Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #65

O'Hare delays, controller fatigue and micro-managing NextGen

In this issue:

Senate Plan to Micro-Manage NextGen
Controller Fatigue Still a Problem
Encouraging Progress on RNP
New O’Hare Runway Cutting Delays
NATCA’s Favorite Congressman
Upcoming Conferences
News Notes
Quotable Quotes

The Senate’s Plan to Micro-Manage NextGen

I’ve been reading Title III of the Senate Commerce Committee’s FAA reauthorization bill, headlined “Air Traffic Control Modernization and FAA Reform.” In brief, Sec. 301 would create an ATC Modernization Oversight Board (MOB); Sec. 302 would create a NextGen “czar” within the FAA; Sec. 308 addresses facility consolidation; and Sec. 314 sets aggressive timetables for implementing various NextGen technologies. I’m sure the Senators and their staff members mean well in creating all these mandates, but I think that whole effort is sorely misguided.

There are two different ways to go about reforming the portion of FAA that provides ATC services (the Air Traffic Organization). One is to convert it into a business enterprise that has strong incentives to give its customers what they want and are willing to pay for. That is what Congress claimed they were doing nearly a decade ago when they authorized the creation of the ATO as a “performance-based organization.” Under that model, the ATC customers and other stakeholders (e.g., airports, employees) basically govern the organization, giving direction to its management and holding it accountable for results. Because maintaining safety is especially critical when we fundamentally change how ATC is provided, arm’s length safety regulation is even more important than it is in day-to-day operations.

The other model is for Congress to be in charge, producing numerous mandates, timetables, etc. and keeping the ATO’s senior people busy producing numerous reports, appearing at hearings, etc. That’s the model represented by the Senate bill (and there are similar provisions in the previously passed House bill). The oversight board (the MOB) is a sort-of board of directors, but not really—and it includes the FAA Administrator, who (as the chief aviation safety regulator) ought to be at arm’s length from making decisions about specific ATC technologies and procedures. And why create a new NextGen czar when that function is already being carried out ably by the ATO’s Senior Vice President for NextGen?

Sec. 314 is arguably the worst section, in that it ignores the process already well under way among ATC stakeholders under the auspices of the RTCA Task Force 5 to develop specific implementation timetables for key NextGen technologies and procedures. Sec. 314 mandates that ADS-B/In capability be on all aircraft by 2015 and ADS-B/Out by 2018, as well as RNAV and RNP procedures at the top 35 airports by 2014 and at (all?) “other airports” by 2018. Would I like to see those milestones met? Yes, I would. Are they realistic for those who would have to pay for them? I honestly don’t know, and neither do the Senators. That’s what the RTCA Task Force is intended to work out.

Then there is Sec. 308, which calls for an assessment of ATC facilities needed (and not needed) in the NextGen future. Making this more complicated than need be, it requires the FAA to hold a public hearing in each and every community that might be affected, if requested. It calls for the MOB to review the FAA’s NextGen facilities plan and make independent recommendations—but it stops there (except to forbid consolidation of any additional facilities into the Southern California or Memphis TRACONs until after the MOB makes its recommendations). What it does not do is to create a process similar to that used successfully for military base realignments and closing (BRAC), under which the list developed by experts is presented to Congress for an up-or-down/no-amendments vote. Given that very large-scale facility consolidations will be essential to NextGen’s success, not providing a mechanism of this sort is an egregious flaw.

I could go on, but I will stop there. I will only add that during the nearly two years that have elapsed since the FAA’s previous authorization expired, the agency has made very tangible progress on NextGen, working constructively with the JPDO and the RTCA. At times like these, I want to tell these well-meaning lawmakers, “Don’t just do something; stand there.”


Controller Fatigue Report: Same Old Same Old

An AP story in July focused on an audit by the DOT Inspector General’s Office of controller fatigue problems at the O’Hare Tower, Chicago TRACON, and Chicago Center, three of the country’s busiest ATC facilities. I downloaded and read the report (AV-2009-065)—and the discussion looked eerily familiar. Sure enough, it was exactly the same issue that I wrote about more than two years ago, in Issue No. 43 (April 2007).

Sen. Richard Durbin (D, IL) had requested the audit, after complaints from Chicago-area controllers, who had alleged that the large use of overtime and the high number of controller trainees was leading to serious fatigue problems. The IG’s audit did find that overtime hours had increased significantly since 2006-07, but that “the potential impact on fatigue was negligible,” because controllers often did not work the scheduled 6-day weeks; about half of them were able to take leave for regular shifts, while still reporting for the sixth day to earn overtime pay. The IG people also found that staffing levels actually “exceeded established staffing ranges for those locations,” but that the staffing ranges did not take into account the percentage of trainees included in the totals, which was slightly higher at the Chicago facilities than the national average of 27%.

