Air Traffic Control Newsletter #114

Budget problems crimping NextGen, Obstacles to PBNInspector General reports, Media focus on new controller hiring plan

In this issue:

Budget Problems Lead to NextGen Triage

Five years ago, the FAA's FY 2011 five-year capital investment (Facilities and Equipment) plan projected the F&E budget growing from FY 2011's $2.7 billion to reach $3.7 billion by FY 2015. But enacted funding levels since then have never exceeded $2.73 billion, and the FY 2015 budget from the House Appropriations Committee calls for $2.6 billion, while the Senate counterpart is even lower at $2.5 billion (about one-third less than projected for 2015 five years ago). The Air Traffic Organization's Chief Operating Officer Teri Bristol reminded attendees at the RTCA Global Aviation Symposium earlier this month that, after a two-year reprieve, sequestration will return as of the FY 2016 budget year, mandating further cuts. And with investment funding provided by this uncertain annual process, "It gets really, really challenging." In its OMB-approved budget request, FAA asked for only $836 million specifically for NextGen, a 7.3% decrease from FY 2014; almost all of that is included in the requested $2.6 billion F&E total.

At the RTCA event, Bill Ayer, the former Alaska Airlines CEO who now chairs the NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC), explained how that group is essentially engaging in triage. The NAC last year identified and prioritized 36 desired NextGen capabilities, which included 11 "Tier 1" capabilities for early emphasis. Those 11 have subsequently been whittled down to four, to be formally presented to FAA in October. As John Croft reported (June 16th) in Aviation Week, those four are:

  • Performance-based navigation (PBN)
  • Airport surface operations
  • Controller-pilot datalink (Datacom)
  • Closely spaced parallel runways.

NAC's NextGen Integration Working Group is developing detailed proposals for each of the four areas, aiming to accelerate deployment of capabilities with high benefit/cost ratios and for which the technology is already in hand. In Datacom, for example, the aim is to speed up the timetable, completing all 56 of planned tower installations by 2016 rather than FAA's current deadline of 2019; that, in turn, would permit earlier implementation of Datacom in the en-route environment. Such capability is already in place nationwide in Canada.

The PBN team is focused on the FAA's efforts to implement RNAV and RNP procedures in the airspace and at the principal airports in major metro areas (referred to as "metroplexes"). A current priority is looking into options to implement such changes sooner in the Northern California metroplex and in the Atlanta/Charlotte region. FAA's initial implementation in Houston came in for praise at the RTCA conference, but as NATCA president Paul Rinaldi pointed out, it was costly and time-consuming (a 30-month development period). It's not clear how directly transferable the Houston process is, or whether each metroplex implementation will need so much customizing as to be essentially unique.

The multiple-runways group is focusing on faster implementation of methods that safely reduce spacing for arriving and departing aircraft, such as the two pilot programs Wake Turbulence Mitigation for Departures and RECAT (which recategorizes the spacing rules based on more accurate definitions of the wake effects between planes of different sizes). Early this year, FAA cut the number of planned RECAT rollouts over the next two years to just four airports; the group is looking at the prospects for doubling that to eight.

In his annual NextGen report to Congress, Deputy Administrator Mike Whitaker tried to put a good face on the slow progress, but warned that funding uncertainty makes serious planning and implementation much more difficult. It's unfortunate, and frustrating for the professionals involved, that the United States is the only developed country where major capital programs can only be funded out of annual cash flow from the government budget, rather than being financed by revenue bonds as airports do--and as is now routine for user-funded air navigation service providers worldwide.

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Inspector General Cites Obstacles to PBN Implementation

Less than three weeks after the Houston metroplex transformation went live, with redesigned airspace and 61 new PBN arrival and departure procedures for Bush Intercontinental and Hobby Airports, the DOT Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a highly critical PBN report. "FAA Faces Significant Obstacles in Advancing the Implementation and Use of Performance-Based Navigation Procedures" is report number AV-2014-057, and should be required reading for everyone concerned about NextGen.

