Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #75

July - August 2010

In this issue:

  • FAA’s Chronic Funding Problem
  • Media Over-Reaction to ATO’s New Safety Culture
  • Inspector General Faults NextGen Planning
  • Controller Fatigue Now Getting Attention
  • News Notes
  • Quotable Quote


FAA’s Chronic Funding Problem

As I write this, Congress has just enacted its 12th extension of the FAA’s expired authorization, which includes the aviation excise taxes that feed the Aviation Trust Fund, on which both air traffic control and federal airport grants depend. This process began in early 2007, when the FAA presented a bold plan to reform the agency’s funding, under which the ticket tax and segment fee would have been replaced with ATC user fees for commercial users to fund the Air Traffic Organization, other aviation excise taxes would have funded the airport grants program (AIP), and general federal revenues would have supported the FAA’s aviation safety regulation and miscellaneous (e.g. commercial space flight) operations. Congress largely ignored those proposals, but was nowhere close to agreeing on a bill when that fiscal year ended on Sept. 30, 2007. Twelve extensions later, we are again on hold through Sept. 30, 2010—a full three years since the old law expired.

During the 2007 battles over FAA funding reform, supporters of the status quo argued forcefully that the established system provided a “stable funding source” for key aviation programs. I took the other side of that debate, pointing to several previous cases of much-delayed reauthorization and even to a couple of instances when Congress failed to act at all, leaving the FAA to pay its salaries and other operating costs by drawing down what was then (fortunately) a large unobligated balance in the Trust Fund. Our general aviation friends also repeatedly said that the status quo was far better than some kind of commercialization (such as Nav Canada) with a board of directors representing key aviation stakeholders, and that Congress was the best imaginable board of directors for the ATC system. We haven’t heard that one recently!

FAA funding came up last month in another context, when the GAO released a report analyzing the implications of the recent trend of airlines charging ancillary fees for all sorts of services—fees which are not part of the ticket price against which the 7.5% passenger ticket tax is levied.(GAO-10-785, “Aviation: Consumers Could Benefit from Better Information about Airline-Imposed Fees and Refundability of Government-Imposed Fees”) As part of its analysis, GAO researchers calculated that had the ticket tax been applied just to baggage fees, it would have generated an additional $186 million in revenues for the Trust Fund (about 2%). Neither DOT nor GAO know the total amount of ancillary fee revenues being collected by airlines, since most are not required to be reported to DOT.

Apart from the issue of disclosure, the proliferation of these fees, especially by low-cost carriers such as Allegiant and Spirit, raises two key issues. First, most of these fees are a substitute for a portion of the ticket price, so the more this trend continues, the more that aviation infrastructure funding will be short-changed. Second, this phenomenon also creates further disparities among airlines in paying their fair share for air traffic control. During the 2007 battles over FAA’s proposed ATC user fees, both GAO and the DOT Inspector General’s Office did studies highlighting the fact that an ATC charge based on passenger numbers and fares creates large disparities among commercial aircraft that end up paying significantly different amounts for the same ATC services. The most obvious case is a 50-seat regional jet vs. a 300-seat 767. But even for the exact same plane—a standard 737, say—a low-fare carrier flying 900 miles could pay perhaps half as much as a legacy carrier making the same trip (due to the difference in fares).

Nobody else of any consequence pays for ATC in this crazy-quilt way. As Vaughn Cordle and I pointed out in a 2005 Reason Foundation study, only 20 tiny countries out of 180 listed by ICAO do not charge directly for ATC services (examples are Bahamas, Gambia, Namibia, Somalia, and Togo)—plus the United States. Every significant developed country—all of Europe, Canada, Latin America, nearly all of Asia, Australia, and New Zealand—charge ATC fees, usually weight-distance fees for overflight and en-route services and weight-based fees for terminal ATC services. (See Table 4 in the study, at http://reason.org/news/show/resolving-the-crisis-in-air-tr.)

I will not waste any time joining those calling for patching up the ticket tax by extending it to ancillary airline fees. What we need instead, next reauthorization, is to replace the ticket tax with ATC charges, ideally paid directly to a revamped Air Traffic Organization, governed by a board representing all key aviation stakeholders.

Are the Skies Becoming Unsafe due to New Controllers?


There’s a classic fallacy in logic called post hoc; ergo propter hoc. Literally, it means “after this, therefore because of this.” A likely example of this fallacy has been playing out in the media over the last several months.

