Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #74

June 2010

In this issue:

  • Real-time aviation weather data
  • FAA not pleasing customers with ADS-B plan
  • Saving fuel on oceanic flights
  • Volcanoes and aviation, continued
  • Spain’s ATC reforms
  • News Notes
  • Quotable Quote

Real-Time Aviation Weather Data

“Weather is a fundamental piece of the whole [NextGen] algorithm,” said Bruce Carmichael of the National Center for Atmospheric Research last year. “If we’re going to maximize airspace capacity, then we have to deal with weather more effectively than we do today.” (Jennifer Harrington, “Weather Services in the NextGen Era,” Aviation International News, January 2009.) Indeed, part of the plan for System Wide Information Management is something called NextGen Network Enabled Weather (NNEW), under which the best integrated weather information from all sources will be provided to everyone in the aviation community.

Besides more sophisticated and timely forecasts relevant to specific portions of the airspace, the gold standard for NNEW would be real-time weather information. Unfortunately, despite the sophistication of the models used by the National Weather Service’s Aviation Weather Center in Kansas City, the underlying source of data is far from real-time. In fact, the main data used in these models is collected just twice a day, from 69 weather balloon launches, each one covering an average of 45,000 square miles. This is the same legacy system that’s been in place since shortly after World War II.

What if we could supplement the weather balloon data with real-time inputs of the same parameters from hundreds or thousands of sources—planes flying throughout the airspace in question? It turns out such a system exists, and after sitting through an hour-long presentation on it last week, I’m very impressed. The system is called TAMDAR (Tropospheric Airborne Meteorological Data Reporting). It was invented by two physicists and has been commercialized by a start-up company called AirDat LLC. The company offers airlines a small device that houses various sensors plus global satellite communications via the Iridium network. There is apparently no “equipage problem” with TAMDAR, because the airline gains not only real-time weather and operational data but also inexpensive satellite communications.

AirDat has the units installed on about 200 airliners so far, mostly regional jets and turboprops which fly at or below 30,000 feet, where most of the weather is. They are projecting about 650 equipped airliners within the next 18 months. The company has developed software for its own enhanced forecast models, so that it can offer tailored forecasts to a whole variety of commercial customers, not just airlines (and maybe someday the FAA Air Traffic Organization). As the FAA’s Nick Sabatini noted at a weather-and-ATC conference in February 2008, “The TAMDAR system exemplifies using aircraft as ‘nodes-in-the-network,’ essentially turning the airplane into an automatic airborne weather sensing and data dissemination platform.”

The TAMDAR sensor measures and reports the same parameters as the NWS’s weather balloons (static pressure and pressure altitude, air temperature, relative humidity, winds aloft, and latitude/longitude). But it also reports turbulence and ice presence, which the balloons do not. I sat in a Washington, DC conference room and watched early-morning real-time displays of equipped aircraft in eastern US airspace. By clicking on any aircraft, you can bring up its data block, with all the real-time data. Using data from all equipped planes currently in the air, the software can provide real-time maps of icing, turbulence, and winds aloft. NOAA’s Earth System Research Lab did a four-year FAA-funded study, using data from 60 equipped planes, and found significant reductions in forecast errors for temperatures, winds, and relative humidity—key factors in producing accurate aviation weather forecasts.

One of many other benefits of equipping airliners with TAMDAR is better tracking of planes that are not within radar coverage—such as Air France 447 that was lost in the South Atlantic last year. The black boxes were never recovered, in part because there was no reliable data on exactly when or where the plane went down. TAMDAR would have provided the last known GPS position of the aircraft, along with an independent record of its airspeed, altitude, and weather factors.

For NextGen to deliver on its promises, it’s going to need real-time weather data integrated into the forecasts produced for NNEW. I’m glad to see real progress being made in this area.

