Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #61

Topics include: repairing the image of business jets; controller training; Europe's ATC integration; Gingrich on NextGen; Loran; and other news.

In this issue:


How Business Aviation Could Start Repairing Its Image

Twice during the month of February, President Barack Obama castigated CEOs and their corporate jets, and congressional leaders have piled on, too. "We have an unprecedented situation where there is a stigma attached to flying a corporate jet," Credit Suisse analyst Robert Spingarn told Aviation Week. This rhetoric comes at a time when the producers of such planes are cutting production and laying off people, and when the number of used business jets for sale is up 69% compared with a year ago.

Business aviation leaders, including Cessna Aircraft and the National Business Aviation Association, are fighting back, running ads and issuing statements defending business aviation, correctly, as a vital business tool. Jim Coyne, president of the National Air Transportation Association, sent an eloquent open letter to President Obama on March 4, 2009 making many of these points.

The old cliché that actions speak louder than words is relevant to this situation. For business aviation to alter its current "fat cat" image will take more than rhetoric. One very positive gesture this industry could make would be to help address the impending budget crunch that threatens timely implementation of NextGen, the transformed ATC system that, by doubling or tripling capacity, will dramatically reduce delays and make all of aviation more effective.

Near-term, the NextGen funding picture is troubling. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has stated that his number one priority for FAA is to find the money to reach a new contract agreement with controllers' union NATCA. That means the payroll portion of FAA's budget will increase at the very time that revenues from aviation user taxes will be shrinking. Unless additional revenue sources are developed, that means a smaller share of the FAA budget will go for vitally needed capital investment in NextGen.

One possible source of increased NextGen funding is the $25 NextGen user fee that was in the 2007 Senate Aviation Subcommittee bill for FAA reauthorization. That new fee would be applied only to turbine-powered (i.e., jet and turboprop) flights that file instrument flight rules (IFR) flight plans. Those are the principal generators of ATC workload for TRACONs and Centers. As proposed then by Sen. John Rockefeller (D, WV), the revenue stream from that $25 fee would be bondable by FAA, supporting up to $5 billion in revenue bonds for NextGen capital investment.
Tragically, NBAA and other GA groups lobbied hard against Rockefeller's proposal, and he eventually (last year) let it drop. That was then; this is now. We now have a NextGen funding crunch that needs to be addressed in the 2009 FAA reauthorization bill. The $25 NextGen fee would barely be noticed by operators of business jets that cost $2,500 to $6,000 per hour to own and operate. And since there are far more airline flights per day than business jet flights, the airlines would end up paying the lion's share of these fees.

Supporting the $25 NextGen fee would be a symbolically important step for NBAA and other business aviation advocates. It would make tangible their claim that business aviation is not a luxury but a necessity. 


More Information on Controller Training

Last issue's article on training large number of new air traffic controllers brought a response from the FAA. Gene Juba, Air Traffic Organization (ATO) senior VP and head of its Finance Business Unit gave some perspective to the numbers I'd reported on, drawn largely from a recent DOT Inspector General's report. In particular, that report (and my article) considered as troubling the increase in the fraction of controllers in training to 26% (from 15% in 2004). Juba noted that 26% is actually the average fraction over the past 40 years. It only got as low as 14% in the late 1990s because the very large number of (relatively young) controllers hired and trained following the 1981 strike meant that there were few retirements until early this century. He also disagreed with my suggestion of a 35% cap on the fraction of trainees at a facility, pointing out that an across-the-board cap would ignore difference s among facilities, a valid point.

Juba also pointed out various steps the ATO has taken to deal with the staffing situation, beyond those I'd mentioned, such as offering experienced controllers site-specific retention bonuses and offering relocation bonuses and pay raises to encourage experienced controllers to move to facilities facing shortages. And he noted that the 2009 Controller Workforce Plan will be out soon and will be posted on the FAA website.

One idea Juba did not mention is increasing the mandatory controller retirement age, currently 56. That's lower than in some other countries—for example, Canada, where controllers can continue working to age 65. It's also lower than the U.S. requirement for airline pilots, recently changed from 60 to 65. Changing the controller maximum to 65 would add up to nine years to a controller's work life; that's a lot of person-years of highly experienced people. The concern has always been that because normal aging leads to declines in certain mental and physical capabilities, an older controller would be less capable.

That perception has been challenged by a recent study that appears in the March issue of The Journal of Experimental Psychology, funded by the National Institute on Aging. Researchers Ashley Nunes and Arthur Kramer evaluated 36 controllers and 36 non-controllers (matched for age and education with the controllers). Half the controllers averaged 57 years of age, and 34 years of experience; the other half averaged 24 years of age and two years on the job. All participants did a battery of cognitive tasks and simulated ATC tasks (such as conflict detection, conflict resolution, and vectoring). On some tests, such as visual acuity, spatial processing, and processing speed, both groups showed age-related declines. But on the simulations, the older participants did nearly as well as the younger ones, including on conflict error rates. Nunes and Kramer concluded that years of experience compensated to a signif icant degree for age-related declines. (www.apa.org/journals/releases/xap15112.pdf)

To be sure, one study is not enough basis to increase the mandatory retirement age by nine years. But it certainly suggests that ATO and parent FAA consider at least a pilot program of increasing that age limit by a few years while carefully monitoring the results. 


