Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #60

Topics include: satellite navigation and airport capacity; Aviation Trust Fund revenue; controller training; Who constitutes “the airlines”?; radar vs. wind farms; and other news.

In this issue:

How Satellite Navigation Will Boost Airport Capacity

In Issue No. 50 (February 2008) I criticized a view expressed by many air traffic controllers that ATC reform will do very little to increase system capacity, because you can only land so many planes per hour on existing runways. Hence, the argument goes, the real need is lots more runways; ATC modernization is just a side show.

That view is simplistic for several reasons. One is the fact that runway use in other than visual meteorological conditions (VMC) requires precision landing aids. For nearly all airports today, that means Instrument Landing Systems (ILS), an old technology that requires an expensive equipment suite for the end of each runway for which non-VMC landings are desired. Many large airports don’t have ILS on every runway end, which means that when weather and visibility require precision landings, only certain runway ends can be used—hence, effective capacity under those conditions is reduced, leading to delays.

That’s the case on one of Newark Airport’s runway ends, which backs up to a freeway (and therefore lacks the room to install an ILS). Fortunately, the FAA and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey are in the process of fixing that, by installing what will be the first GPS landing system at a major U.S. airport. The system is the one I’ve written about previously: GBAS (Ground-Based Augmentation System) developed by commercialized air navigation service provider Airservices Australia and refined and marketed in the United States by Honeywell. It uses several ground-based GPS receivers at precisely known locations in the airport’s vicinity to augment and correct the GPS signals from orbit. The corrected signal is sent by VHF to properly equipped aircraft, whose flight management system (FMS) provides approach guidance equivalent to or better than what’s provided by ILS. In the Newark case, Continental Airl ines is initially equipping 15 planes with the VHF receivers at a cost of about $1 million. The Port Authority and the FAA are splitting the $5 million cost of the ground equipment.

One GBAS can provide precision guidance for all runway ends at the airport in question (and even for nearby airports within about 30 miles). That means one such installation could eventually replace however many ILSs there may be at an airport, which is what Airservices plans for Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Perth and their nearby general aviation airports. Qantas has equipped 14 of its 737s with GBAS receivers and has another 24 in the pipeline. It is also ordering its 20 A-380s and 65 787s equipped with these receivers.

As of now, GBAS is certified for Category 1 approaches (200 ft. decision heights), but Honeywell and FAA expect to upgrade it to more-demanding Cat. 2 and Cat. 3 requirements over the next three to four years. That will help market penetration in the United States, but is not likely to be needed in Australia, where easier visibility conditions mean Cat. 1 suffices for most airport needs.

A different GPS augmentation system is being implemented in Europe (and for general aviation in the United States). It’s based on wide-area augmentation (WAAS), using a widely scattered network of ground stations that transmit their correction signals to a satellite that re-transmits them to a combined GPS/WAAS receiver on aircraft. As with GBAS, that receiver sends the corrected signal to the plane’s FMS, which uses it to provide landing guidance. Now called Satellite Based Augmentation System (SBAS), this system was recently selected for Airbus’s forthcoming A-350XWB. SBAS is designed to use correction signals not only from the FAA’s WAAS but also from Europe’s EGNOS, India’s GAGAN, and Japan’s MSAS augmentation systems. Because it covers a continent-wide area, SBAS makes possible Cat. 1 approaches at any airport within that area. In the United States, combined WAAS/GPS receivers are now installed in over 40,0 00 private planes. And the FAA has now published more WAAS approaches than ILS approaches, and projects having 6,000 WAAS approaches by 2018.

GBAS and SBAS are not “the answer” to expanding the capacity of existing runways. But they are an important piece of the answer. 

