Air Traffic Control Newsletter #102

Backlash over politicized air traffic control funding, user taxes vs. user fees—a big difference

In this issue:

Politicized ATC Funding Creates Strong Aviation Backlash

For the past two months, nearly all the congressional and media attention to the budget sequester’s impact on aviation has focused on the planned shut-down of 149 small contract towers. But now the real impact is starting to hit, as FAA begins furloughs of Operations staff (including all controllers) from April 21 through at least Sept. 30th. Following a briefing to airline officials, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta issued public warnings on April 19th of major flight delays at hub airports. Controllers will be furloughed for 11 days between now and the end of the fiscal year, saving $200 million of the $637 sequester-imposed budget cut—but leaving all Centers, TRACONs, and towers on average 10% short of staff for the duration. Moreover, don’t forget that the sequester cuts are now built into the Congressional Budget Office baseline, so unless some solution is found, the problem will not go away on October 1, 2013.

Several efforts remain under way in the House and Senate to try to insulate controllers from the sequester for the next six months, but the Administration does not support them. Basically, it opposes piecemeal exemptions to the sequester, hoping that public outcry over air travel delays, no White House tours, etc. will force Congress to increase tax revenue by enough to undo the sequester-mandated cuts. Republicans remain equally adamant that the major problem is spending, and that smarter spending cuts would avoid impacts like flight delays.

The Administration has also upped the ante in its FY 2014 budget proposal, including in its unfunded $50 billion one-time infrastructure stimulus (1) an additional $1 billion for NextGen and (2) $225 million for the planned New York Integrated Control Facility. But those monies would only be available if Congress either provides $50 billion of additional tax revenue or increases the already escalating budget deficit by that amount. This is no way to fund ATC modernization!

This kind of political gamesmanship should be unacceptable in the world’s largest economy that depends so critically on aviation for business and personal travel as well as high-value cargo. The fact that the United States is the only advanced country where such a vital service can be held hostage to political budget battles has begun to sink in. On February 27th, the Management Advisory Council (MAC) of the FAA sent a strongly worded letter to the chairs and ranking members of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee. In addition to urging that Congress “immediately” pass legislation to exempt aviation from the sequester, the MAC called for Congress to “begin a process of reforming the policy, funding, and governance structure of the FAA.”

Specifically, the letter set forth four key principles which MAC members have unanimously endorsed:

  1. Create a sustainable financial future for the FAA;
  2. Establish an FAA governing board;
  3. Assess and codify FAA authorities and programs; and,
  4. Charge the FAA governing board with recommending a new tax and fee structure for aviation.

While readers of this newsletter know I would go well beyond that, this is still an important indicator that these 11 aviation leaders have concluded that the present funding and governance structure is broken and needs to be reformed or replaced.

Over the past year, and especially in the last several months, I have had in-person conversations with numerous aviation experts, some in the private sector, some currently in the public sector, and others formerly in senior public-sector positions. There is a growing awareness that the United States is out of step with our allies and counterparts in Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, nearly all of which have de-politicized their ATC systems, separating the aviation safety regulation function from the ATC service provision function, and allowing the resulting air navigation service provider (ANSP) to support itself via fees and charges—just as commercial airports do and just as other utilities do (whether investor-owned or government-owned).

Many remember the serious effort of the Clinton Administration to create a self-supporting government corporation called USATS, taking the ATC business out of the FAA and making it self-supporting. That proposal never developed a critical mass of support in Congress, and there was not enough of a felt need for change among aviation stakeholders to overcome that opposition, so USATS died. Today, by contrast, there is a growing concern that making the ATC system a political football is the last straw.

Could we do a Nav Canada here? I hear this question again and again. And I think the answer may now be yes.

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User Taxes versus User Fees—a Profound Difference

In addition to being up in arms about the sequester-induced budget cuts, aviation stakeholders—Airlines for America, Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association, and National Business Aviation Association—are adamantly opposed to the Administration once again including in its budget proposal a $100 per flight “ATC user fee.” I’m on their side on this one, not because I don’t think customers should pay for the services they use, but because what the Administration has proposed is a tax, not a fee.

When you sign up for electricity or telephone service, you are billed for what you use, according to the agreed-upon rate schedule. That’s how ATC works in every advanced economy: aircraft operators are billed for the services provided by the air navigation service provider (ANSP). Those charges are paid directly to the ANSP. With a reliable revenue stream from its customers, a self-supporting ANSP not only pays its operating costs but also can finance its major capital costs by issuing revenue bonds. That’s what electric and telecom and water utilities do, too. And it’s also how airports operate, for the most part.

