation cycle of the system and procedures, is planned for mid-2014 at both airports.

DFS, the German ANSP, is very bullish on GBAS, as is SESAR. An ILS can provide vertical and lateral guidance for only a single runway end, whereas a single GBAS station can handle all of an airport's runway ends. In addition, maintenance costs of the GBAS unit are expected to be lower than that of a single ILS. Moreover, notes DFS, "the GBAS station does not need to be checked by flight inspection nearly as often as an ILS." Thus, airports thinking of adding one or more ILSs to expand the number of runways with precision approaches would do better to replace their existing ILS(s) with a GBAS station. And those whose ILSs are nearing the end of their useful lives would likewise do better to replace them with a GBAS. 

Strangely enough, the FAA has not embraced GBAS, despite the steady progress of the technology. While the current Honeywell Cat. I GBAS has received FAA certification, it is categorized as a "non-federal" system and the agency has no plans to install any of them anywhere. The only two U.S. installations are at United Airlines hub airports where the airport has paid for the GBAS.

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News Notes

ATC Commercialization Study Available Again. The international study of before/after performance of commercialized air navigation service providers (ANSPs) that was released in 2006 is now available online for a very modest price. It was carried out by MBS Ottawa's Glen McDougall with major assistance from George Mason University, Syracuse University, and McGill University, and overseen by a distinguished advisory board that included former FAA Administrator Langhorne Bond and future Administrator Randy Babbitt. "Air Traffic Control Commercialization Policy: Has It Been Effective?" is available from Ateneo Digital (www.ateneodigital.com) for $24.99.

Wake Turbulence Program Expanding to Miami International. The latest airport at which wake vortex separation recategorization (RECAT) will be implemented (as of December 1st) is Miami International. Already proven to increase runway throughput at both Memphis and Louisville, it is expected to do likewise at MIA. RECAT replaces the legacy separation requirements for landing with requirements that allow one "heavy" aircraft to follow another "heavy" with reduced separation, given testing that demonstrated less wake turbulence impact if the following aircraft is in the same size and weight category. Other airports scheduled for RECAT implementation include Cincinnati, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

Airlines Sign Up for Data Comm. FAA Data Comm contractor Harris Corporation announced last month that it has signed up five major airlines to equip large portions of their fleets to interface with controller-pilot data communications. United, for example, will equip about half its fleet—737s and 757s operating in domestic service. Participating airlines will receive assistance from an $80 million FAA fund for this purpose. Under the initial phase of the program, FAA will deploy Data Comm at 57 airport control towers, from 2015 through 2019, to be used for departure clearance messages. En-route centers will begin to be equipped in 2019.

China Announces PBN Procedures for All Airports in Two Years. According to a brief item in Aviation Daily (Oct. 31, 2013), China plans to have either RNAV or RNP procedures in place at all 196 airports by 2016. Currently such procedures are operational at 40 airports with environmental challenges, such as being at high altitudes in mountainous terrain. In place today are 59 RNP procedures, 15 RNP AR procedures, and 23 RNAV procedures.

PBN Procedures and Airspace Redesign in New Zealand. Airways New Zealand, the country's self-supporting ANSP, has redesigned all the country's airspace and has implemented PBN procedures throughout, according to an article in Air Traffic Technology International 2014.

Overweight Controllers to Be Checked for Sleep Apnea. The FAA's federal air surgeon last week announced that controllers with body mass index of 40 or more and a neck circumference of 17 inches or more must be tested for obstructive sleep apnea. That disorder, which is linked to obesity, can cause sleep interruptions that lead to on-the-job fatigue. The new regulation, as recommended by the NTSB, also applies to licensed pilots.

Corrected Link for UAS Report. Last month's article on the study about the future of UAS vehicles in U.S. airspace provided an incorrect URL for the report, as several readers noted. The correct link is: http://ntl.bts.gov/lib/48000/48200/48226/UAS_Service_Demand.pdf.

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Quotable Quotes

"We have an aviation trust fund, but this trust fund only covers about two-thirds of our budget. I think we need to ask ourselves—and ask you, our stakeholders--whether we really want to, and need to, do everything the way we've always done it. What should industry and the public expect the FAA to provide? Are there reasonable changes we can make to align with our future vision of the industry?"
—FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, speech at Aero Club of Washington, DC, Oct. 24, 2013

"So how can the government spend so much more on technology and not get anywhere equal results [to the private sector]? . . . In consumer tech, performance matters. When things go wrong, customers balk, investors flee, and heads roll. In the government, despite several attempts at reform, few of these consequences seem to apply."
Farhad Manjoo, "Why Government Tech Is So Poor, The Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2013

"NextGen is approaching a decade old, and measurable progress is lackluster. One approach to rectifying the issues that have blunted NextGen success is to take the responsibility for NextGen implementation completely out of the hands of the FAA. NextGen costs are shared between government and industry and so could implementation responsibility. Creation of a public-private partnership between government and industry with leadership drawn from each would act as a system of checks and balances, where the best practices in industry for benefits definition, modeling, enterprise planning, etc. could be incorporated. Budget stability would be introduced as it would be removed from the US government budgeting cycle, and government leadership would be in place to lead one of the largest public infrastructure projects in history."
—Roberta Leftwich, Booz Allen, in Aimee Turner, "Inconsistency Has Become a Major Theme in NextGen Implementation. What Needs to Be Done to Rectify That?" Airtrafficmanagement.net, Sept. 23, 2013

"The slow rate of ADS-B/Out deployment is very frustrating. In the GA world, low-cost ADS-B/In devices are now widely available. Unfortunately, while these devices will show TIS-B traffic, that only works if the aircraft is transmitting an ADS-B/Out signal to trigger the ADS-B ground stations, which almost no GA aircraft are doing due to the excessive cost of the equipment. A lot of gliders and other GA aircraft are currently equipped with TRIG-21 transponders, which support ADS-B/Out. If you have a transponder like this installed in your aircraft, all you need is a GPS source to send an ADS-B/Out signal and a $10 cable. An iPhone or iPAD could provide this. Unfortunately, the FAA won't let you turn this on, because the GPS source needs to be FAA-certified. This is idiotic. The entire GA fleet could have state-of-the-art collision avoidance tomorrow, if the FAA would permit the use of non-certified GPS navigation sources for VFR ADS-B operations."
—Mike Schumann, email to this newsletter, Oct. 25, 2013

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





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