Air Traffic Control Newsletter #112

Real-time streaming of flight data, Europe shifts gears on Single European Sky, Four misconceptions about Nav Canada ATC charges

In this issue:

Real-Time Streaming of Flight Data

The tragic loss of Malaysian flight 370 last month has refocused the aviation community's attention on the need for real-time (or near real-time) data on where aircraft are when not under radar surveillance. In contrast to the general apathy about this issue following the loss of Air France 447 over the South Atlantic four years ago, this time the question is getting serious attention.

First, the idea that providing this capability would be very costly is nonsense. The basic bandwidth needed for simple flight tracking is trivial, and solutions already exist that would involve little in the way of equipage cost for this specific function.

On the bandwidth question, aviation consultant Robert W. Mann addressed this question in an Aviation Daily column on March 28th. Providing very basic data—GPS latitude/longitude, altitude, heading, and speed—once per minute requires only 16 bytes of data via a satellite link. For 30,000 daily over-water flights averaging six-hours duration, that would be just 172.8 kilobytes per day. He also noted, as have several others, that airlines are already spending huge sums to provide satellite-streamed cabin entertainment requiring massive data flows, such that the cost of transmitting basic positioning data amounts to a rounding error.

Next, let's look at what systems already exist—or soon will—that can transmit positioning data via satellite. Nearly all intercontinental airliners are equipped with the ACARS reporting system, which links the cockpit to the relevant airline operations center (but not to ATC). ACARS communicates over either Inmarsat's four-satellite constellation in geosynchronous orbit or Iridium's 66-satellite low-altitude constellation. ACARS provides once per minute updates. Inmarsat has more bandwidth and is therefore being used for data-hogging in-cabin purposes as well, but its coverage does not include polar regions. About two-thirds of the intercontinental fleet uses Iridium for ACARS, which is significantly less costly than Inmarsat. Some airlines also use in-flight engine monitoring systems provided by the engine manufacturer, such as Rolls Royce's Engine Indicating and Crew Alerting System (EICAS). Malaysian, although it uses Rolls Royce engines on its 777s, opted not to pay for EICAS.

Already available for over-ocean tracking is a service from Calgary-based Flyht Aerospace Solutions, which I wrote about following the Air France tragedy. Thus far it has sold its Automated Flight Information Reporting System (AFIRS) to airlines operating 400 planes in non-radar airspace. It reports over ACARS via the Iridium constellation. Flyht's new competitor is Star Navigation, based in Toronto. It is awaiting certification for its first airline customer, AlMasaria in Egypt. Both Flyht and Star offer airlines a compelling business case: recovering the $50K equipage cost in less than a year, based on time and fuel savings and timely alerts for needed maintenance.

Neither Flyht nor Star communicates directly with air traffic control, but that will be possible once satellite-based ADS-B is in use. Iridium's forthcoming replacement satellite constellation—Iridium Next—will be used by Aireon to provide radar-like positioning data to subscribing air navigation service providers (ANSPs). The satellite launches will begin next year, with each satellite containing an ADS-B receiver. That service is planned to be operational in 2017. Iridium Next will require a new antenna on planes to communicate with the satellites, but there is no equipage needed for Aireon itself (beyond the already mandated ADS-B/Out). Competitor ADS-B Technologies offers a different satellite-based ADS-B service, relying on the existing Globalstar satellites as a communications link (only), requiring a $40K avionics installation on each plane.

One issue that is still unresolved is whether or not it is feasible and safe to make any of these systems "always-on." Currently, systems such as ACARS, ADS-B, and transponders can be turned off in flight by the cockpit crew, generally via a circuit breaker that cuts off the device's power. The rationale is that in the event any component catches on fire, the crew needs to be able to cut off its electric power. A serious study of the trade-offs involved here should be a high priority.

For now, the good news is that key aviation stakeholders—ICAO, IATA, and ALPA in particular—are in agreement that real-time information about flights in non-radar airspace must be provided. They dropped the ball after the Air France 447 crash in 2009. Let's hope they do better this time around.

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Europe Shifting Gears on Single European Sky

In the January-February issue of Airline Business, long-time IATA Director General Pierre Jeanniot noted that in his first speech in that position, in 1992, he'd proposed harmonizing ATC procedures and regulations to simplify traffic flows and reduce costs. And he added, "We hoped that this would eventually lead to the merging of the various [ATC] organizations into one European agency—the single European sky." So far, neither mergers nor anything approaching such a unified airspace have emerged, more than two decades later.