What the Administration has proposed is an additional aviation excise tax, not a user fee. That $100 per flight tax, to be paid by airlines and business jets, would go to the Treasury like all the other aviation excise taxes. Not a penny of the proceeds could be spent until the authorizing committees and then the appropriations committees approved an FAA budget proposal, attaching their usual set of mandates, regulations, and prohibitions. Should this proposal actually be enacted (quite unlikely), it would not do a single thing to reform the governance or funding of the ATC system; all it would do is add more money to a flawed and obsolete model.

Historically in this country, the main opposition to ATC “user fees” has come from business and general aviation. GA groups like AOPA have rightly expressed concerns over the economic impact of per-transaction ATC fees in European countries that make the cost of flying a small plane significantly more expensive there than it is here. I understand and share that concern. But a profoundly different situation exists in Canada, where small piston planes do not pay transaction fees; instead, they pay a single annual fee to Nav Canada based on aircraft weight, which currently runs about $68 a year for single-engine piston planes. That’s less than $6 a month.

Business jets in Canada do pay transaction fees, because they fly in the same airspace and use the same ATC services as airliners. But those fees are also weight-based, so that a Citation pays far less than a 737—contrary to the “a blip is a blip” position some airlines supported last decade in an effort to shift a large amount of costs to business jet operators. In Canada, by contrast, the Canadian Business Aviation Association was part of the coalition that created Nav Canada and has long been represented on that ANSP’s stakeholder board.

No self-supporting U.S. ANSP could be implemented without the willing participation of this country’s huge business and general aviation sectors of aviation, and it looks to me as if Nav Canada has figured out a winning formula for bringing these stakeholders together and meeting their needs.

Footnote: In converting the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization into a self-supporting ANSP, a key factor should be avoiding any tax money as part of its budget. The danger of being partially customer-supported and partially tax-supported is illustrated by the U.S. Postal Service. Ever since the 1970 postal reform legislation that converted the former Post Office into the customer-supported USPS, everyone assumes that its revenue comes only from the sale of services (stamps, packages, etc.). But it turns out that about one percent of USPS’s budget is appropriated by Congress, to subsidize certain mailings. And that one percent provides all the reason Congress needs to override USPS management decisions—such as forbidding it to discontinue Saturday mail delivery, despite massive operating losses. A recent Bloomberg news story on this subject included these words: “Lawmakers have authority over the Postal Service because it receives an appropriation for less than 1 percent of its operations. That money includes reimbursing the service for mail for the blind and for election ballots for overseas military personnel.”

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Inspector General Confirms Large Increase in Operational Errors

In late 2011, the Government Accountability Office reviewed the increasing trend of reported operational errors at U.S. ATC facilities (GAO-12-24). In writing about this in Issue No. 87 (October 2011), I concluded that the increase was real, and not an artifact of the then-new voluntary controller error reporting system called ATSAP. And now the DOT Office of the Inspector General has reached the same conclusion, based on more recent data. The OIG report is AV-2013-046, released Feb. 27, 2013.

OIG points to several factors indicating that the reported totals through FY 2011 document a real, and alarming, increase in errors such as losses of separation between aircraft. First, there is a lot more automated reporting of such losses at towers and TRACONs, as the automated Traffic Analysis and Review Program (TARP) has been installed and turned on in those facilities. Second, a similar automated system has been operational at Centers for many years, and it, too, shows an upward trend in errors—up 39% during the same period as the large increase in errors reported by TARP at towers and TRACONs. Third, FAA has changed the way it records errors, no longer relying on self-reporting by facility managers—a practice OIG found to be seriously flawed. In investigations at the DFW TRACON in 2005 and 2008, they found “air traffic managers intentionally misclassified operational errors as either pilot deviations or ‘non-events’ to reduce the number of operational errors reported at that location.” And OIG reports that “FAA’s oversight processes failed to uncover this practice,” which once again illustrates the perils of combining safety regulation and ATC operations in a single organization.

An alarming finding in this new report is that 60% of the increase in operational errors between 2009 and 2010 occurred at just 10 facilities. These are all very busy facilities, and according to Table 1 in the report, the aggregate increase in errors at these 10 was 121%. However, 147 of the 714 reported errors at these 10 were not classified as errors when they originally occurred at the Southern California TRACON, since that facility was operating under a waiver that allowed simultaneous landings on parallel runways to be closer than normally allowed. In the table below, I have removed those 147, but the numbers are still very troubling.

To add some insight into why those facilities seem especially plagued by errors, I have added two additional columns to the table, drawn from a January 2012 OIG analysis of controller staffing and training at major facilities (AV-2012-039). It shows that most of these facilities have high fractions of trainees and high trainee attrition rates.

