Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #78

November/December 2010

In this issue:

  • GPS Jamming Poses Threat to NextGen
  • Do We Need Huge New Control Towers?
  • Single European Sky in Trouble
  • Progress on Trajectory Based Operations
  • Cuba's Flight Information Automation
  • News Notes
  • Quotable Quote


GPS Jamming Threatens NextGen Air Traffic Control

GPS is at the heart of the next-generation ATC system we all want implemented. And as I've written in past issues, an early example of the benefits is GBAS (Ground-Based Augmentation System). This GPS-based landing system can provide precision guidance to all the runway ends at even a large, multi-runway airport for less than the cost of an old-fashioned instrument landing system (ILS) that serves but a single runway end. And a GBAS can add precision approaches to runway ends where space constraints do not permit an ILS to be installed.

Consequently, I applauded when congested Newark Airport (EWR) was announced as the site of the first GBAS installation in this country. But although the system was installed and tested earlier this year, it was unable to be put into regular operation-thanks to GPS jamming. A several-month investigation identified the cause as one or more truck drivers on the immediately adjacent New Jersey Turnpike, using a so-called personal privacy device. A PPD is a GPS jammer available on the Internet for as little as $30. Since a growing number of trucking companies use GPS to keep track of where the trucks in their fleet are, in real time, some drivers have been purchasing PPDs to prevent their location from being known for various periods of time. And if or when the United States implements some form of road user charging to replace declining fuel taxes (as recommended last year by a national commission), a system likely to rely on GPS, what is now a small jamming phenomenon could become a very large one.

That last point is not a digression from the thrust of this article. Although those of us dealing with aviation tend to think of GPS only in that context, its use has become ubiquitous in American life. GPS is the basis of precise timing for cell phone towers and financial transactions. It is widely used in freight transportation logistics and for individual navigation, as well as for cell-phone location (for emergencies and increasingly for various commercial services).  GPS jamming is therefore a threat to much of the U.S. economy, not just aviation or all of transportation.

It's because of this huge range of uses that the official advisory body on GPS is called the National PNT Advisory Board. PNT stands for positioning, navigation, and timing-the three main categories of things GPS is used for. In a report dated Nov. 4, 2010, "Jamming the Global Positioning System-a National Security Threat: Recent Events and Potential Cures," the Advisory Board provides useful background information and recommendations for action on this threat.

PPDs, though relatively new, are already illegal to operate, but the penalty is merely the confiscation of the device. The government has very little capability to track down jammers; it took months to locate one truck driver who was jamming the Newark GBAS; others might still be plying that route equipped with PPDs. So the Advisory Board has proposed several federal government actions to help mitigate the threat. Its five recommendations are:

  1. Declare GPS to be critical infrastructure that would be treated as such by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS);
  2. Develop a GPS interference locating, reporting, and elimination system;
  3. Provide substantial penalties for possession and use of GPS jammers (as Australia already has);4.    Harden GPS receivers and antennas; and
  4. Establish GPS backups to ensure continuity of PNT operations.

This last point is one I've harped on in previous issues. The Advisory Board echoes my previous call for the DHS to reinstate its previous decision to deploy e-Loran as the backup system for GPS. That was the unanimous recommendation of the Independent Assessment Team commissioned by DHS and DOT, and had been accepted by them until being rescinded, for undisclosed reasons, in 2009. The Advisory Board also supports further FAA R&D efforts on an Alternative PNT (APNT) capability for aviation. But the fastest and most cost-effective near-term backup for all GPS uses is the rapid deployment of e-Loran. Let's hope the new Congress gets this message.

Do We Really Need Huge New Control Towers?


In November alone, three news articles crossed my computer screen, each raising the question in my mind of whether the FAA should still be putting large sums of money into new control towers at major airports.

At Reno-Tahoe International Airport, a new control tower was opened early in November. Three times taller than the old one, it came about due to the earmarking of funds by Sen. Harry Reid (D, NV) over a number of years. The 195-foot tower did improve visibility of runways and ramps, but did nobody even consider a technology alternative?

Two weeks later the Chicago Tribune reported DOT Secretary Ray LaHood announcing $3.4 million grant to design a third--yes, third--control tower for O'Hare. The airport's $42 million second tower opened two years ago close to the new north runway, which was apparently not sufficiently eye-ballable from the first tower. The third one would be located on the airport's south side, near the planned south runway, funding for which has not yet been secured.

Around the same time, the Los Angeles Times reported that the $1.5 billion expansion of the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX would block controllers' view of the gates and ramp areas on that terminal's west side. The controllers' union local is calling for the construction of a second LAX tower.