The main structural reform aimed at that goal was the mandate that all EU governments create functional airspace blocks (FABs) consisting of the ANSPs in adjacent countries. Nine such FABs were defined, and given until the end of 2013 to have streamlined their operations across borders, including the hope that many of the 60 en-route centers would be consolidated. That, of course has not happened. It is generally agreed that most FABs exist only on paper, and not a single center has been eliminated. Accordingly, the targets for reduced costs have not been met.

In response, two new efforts are under way. First, the European Commission on April 16th began infringement proceedings against Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands (five of the six members of FABEC), asking them to improve their FAB and "make a decisive move" toward achieving a common airspace. They have been given two months to reply, and if the EC is not satisfied after two months, it may issue a formal request to comply, ultimately enforceable by the European Court of Justice.

Second, Eurocontrol on March 24th released Calls for Interest in providing six centralized services. The idea here is to achieve economies of scale via competitive procurement of various ATC support services. Many view the centralized services effort as an attempt to end-run the FABs via as much functional consolidation as possible. The closing date for expressions of interest is May 28th, with Calls for Tenders to be issued in the third quarter of this year. Eurocontrol is encouraging consortia composed of ANSPs, aerospace companies, communications service providers, etc. TheA6 Alliance (consisting of the ANSPs of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK, and NORACON—itself a consortium of seven other ANSPs)—has expressed interest in bidding on three of the centralized services.

I agree that the potential of FABs is a long way from being realized, but there are a number of promising efforts under way (which may explain why only certain countries were singled out for initial EC scolding).

One idea is to develop "virtual centers," in which one center can control traffic previously handled by another center. Switzerland's Skyguide has announced that it will virtually consolidate its two centers, at Geneva and Dübendorf, into a single virtual center. This means the two facilities will continue to exist, but during non-peak times Geneva will handle all Swiss air traffic, starting in 2016. Ireland and the UK (whose ANSPs comprise the UK-Ireland FAB) have agreed to a trial in which the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) will handle the airspace of Northern Ireland, currently the responsibility of the UK's NATS. Subsequent phases will involve cross-border "dynamic sectorization" between the two ANSPs. And the Irish and UK aviation safety regulators have published a draft plan for improved ATC performance from 2015 through 2019.

Another example of extended cooperation of ANSPs is Nordic Unified Air-traffic  Control (NUAC),  a joint venture of the Danish and Swedish ANSPs to operate the ACCs in Copenhagen, Malmo, and Stockholm in a unified manner. A larger commercial grouping is the Borealis Alliance, which includes those two ANSPs plus those of Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Norway, and the UK. In its June 2012 article announcing the formation of Borealis, Air Traffic Management noted that the signatories have previously spoken of "a possible merger if this will lead to further efficiency benefits for airspace users."

And that, I suggest, is the real key to achieving something like a single European sky. In a long and thought-provoking interview in Air Traffic Management's 2014 Issue 1, Eamonn Brennan, the CEO of IAA, said, "The fundamental problem with all FABs—and this will always stifle and limit their potential capability—is that FABs are not integrated businesses. When any company merges with another company, one of the primary drivers is to drive down the combined costs through economies of scale, i.e., reduced duplication in order to increase efficiency. In our industry naturally that means fewer area control centers (ACCs), which means lower numbers of staff but still with the capability to deliver a very safe and cost-efficient service to customers."

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Four Misconceptions about Nav Canada's ATC Charges

With the rapidly growing interest in US aviation circles about Canada's nonprofit ATC corporation model, it's time to clarify some misconceptions about the fees and charges that provide Nav Canada's bondable revenue stream. They function very much like the utility bills we are all familiar with for electricity, gas, telephone, etc., in that they are the primary source of revenue to cover the capital and operating costs of the self-supporting air navigation service provider (ANSP) of Canada.

But for various historical reasons, at least four misconceptions about these charges are still floating around. The purpose of this article is to clarify what is really going on in these areas.