Facility

2009 Errors

2010 Errors

% Increase

% Trainees

% Attrition

Central Florida TRACON

5

24

380%

n.a.

n.a.

Houston TRACON

11

44

300%

42%

22%

Miami Center

15

30

100%

n.a.

n.a.

Potomac TRACON

21

41

95%

29%

12%

DFW TRACON

84

143

70%

34%

57%

Charlotte Tower

20

34

70%

n.a.

n.a.

New York TRACON

74

119

61%

24%

77%

New York Center

25

40

60%

22%

43%

Atlanta Center

35

50

43%

26%

18%

Southern California TRACON

33

42*

27%*

35%

49%

TOTAL

323

567*

76%*

*adjusted from OIG table, per explanation in text

The new OIG report does not mention the potential relationship between high fractions of controllers in training, and high attrition rates, as causes of the large increases in errors at these facilities. Most of the report focuses instead on recommendations for further improvements in how FAA investigates and draws conclusions about trends, error causes, and remedial actions. Stepping back and looking at the larger picture, I would recommend two far bigger policy changes.

First, radically revise controller training and testing before trainees are assigned to facilities for on-the-job training, as recommended in 2011 by the agency’s Independent Review Panel on the Selection, Assignment, and Training of Air Traffic Control Specialists. Among other things, this would end pass-fail testing and would send the most-skilled trainees to the most challenging facilities—which is not the current practice. A recent report on the validity of the aptitude test given to applicants for controller training at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City found some correlation between test scores and completing on-the-job training at the trainee’s first facility. But the sample used for the analysis over-represented those who scored higher, which would bias the results. (“The Validity of the Air Traffic Selection and Training (AT-SAT) Test Battery in Operational Use,” FAA Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, March 2013).

Second, separate air safety regulation from the provision of ATC services, thereby providing truly arm’s length regulation of safety—as exists in nearly all developed country and is ICAO policy worldwide. 

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Using Real-Time Weather Data for Aviation

One of the key objectives of NextGen is to provide pilots and airline dispatchers with far more timely and accurate information about weather aloft. NextGen has two programs under which this objective is being pursued—NextGen Network Enabled Weather (NNEW) and NextGen Weather Processor (NWP).

In recent decades, weather forecast modeling has been gradually improving, thanks to supercomputers and better software. But a fundamental limitation remains untimely data. The primary source of U.S. aviation weather data is weather balloons, launched just twice a day by the National Weather Service’s Aviation Weather Center. Each of the 69 balloons (called radiosondes) covers an average of 45,000 square miles. The balloons provide data on temperature, pressure, winds, humidity, and latitude/longitude. Data on icing comes only from pilot reports (PIREPS) of varying quality. The Weather Service uses this information to feed three-dimensional (3-D) models which can be as much as 12 or more hours out of date, given twice-daily balloon launches.

In the June 2010 issue of this newsletter, I reported on a start-up company that had developed a real-time aviation weather reporting and forecasting capability. AirDat was formed to commercialize this capability, developed originally under FAA and NOAA sponsorship. Its product involves a multi-function sensor installed on aircraft, two-way communications via the Iridium global satellite system, and four-dimensional (4-D) weather modeling (the fourth dimension is time, so the modeling is dynamic, not static). The TAMDAR sensor records not only weather-balloon-type data but also icing, turbulence, time, and GPS position. These real-time observations are continually transmitted, via Iridium, to AirDat’s data center in Orlando, where they feed a suite of aviation weather models, both 3-D and 4-D.

Since my original report nearly three years ago, AirDat has made considerable progress. Its TAMDAR sensors are now installed on over 300 airliners, including several dozen (and eventually 100) Flybe airliners in Europe, as well as planes of AeroMexico and numerous U.S. regional airlines. The business case for an airline equipping planes with TAMDAR is impressive. It provides the airline not only with much-improved weather data but also with an independent two-way global voice and data communications link. This system can therefore report real-time aircraft systems information to the airline, as well as receiving cockpit displays of weather via an electronic flight bag (EFB).

A four-year FAA-funded study of the potential benefits of TAMDAR data used for NOAA’s NCEP 3-D model found that it increased forecast accuracy by 30 to 50 percent. And use of TAMDAR data with a 4-D model can nearly double the forecast accuracy. My source is a detailed article in the Quarter 1 issue of The Journal of Air Traffic Control, “Benefits and Utility of Tropospheric Airborne Meteorological Data Reporting,” by Neal Jacobs and Jeffrey Rex. That article also reviews TAMDAR data for the time period of the fatal Colgan Air crash in February 2009 near Buffalo, finding that the system reported serious icing conditions as early as four to five hours before the crash, all the way down to the surface.