Projected Decline in Aviation Trust Fund Revenue

In 2005, Vaughn Cordle of Airline Forecasts and I wrote a Reason Foundation policy paper in which we suggested that a serious threat to Aviation Trust Fund revenue loomed. The premise was that the long-term downtrend in airline fare revenue ("yield") would cause an ongoing decline in airline ticket tax revenues. And since those revenues are the largest single source of Trust Fund revenues, the FAA (and hence the ATC system) was facing a budget crunch in coming decades (see

Fortunately for aviation, the downtrend in domestic yield (cents/passenger mile) reversed shortly after that study came out, and has been in a general up-trend since then, at least in nominal terms (growing from about 11.8 cents to nearly 16 cents/passenger mile by last spring). Since July 2008, however, a downtrend has resumed, with domestic yield down to 14.1 cents by January 2009. When you combine that lower yield with the much lower passenger mile total compared with a year or two ago, the Trust Fund revenue picture begins to look troubling once again.
Airline Forecasts on Feb. 19, 2009 released a new assessment, estimating that Trust Fund revenue could be 10% lower in 2009 than 2008. On a revenue base of about $12.5 billion (FY 2008), a 10% hit would mean $1.25 billion less money for the FAA's overall $14.6 billion budget. And since "operations" (mostly payroll) always gets first priority, when cuts have to be made what gets squeezed is capital investment in modernization—i.e., the critical initial steps to implement NextGen.

To me this says that Sen. Rockefeller should revive his 2008 proposal for a $25 ATC modernization fee for each jet or turboprop IFR flight, the proceeds of which could support  $5 billion in revenue bonds for NextGen facilities and equipment. No such funding enhancement exists in the House bill to reauthorize the FAA, but the Senate has not yet drafted its bill. Too much is at stake to short-change much-needed NextGen investment. 

Controller Training Under Fire

Several years ago the complaint was that the FAA's Air Traffic Organization (ATO) was behind the curve in acting on the looming retirement bulge, as controllers hired to replace strikers in 1981 reached retirement age in large numbers this decade. It's now widely acknowledged that the agency has made good (if perhaps belated) progress on that score, hiring more new controllers than the nearly 5,000 who have left since 2005. DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel in a new report says the agency has done "a remarkable job in hiring replacements for controllers who have decided to leave." But Scovel and controllers union NATCA are now focusing on a different problem: too many trainees in relation to the overall workforce.

According to the IG's report, trainees at various levels constitute about 26% of the total controller workforce.  That's up from a more usual 15% as was the case in 2004. And while one-fourth of the workforce in various stages on on-the-job training might be acceptable, the real problem comes at facilities where, for whatever reason, the percentages are much higher—e.g., 47% at the Orlando tower and 40% at the very busy Southern California TRACON. NATCA president Patrick Forrey says the key issue is not the total number but "how qualified they are and how successful they will be in training." Right now, he told Aviation Week's Adrian Schofield, the system is being "clogged with trainees" in certain locations. And some of these are among the largest and busiest in the system (e.g., that Southern California TRACON).

To a considerable extent, this problem is water under the bridge; the 5,000 controllers who have retired recently are gone, and the ATO has no choice but to do the best job it can in placing and training new controllers to replace them. Thus far, it has adopted two important means of coping. One is electronic tower simulators. Six of these simulators are in use 18 hours a day at the Federal Aviation Academy in Oklahoma City, and 19 are on order to be installed at major facilities nationwide. The ATO estimates that the simulator training reduces training time by 20 to 60%, and reduces the amount of time trainees spend in on-the-job training in actual towers.

The second, more controversial, measure is to divide the job of controllers at certain locations into two specialties—tower controllers and TRACON controllers. Since new hires only need to develop full proficiency on one function or the other, training time is thereby reduced. This has long been the practice in more than 20 of the biggest cities in the country, including Atlanta and Chicago. It is now being extended to some other locations, including Memphis and Orlando, and is being considered for Charlotte, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and San Antonio. But the change at Memphis and Orlando has aroused NATCA opposition, which of course is being taken up by members of Congress.

I can agree that, other things being equal, it would be nice to have as many controllers as possible know how to do both jobs. But other things are not equal. Some 5,000 controllers have already retired, and thousands more will reach mandatory retirement ages over the next 5 to 10 years. The ATO has to cope with the situation that exists, not a might-have-been situation. To be sure, if the Obama administration manages to tweak controller compensation somewhat (revising the compensation package imposed on NATCA by the FAA and Congress in 2007), some of those nearing retirement may stick it out a year or two longer, thereby reducing the percentage of trainees in the total. That will help a bit.