FAA Getting Brickbats for ADS-B Decision

Both the Air Transport Association and various general aviation (GA) people have had few good words for the FAA’s final rule mandating ADS-B/Out equipage by January 1, 2020. While the details of their criticisms were somewhat different, the primary message was the same: where are the benefits for us, the users? To be sure, having all aircraft in Class A, B, and C airspace and above 10,000 ft. equipped with ADS-B/Out (i.e., transmitting an ADS-B signal to ATC) will give air traffic controllers more precise, real-time knowledge of where each plane is, compared with the relatively crude updates provided by radars. And yes, that increased precision is a precondition for many of the eventual benefits from NextGen, including reduced spacing between planes. But with equipage costs estimated at several billion dollars for airlines, and a comparable amount for GA, aircraft operators are justified in being concerned about near-term and maybe even mid-term benefits.

That is in part because many of the likely direct benefits to aircraft operators will only come about with the other part of the system: ADS-B/In. With a more expensive unit on the plane and a cockpit display, users will receive signals showing them real-time weather and air traffic information, either on a panel-mounted display screen or on the screen of an electronic flight bag (EFB). But FAA has not yet finalized its rules for ADS-B/In, so avionics makers cannot gear up to make integrated (Out+In) units and offer them in large enough volume to bring down the unit cost. Moreover, in an effort to reduce the cost impact of its current ADS-B/Out rule, FAA actually reduced the system’s performance requirements which will make these units less adaptable for subsequent ADS-B/In purposes.

Furthermore, a major part of the original business case for ADS-B was that it would permit the retirement of large amounts of legacy ground-based ATC infrastructure, such as radars, VORs, DME units, etc. But over the last few years, those retirements keep getting whittled away. We can’t retire the primary surveillance radars, for defense and homeland-security reasons: our defenders need to see hostile planes and missiles that we can safely assume will not be equipped with ADS-B to make them easy to track. More recently the FAA has told GA organization AOPA that private plane operators may not remove their existing transponders when installing the required ADS-B/Out equipment (which performs the same function) because transponders will be needed as a backup in case the GPS-based ADS-B system goes down. That, of course, means we’ll need to keep the Secondary Surveillance Radars (SSRs) which read the transponder signals. And I’m now hearing that we must also retain distance measuring equipment (DME) as part of a GPS backup. So what’s left of the case for all the savings NextGen was supposed to provide thanks to no longer having to maintain and replace legacy ground-based navaids?

Forgive me for yet again returning to the question of GPS backup. But it now looks even more critical to the success or failure of NextGen. If we have to retain most or all of the legacy equipment NextGen was supposed to make obsolete, a large chunk of the business case (at least the “large cost savings” part) goes away. Yet the need to do all that is premised on there being no alternative backup for GPS. But as I’ve reported here before, the consensus of an expert panel convened several years ago by the DHS and DOT was that the best alternative for backing up GPS for all its myriad uses (not just aviation) would be eLORAN, the electronic successor to the global LORAN system. Congress and the Administration zeroed out LORAN in this year’s federal budget, which halted further work on eLORAN. And we are now starting to see the ripple effects of this foolish decision on NextGen.

More Savings from Oceanic Trials

NextGen-type technologies, including controller-pilot data link (CPDL) and ADS-B, are permitting impressive reductions in fuel use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on oceanic routes in a number of recent test flights.

On UN World Environment Day (June 5th), United Airlines flew two Boeing 777s between Chicago and Frankfurt with the active cooperation of ANSPs Nav Canada and NATS. On departure, the flights used external power for their air conditioning, rather than their APUs. They coordinated pushback with local controllers, to minimize taxi times. The flight plans delegated to the airline responsibility for routing, altitudes, and speeds to minimize fuel burn, enabling them to fly at higher altitudes as their fuel burned off.  Estimated fuel savings per flight were 3,600 liters (950 gallons).

Even more impressive were the fuel savings in two recent Paris-Miami flights carried out under the US/EU Atlantic Interoperability Initiative to Reduce Emissions (AIIRE). One was carried out by an Air France 747-400ER and the other by an American 767-300.  In addition to the steps taken by the above United flights, the Paris-Miami flights did their taxiing with only half their engines operating, did continuous climb with a pre-filed vertical profile, and landed via continuous descent approach (CDA) at Miami. Air France estimated total fuel savings at between 2 and 3 metric tons, and told Aviation Week that if these savings could be rolled out for all its transatlantic flights, it would save 43,000 metric tons per year, an annual savings at recent fuel prices of $30 million.