Europe Tackles Difficult ATC Integration

I continue to be impressed at the steady progress being made on Europe's counterpart to NextGen, the Single European Sky. Overall, it aims at implementing essentially the same 21st-century paradigm shift as NextGen, from manual-control, radar-based air traffic control to significantly automated, satellite-based air traffic management. But while consolidation of hundreds of ATC facilities in the United States is a major challenge, the challenge in Europe is even greater since their numerous facilities belong to several dozen separate sovereign states. Each state has the same parochial concerns about facilities and jobs remaining unchanged within its jurisdiction that we observe in the U.S. Congress.

But Europe continues heading in that direction. The second Single Sky legislative package is moving forward in the European Parliament. It will mandate that the reorganization of airspace into nine cross-border functional airspace blocks (FABs) be in place by 2012. It also calls for an overall network manager and for performance criteria for all air navigation service providers (ANSPs).

The nine FABs have been defined and planning efforts among the countries involved are proceeding (see map on p. 48 of Aviation Week's issue of March 16, 2009). It is widely expected that Eurocontrol (a Europe-wide body that sets standards, collects en-route ATC user fees on behalf of member nations, and provides ATC services in a small part of the airspace) will become the network manager and performance review body, given that its Performance Review Unit is already doing that sort of work Europe-wide. The chances of all this going smoothly have been increased by the recent creation of the Air Navigation Services Board, which held its first meeting in February. It is made up of eight representatives from ANSPs, five from aircraft operators, and one each from the military and airports. Chairing the group is Dieter Kaden, head of the commercialized ANSP from Germany, DFS. The new ANSB will help Eurocontro l develop its long-range plans and annual budget, in the context of the emerging Single European Sky.

Left unsaid in anything I've seen is the elephant in the room: consolidation of facilities. The whole point of the creation of FABs is to reduce the huge number of ATC facilities in Europe by making the airspace system transparent to borders. This should mean retaining only those facilities that you would put in place if you were designing the system from scratch. It should help that nearly all the operators of ATC facilities are now commercialized ANSPs. At least at the operational level, they may be willing to entertain mergers that would permit the closing of redundant facilities. But whether national governments will permit this seems to be an open question at this point.

If European governments can solve this problem, the approach they take may well hold lessons for NextGen facility consolidation in the USA. 


Gingrich to Controllers: Get Lost

I was intrigued last month when an aviation colleague told me he'd had a conversation about ATC reform with someone on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's staff and had given that person my name. I'd met Gingrich early in his congressional career, and have always considered him one of the brightest people in Congress. Let me hasten to add, before going further, that the staffer never contacted me. If she had, I might not be writing this article.

In a March 1 New York Times Magazine interview with Gingrich, he enthused about shifting to a GPS-based ATC system that sounds pretty much like NextGen. He noted that such a system would increase capacity and productivity, while saving fuel. And then added, with what I'm sure was a grin, "and by the way, you cut the number of controllers by 7,000."

While Gingrich's basic facts about what a NextGen-type system will do are correct, that kind of controller-bashing rhetoric is more likely to set back than to hasten its implementation. One of the factors in the snail's pace of NextGen implementation has been the bad blood between FAA management and controllers union NATCA. We're all hoping that a new Administrator and support from the DOT Secretary will produce a better working relationship with controllers and their integration into planning NextGen implementation. The last thing we need is somebody talking about cutting the current controller workforce in half!

In point of fact, fully phasing in NextGen and phasing out the old, labor-intensive system will probably take 15 to 20 years—in part because of the need to equip tens of thousands of planes with the necessary avionics to function in a NextGen environment (and enabling the shut-down of numerous costly-to-maintain radars and VORs). During that period, everyone still expects aviation to continue to grow, probably doubling the amount of flight activity by 2025. Thus, if NextGen succeeds in doubling ATC productivity, that means handling twice the traffic with the same number of controllers as today. That's a very different message than Gingrich's line about cutting the number of controllers in half.

It's critically important that everyone involved, including the public and members of Congress, understands the difference between doubling ATC productivity by cutting the current workforce in half and doing so by enabling the current-size workforce to control twice as much traffic. I can imagine NATCA signing on to the latter—but fighting tooth and nail the former. 


Don't Dump Loran

The president's FY 2010 budget would zero out funding for Loran, the Coast Guard navigation system that had been proposed as a back-up system for GPS. The rationale given by the Department of Homeland Security (within which the Coast Guard now resides) is that Loran-C is "an antiquated navigation system that is no longer required by the armed forces, the transportation sector, or the nation's security interests." Eliminating funding for Loran would save the princely sum of $190 million over a five-year period.