I also think the ATO should consider setting a maximum on the fraction of trainees at facilities—especially the busiest ones. That would require moving more people around, and I know that's not easy. But I'm sure there is some trainee percentage (35%?) above which the risk level should be deemed unacceptable. 

Who Constitutes "the Airlines"?

It irks me to see frequent references in the media to "the airlines" losing tons of money. Reporters who use such formulations typically pick up on news releases from major (legacy) airline trade associations such as ATA and IATA. The latter says that its membership of 230 airlines represents 93% of scheduled international air traffic—as if that meant nearly all scheduled air service. But as Pierre Sparaco pointed out recently (Aviation Week, Jan. 19, 2009), the word "international" doesn't mean what it used to, when flights within the European Union are operated essentially as "domestic" service.

As Sparaco points out, you get a much better picture of commercial aviation by relying on figures from ICAO (the International Civil Aviation Organization), which counts all domestic, charter, and low-cost air carriers (LCCs) as well as international legacy air service. So whereas IATA reports a 3% decline in traffic in 2008, ICAO reports an overall 1.8% increase, with Europe growing 4.4%. And ICAO also points out that the non-IATA market share increased "significantly" last year, reaching 20% of total worldwide scheduled air traffic and 33% of domestic traffic. That includes not just AirTran, Spirit, Southwest, Allegiant, and JetBlue in the United States but Ryanair, EasyJet, and others in Europe and a number of relatively new LCCs in India, Mexico, Australia, and Southeast Asia.

How is this relevant to air traffic control? The February 2009 issue of the e-newsletter Aviation Advocacy raised this point in taking issue with a recent effort by CANSO, the fast-growing trade group for air navigation service providers (ANSPs). In December CANSO's customer relations committee released a guidance document for ANSPs and airlines on "surviving in these turbulent times." It encouraged all ANSPs to provide their customer airlines with all their data concerning airline usage (and planned usage) of their systems and facilities, and required each ANSP to name a principal point of contact for interfacing with airline customers.

But—and this is a big but—the document was developed jointly not with, say, ICAO, but with IATA, and strictly speaking, it applies only to their interfacing with IATA carriers. As Aviation Advocacy rightly points out, "For a large number of CANSO members, it is a simple truth that their largest single customer is not an IATA member. . . . Since when has IATA been entitled to access from third parties to commercially sensitive information regarding its own members, let alone non-members?" And it goes on to say, "If ANSPs are to behave like commercial entities, they have customers. They must treat them accordingly--one at a time. . . . CANSO needs to take a long-term view, not bow to the requirements of one sector of the airline industry." 

I'm generally a big fan of CANSO, seeing it as an important force for ATC reform. But I think this critique is on target. 

Radar vs. Wind Farms

Add one more problem for ATC radars: wind turbines used to generate electricity produce radar reflections that create a Doppler effect similar to that of a moving aircraft. These returns even appear to move, since each return is based on the outgoing signal hitting the blades at a different point in their rotation. Objections to wind farms from the U.K. air navigation service provider NATS have led to the cancellation of more than 40 proposed wind farms there in recent years.

But The Economist reported several months ago (Nov. 8, 2008) that a small company called Cambridge Consultants thinks it has come up with a work-around. It uses a "holographic-infill radar" to bathe the windmills in a continuous stream of radar pulses at short range. The computer-processed returns would be fed to controllers' displays, representing the wind farm as something distinct from moving aircraft.

If it works, that is. As of The Economist's report, the company had tested a small-scale version at a single wind turbine. The image produced was distinguishable from that produced by a moving ground vehicle. So the next planned step is to try this over a larger area with a flying object (a model helicopter). If that works, and the company has funding for it, the follow-on step would be to build a full-scale demonstration at an existing wind farm.