Late in 2011, Raytheon announced that it was teaming with AirDat and Metron to bid on two key NextGen weather programs: NNEW and NWP. And earlier this month Aviation Daily reported that AirDat has been acquired by Panasonic Avionics. That company is rolling out a Ku-band satellite communications network, with orders to equip over 2,000 aircraft thus far. The larger capability of this channel will permit subscribers to uplink detailed “Panasonic Weather” from AirDat directly to the cockpits of their equipped planes.

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Slow Progress on GPS Back-Up System

Recent news reports indicate that summer/fall 2013 will be the peak of the 11-year solar cycle. That means more sunspots than usual, leading to changes in the ionosphere that will likely interfere with the GPS signals on which aviation and numerous other industries depend not only for real-time positioning and navigation but also for precise timing. The latter includes not only aviation but banking and finance, energy (utilities, dams, nuclear), postal and shipping, emergency services . . . and the list goes on. So the upcoming “solar max” will focus increased attention on various efforts under way to reduce GPS’s vulnerability not merely to natural interference like sunspots but also to jamming and other interference.

In February, the U.S. GPS industry launched a new organization, the GPS Innovation Alliance, to educate policymakers and the public about the myriad uses of GPS and the need to protect its position, navigation, and timing functions. The new organization is an outgrowth of the ad-hoc coalition that successfully defeated the new mobile-phone service proposed by LightSquared that would have caused major interference with GPS. In aviation, the FAA has two efforts under way. The first is a one-year study, with its report due in September, on ways to protect aviation users from intentional spoofing and jamming. The larger effort is its Alternate Position, Navigation, and Timing (APNT) research project.

A good overview of the problem and some alternatives appeared in the Issue 4 2012 issue of Air Traffic Management: “Making Do,” by Paul Benshoof of Locata Corporation, which has produced one possible alternative. Benshoof correctly identifies the importance of any alternative using an alternative frequency band from GPS, so that interference with GPS will not affect the back-up system. He acknowledges that one fully capable approach is enhanced LORAN (eLORAN), but he estimates that full development would take five to eight years and cost $100-160 million, which strikes me as a trivial amount. And he also seems to dismiss it because the current Administration pulled the plug on eLORAN as the US backup system, despite its being the unanimous recommendation of the interagency Independent Assessment Team set up by DHS and DOT in 2007 to identify the most cost-effective back-up approach that would serve all GPS users, not just aviation. I note in passing that an eLORAN system is currently being installed in the UK by the General Lighthouse Authorities of the United Kingdom and Ireland, to cope with increased GPS jamming in the English Channel and nearby waterways, so eLORAN is far from dead.

Another possible alternative would be a low-cost navigation-grade inertial navigation unit. Since inertial units do tend to drift over time, they offer only a temporary back-up for specific interference events or outages. Earlier this month DARPA unveiled a prototype chip to do this, called a timing and inertial measurement unit (TIMU). Inside the 10 cubic millimeters are three gyros, three accelerometers, and a master clock. The announcement provided no information about how soon a commercial version might be available or what the cost would be.

Locata’s system consists of a network of small local transmitters aimed at “blanketing a chosen area with strong radio-positioning signals for positioning, navigation, and timing, using non-GPS frequencies.” Benshoof cites current deployment of a system at White Sands Missile Range (2500 square miles) “for a mere fraction of the cost of launching a single GPS satellite”—but provides no estimate of the cost of nationwide or global coverage—or how well this system would work for aircraft at flight altitudes.

The Winter 2012 issue of The Journal of Air Traffic Control provides a more technical overview of the current FAA APNT research, by Mitch Narins of FAA and six co-authors. In broad terms, the two principal alternatives being studied are (1) a form of wide-area multilateration, using data from satellites in various orbits that use non-GPS frequencies, and (2) a passive pseudo-ranging system using transmitters co-located with existing DME sites. These may have promise as an aviation back-up, but it’s not clear that they would provide needed back-ups for myriad non-aviation users of GPS, especially for timing.

Thus far, then, I have seen nothing that contradicts the findings of the Independent Assessment Team that eLORAN is the most cost-effective backup approach for all users of GPS positioning, navigation, and timing functions. Let’s hope the new GPS Innovation Alliance pursues the revival of this approach.

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News Notes

Irish ANSP Seeks Stake in NATS. According to UK publication SkyNews (April 18th), the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) has expressed interest in acquiring a part-interest in The Airline Group, the stakeholder group that owns 42% of NATS, the ANSP of the UK. The publication quotes IAA as saying that it has expressed “an indicative interest in formalizing its partnership with NATS via the current share sale,” but that the process is still in its early stages.