Concern #1: "These fees are an additional 'tax' on airline customers."
Reality: When the air traffic function of Transport Canada was spun off as a self-supporting ANSP, the former ticket tax (similar to ours) was phased out over a two-year period and replaced by ICAO-standard en-route and terminal ATC charges. Thus, a tax that had been added to passenger tickets went away, and ATC became another infrastructure cost to the airlines, like landing fees, airport space rentals, etc. But for reasons known only to themselves, the major Canadian airlines decided to show the ATC charges as a new "Nav Canada surcharge" on airline tickets. (It is arrived at by dividing the total ATC fees for the flight by the average number of passengers to arrive at an estimated per-passenger amount.) I wondered why Nav Canada didn't strongly object to those of its board members that represent airline stakeholders, but was told "You never win a fight with your customers." Fortunately, however, last year the Canadian government implemented new "All-Inclusive Air Price Advertising Requirements" that require presenting the total ticket price in all airline advertising. Air Canada's website now touts its "all-in pricing," so the misleading "Nav Canada surcharge" is no longer thrown in passengers' faces.

Concern #2: "Business jets pay unaffordable ATC fees in Canada."
Reality: Since business jets fly almost exclusively in the same controlled airspace as airline aircraft, they pay en-route and terminal charges just as airlines do. But those charges are based on weight and distance (en-route) and on weight alone (terminal), so a business jet pays far less than an airliner. Back in 2006 I did a Reason Foundation policy study on "Business Jets and ATC User Fees." Using a database of 15 different business jets (from Conklin & deDecker), I estimated the annual ATC charges each would pay if it flew the average number of annual flight hours listed in that database. Shifting from then-current U.S. aviation excise taxes (the tax on jet fuel) to Nav Canada's fees would cost more—but would add only 3 to 4% to the annual direct operating cost (DOC) of most business jets. I also did a break-even calculation for each one, to ascertain the extent to which reduced annual flight hours (due to shorter direct routings, RNP approaches, etc.) would offset the additional cost of the ATC fees. A Learjet 60, for example, would break even if it saved just 15 of its 411 annual flight hours. It is therefore no surprise that the Canadian Business Aviation Association has always supported Nav Canada as having made flying better in Canada—and being worth what it costs. (Details in: http://reason.org/news/show/business-jets-and-atc-user-fees)

Concern #3: "ATC Fees Make GA Flying Unaffordable."
Reality: Shifting ATC from Transport Canada to Nav Canada was based on the idea of the new ANSP being self-supporting from charges paid by its customers. But the architects of Nav Canada had no intention of making GA flying unaffordable. So instead of creating transaction-based fees for GA, they developed a modest annual fee structure, based on the weight of the plane. For a typical single-engine piston plane, the annual charge is less than $100. That is less per month than the cost of a single lunch. GA in Canada is thriving, as the US GA community is increasingly coming to understand.

Concern #4: "Private Planes Now Pay Twice: Fuel Tax and ATC Fee"
Reality: There is something to this concern, but it is not the fault of Nav Canada. During the process that enacted the enabling legislation for the new ANSP, the government promised that it would eliminate landing fees for general aviation (GA) planes—a promise that it kept. (At the time, all major airports were owned and operated by Canada's national government.) Many GA people thought this meant that GA fuel taxes would also be abolished, but that was not promised by the government. Unlike in this country, aviation fuel taxes in Canada have never been dedicated to aviation; they are general government tax revenue. The enabling legislation did include a modest annual fee system for GA planes, but it was nothing like the per-transaction fees GA planes face in a number of European countries.

While no one is suggesting that we simply copy Nav Canada, in my view its funding and governance provide a very useful model, many of whose principles could be adapted to a self-supporting U.S. ANSP.

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FAA Forecast: Still a Rosy Scenario?

Every year since 2000, the FAA's annual Aerospace Forecast has documented a decline in nearly every category of flight activity from 2000 through the latest year (in this case, 2013)—but then said growth is just around the corner, projecting steady growth in most categories through the end of the 20-year forecast period. To be sure, aviation activity has always been correlated with economic growth, and we all sincerely hope that by now the depressive effects of 9-11 and the Great Recession are behind us. But after seeing 13 annual forecasts present the same basic picture, I'm inclined to take these forecasts with a few grains of salt.

When it comes to air traffic control infrastructure, the document assumes 1% annual growth in tower activity, 1.2% in TRACON activity, and 1.7% growth in Center activity. (These growth rates are from the levels of flight activity in 2013.) Most of that growth is due to commercial airline growth, and for towers that growth is mostly at large and medium hub airports.  Air taxi/commuter activity shows annual decreases in tower and TRACON activity but 0.8% annual growth in Center activity. General aviation (defined broadly to include all of business aviation as well as private-plane activity) is projected at 0.5% annual growth in tower transactions, 0.7% growth in TRACON activity, and 0.7% growth in Center activity.