And Boeing recently reported the results of a two-year study of tailored arrivals at San Francisco International. Six airlines took part, operating 747 and 777 aircraft in transpacific service. Aircraft equipped with Future Air Navigation System (FANS) equipment could participate; such planes constitute about 70% in South Pacific service and 40% in the North Atlantic, according to Boeing. The standard data link system on these aircraft permits the FAA’s oceanic traffic control system (Ocean 21) to communicate directly with the plane’s flight management system (FMS) computer. The plane then follows a custom-tailored continuous near-idle-power descent profile. Nearly 11,000 such descents were analyzed during the program. The fully tailored arrivals saved an average of 1,420 lbs. of fuel for 777s and 2,800 lbs. for 747s.

Ongoing trials of such arrivals are taking place at Los Angeles and Miami, and the FAA is also working with the Air Force on tailored arrivals at Charleston Air Force Base, SC.

Volcanoes and Air Travel: Good News and Bad News

Let me start with the good news. Since the world has lots of volcanoes, and we have recently seen how disruptive to air travel a large eruption can be, it’s good news indeed that an airborne sensor for volcanic ash is now in the testing stages. Developed by the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, it uses infrared video cameras that measure the absorption of heat by particles of volcanic ash in the air. European low-cost carrier EasyJet plans to install the system (which consists of two sensors mounted to the vertical stabilizer, at a cost of $24,000 per plane) on a dozen of its planes. By giving the pilot a cockpit display of where the ash clouds are, it could serve as a kind of weather radar for ash, according to EasyJet CEO Andy Harrison. But the system must still undergo operational testing, aboard an Airbus A340, in various parts of the world.

And now for the bad news, at least for European airspace. As The Economist reported shortly after the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in April, there are 33 large volcanoes in Iceland which have erupted over the past 12,000 years (since the end of the last ice age). And unfortunately, Eyjafjallajokull is something of a piker. One of the most active ones, Katla, has erupted once or twice a century, with periods of between 30 and 80 years. Its last eruption was in 1918, suggesting that an eruption may be overdue. And as The Economist’s article noted, “When it comes to lava output, its eruptions can be 100 times larger than what is going on at Eyjafjallajokull.”

So even though the latter is now quiet, and European and North Atlantic air travel is mostly back to normal, it’s wise for commercial aviation to be prepared. I hope the new infrared system, dubbed AVOID (Airborne Volcanic Object Identifier and Detector), works well in testing. If it does, airlines serving any routes within the likely paths of major volcanic eruptions would be well-advised to equip their fleets.

Spain Implements Decree Reforming AENA

Several months after my February article on the ATC crisis in Spain, the Spanish air traffic controllers’ union sent me an email enclosing their January 31st news release opposing the government’s action. It takes AENA (the Spanish ANSP) to task for not having recruited any new controllers since 2006, which it says is the cause of the excessive overtime (which led to more than 200 controllers taking home more than $500,000 last year, as I previously reported). The union apparently had advance knowledge of the contents of the decree, since they criticized many of its provisions five days in advance of its issuance.

At any rate, the Spanish Parliament proceeded to enact the Royal Decree into law in April, and AENA issued a news release on May 4th discussing where they go from here. As near as I can see, the new law includes essentially everything from the decree—a three-year interim regime which governs working conditions until a new contract is agreed to, during which time the amount of “regular” working hours will be increased,  the amount of overtime limited, and leave policy will be reformed “to the needs of the service.” To increase the supply of controllers, the hiring and training process is reformed to (1) take into account previous ATC experience, and (2) validate prior knowledge, so that total training time can be reduced. Safety regulator AESA will certify private ATC companies to permit them to compete for contracts to take over airport tower services, which will make more AENA controllers available for en-route and approach services. And a new bill is promised within three months to implement both “just culture” principles within AENA and a “preventive approach to safety.” (Details are on the CANSO website:

To hold AENA’s feet to the fire, the new law also provides for a gradual 15% reduction in en-route charges in the period 2010-2012, aiming to achieve 2013 en-route charges no higher than the average of the five largest European ANSPs.