But the real kicker was that controllers at all three facilities are still working what is called a 2-2-1 shift schedule, the very kind that the National Transportation Safety Board in an April 2007 report said leads to controller fatigue because it disrupts circadian rhythms. The NTSB recommended that the FAA and the controllers’ union NATCA develop shift rotation schedules that minimize the kinds of sleep disruptions caused by the 2-2-1 schedule. But no such change in scheduling practices has taken place. Thus, as Table 1 of the IG audit shows, a typical 2-2-1 schedule has two evening shifts followed by two day shifts followed by one midnight shift. Between an evening shift that ends at 10 PM and the day shift starting at 7 AM just nine hours elapse, during which the controller presumably drives home, goes to bed, sleeps, gets up and has breakfast, and drives to work again. And on the fourth day, the controller’s day shift ends at 2 PM, and eight hours later he or she must be back in the facility controlling traffic by 10 PM.

It turns out that controllers like the 2-2-1 schedule, because it gives them super-long weekends. The practice predates NATCA and apparently originated under predecessor union PATCO. And that may well explain why the NTSB’s recommendation has not been followed. Unfortunately, while the IG audit does recommend increased rest periods between shifts (10-hour minimum in general, and 16 hours after a midnight shift on the fifth day of a six-day week), it does not call for scrapping 2-2-1. The FAA agreed with these modest recommendations.

I don’t think that’s good enough, and I hope the NTSB revisits the issue in the near future.


RNP—No Longer Just for Difficult Airport Approaches

Required Navigation Performance (RNP) describes a new kind of procedure for precision airport approaches and departures. RNP 0.1 is a performance requirement, defined as an aircraft equipped so as to be able to track a GPS course to within 0.1 nautical mile of the centerline 95% of the time (and 0.2 nm 99.999% of the time). RNP uses GPS position information and the plane’s flight management system (with autothrottle and autopilot) to fly automated approaches and departures independent of radar and instrument landing systems.

For RNP to be used, two things are needed. The aircraft must be equipped with the required equipment (and the cockpit crew trained to use it) and an RNP arrival procedure must be defined, tested, and approved by the FAA. Most passenger planes currently in production come equipped with the necessary equipment, but more than half the U.S. fleet consists of older planes that will either be retrofitted (as Southwest is doing with its 215 older-model 737s) or retired as we move into NextGen implementation.

RNP was pioneered by Alaska Airlines, due to the difficult approaches to several Alaska airports (such as Juneau), some of which could not be used in bad weather. Some of the key people who pioneered RNP there formed Naverus, a Seattle-area company that develops RNP procedures for airlines and airports worldwide. Initial applications focused on airports with geographical and/or weather constraints, such as Cuzco, Peru and Lahsa, Tibet (in addition to those in Alaska). But the past year has seen RNP move into the mainstream as a tool for reducing the time and distance of airport approaches, and thereby producing fuel savings for airlines. The International Civil Aviation Organization projects fuel savings of up to 8% with widespread use of RNP and other precision navigation techniques.

Today, the airline leaders in widespread implementation of RNP include Alaska, Qantas, and Southwest. Alaska in July began tests of RNP approaches at its Seattle hub, where it and its regional partner Horizon Air operate nearly 250 flights a day. Both Alaska’s 737 fleet and Horizon’s Bombardier Q400 turboprop fleet will be fully equipped by the end of 2010. Southwest is likewise equipping its entire fleet, by retrofitting its older 737s, turning on equipment heretofore not used on its newer 737s, training cockpit crews, and working with Naverus to develop RNP approaches for every airport it serves. Qantas has pioneered RNP in Australia, where Brisbane served as the principal test airport. RNP is now being rolled out to 28 major airports, under a contract between Naverus and air navigation service provider Airservices Australia.

In the United States, RNP holds great promise for helping to decongest major airspace in locations such as Chicago and New York. A recent Wall Street Journal article by Scott McCartney recounted Naverus co-founder Steve Fulton’s assessment of LaGuardia Airport. “To Mr. Fulton’s eyes, New York’s LaGuardia Airport . . . is every bit as constrained as Juneau. Instead of mountains, the obstructions are airplanes from other airports—New York’s Kennedy and Newark Liberty in New Jersey. Creating RNP procedures there would move planes into and out of all three New York airports faster and avoid delays in bad weather.” FAA NextGen Senior VP Victoria Cox told McCartney that her priority is to get RNP implemented first at the most congested airports, such as New York and Chicago, “where the need is greatest.”