At the request of Congress, OIG looked into two key aspects of implementing RNAV and RNP procedures, the two forms of PBN. First, how many of the1,000+ PBN procedures implemented thus far are "high-value" ones that reduce flight tracks and provide meaningful savings in fuel use, time, and emissions—and how much use is being made of them by aircraft operators? Second, what progress has FAA made in streamlining its development of new flight procedures? The answers to both questions are distressing.

As was already widely known, most of the procedures FAA has implemented thus far are either the less-precise RNAV arrivals and departures or more-precise RNP procedures designed simply as "overlays" of conventional procedures (which don't shorten flight tracks). FAA made that choice deliberately, since it wanted nearly all aircraft to be able to use the new procedures. Nearly all airliners, at least, are equipped with flight management systems that can handle RNAV, but fewer are equipped to handle RNP. As a result, even in its priority metroplex initiative, where the benefits of "high-value" RNP procedures such as short, curved approaches would be greatest, very few have actually been implemented. Yet OIG found that about 50% of all Part 121 (commercial) aircraft and over 70% of those operated by major airlines actually are equipped for RNP. By contrast, Table 1 in the report shows the percentage of RNP-capable flights at 30 core airports that actually used an available curved approach during a one-year period ending last August. The most frequent percentages in the table were 1% and 0%, with just two airports having significant usage—Chicago Midway (31%) and Reagan National (16%).

FAA itself in 2012 listed obstacles that are hindering faster implementation of PBN procedures, including outdated policies and procedures (e.g., not updating the controller handbook to deal with RNAV and RNP procedures in a mixed-equipage environment), insufficient training (though controllers in the Houston metroplex program did get simulator training), and lack of automation tools to assist controllers in mixed-equipage environments. One such tool, Traffic Management Advisor, is in place at all centers and many towers and TRACONs, but it is apparently not yet in widespread use, due to lack of adequate controller training, due at least in part to budget constraints.

The other part of OIG's report deals with FAA's efforts to streamline procedure development. Back in 2010 it received a report it had commissioned from RTCA, which made 21 "Nav Lean" recommendations. The agency aimed to implement them all by 2015 (next year), but as of now has finished work on only 9 of the 21 changes. While it told OIG auditors that it expected to complete the other 12 by September 2015, the report questions whether this is feasible. For example, budget problems have prevented FAA from hiring a contractor to develop standardized procedures for environmental reviews. The original cost estimate for implementing the 21 recommendations was $19 million, but that total has grown to $52 million just for FY 2013-2015. And most troubling of all, at the time of the audit, FAA had not even defined the requirements, schedules, or both for 11 of the 12 remaining procedures.

It is standard practice with both GAO and OIG reports that the agency doing the report (OIG in this case) sends a draft to the agency being reviewed (FAA here) and requests written comments on the report and its recommendations. That has not happened in this case, and the report pointedly notes that "a written response to this report and our recommendations is required." It also states that "until we receive the Agency's written response, our recommendations will remain open and unresolved." This is the first case of such non-response that I've seen in several decades of reading GAO and OIG reports about the FAA and other federal transportation agencies.

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Media Shine Spotlight on Bizarre FAA Controller Hiring Plan

In the February issue of this newsletter I broke the story of the FAA's abrupt shift in recruiting candidates for training as new controllers. Instead of giving priority to about 3,000 graduates of FAA-approved ATC curriculum at the 36 colleges that are members of the Collegiate Training Institute, it announced two major changes starting early this year. First, all controller recruitment would be "off the street," and second, the initial step would be for all applicants to fill out and pass a "Biographical Questionnaire" aimed at recruiting a more-diverse workforce. Despite widespread dismay and anger on the part of CTI faculty and graduates, the agency went ahead with this plan. And as feared by CTI graduates, large numbers of them "failed" the BQ (with no explanation of why) and could not proceed any further, calling into question the money spent and two to four years they have invested in hopes of becoming controllers.