Fortunately, in at least this case, instead of being a cheerleader for 20th-century solutions, the airport director, Gina Marie Lindsay, is explicitly calling for use of "the next generation of technology" to keep track, in real time, of the location of all aircraft and ground vehicles at LAX. In last month's issue I wrote about watching the new Aerobahn system at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport-a live feed from Atlanta to the Sensis Corp. large-screen display at the Air Traffic Control Association annual convention near Washington, DC. For a tiny fraction of the cost of a new tower, everyone involved in operations at Atlanta-controllers, airline dispatchers, ground crews, etc.-can see not only where everything is but also lots of other information about each vehicle.

This debate over control towers pits the old paradigm-slow, imprecise, labor-intensive, and subject to human error-against the new paradigm. It is central to the NextGen vision. And it also once again highlights the need for the FAA to become an objective, third-party safety regulator on such questions, rather than what it is now: an interested party in the debate, since it both regulates air safety and runs the ATC system. "We don't want a virtual tower," the local union president told the LA Times reporter. "We need to be able to see airplanes, or things slow down or become more difficult. We expect the FAA will take the safest, most effective route."

I hope they will. But as long as the FAA is an interested party in these issues (which are central to the NextGen paradigm), who can trust that its safety decisions are objective and arm's length?

Single European Sky in Trouble

Over the past several years, I've been generally impressed that Europe was moving faster and more deliberatively toward implementing next-generation ATC than this country is. To be sure, the fragmented nature of European airspace, with ATC being provided by more than three dozen ANSPs, is a significant hurdle to overcome. But on the other side of the ledger, Europe's SESAR Joint Undertaking seemed to me to have addressed the coordination problem (between airspace users and ATC providers) better than our JPDO and FAA approach, in which airspace users have purely advisory roles. But recent European developments have led me to a new pessimism.

Two key issues are proving to be major stumbling blocks in Europe, and they are inter-related. One is proposed Europe-wide performance measures for ANSPs, and the other is airspace consolidation across national borders, by means of Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs). Neither is going well.

If you read the annual ATC performance reports put out by Eurocontrol's Performance Review Board, you will see huge disparities among the many ANSPs, with some being relatively efficient performers and others being hugely costly and inefficient (e.g., Spain's). The airlines, needless to say, have been big supporters of Europe-wide performance metrics, and the plan had been to put them into effect as of next year with-get this-monetary penalties (i.e., reductions in ATC charges) for those ANSPs falling short. I would expect Spain's ANSP to oppose this, but I admit to being taken by surprise when the CANSO European CEOs voted unanimously in early October to oppose implementation of the metrics. (Their statement objected to the specifics of how the metrics were defined, rather than to the idea of Europe-wide performance measures.)

The next blow came late in October when Europe's Single Sky Committee (SSC), representing the national governments, voted to reject the metrics. Aviation Intelligence Reporter opined that "the SSC seems to want to put 'the social dimension' before the passenger dimension. The social dimension of the SES reforms is a euphemism for the interests of labor. Patrick Gandil, leader of the French DGCA delegation, hinted in response to one confrontational question from the floor that France did not want to be seen to put controllers' jobs at risk . . . ."

But downsizing the facilities and staffing of 36 separate ANSPs is (or was) inherent in creating a Single European Sky from the get-go, and is logically inherent in the mandate to finalize the design for the nine Functional Airspace Blocks by the end of next year. Yet only two of the nine FABs have all the necessary agreements in place. And as AIR sardonically pointed out, "all the work will bring Europe to [in effect] nine ANSPs. Most would assume that a single sky would call for, er, one ANSP."  

So it looks as if the underlying fragmentation of air traffic control in Europe is far more resistant to change than I (and many others) expected.

Progress Toward Trajectory Based Operations

The holy grail of new-paradigm air traffic management is trajectory-based operations (TBO), sometimes referred to as 4-D trajectories. In simple terms, this means that from pushback at the departure gate to pulling in to the arrival gate, the flight follows a path that has been defined in advance in the three dimensions of space and the fourth dimension of time.TBO is intended to lead to most flights following the path the user wants-perhaps one that minimizes fuel burn, or in other cases one that minimizes gate-to-gate time. That is vastly different from what legacy air traffic control provides: flights show up on the taxiway and on a first-come, first-served basis are assigned to follow a zig-zag path to overfly ground-based navigation aids, arriving at the other end, after perhaps being delayed by traffic congestion, in another seemingly random order.

The building blocks for TBO are gradually being assembled. One is upgraded flight management systems (FMS)-the onboard computers that respond to instructions and fly the plane along a specified track. When an FMS is upgraded to fairly high levels of Required Navigation Performance (RNP) accuracy, it can fly a precise 3-D track. To control the time dimension, the FMS needs to be able to integrate weather and other-traffic data, and the volume of data needed for this requires digital, rather than voice, communications. And the air traffic management system needs to have something like system-wide information management (SWIM), to ensure that all parties have access to the same real-time information to make the 4-D stuff work.