This sounds great, but some sobering notes of caution were provided by testimony on July 29th by the DOT Inspector General’s Office (CC-2009-086). According to the IG’s review, the number of RNP procedures FAA has implemented is misleading, since most of them are overlays of existing routes, offering little or no time or fuel-saving benefits—and hence are not being used by airlines. In addition policies and procedures for using RNP procedures that are nominally in place do not yet exist—for example, for parallel runways at Atlanta. Moreover, to get maximum benefits from RNP approaches and departures, their introduction needs to be integrated with airspace redesign efforts, especially in complex airspace such as New York’s.

Despite these cautions, I’m encouraged by recent RNP progress. RNP is the kind of low-hanging fruit that can be implemented quickly and at relatively low cost, producing tangible ongoing benefits to offset the initial airline equipage costs. It’s a great first step into NextGen.

(For a more detailed discussion of how RNP and other NextGen technologies can reduce delays and expand the capacity of airports, see Viggo Butler’s “Increasing Airport Capacity without Increasing Airport Size.”)


O’Hare Shows Benefits of Runway Addition

Although there is significant potential for increasing runway throughput via several aspects of NextGen (e.g., the previous article on RNP), there is still a need to add physical runway capacity at key airports. The new runway at Chicago O’Hare is a case in point.  ORD has changed from an airport with serious delays (especially in bad weather) to one with dramatically less congestion, since its new northside runway opened last November.

To be sure, the recession takes some of the credit, since fewer flights are operating at ORD than was the case last November. But as the Wall Street Journal reported July 23rd, ORD’s on-time arrival rate has improved by 27% this year, compared with the same period last year, twice as much improvement as the average large airport. According to Airport Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino, the new runway has reduced ORD’s average delay from 24 minutes to 16. This is the first of several major runway improvements planned for the airport, and when all are completed, Andolino says that average delay will be cut to six minutes.

The FAA calculates the maximum arrival rate for each airport, based on its runway configuration and airspace constraints. Before the opening of the new runway, that figure was 96 arrivals per hour in clear weather. The new runway has increased that to 112 per hour. And in bad weather, the rate has increased from 70 to 85. The impact really shows up in the bad-weather statistics. In the first five months of 2008, about 30,000 flights were delayed at ORD due to weather, according to the FAA. For the same period in 2009, there were only 8,000 weather-related delays, and the winter weather was worse than the previous year.

The combination of airline schedule reductions, the new runway, and redesigned arrival and departure routes mean that ORD is now operating with flights scheduled to only 80% of its (now-higher) capacity, compared with nearly 101% of capacity early in 2008. That 20% margin (below 100%) gives wiggle-room when weather deteriorates or other things go wrong.

One anachronistic aspect of the runway addition, at the dawn of the NextGen era, is the following. According to the WSJ article, the new runway is so far from the control tower that a new tower had to be built along with it. This is the kind of situation that could have been addressed at far lower cost by means of the virtual tower concept being developed under NextGen (and, in parallel, under Europe’s SESAR program).


NATCA’s Favorite Congressman?

Several months ago, several members of the Florida congressional delegation sent a letter to DOT Secretary Ray LaHood objecting to the FAA Air Traffic Organization’s plan to consolidate the Palm Beach TRACON into the Miami TRACON. And on July 21st, the FAA announced that the plan had been put on hold until September 30th, pending a new review. The prime mover in this latest illustration of congressional micromanagement was Rep. Alcee Hastings (D, FL). So I can’t say I was surprised to learn (via Aero-News.Net) that Rep. Hastings was recently given the “Sentinel of Safety” award by the air traffic controllers’ union, NATCA.

According to NATCA’s media release, the award “was created as a way to honor a member of the aviation and legislative communities who has displayed outstanding achievement in the advancement of aviation safety.” It is open to all aviation leaders, especially those whose leadership has been “historic, aggressive, and courageous.” NATCA president Pat Forrey went on to say that “It is extremely valuable and inspirational to have a leader like Congressman Hastings standing beside the aviation professionals that NATCA represents, fighting to demand a complete examination of FAA policies and decisions.”

Translated into ordinary English, this means lauding a member of Congress for being willing to take NATCA-provided language and intervene in what would be a basic management decision in any business organization. If this kind of micromanagement cannot be ended, it will be impossible to consolidate the hundreds of ATO air traffic control facilities into the relative handful that will be needed to manage air traffic “everywhere from anywhere,” producing major gains in ATC productivity.