Comparing the projected 2034 ATC activity with the actuals from 2000 (the last year before 9-11), the 2034 total tower activity is 10% less, with the projected 46% increase in airline tower transactions not fully offset by a decrease of 20% for air taxi/commuters, a 28% decrease in GA transactions, and a 12% decrease in military transactions. The picture is similar for TRACON activity, with an overall decrease (2034 vs. 2000) of 8%. Here again, airline transactions growth of 36% are does not fully offset decreases of 25% air taxi, 28% GA, and 36% military. Only Center activity shows an overall increase over this time period, of 23%.

What this all means is that the original premises on which NextGen was based—the expected doubling or tripling of ATC activity over the next 25-30 years from the levels of 2000—is not in the cards. Even airline flight activity is forecast to be less than 50% greater by 2034 than its actual levels in 2000. And even that growth forecast requires assuming that there will be no more domestic aviation terror attacks and no recessions on the scale of the Great Recession.

As I wrote about the implications of last year's forecast, there are still very sound reasons to pursue NextGen-type modernization—efficiency and productivity gains, delay reductions, fuel savings, and emission reductions. And since the largest delay and capacity problems exist in the vicinity of large hub airports, FAA's Metroplex initiative should be among the top NextGen priorities.

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NATS Cutting Heathrow Delays

The UK's air navigation service provider, NATS, has two efforts under way aimed at reducing arrival delays at Heathrow, the largest UK airport. One involves taking wake turbulence into account; the other is the world's first cross-border adjustment of arrival times.

In the first, NATS and Lockheed Martin spent two years collecting data on the dissipation by headwinds of wake vortices of arriving aircraft. Using laser imaging detection and ranging (LIDAR), they analyzed 120,000 aircraft tracks under various wind conditions. Heathrow experiences strong headwinds up to 100 days per year, and the LIDAR results showed that strong headwinds dissipate vortices. The team developed an algorithm that can dynamically adjust the spacing between arriving aircraft, based on their sizes and on the strength of headwinds. Using the new time-based separation (TBS) tool, NATS estimates it will eliminate up to 40% of Heathrow's arrival delays. Controller and pilot training will take place between now and February 2015, at which point TBS will be put into operation. In addition to being used for single-runway arrivals, NATS expects TBS to also reduce delays when both runways are used for staggered arrivals. Further research is also planned on applying TBS to aircraft departures.

The second trial is aimed at reducing the time arriving planes spend in holding patterns south of Heathrow. Traditionally, when there is a holding pattern in operation, NATS instructs aircraft heading for Heathrow to reduce their speed, so as to arrive a bit later and spend less time in the pattern. The average time arriving flights spend in holding patterns for Heathrow is eight minutes. But since planes may enter UK airspace as few as 80 miles from the airport, slowing them down that close to Heathrow has only a small effect on their holding time. This project involves NATS working jointly with France's ANSP—DSNA—and Eurocontrol's Maastricht Upper Area Control Center (MUAC) to contact Heathrow-bound flights considerably earlier, so that they will slow down much sooner. NATS Director of Operations Martin Rolfe says "This is the first cross-border arrivals management—or XMAN—tried anywhere in the world." It will reduce holding times and therefore noise exposure in southern England, while also reducing airline fuel burn. The trial began on April 1 and will continue through the end of 2014.

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News Notes

Austro Control Pioneers 21st Century Air Traffic Management. March saw two new capabilities fully implemented by Austria's ANSP, Austro Control. First, its nationwide wide-angle multilateration (WAM) system, from Saab Sensis, was declared operational in all en-route airspace. This network of low-maintenance ground stations provides a one-second update rate of aircraft positions, and these data are fused with radar data on controllers' screens. Implementation in terminal airspace will come later this year. Each station also supports ADS-B, which is not yet in operation. Second, Austro Control announced that its previously night-only "free route" airspace is now operational 24 hours a day, letting users select direct routes across Austrian airspace.

