Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #16

Topics include: duplicity in the ATC privatization battle, soaring controller costs, evaluating flight changes with software, and separating ATC operations from safety regulations.
In this issue:

Duplicity Confronted in ATC Privatization Battle

The seemingly endless debate over the outsourcing provisions of the FAA reauthorization bill continued in September, as Congress passed a one-month extension to keep the agency in operation. Fortunately, we finally are seeing key aviation players taking controllers' union NATCA and its allies to task for deliberate distortion of the facts.

The union's continued raising of the safety red-herring -- in the face of a new Inspector General's report that showed a significantly lower rate of operational errors at contract towers than at comparable FAA-run towers — provoked FAA Administrator Marion Blakey to rebuke the union's radio and TV ad campaign. "[M]illions of dollars have been spent to misrepresent" the contract tower program, she told Aviation Subcommittee members. NATCA's allegations "are wrong and could have the effect of undermining public confidence in the safety" of the aviation system.

Both leading general aviation organizations, AOPA and NBAA, are supporting the legislation including its contract tower provisions. AOPA has strongly criticized NATCA for "misrepresenting" its position on the bill. And NBAA for the first time has endorsed the contract tower program, calling it "an excellent example of how certain federal services that would otherwise face extinction can continue through private industry." AOPA president Phil Boyer has also reiterated the organization's support for the current FAA study of possible outsourcing of the costly and inefficient Flight Service Station program.

Nav Canada, whose record as a successful nonprofit ATC corporation has been grossly distorted by NATCA, sent a detailed three-page letter to House and Senate transportation leadership September 9th, correcting the record. CEO John Crichton pointed out, for example, that if operational irregularities were defined the same way in both countries, the rate per 100,000 aircraft movements would be higher in the United States than in Canada (the opposite of what NATCA has been saying). He refuted the union's claim that Nav Canada is only 75% staffed, when the actual figure is close to 100%. And he refuted the repeated lie that passengers in Canada now pay a $24/passenger ATC fee. That fee is a security fee, and the actual ATC charge to airlines, when averaged over the passengers carried, is between 30 cents and $1.40 per passenger.

But for sheer chutzpah, it's hard to beat Sens. Lautenberg and Rockefeller. Purporting to offer a "non-controversial" six-month extension to keep FAA operating, Rockefeller put forth a bill that would, by the way, prohibit any expansion of contract towers and remove the 2007 sunset provision from the Conference Report. Those are the very issues about which this controversy rages! Then there is Sen. Lautenberg, whose position appears to be determined solely by which party is in power. Back in 1993, he declared on the Senate floor, "I strongly endorse the FAA's contract tower program for level 1 towers," going on to laud the estimated annual savings of $200,000 per tower (now running at $917,000 per tower 10 years later, according to the new IG report). And in 1994, when the Clinton-Gore plan to shift ATC from FAA to a user-funded corporation called USATS was being introduced — a move far more radical than simply adding a few dozen more contract towers — Lautenberg told the Washington Post, "The administration's proposal to privatize the air traffic control system is consistent with the desire to bring more efficiency and reform to government and should be reviewed seriously."


Controller Costs Are Out of Control

Just this morning a reporter asked me why NATCA is spending millions of dollars fighting over a few dozen contract towers. My answer was that a lot more is at stake than just those towers. What's at stake is who really runs the FAA: the unions or the management. As NATCA president John Carr put it in a letter to the membership on July 1st, "Since 1998, we have enjoyed an extraordinary relationship with the agency. Under Jane Garvey's leadership . . . ." Extraordinary is certainly the word for it, as recent reports from the Inspector General and the House Appropriations Committee make clear.

For the past two years or more, the global airline industry has been in recession. FAA figures show that total aircraft instrument operations declined by more than three percent between 2001 and 2003. In nearly every other country, ATC costs have been cut, consistent with lower levels of activity. But not here. FAA's budget, especially in air traffic control, has been soaring to record levels, especially in the payroll area. As Inspector General Ken Mead pointed out earlier this year, the average base controller salary is now more than $106,000 per years (a 47% increase over what they averaged four years before). When factoring in overtime and other special pays, over a thousand controllers made more than $150K last year.

But wait, there's a lot more. Under NATCA's five-year 1998 contract, the union has negotiated between 1,000 and 1,500 special memoranda of understanding (MOUs) giving controllers extra pay and time off so that they would cooperate in the introduction of new technology. Several hard-hitting IG reports have started the ball rolling on reforming these costly (tens of millions of dollars per year) MOUs (see the most recent at www.oig.dot.gov/show_pdf.php?id=1165). Also contributing to FAA's enormous payroll costs are excessive levels of sick leave and workers comp. Controller sick leave is nearly 40% higher than the government-wide average, according to the Appropriations Committee's report. Likewise, the 3,731 former FAA employees on workers comp get an average of $46,163 a year, far above the government-wide average of $28,864. The Committee also cites a Jan. 17, 2003 Inspector General audit of traumatic injury claims, where costs have risen 39% over the past four years, and abuses seem rife.

Against this backdrop — and despite the recent declines in flight activity — NATCA continues to beat the drum about controller "shortages" at selected facilities. But Administrator Blakey told the Committee that due to the drop in air traffic, FAA currently needs 694 fewer controllers than are currently budgeted; 75% of en-route centers are currently over-staffed. Hence, the Committee recommended against a budget request to hire 328 more, that was based on a projected "retirement bubble" beginning in 2007. It suggests that the controller attrition rate has been very low the past five years and that if it increases, the law allows the DOT Secretary to waive the current mandatory retirement provisions to address the problem.