Upcoming Conferences

Future Flight Technologies: The Wings of NextGen, Sept. 16-17, Arlington, VA, Sheraton National Hotel, sponsored by FAA Flight Technologies and Procedures Division. Details at: http://cfd117.cfdynamics.com/secure/cmpfaaafs/c

54th ATCA Annual Conference & Exposition, Oct. 4-7, National Harbor, MD, Gaylord Resort & Convention Center, sponsored by the Air Traffic Control Association. Details at: www.atca.org


News Notes

Poole Article on NextGen Reform in ATCA Journal
The dinner speech that I gave at the FAA NEXTOR conference at Asilomar, CA in April has been published in The Journal of Air Traffic Control’s Spring 2009 issue. “NextGen’s Missing Dimension: Institutional and Funding Reform,” is available to ATCA members online. If you are not a member and would like a copy, I will be happy to email one to you. Contact me at bob.poole@reason.org.

Single-Sky Legislation Enacted in Germany
In another step toward creating functional airspace blocks (FABs) independent of country borders, the German parliament has passed several measures to enable that country’s cooperation with Belgium, France, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland to create the Functional Airspace Block Europe Central. FABEC is to begin phasing in as of 2012 and to be fully operational by 2018. The legislation permits German airspace to be managed by entities not controlled by German authorities. A companion measure creates a new federal air safety regulator, completing the full separation of ATC operations (run by air navigation service provider DFS) from air safety regulation.

Congress Probes FAA Weather Consolidation
Last issue I cited several examples of congressional micromanagement of FAA ATC operations and decision-making, but noted that the agency’s planned consolidation of aviation weather information seemed to have escaped such attention. Wrong. It turns out that members of the House Science & Technology Committee, subcommittee on investigations and oversight, had already requested the GAO to look into the subject. The subcommittee held a hearing on July 16th at which GAO and others testified. The GAO testimony summarized its forthcoming report, which recommends that the FAA and the National Weather Service document baseline performance before proceeding with the consolidation.

More on Virtual Towers in Europe
Saab is the latest company to join the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) joint undertaking, which is developing the EU equivalent of NextGen. As reported by Aviation Week (June 22, 2009), one of its main contributions will be developing its remotely operated control tower concept.

Source for Report on eLORAN
In Issue No. 63 (May 2009) I wrote about the 2007 report by the Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security Independent Assessment Team which unanimously recommended eLORAN as the best backup system for GPS. That report was buried for several years, but was liberated by a Freedom of Information Act request early this year. You can find it at: www.loran.org/ILAArchive/IAT-Report-Jan09.pdf.

European vs. US ATC Costs
Last issue I summarized the latest (2008) Performance Review Report on European air navigation service providers, noting that while the report compared the cost-effectiveness of the European ANSPs, there was no comparison with U.S. cost/flight. Eurocontrol now reminds me that their 2007 PRR did make one such comparison. Its Figure 94 showed that the near-term target for average ATC cost per IFR flight in Europe is €850, with the long-term (2020) SESAR target being €650. That compares with a 2006 U.S. cost of €450, due to substantial economies of scale in the U.S. system compared with the dozens of systems in Europe. All Eurocontrol performance review reports are available from: www.eurocontrol.int/prc.

Quotable Quotes

“Current ‘maximum’ capacity limits on major airport runways are based on surveillance, navigation, and flight path control assumptions from the 1960s that are no longer valid with modern technologies and aircraft. A NextGen goal should be to increase allowable individual runway capacity safely at a rate of one added operation per hour per runway per year from today’s 40 and 45 operations per hour per runway, and achieve at least 60 operations per hour per runway by 2025. NextGen capacity goals will be reached by added runway utilization productivity and some new runway construction at major airports. NextGen precision operations should allow very closely spaced runways to be feasible, thus reducing airport and noise boundaries.”
--Neil Planzer, Vice President, ATM Strategy, The Boeing Company, in “How to Move the Next Generation Air Traffic Control System Forward,” The Journal of Air Traffic Control, Spring 2009.

“Southwest is now able to start taking advantage of Required Navigation Performance (RNP), which it is installing on all its aircraft. Our analysis suggests it will take only one to two years (at full implementation) for the fuel cost savings to repay Southwest’s investment. Indeed, going forward, RNP provides the single largest opportunity for all airlines to achieve massive reductions in fuel consumption.”
--Eric Kronenberg, Andrew Tipping, and Justin White, “New Metric for Fuel Efficiency,” Aviation Week, June 29, 2009, p. 58.

Previous Air Traffic Control Reform Newlsetters

Reason's Air Traffic Control Research and Commentary

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





;