Hungarocontrol Now Providing Kosovo's Air Traffic Management. The formerly closed upper airspace of Kosovo has been re-opened 15 years after the original crisis in the Balkans. Under an arrangement worked out with NATO and Eurocontrol, Hungarian ANSP Hungarocontrol is providing airspace management from its Budapest Area Control Center, as reported by Air Traffic Management on April 4th. About 180,000 flights a year will be able to save a total of 370,000 nautical miles by traversing, rather than going around, Kosovo airspace.

Italy Plans Partial ANSP Privatization. Aviation Intelligence Reporter's April issue reports that the Italian government has announced plans to sell a 49% stake in ENAV, the country's ANSP. Former Eurocontrol Director General David McMillan suggested at the World ATM Congress in Madrid that shareholdings in ANSPs might facilitate mergers that would accelerate the needed consolidation of airspace and ANSPs in Europe.

American Ups the Ante on In-Flight Turbulence Monitoring. As reported in Issue No. 109 of this newsletter, American Airlines is the largest user of a commercial service called TAPS that measures and reports turbulence, so that following flights can be alerted. Aviation Daily reports that AA is now starting to install an upgraded radar system called ThreatTrack that can detect turbulence up to 40 nmi ahead of the plane. The system is an upgraded version of the Rockwell Collins Multiscan radar, and planes equipped with Multiscan can be upgraded with software and minor hardware changes. AA's new 737NGs will come equipped with ThreatTrack

Electronic Flight Strips in Australian Control Towers. Airservices Australia has completed installation of the INTAS (Integrated Tower Automation Suite) in four of its control towers, the largest of which is at Melbourne. The Nav Canada-developed system was installed and integrated by Saab Sensis. It is an integrated suite of tools that includes electronic flight strips and many other advanced features. ANSPs in the United Kingdom, Denmark, the UAE, and the Dutch Caribbean have also implemented versions of INTAS.

EAA Agrees to Pay FAA for AirVenture ATC Services. The Experimental Aircraft Association, which produces the huge annual AirVenture event in Oshkosh, WI every summer, has reached an agreement to pay FAA for the extra ATC services required to handle the thousands of planes that converge on Oshkosh for the event. The agreement extends through 2022, but the price of $475,000 has been agreed to only for this year and next year. In exchange for the agreement, EAA has dropped a lawsuit contesting the previous FAA charges, but is also free to seek alternative providers of the service.

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Quotable Quotes

"Certain countries long ago succeeded where the U.S. has failed in commercializing their air traffic control systems, putting them in the hands of private or quasi-private operators able to raise capital, charge fees, and invest in growth, free of meddling by congressional pork barons. You want a drone-friendly air traffic control system? This is the place to start. Our FAA isn't blindly anti-drone but simply marooned in a system that still needs thousands of eyeballs gazing at radar terminals and out of cockpit windshields."
—Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., "Someday, All Planes Will Be Drones," The Wall Street Journal, March 26, 2014

"Let's drop the charade that no towered airports are expendable. There are legitimate criteria that go beyond several air carrier flights a day, or that a location is GA only, or that it's a contract or federally staffed tower. Activity, traffic mix, and complex airspace are starting points for a reasonable discussion. The majority of big airports don't need staffing around the clock. Many places except the freight hubs could close up at midnight and reopen at 5 AM. Time for a change?"
—Bruce Landsberg, President, AOPA Foundation, "Searching for Balance," AOPA Pilot, April 2014

"The [European Commission's] introduction to the SES process of [Functional Airspace Block] mandates undermined the ability of ANSPs based in different parts of the European Union to create alliances that could have competed on a pan-European basis and instead made the ANSPs merge natural monopolies into larger natural monopolies. The EU, when creating these natural monopolies covering much bigger parts of the EU, hoped to control them by applying performance regulation processes, but these processes had a hard enough time to control even the national ANSPs, and the new FABs may be too big to control."
—Philip Clinch, SITA, Air Traffic Management, Issue 1, 2014

"Overly prescriptive regulation can lead to a focus on process and compliance rather than on performance and customer value. The regulatory environment should stimulate, rather than stifle. And it must provide the incentives for ANSPs to drive down costs. In short, it should provide a framework that encourages ANSPs to operate as businesses. Essentially, this means creating a model that puts customers at the heart of what we do, rather than politics; that encourages innovation and performance improvements; and that incentivizes ANSPs to find new ways of doing things that will improve the service they offer."
—Richard Deakin, CEO NATS, "A Direct Route to a Single European Sky," Airspace, Quarter 1, 2014

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





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