Until recently, the major media had ignored this story. But on May 23rd, the Wall Street Journal's Susan Carey published "FAA Closes a Hiring Runway," reporting on the situation and quoting both faculty and graduates about this abrupt and inexplicable change of course. That opened the floodgates. Chicago Tribune transportation reporter John Hilkevitch followed up with and in-depth article on May 27th. These two stories were enough to stimulate many local newspapers and television stations to cover the story. A particularly well-done example is the five-minute piece aired by ABC's 7News in Denver on June 2nd. If it is still online by the time you read this, I urge you to watch it: www.thedenverchannel.com/news/call7-investigators/faa-changes-hiring-practices-for-air-traffic-controllers-ignoring-qualified-students-and-vets.

Until recently, the only member of Congress to take an interest in this debacle was Sen. Patty Murray (D, WA), who grilled DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx about it at a March 14th hearing. But in late May, 29 House members, from both parties, sent a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta complaining about the lack of transparency in the agency's new hiring program. As far as I've been able to determine, there has been no public response from the FAA thus far.

Various former FAA officials I've talked with about this issue are appalled by the FAA's change of course. Among other things, they cited a recommendation by the DOT Inspector General back in 2005 that the hiring process be changed in the opposite direction: that CTI graduates who passed the traditional controller aptitude test be exempted from some or all FAA Academy training and go straight to on-the-job training. Congress urged something similar in the 2012 FAA reauthorization measure. And many experts on the shift to the more technology-intensive NextGen paradigm for air traffic management favor requiring a college degree for all new controllers (which is not required for the new "off-the-street" hiring process).

Congress really should take action to get FAA controller recruitment back on course, eliminating the BQ and re-opening the door to CTI graduates.

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ATC Anywhere from Anywhere Becoming a Reality in Europe

Several recent developments in Europe show that using a single facility to manage airspace remote from that facility is becoming real option.

On June 19th, Saab announced that Sweden's air safety regulator has cleared LFV, the Swedish ANSP, to begin operating the world's first remote tower this fall. The new facility is the Sundsvall Remote Tower Center, which will provide tower functions for both Sundsvall itself and for Ornskoldsvik Airport, 100 km away. All the various sensing technologies were installed at the latter airport last year, and since then the required technical and operating procedures have been defined and tested, with approval granted this month by the Swedish Transport Agency. The Saab Remote Tower product suite includes high-definition cameras, pan-tilt-zoom cameras, surveillance and meteorological sensors, microphones, and signal light guns deployed at the remote airport. Data are sent from there to the Remote Tower Center, where the controller can manage the remote airport's traffic.

In Britain and France, the concept has been extended to radar approach control. Liverpool's John Lennon Airport (JLA), owned by Peel Airports, has been providing such service to Peel-owned Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster (84 miles away) since Peel acquired the latter airport in 2006. With eight years of experience under its belt, JLA is now seeking to acquire additional customers for this service within the 120-mile radius of its radar coverage. JLA's Chris Kelly, director of ATC services, told the Liverpool Echo (June 5th) that "If we had six regional airport services in three or four years, that would be a success." In the U.K., airport ATC (including approach control) is open to competition; the national ANSP (NATS) is the monopoly provider only of en-route air traffic control.

A somewhat similar situation also exists in France, according to the same article (though I have not had time to check this out). It reported that the Montpelier airport now provides approach radar services for Beziers, Nimes, and Perpignan.

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FAA Not Doing Enough on Controller Fatigue, TRB Experts Find

Although FAA has made a start on trying to reduce the factors that lead to controller fatigue, it has not gone far enough. That's one of the principal findings of a major new report on FAA and controller staffing, whose second chapter is "Aviation Safety and Controller Staffing." The report is the Transportation Research Board's Special Report 314, and the full citation is in this issue's Quotable Quotes, below. I plan to address the report's larger subject of how FAA determines overall staffing needs in a future issue of this newsletter.