FAA Proceeds with New Facilities, Despite Sequester. Despite being under various budget cutbacks due to the sequester, the FAA is proceeding with large construction projects. In February it announced the selection of a design-build contractor for a $100 million control tower at SFO and issued a solicitation notice for an $8.5 million TRACON at PBI in West Palm Beach.

Aireon Announces Advisory Board. The joint venture company formed by Iridium and Nav Canada to provide global space-based ADS-B services recently announced the formation of its Advisory Board. Chaired by former DOT Secretary Norm Mineta, it includes former Air Traffic Organization COO Russ Chew, with other members still to be announced.

GBAS Team Wins Aviation Week Laurel. The government-industry team that implemented Honeywell’s SmartPath ground-based augmentation system (GBAS) at Newark won Aviation Week’s 2013 Laurel in the IT/Electronics category. The system uses ground-based receivers to augment GPS signals to provide expanded capability for precision landing approaches, compared with conventional ILS. The team overcame GPS jamming from truckers on I-95 to achieve FAA certification for Category 1 landings in September 2012, the first for any major U.S. hub airport.

Second Saab Sensis Remote Tower Gains Site Acceptance. In addition to its previous remote tower installation in Sweden, Saab Sensis this month received site acceptance for its new remote tower at Avinor’s Vaeroyu Heliport in Norway. The heliport is a low-activity site that is now being monitored by video, audio,  and other sensor data from Avinor’s Bodo Remote Tower Center.

NATS and Thales Testing “Passive Radar”. Thales UK, NATS, and Rike Manor Research are testing what they call multi-static primary surveillance radar (MSPSR) in the London area. Instead of using a rotating dish, the system uses a network of receivers to pick up television signals. The system measures the difference between original broadcast signals and those reflected from aircraft in flight to plot the planes’ positions via powerful software. The trials, backed by the government’s Technology Strategy Board, are intended to see how accurate MSPSR is in the London airspace and whether it could fill in gaps in radar coverage.

DFS Aiding Siberian Airport. German ANSP Deutsche FlugSicherung (DFS) is developing procedures for simultaneous operations on two runways at Siberia’s Novosibirsk Tolmachevo airport. The two runways are at 90 degrees to each other, each with its own control tower. DFS will develop procedures to coordinate operations between the two runways and reduce the number of different procedures currently used.

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Quotable Quotes

“The typical mentality of this industry is to walk backwards into the future bringing all the old stuff with us, which makes it difficult to secure the business case. We are not willing to get rid of stuff we had in the past, and that is why we have an overdeveloped infrastructure today—more radars, more VORs than we need. This is simply due to historical reasons because infrastructure has not been decommissioned as quickly as it could have been because emerging technology has not been exploited. The goodwill is definitely there. I don’t think that is a problem at all. However, their fear of giving something up, or the fear of losing job opportunities, or the fear of letting someone else take control of something they would like to keep in their own country—that is the real problem.”
—Bo Redeborn, Eurocontrol, “Central Concerns,” Air Traffic Management, Issue 1 2013.

“[In Germany in the 1980s] there were many restricted areas reserved for the occupying military forces which caused traffic delays, holdings, and capacity bottlenecks for civil aviation. DFS was founded as a privatized organization in 1993 to master the steady growth in air traffic in the busiest airspace in Europe. By reorganizing Germany’s airspace structure, integrating civil-military ATC, and introducing the flexible use of airspace, it was possible to enhance capacity by about 30%. The result was more direct flight paths, reduced complexity, and improved distribution of traffic flows.”
—Stefan Lentz, DFS Aeronautical Solutions, “Cooperative Business from Brasilia to Beijing,” Airspace, Quarter 3 2012.

“Today all of the FAA’s roles are conflated when it comes to FAA governance. Congress rightly sets public goals for the system, provides resources through the [Trust Fund] and taxpayer funding and oversees FAA’s execution of the laws. However, Congress also gets into more dubious matters such as how services are delivered, even to a level where it decides what air traffic facilities the FAA is permitted to open or close. This is perhaps the greatest distinction between the FAA and its counterpart agencies around the world; our FAA is not treated as a service provider performing what is essentially a commercial service—the provision of air traffic control—but as a provider of federal jobs and community support. This micromanagement, together with the excessive number of legislative mandates and reports that constrain and distract FAA leadership, needs to be curtailed and accompanied by a process of codification to simplify and streamline its legislative authorities.”
—Steve Van Beek, “A Time for Aviation Policy Reform,” Airport Business, April 2013.

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





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