It will be interesting to see how all this turns out.

News Notes

Planzer Wins ATCA’s Glen A. Gilbert Award
Neal R. Planzer, VP of Boeing Air Traffic Management, is the 2010 recipient of the Glen A. Gilbert Award, given annually by the Air Traffic Control Association. It is named for ATC pioneer Glen Gilbert, considered by many to be the father of US air traffic control and also a key player in the formation of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Formal presentation of the award will take place on October 27th, during the 2010 ATCA Annual Conference.

Performance of European ATC Providers

Eurocontrol’s Performance Review Commission has posted its 2009 performance review report online, and says that paper copies are in the process of being printed. You can download this well-done report from:

FAA Funds Steps Toward Virtual Towers
MIT Lincoln Laboratory is under contract to the FAA to develop what is being called the Staffed NextGen Tower (SNT). The idea is to provide all the functions of a normal control tower without actual out-the-window (OTW) views. Searidge Technologies was selected last month to provide real-time video for visual confirmation of targets, radar-like coverage of all non-cooperative targets, and OTW views. Successful implementation will set the stage for future remote (virtual) towers that need not be located at the airport they serve.

Airbus Offering ADS-B Cockpit Functions
New Airbus A330 and A340 jetliners starting this month will offer an Airborne Traffic Situation Awareness (ATSAW) system, allowing flight crews to see other traffic in real time. The system is an implementation of ADS-B/In. Aviation Daily (May 12, 2010) reports that once the system is fully certified, the flight crew will be able to use this information to optimize the plane’s flight level.

Multilateration Increases Capacity at Juneau International

A new Wide Area Multilateration (WAM) system has gone into operation at Alaska’s Juneau International Airport, providing radar-like coverage for flights approaching and departing from that airport. Due to mountainous terrain, there is no radar coverage below 10,000 feet, but the WAM system provides coverage from 200 ft. to 20,000 ft. By providing far more precise positioning information, the Sensis Corporation system has enabled aircraft in-trail spacing to be reduced to just 5 miles, which should permit three times as many flights per hour into Juneau’s long canyon approach. It is the second such system in the United States, the first one having gone into operation last year in the Colorado Rockies.

Nav Canada Voted World’s Best ANSP
Canada’s commercialized air navigation service provider, Nav Canada, has won the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Eagle Award as the best ANSP of 2009. Nav Canada is a second-time winner, having also been the Eagle Award winner in 2001. Two other commercialized ANSPs won IATA awards as “most-improved”: ISAVIA (Iceland) and LVNL (Netherlands).

UK Government May Reduce Ownership in NATS
The chairman of The Airline Group, comprising the seven UK airlines that own 42% of commercialized UK air navigation service provider NATS, said the new government is likely to sell a portion of its 49% ownership stake, as part of a renewed set of asset divestitures to reduce the government’s indebtedness. Peter Read made the comments during an aviation industry conference on June 7th, according to a Reuters report.

Corrections re RNP Equipage
In last month’s article about the unfairness of the government subsidizing airline equipage, given that some airlines are already making significant investments to become RNP-capable, I noted recent investments by Alaska, Southwest, and UPS. I inadvertently left out Continental, which tells me their fleet is now (as of May 26th) 90% RNP SAAAP capable (100% of pilots trained), leaving only about 30 older 737s not equipped and scheduled for retirement in the next year or two. I also garbled the size of Southwest’s investment, which is $175 million, not $750 million.

Quotable Quote

“I have high confidence in the readiness of [NextGen] technologies. We have an architecture, we have an implementation plan, and we have more technology in high readiness levels. I have increasing confidence in the FAA’s ability to manage the process, because they have demonstrated over the last several years an extraordinary recovery in their program management abilities. But I have no confidence in the ability of our government to fund NextGen on a reasonable schedule for implementation. Let’s not kid ourselves; you are not going to get the money to do NextGen. We’re not that much closer than we were 15 years ago.”
--Clayton M. Jones, CEO, Rockwell Collins, interviewed in Aviation Week, June 7, 2010.

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