Chapter 2 of the report begins by reviewing the data (1990-2012) on the relatively small number of ATC-related accidents—which is certainly a good thing overall. But it points out that FAA's ATC-related safety risk analysis focuses exclusively on loss-of-separation events, even though single-aircraft accidents (which by definition do not involve loss of separation between two vehicles) actually account for two-thirds of fatal ATC-related accidents (and most of those involve general aviation). It finds that these data "suggest that failure [of controllers] to provide timely and accurate safety information is a cause or factor for a large proportion of fatal ATC-related accidents." And that leads naturally into the topic of controller fatigue.

The TRB's expert committee commends the FAA and controllers union NATCA for starting to work toward creating a fatigue risk management system (FRMS) in 2009, but notes that "to date, FAA's FRMS program remains incomplete." The most visible policy implemented thus far has been a change in scheduling practice to require a minimum of 9 hours off-duty preceding the start of a day shift. That was an attempt to minimize the fatigue that develops when controllers work the counterclockwise rotating 2-2-1 shift, which many aviation human factors researchers condemn as inherently risky. The chapter includes a box explaining this shift schedule—two swing shifts followed by two day shifts followed by a midnight shift. Their judgment is that 2-2-1 "result[s] in severely reduced cognitive performance during the midnight shift because of fatigue." Controllers generally love this shift schedule, because it gives them 80 consecutive hours off, following that midnight shift.

The chapter goes on to note that a 2009 fatigue study conducted jointly by FAA and NASA has not been made public—or made available to the committee. A controller of my acquaintance has said that this study showed that the 9-hour rule reduced fatigue on the 2-2-1 schedule, but it will be hard for any researcher to take those results seriously without being able to examine the methodology used. FAA made a serious blunder by not sharing that study with the TRB expert committee.

The committee also reports in this chapter that the 2013 budget sequestration led to "effectively eliminating the nascent FRMS program's capability of monitoring for fatigue concerns proactively. Policy changes made since FAA received the results of the FAA-NASA study have not been scientifically monitored or evaluated to determine whether they are achieving the intended reductions in safety concerns with fatigue." The Government Accountability Office reached the same conclusion in a report last year, writing that "We could not determine the extent to which these new policies impact fatigue because FAA does not have metrics to measure the effects of its scheduling practices." (GAO's AV-2013-120)

The committee concluded that FAA needs to implement a full FRMS, as its counterpart ANSPs overseas have already done. The committee investigated how Airservices Australia, DFS, NATS, and Nav Canada are dealing with controller fatigue, and also noted ICAO policies calling for implementation of full-fledged FRMS by ANSPs. In effect, on this important subject, the TRB special committee has given FAA a grade of "incomplete."

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Replacing DUATS with What?

For more than 25 years, private pilots have been able to get weather briefings and file flight plans without going through the FAA's once-extensive network of Flight Service Stations (FSSs). Under a program called Direct User Access Terminal Service (DUATS), two competitively selected vendors allow pilots to do these things over the phone and/or online. As with FSS itself, there is no charge to the pilot for using these services, on the premise that charging for these safety services might lead some pilots to avoid using them to avoid having to pay a fee.

The cost of the traditional FSS network had climbed so high by the early 2000s (about $600 million) that even the GA community knew something had to be done, which led eventually to Congress approving a plan to outsource FSS to a contractor, with authority to consolidate it into a small number of facilities and implement a major technology upgrade. That program has generally been judged successful.

But the two DUATS contractors—CSC and DTC-- have sounded an alarm about a 2013 FAA Market Survey which assessed potential vendor interest in a contract to operate both FSS and DUATS as a single, unified service. In full-page ads in general aviation magazines, they have touted the benefits of the current competitive approach, in which pilots can choose their provider, companies have incentives to innovate and provide new and better services, and these services cost far less than providing them via FSS. A recent DTC advertisement in AOPA Pilot provided figures comparing DUAT service with FSS service. The FAA reports that in 2012 the two DUAT vendors provided 88% of weather briefs and 73% of flight plan filings, with FSS handling only 12% and 27%, respectively. DTC also noted the estimated cost of the two programs, at $12 million per year for DUAT and $120 million per year for FSS.