We’ve all seen headlines such as “Midair Close Calls Prompt a Review” (Wall Street Journal, May 24th) and “Safety Officials Voice Concern over Near-Collisions of Aircraft” (Washington Post, July 20th), and many others in between those dates. That is the “post hoc” part of the story. The “propter-hoc” part, i.e., the alleged cause, is the growing number of trainee controllers in various parts of the system, including at busy facilities like the Potomac TRACON serving the Washington, DC area. FAA headquarters sent a team of safety experts to review procedures at that facility last month, and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has a parallel study under way.

While it is FAA’s job as a safety regulator to stay on top of these things, my guess is that what’s happening is not the cause-and-effect being reported. That’s because another major change took place two years ago that has greatly increased the reporting of ATC errors and incidents ever since. Many years ago, aviation safety experts persuaded the airlines and the FAA that a non-punitive approach to pilot error reports would be a positive thing for safety, enabling a lot more data to be collected rather than being discreetly not reported. In the past decade, many of the commercialized air navigation service providers in Europe have implemented the same idea, which goes by the name of creating a “just culture” within an organization regarding safety.

In the poisonous labor-management environment that existed during the FAA’s long contract dispute with controllers’ union, NATCA, implementing such a program within the Air Traffic Organization was out of the question. But with the contract settled and a new Administrator in place, the Air Traffic Safety Action Program (ATSAP) was implemented in 2008. Managers and controllers were trained in the new, non-punitive approach that emphasizes full reporting of errors. And the results have been dramatic. As Alan Levin reported in USA Today (April 4th), “the agency has been deluged by more than 14,000 reports,” permitting it “to make numerous fixes to festering problems.”

Another change took place early in 2010. On March 8th, the independent NTSB  implemented a rule that requires it to be notified whenever a cockpit collision warning system activates, and crew action is needed in response. The Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), required on turbine-powered aircraft since 1993, sounds alarms and gives verbal commands when two aircraft are on a potential collision course. TCAS alarms are not uncommon in congested terminal airspace, so it’s hardly surprising that NTSB received more than 200 reports in the first three months of its new regulation. Only five of those incidents were judged serious enough for NTSB to investigate.

So we see that there are two other events, besides an unusually large number of new controllers in on-the-job training, which have generated large number of reports of errors and potential collisions. I have written previously to criticize the way the ATO assigns trainees to ATC facilities, which leads to what may be a more than prudent number doing their training at very busy facilities. But thus far, we don’t have any meaningful evidence that this phenomenon is leading to more serious errors. All we know is that a lot more errors are being reported, thanks to two new reporting programs.
 
Inspector General Faults NextGen Planning


I was just going to write a brief  News Note to alert you to the June 16th report of the DOT Office of the Inspector General, “Timely Actions Needed to Advance the Next Generation Air Transportation System” (AV-2010-068), which you can download from www.oig.dot.gov. But I decided I should read the report first, rather than relying only on news summaries—and I’m glad I did.

There’s some good news here, but mostly bad. According to the report, the FAA “has made some progress in developing and sharing a vision for NextGen in the midterm and is working with stakeholders to develop priorities for the next 2 to 3 years.” But that’s about all the good news. The report goes on from there to document all the things that should have been done, but haven’t been, including:

  1. Not yet establishing firm NextGen requirements for new and existing systems;
  2. Not creating an acquisition management system that can handle portfolios (groups of inter-related projects) as opposed to just individual projects;
  3. Not fully addressing key safety concerns regarding new systems and procedures;
  4. Not appreciating the risks of concurrently implementing many new capabilities;
  5. Not having the necessary skill sets and expertise to manage and execute NextGen.

There’s more, but that list is damning enough, seven years after Congress created the Joint Planning & Development Office and set 2025 as the target date for full NextGen implementation. I can’t do justice to the whole report in this space, but let me hit a few of the highlights.

Under the first criticism, OIG notes that the FAA has yet to decide on the division of responsibility between air and ground, or the level of automation, or the extent of facility consolidation. On the last of these, it points out that “A major determinant of both capital and operating costs for NextGen is the degree to which the Agency eliminates or consolidates FAA facilities.” Have you seen a NextGen facility consolidation plan? I have, but only from outside experts, not from anyone within the Air Traffic Organization. I’m sure that’s because everyone at ATO knows full well that Congress will jump all over any plan that envisions significant consolidation of facilities, just as the Idaho delegation recently succeeded in getting the ATO to abandon plans to consolidate the Boise TRACON with Salt Lake City.

Under the second point, the report reminds us that many of the planned NextGen capabilities are intended to work together to deliver benefits, citing as an example the mutual dependency of Data Communications (data-link), ADS-B, and the new ERAM software. Yet apparently FAA is still very project-focused, including in the way it does its benefits analysis.