Since long-range radar is likely to remain with us (for defense and homeland security purposes, if not for ATC), I'm glad to see work going on to address this problem. Wind energy, though it has several drawbacks, is likely to play a larger role in meeting our future electricity needs, so it would be nice to avoid conflicts between wind farm location and needed radars. 

News Notes

Travel Group Grades Aviation Performance. The National Business Travel Association has given the federal government an overall grade of C for aviation policy. More specifically, it assigned a D- to the level of taxes imposed on air travelers, but a C for its dealing with airline performance and aviation congestion. The Registered Traveler program received a grade of C+.

Correction Re AIAA. In last month's issue, I noted a draft report from the Aerospace Traffic Management Program Committee of the AIAA. I implied that the report had been approved as an official AIAA document—but in fact, only the report's Executive Summary was approved. I apologize for any confusion this may have caused.

Discriminatory Russian ATC Overflight Fees to Be Ended? In the old days of the USSR, the single monopoly airline was Aeroflot, which also ran the ATC system and airports. Post-Soviet Aeroflot is nominally just an airline company (one of many), but foreign airlines overflying Siberia still must pay overflight fees—to Aeroflot! Non-Russian airlines have long protested this, and they have recently been joined by relatively new Russian airline holding company Rosavia. The Federal Anti-Monopoly Service this month announced a draft decree to abolish the fees, but it will go into effect only if approved by the government. The Transport Ministry opposes the move, which costs EU-based carriers more than E250 million per year.

New ATC Reform Paper. A good summary of the excellent 2006 report comparing the performance of 10 commercialized air navigation service providers appears in the latest issue of Canadian Public Administration, Vol. 51, No. 1 (pp. 45-69). The title is "Commercializing Air Traffic Control: Have the Reforms Worked?" and the authors are Glen McDougall of MBS Ottawa, Inc. and Alasdair S. Roberts of Suffolk University Law School.

Correction re FAA Administrator Term. In last month's article on the fixed term for FAA Administrators, I mistakenly put this as six years, rather than the actual five. My apologies. 

Quotable Quotes

"Many industry watchers would like to see the FAA split into two parts: a safety regulator for airlines, airports, and air traffic controllers, and a separate air-traffic-control system run in a businesslike manner by a not-for-profit entity, not the government. One major reason to split the FAA is that the agency today is both the safety regulator and the operator. In air traffic control, the FAA regulates itself, leading to potential conflicts of interest. Dorothy Robyn, a principal of Brattle Group and the White House transportation advisor in the Clinton administration, says the U.S. is one of the few industrialized nations in which air traffic control is still operated and regulated by the same agency. [Last] summer she proposed that a split would enhance safety and at the same time yield faster progress on modernization."
--Scott McCartney, "A Flier's Plea to the New President," Wall Street Journal, Nov. 4, 2008.

"Former Administrator Langhorne Bond suggested that the changeover [in Administrations] is a good opportunity to reexamine FAA's structure. ‘The place is unmanageable as it exists today,' he said. ‘One of the first things the new administration should look into is whether . . . ATC should be separated into a freestanding institution.' He commented that while FAA has had tremendous success in safety oversight, ‘as a technology development institution it is a failed entity' and is poorly suited to lead the transition to the NextGen satellite-based ATC system."
--Aaron Karp, ATW Daily News, Nov. 6, 2008

"A key to successfully developing the best NextGen policy solutions is to not over-constrain the process by taking potential controversial solutions ‘off the table' in advance. This requires objective processes and measures that all stakeholders can agree to in advance. Stakeholders are the sources of the government's authority, and changing the stakeholders' hearts and minds will be necessary if we are to achieve NextGen in a reasonable time frame."
--Robert Pearce (Deputy Director, JPDO), et al., "Looking Forward to NextGen," The Journal of Air Traffic Control, Fall 2008.

"New ideas pass through three periods: it can't be done; it probably can be done but it's not worth doing; I knew it was a good idea all along."
--Arthur C. Clarke, quoted in Skeptic, Vol. 14, No. 2, 2008, p. 12. 

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