So an obvious alternative to FAA's proposed Future Flight Services Program (FFSP) would be to continue a competitive program, but one under which the FSS functions would be absorbed by the two winning DUAT contractors. A rough guess at the savings, based on the above numbers, could be in the ballpark of $100 million per year. Government agencies generally act on the assumption that there is one best way to provide a function or service. But where competition is a viable option, it is better to let competing providers work hard at gaining market share by offering better packages of services, within the agreed-upon budget.

Upcoming Event

ALPA 60th Air Safety Forum, Aug. 6-7, Washington, DC, Washington Hilton (Robert Poole speaking). Details at www.safetyforum.alpa.org.

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News Notes

NTSB Calls for Improved Pilot Weather Information. Of the 15,000 general aviation accidents the National Transportation Safety Administration investigates each year, 20% involve weather conditions such as fog, icing, or turbulence. Last month the agency called on both FAA and the National Weather Service to get more up-to-date weather information into pilots' hands. What this ought to mean is far greater use of on-aircraft sensing devices to report weather conditions in real time to NWS, rather than relying primarily on twice a day weather balloon data from only 69 locations. Bloomberg News reporters Alan Levin and Mary Schlangenstein provided a good update on growing airline use of such sensors on June 19th ("Airliners Become Weathermen as Sensors Upend Forecasting").

Avtech and Panasonic Developing Advanced Weather Technology. Panasonic Avionics and Avtech last month announced a strategic partnership to expand real-time weather information for aviation. Panasonic acquired pioneering real-time weather company AirDat last year, while Avtech has developed its NowCast system to transmit customized weather forecasts to aircraft in flight.

FAA Protects Confidential Safety Data. The FAA has successfully dismissed requests under the Freedom of Information Act for data on safety mishaps reported under confidential programs for controllers (ATSAP) and technical service employees (T-SAP). This decision is consistent with long-standing policy that protects from disclosure similar reports on safety problems by pilots (ASAP), which have been exempt from FOIA disclosures since 2003. These non-punitive reporting programs work precisely because they are exempt from public disclosure, and this kind of public safety exemption is protected by the Open Government Initiative.

Avinor and NATS in Joint Information System. Norway's ANSP Avinor and the UK's NATS have signed an agreement to implement a common Aeronautical Information Management system. It's another small step toward the goal of a Single European Sky. Both ANSPs are members of the Borealis Alliance, whose other ANSP members may choose to join the system in future years. Designed by Avitech (a subsidiary of Indra), the system is expected to save money for each ANSP.

RNP Progress in Brazil and India. GE Aviation is working with the ANSPs of both Brazil and India to redesign airspace and implement RNP procedures. The first such route in Brazil (Rio to Sao Paulo) went live in January, and routes to and from four other big cities will be implemented during 2014. In India, the initial RNP targets are the airports of Bengaluru, Guwahati, and Mangalore. Bengaluru is the country's fourth-busiest, while Guwahati is in a remote mountainous area where RNP can significantly increase reliability.

FAA Drops New York Integrated Control Facility. In the face of major budget uncertainties, the FAA has put on hold plans to develop the first of a proposed new type of consolidated ATC facility, the Integrated Control Facility. The New York ICF was intended to combine airspace and functions of the New York TRACON and New York Center into a single facility whose location was still to be determined. Instead, last month the agency announced that it will refurbish the existing TRACON in the current Long Island location. That course of action had been lobbied for extensively by elected officials from the region, especially Sen. Charles Schumer (D, NY). Where this leaves the FAA's overall facility consolidation plan, required two years ago by Congress, is a big question mark.