Finally, NATCA continues to claim that under the Garvey contract, their productivity has increased. But there are no measurements available to support this claim. As the IG has repeatedly pointed out (see www.oig.dot.gov/show_pdf.php?id=1106), the new FAA accounting system fails to record sign-on and sign-off times for controllers, "a serious internal control weakness that brings into question the validity of labor hour data." An FAA insider tells us that "Controllers at ARTCCs and large Tower/Tracons work, on average, slightly more than 4 hours per day. . . . Look at big facilities like Atlanta . . . You would be amazed at the low productivity of these highly paid professionals."

When you see what a sweetheart deal NATCA has been enjoying, you can understand why the union is on a war footing to defend the status quo.


Free Flight Takes an Important Step Forward

If you listen in on the ATC channel when you're flying on a commercial flight, as I often do, you may hear the pilot ask about "going direct." That means using the plane's advanced technology to fly off the established point-to-point airways, to save time and fuel. Pilots also request changes in altitude to avoid rough air or to achieve a lower rate of fuel burn. Every such request must be checked by a controller at the en-route center currently handling the flight, to make sure it can be done safely — i.e., without causing a conflict with another plane. Until recently, controllers used paper flight strips and manual calculations to do this. But they are now starting to make use of sophisticated new software that does the job faster and better-which means that more such requests can be made and granted.

The new software is called URET: User Request Evaluation Tool. The controller simply notes the proposed new route and the software checks instantly for conflicts over the next 20 minutes. The prototype URET software has been in operational testing at six en-route centers, and has worked very well. So as of the last week of August, the FAA began Phase II, in which it will roll out a more advanced version at all 20 en-route centers by 2005, beginning with Jacksonville, which went live Aug. 26.

URET was developed by Lockheed Martin under a $204 million contract, based on R&D by Mitre Corp. Unlike many other FAA acquisitions of new technology, this one has gone relatively smoothly, in both budget and schedule. To be sure, controllers are getting their pound of flesh in the form of hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and time off, via MOUs (see previous story). But the end result is a system that benefits controllers, pilots, passengers, and airlines. FAA conservatively estimates the savings just from direct routings to be $1 million/month/center. So by 2005 when all centers are equipped, annual savings should be around $250 million a year. Kudos to all involved.


Separating ATC Operations from Safety Regulations

A colleague recently sent me a copy of congressional testimony from last year that I'd somehow missed. Prof. Clinton Oster, of the Indiana University School of Public Affairs, a noted expert on aviation safety, testified before the House Aviation Subcommittee on July 16, 2002. His topic was "Ending Self-Regulation at the FAA," and I urge you to obtain and read his thought-provoking statement.

Oster begins by pointing out that unlike its many other safety regulatory functions, when it comes to air traffic control, the FAA regulates itself. And he follows up by noting that, "Self-regulation of air traffic control creates long-recognized potential conflicts of interest when there are decisions to be made about tradeoffs between safety and capacity."

Oster points out that when FAA makes operating rules for something like airline operations, they are considered Federal Air Regulations and are therefore subject to public comment and the provisions of the Administrative Procedures Act. But when FAA proposes rules for how it operates the ATC system, there is no public comment or any form of external review. He illustrates the contrast by noting that FAA rigorously regulates the amount of time airline pilots can fly and does not allow exemptions to these duty-time regulations. But FAA not only "has allowed, and in the past has even mandated, considerable overtime for air traffic controllers."

There is a lot more in this provocative and important paper than I can cover here. It's posted on the House Aviation Subcommittee web-site, but if you have trouble finding it, let me know, and I will email you a copy.


News Notes

ATC Corporations Win Awards. The International Air Transport Association gave out its annual Eagle awards last June for the world's best airports and ATC providers. Two of the three winning ATC providers this year-Airways Corp. of New Zealand and Estonian Air Navigation Services-are nonprofit, user-fee-funded ATC corporations, regulated at arms-length for safety by their respective governments. (The other winner was the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority.) IATA also recognized airports and ATC providers that had made significant efforts in controlling costs and/or charges. All six ATC providers singled out for commendation are full-fledged ATC corporations, including Nav Canada and NATS, the frequent objects of NATCA's negativity. Conspicuous by its absence was the FAA.

Eastern European ATC Modernization. The latest CANSO News reports that the ATC providers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have created a joint organization called RADA (Regional Air Navigation Development Association) to study the development of an advanced Communication, Navigation, Surveillance/Air Traffic Management (CNS/ATM) system for the region. Three of the five are full-fledged ATC corporations that qualify as full members of CANSO, the membership organization for commercialized ATC providers. (See www.canso.org for more information.)

Overview of ATC Commercialization. Our friends at the Adam Smith Institute in London have produced a succinct overview of the global shift toward commercialized ATC, as part of their "Around the World in 80 Ideas" series of on-line policy ideas. You can find it at www.80ideas.net/idea/23.htm.

Runway Collision. Finally, an apparent ATC error at North Las Vegas airport led to the collision of two general aviation planes at the intersection of two runways. Both were destroyed in the resulting fire, and one of the pilots was seriously injured. The Weekly of Business Aviation reports that over the past four years, North Las Vegas has had "a runway incursion rate many times higher than other busy general aviation airports." The tower at NLV is a federal tower, staffed by federal controllers. Nobody is pointing any fingers, nor should they, pending the NTSB investigation of this tragic accident. But based on the kind of fingerpointing in NATCA's February 2003 white paper on ATC privatization, you can just imagine what kind of rants we'd be seeing had NLV been an airport with a contract tower.

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





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