That sounds like an awful lot, but in the United States, an estimated 40% if airliners are already RNP-capable, thanks to investments by airlines such as Alaska, American, Continental, Southwest, and United-and all new airliners are coming equipped that way. The FAA last year authorized two private companies-the former Naverus now owned by General Electric and Boeing's Jeppeson unit-to develop public-use RNP approaches at airports around the country. Overseas, reductions in ATC charges for RNP users have given airlines incentives to pay companies like Naverus to develop RNP approaches. But that is not an option in our tax-funded ATC system. And thus far, the FAA itself has not offered to pay such companies to accelerate the pace of RNP approach development.

Data communications (now called Data Comm by the FAA) is under way in Europe and the USA, with a European deadline of 2015 compared with an expected 2018 in this country. And RTCA Special Committee 214 and EUROCAE Working Group 78 are working to develop common standards for ATC data communications. SWIM and its European counterparts are in the early demonstration stages.

But as you may have noticed from what I wrote above about RNP, so far in both Europe and the United States (as well as in Australia and New Zealand), nearly all the emphasis has been on RNP approach procedures-i.e., the last stages of a flight. But there can be significant gains in airspace capacity in the departure process and en-route, as well. But for that, as Boeing's Neal Planzer pointed out in Aviation Week (Oct. 25, 2010), aviation safety regulators must develop next-generation standards for aircraft separation, based on time rather than distance.

Long before we start realizing all the benefits from full-fledged TBO, a backlash has begun against a side-effect of far more precise landing tracks made possible by RNP approaches. Concentrating approaches into one or a few very narrow corridors results in dramatic reductions in noise exposure overall, but concentrated aircraft noise below the new, narrow tracks. That has led to significant opposition in Seattle, and at Cairns and Sydney in Australia. We've only seen the tip of the iceberg on this problem, which cries out for some outside-the-box thinking to resolve.

Cuba's Flight Information Automation


Back in 1981, I went on a railfan tour to Cuba, spending eight days chasing early 20th century steam locomotives used to haul sugar cane from the fields to sugar mills. I recall being appalled by the extremely primitive manual "technology" in use at central railroad dispatching in Havana.

That experience same to mind when an FAA source in Miami contacted me recently with an interesting story. Early in November a delegation from Havana Center visited Miami Center to discuss cooperation on automating flight plan information transfer between the two centers. Believe it or not, that information on all flights to and from Cuba, or overflying it en route to Jamaica or points further south, is transferred only by teletype and telephone. The teletype information apparently does not always get through, and in those cases all the information must be passed along by telephone. What the Cubans were asking for was to implement the same kind of electronic flight plan information transfer that they already have between Havana Center and Mexico's Merida Center.

I have no idea why the FAA was not receptive to this idea, especially since aviation safety is supposedly its Job No. 1. Making phone calls to transfer flight plan details strikes me as highly prone to error, especially during busy times when controllers are working a lot of traffic. One misunderstood digit-on a frequency or an altitude-could have serious safety consequences.

Yes, the United States has no diplomatic relations with Cuba, but out of practical necessity it has always maintained cooperative relations with Cuban air traffic control-even during the years when air travel to and from Cuba was practically forbidden (as opposed to 1981 when I made my railfan trip). Overflights have always continued, requiring cooperation and coordination. Surely safety of flight considerations should prevail over political considerations.

News Notes

Colorado WAM Story Detailed
One of the best things I've read about air traffic control in a long time is the full story of how the Colorado Department of Transportation took the initiative to bring about dramatically improved air service to a number of Colorado mountain airports without radar coverage. The solution was wide-area multilateration (WAM) system, developed jointly by CDOT and FAA. The paper, "Surveillance at Colorado Mountain Airports," is authored by Bill Payne, who was a prime mover in bringing this about. It's not online, but if you would like a copy, send me an email and I will put you in touch with Bill.

WAM Operational in Tasmania

Australia's island territory of Tasmania has no ATC radars, and until recently therefore had only "procedural" separation of air traffic. But as of November 1st, that has been replaced by a combination of wide-area multilateration (WAM) and ADS-B, in a joint project by Airservices Australia (the ANSP) and U.S.-based Sensis Corp. Coverage extends from ground level at Tasmania's two airports to 18,000 feet. The surveillance data are sent to Airservices' Melbourne Center, where controllers can now use five-mile spacing, considerably enhancing both safety and airspace capacity. The system was declared operational after having been certified by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, Australia's arm's-length air safety regulator.