WAM Increases Surveillance at Fredericton, Canada. Nav Canada has expanded the Wide Area Multilateration (WAM) system serving the Fredericton, New Brunswick Airport. Radar coverage in the area does not extend below 1,500 feet, but the new system provides radar-like data via triangulation, and at lower cost than installing a traditional secondary radar. WAM uses existing transponder data to note the identity of targets on controllers' displays and to provide the information on the tower's electronic flight strips.

Another WAM System, This Time in Norway. Avinor, the Norwegian ANSP, has selected a Saab Wide Area Multilateration system to be installed along the country's southwestern coast. WAM relies on non-rotating sensors to identify aircraft location by triangulation. In addition, the sensors will support ADS-B as that system comes into widespread use. Sensors will be deployed at Bergen and Stavanger Airports and on oil and gas platforms in the nearby North Sea.

European Airlines Protest DFS Fee Increases. The Association of European Airlines (AEA) is calling proposed ATC fee increases by Germany's air navigation service provider DFS "unacceptable." DFS argues that it has no choice but to increase its rates to cover "unmanageable obligations for occupational pension provision." If it goes through, the rate increase is likely to make it impossible for DFS to comply with EU fee reduction targets for ANSPs.

India Moving to ADS-B for Surveillance. ADS-B ground stations at all 21 planned sites across India have been declared operational by AAI, the country's ANSP. The Comsoft system now provides nationwide coverage plus portions of the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. As of this writing, information on the extent of ADS-B equipage for aircraft in Indian airspace was unavailable.

FAA Snapshots Available. The 2014 Spring release of the FAA's NextGen Performance Snapshots was announced earlier this month. You will find the information at www.faa.gov/nextgen/snapshots.

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Quotable Quotes

"The FAA does not have a position on privatization, but we are aware of the conversation on this issue within many segments of the industry. If a plan or proposal were to emerge, it would have to work for the entire industry and not just certain segments. FAA reauthorization will give both the FAA and industry an opportunity to think about what changes need to be made in order to put the agency in the best position for success in the future."
—Mike Whittaker, "FAA Deputy Administrator Addresses FAAMA Issues," Managing the Skies, May/June 2014

"FAA has terminated air traffic controller selection research. The committee views this as unfortunate, given the potential value of such research in identifying (a) relevant skills that may be needed in the long term in the NextGen environment and (b) the skills that allow a controller to succeed at higher-level facilities. An improved understanding of these matters appears to be critical in planning and executing a staffing plan that minimizes the wasted resources associated with selecting controllers who fail to qualify."
—Committee for Study of Federal Aviation Administration Air Traffic Controller Staffing, Federal Aviation Administration's Approach for Determining Future Air Traffic Controller Staffing Needs, Transportation Research Board, Special Report 314, 2014

"Airlines carry significant unseen costs in order to manage the unpredictability of the world's ATM systems. For example, ground-time buffers are planned into aircraft operating patterns to provide recovery from service delays. This reduces utilization of aircraft fleets and increases time at terminal gates. Extra crew are employed to provide reserve pilot and cabin crews to cover patterns disrupted by delay. Similarly, higher levels of ground staff are employed as contingency for recovery from delays. The second requirement is for productivity improvements to meet increasing demand. Just doing the same thing more often will not meet the growth in demand. Increasing the amount of current-system ATM equipment will not result in better productivity. Coupled with that, community and environmental considerations will limit new runways and new airports. The challenge is to achieve increased productivity within the existing infrastructure. In very simple terms, we need to increase arrival rates at constrained airports and increase capacity, which ultimately means reduced separation, in constrained airspace. The third requirement is efficiency and a reduction in the cost of ATM. The costs to airlines and their passengers are both direct and indirect. Direct costs are the charges airlines pay to ANSPs. The indirect costs are the costs that airlines incur through extended flight times, unpredictable levels of airborne holding, indirect flight routings, and inefficient flight profiles."
—Andrew Charlton, "Now Is the Time for All Good Airlines to Come to Their Own Party," Aviation Intelligence Reporter, May 2014

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





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