This looks to me like a serious mistake. In 2008, the Departments of Transportation, Defense, and Homeland Security developed the recommendation in the Federal Radio Navigation Plan to use an enhanced version called "eLoran" as the principal GPS system backup (and the Coast Guard has already upgraded 19 of the 24 Loran-C stations to eLoran). The idea was that industry would build combined GPS/Loran receivers that could be used to provide basic (non-precision) navigation and landing information in case of disruptions to the GPS signals. This decision received considerable support, not merely from some segments of aviation, but also groups like The Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (representing all U.S. telecom firms).

The need for a robust back-up for GPS was well-documented in a 2001 study by U.S. DOT's Volpe National Transportation Systems Center. It noted that GPS signals are susceptible to disruption by ionospheric conditions, tall buildings, and other radio signals. Moreover, it is increasingly understood that GPS can be deliberately interfered with, by everyone from irresponsible hackers to terrorists to potentially hostile national governments. A 2007 report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission warned Congress that China is becoming capable of attacking GPS by such means as "anti-satellite weapons, high-energy weapons . . . and ground attacks on Earth stations."

I reported in Issue No. 47 (September 2007) on the results of a study commissioned by the Joint Planning & Development Office on how best to provide GPS back-up capability. That study, by ITT Advanced Engineering & Sciences Division, narrowed down the possible alternatives to three, and weighed them against an array of criteria. The highest-ranked (though by a small margin) was eLoran. It scored best on seamless switchover (during a GPS interruption), long-term flexibility, spectrum efficiency, and key infrastructure protection, and it scored a close second on life-cycle cost.

It's no secret that the Coast Guard no longer wants the budgetary burden of Loran. And in all fairness, those costs ought to be apportioned among all the user groups that would benefit from a robust GPS backup capability. But if the Coast Guard is taking advantage of the transition to a new administration to advance a narrow budgetary agenda (which is what this looks like), the rest of the GPS user community should not let them get away with it. 


News Notes

Nav Canada/Sensis to Upgrade Australian Towers. Commercialized ANSP Nav Canada has teamed up with Sensis (producer of ASDE-X and other surface movement systems) to upgrade control towers operated by commercialized Airservices Australia. Much of the tower technology developed by Nav Canada (including the very impressive EXCDS displays with electronic flight strips) has already been acquired by ANSPs in Denmark and the U.K. The combined system, ordered for four Australian facilities initially, is called the Integrated Tower Automation Suite (INTAS). Sensis will be the prime contractor, and will integrate INTAS with the its Advanced Surface Movement Guidance and Control System at Melbourne.

Honeywell GBAS to be Certified Mid-2009. Aviation Daily reports that Honeywell expects the FAA to certify its GBAS (ground-based augmentation system, which I wrote about last issue) by late in the second quarter of this year. Initial certification will be for Category I precision landings, and the company is working with the FAA toward certification for the more-demanding Category III landings. The agency has estimated that Cat III GBAS systems of some sort will be operational by the 2012-2013 timeframe.

NextGen Alliance Unveiled. Late in February a coalition of organizations supporting full funding to implement NextGen was announced. Spearheaded by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the National Alliance to Advance NextGen includes more than 100 organizations—including the Air Transport Association, the Airports Council International-North America, the Business Travel Coalition, numerous New York-area businesses and organizations, and a number of consulting firms. (www.panynj.gov/nextgennow


Quotable Quotes

"What if the CEOs, when they get on that jet, are actually increasing sales, making investments, evaluating major projects, delivering speeches, building morale, motivating their troops, making new loans, expanding plants, exploring new markets, finding new resources, beating competitors, attracting investors, and saving their company? Are they allowed to do that? Because most of the time that's what they're doing! They are not ‘disappearing;' they're trying to be as active as possible . . . . They think it's wrong to just hunker down like a cowering groundhog. They want to soar, seize the day, and build their businesses. Isn't that exactly what we need to get out of a recession? In fact, we need more personal and business aviation activity now than ever before—it's the get-the-job-done tool that's vital for American business."
--Jim Coyne, President, National Air Transportation Association, open letter to President Obama, March 4, 2009

"Another policy we've not stepped up to is in the airborne infrastructure—aircraft avionics in particular—that make up the way the airspace works in a NextGen world. It might actually save the federal government money to subsidize the equipage of aircraft in a way that expands the nation's airspace capacity and reduces controller workload while increasing safety."
--Bruce Holmes, former NASA and Dayjet official,  http://flynextgen.com, Feb. 23, 2009

"[G]eneral aviation accounts for 52% of terminal operations at all airports with FAA towers. Even at Large Hubs and Middle Terminals, general aviation accounts for 27% of terminal operations. With general aviation accounting for this large a share of operations handled by the air traffic control system, it's clear that that system was designed for and has evolved to accommodate the needs of both commercial passenger service and general aviation. Thus, it is appropriate for general aviation to pay for a portion of the capital and operating costs of the air traffic control system. General aviation is not a marginal user of the air traffic control system."
--Clinton V. Oster and John S. Strong, Managing the Skies: Public Policy, Organization, and Financing of Air Traffic Management, Ashgate Publishing, 2007, p. 164. 


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





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