Nav Canada Exports More Technology

Several of the world's commercialized ANSPs have pioneered new ATC technology that has subsequently found export markets. Nav Canada's latest success in this area is the export to Danish ANSP Naviair of its Automatic Terminal Information System (ATIS), which broadcasts to pilots near airports, and Volmet, a system that provides in-flight weather information to flights on international routes. ATIS and Volmet are part of Nav Canada's Integrated Tower Automation Suite, which includes the EXCDS electronic flight strips, previously purchased by Naviair and in use at the Copenhagen tower. ATIS will be installed at both Copenhagen and Riskilde. Two Volmet systems are being installed, one for routine weather information and the other for unusual events such as volcano eruptions.

IATA Eagle Awards for Several ANSPs
Three commercialized air navigation service providers won Eagle Awards from their customers this year, given out by the International Air Transport Assocation. Best overall ANSP was Nav Canada, a previous winner in this category. And two other commercialized ANSPs-ISAVIA (Iceland) and LVNL (Netherlands)--tied for most--improved ANSP. Congratulations to all three.

Fujisaki Wins ATCA's Hurley Award

Each year the Air Traffic Control Association presents the David J. Hurley Memorial Award for outstanding achievement in the areas of collaborative decision making, balancing ATC traffic and demand, or maximizing airspace use to improve the National Airspace System. This year's winner is Norm Fujisaki of Metron Corporation. Fujisaki worked with David Hurley to pioneer modern air traffic flow management (ATFM), a precursor of NextGen concepts. Congratulations, Norm!

NATCA Launches New Website

Controllers' union NATCA has launched a nifty redesigned website, at www.natca.org. In addition to providing news releases, congressional testimony and other NATCA materials, it provides a quick link to NATCA'S www.avoiddelays.com site that provides real-time data about delay conditions nationwide, as well as background information about air traffic control.

Denmark Corporatizes Naviair
Following a European trend of the last 15 years, the Danish government has converted its ANSP, Naviair, into a government-owned company organized along commercial lines. The new Naviair has a six-member board of directors, to which its management team reports. Transport Minister Hans Christian Schmidt says the new structure will give Naviair "full independence" to operate as a commercial enterprise, including cross-border cooperation and possible joint ventures with other ANSPs.

Merrill Lynch Advising U.K. on NATS Stock Offering

The British coalition government announced in early November that Bank of America Merrill Lynch will be its advisor on the sale of a minority stake in NATS, the country's corporatized ANSP. Currently the government owns 49% of NATS; other shareholders include the U.K. airline group (42%), airports operator BAA (4%), and NATS employees (5%). The Transport Ministry said that Merrill Lynch will "help us assess our options on what to do with our shares in NATS," according to Reuters.

Quotable Quotes

"The Big Idea issue is . . . how many ANSPs do you need? If the Functional Airspace Blocks are an attempt to get around the sovereignty issues, well, my question is, why do you need 26 or 36 providers if you have a Functional Airspace Block that is a 'virtual' boundary, an attempt to get across the sovereignty issues or civilian airspace? Why wouldn't you compete those? As they stand, those 36 or so ANSPs in Europe are monopolies. I don't care if they're privatized or corporatized or run by the government, they're still monopolies. The question is, would it change the way the system innovated and its efficiencies if the ANSPs competed in the running of those Functional Airspace Blocks?"
--Neil R. Planzer, "Speaking Words of Wisdom," Air Traffic Management, Issue 3, 2010.

"[T]he improved avionics, net-centric communications, NAS infrastructure upgrades, Trajectory Based Operations, and powerful automation that are the attributes of NextGen could certainly yield productivity enhancements sufficient to meet the projected growth for the 2025 time frame without the need for more control staff. But these seemingly available gains are not even being considered because we are all captive to our success in managing ATC the way we do today. With that handicap, we are blind to the idea that a new/different, even radical control construct might be enabled by the NextGen technologies. What if control was not geographically based [i.e., sectors] but each flight was assigned a monitor from taxi to touchdown? Each such controller has a few flights whose behavior is framed by their 4DT contract and are further protected by TCAS, ADS-B In, and ground monitoring with automation looking ahead to detect and resolve potential conflicts well in advance. . . . Such an approach calls for a culture change. We need to determine the right mix of humans and automation-that is, what is safest, most efficient, and cost-effective, regardless of what this means for legacy workforces."
--Frank Frisbie, "Elevator Operator, Telephone Operator, Pilot, and Air Traffic Controller: Jobs Your Kids Won't Be Doing?" The Journal of Air Traffic Control, Fall 2010.

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





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