The third point, on safety, is even more crucially important than the OIG report admits. This section discusses the under-appreciated safety aspects of the likely many years during which various percentages of the high-performance fleet will be equipped with various NextGen capabilities—and hence the need for a prolonged period of mixed-equipage operations. But the safety point is actually much larger than this. The basic premises of NextGen involve significant automation of what are now manual operations in order to facilitate “high-density” operations, especially in terminal (as opposed to en-route) airspace. That means planes will be flying with significantly less separation than they do now. Will the public and the media believe that the new system is at least as safe as the current (manual) one? And if the answer is at least “maybe not,” what can be done about that not exactly trivial problem?

I came away from reading this dismaying report with two previous conclusions reinforced. One is that public confidence in the safety of an automated, non-radar-based NextGen system would be significantly higher if its safety were regulated at arm’s length by an FAA that was organizationally separate from the ATO. You can read the fairly detailed case that Langhorne Bond and I make for this in the current issue of The Journal of Air Traffic Control (see News Notes).

Second, it will be very difficult to achieve either significant facility consolidation (and the resulting cost savings) or rapid equipage as long as the ATO/Next Gen budget is controlled by Congress. And the only way to change that is what the Clinton/Gore Administration tried to do in 1994: spin off the ATC system as a self-supporting air navigation service provider, funded directly by fees for its services, and with a board of directors empowered to make capital investment decisions (both ground and airborne) in a coordinated manner.

The OIG report carries a trenchant warning on page 6, with which I will close: “A recent NextGen portfolio analysis, commissioned by the JPDO, already shows that some NextGen automated air and ground capabilities already planned for 2025 may not be implemented until 2035 or later and could cost the Government and airspace users significantly more than the projected cost estimate of $40 billion.” That should tell us that the status quo in funding and governance is not an acceptable option.

Controller Fatigue Finally Getting Attention


After writing several times over the past few years about far more attention being paid to pilot fatigue than to controller fatigue, I’m pleased to say that an FAA research effort is under way. The FAA and controllers’ union NATCA have formed a Working Group on controller fatigue. It aims to identify fatigue risks for controllers and develop a fatigue risk management system to deal with and mitigate those risks.

NASA Ames Research Center has been contracted to carry out two initial research tasks. One is a web-based survey of all 18,500 controllers, supervisors, and traffic managers at all ATO operating facilities. The other is a detailed data collection effort on sleep, fatigue, and mental alertness that will involve a sample of 208 controllers at 15 facilities, including en-route centers (ARTCCs), TRACONs, and towers of various sizes, locations, and workloads. The online survey began April 15th and was to have been completed by June 15th, though I don’t know if that target was met.

The information distributed to all ATO facilities stressed that “All aspects of this research have been jointly designed and agreed to by the FAA and NATCA through the Article 55 Work Group.” That’s a positive indication of working conditions under the current regime.

News Notes

Arm’s-Length Safety Regulation in ATCA Journal
Former FAA Administrator Langhorne Bond and I co-authored “Time to Separate the ATO from FAA Safety Regulation” in the Spring 2010 issue of The Journal of Air Traffic Control. Alas, the article is not available from the ATCA website, but if you’d like a copy of the Word version, just email your request to me (bob.poole@reason.org). One FAA colleague emailed me after reading it that he likes the idea, but thinks that both the controllers’ union (NATCA) and many ATO managers will oppose the idea. I hope that’s not the case, but we shall see.

Senators Back Equipage Loan Guarantees

Aviation Daily reported (July 12th) that Senate aviation leaders have proposed a $750 million loan-guarantee program to help airlines equip with NextGen avionics. Given the inherent unfairness of grants for this purpose (given that some airlines have already laid out money for some kinds of equipage but others have not), I suppose a loan-guarantee program is a less-bad alternative. The proposal was sent to House aviation leaders as part of negotiations on the still-stalled FAA reauthorization bill.

GBAS in India
In conjunction with the opening of the huge new Terminal 3 at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, the Airport Authority of India is planning to install a Ground-Based Augmentation System (GBAS) there to provide Category I landing capabilities for all the airport’s runways. The current Instrument Landing System (ILS) has many technical limitations, limiting bad-weather operations at the airport. GBAS augments signals from GPS and other satellite positioning systems to provide precision guidance for runway access. AAI expects the new GBAS to be installed by year-end, and to be upgraded eventually to provide more-precise Cat. III capabilities.

Correction re ADS-B and Transponders

Last issue I criticized the FAA for requiring aircraft operators to retain their existing transponders when equipping with ADS-B/Out, which also provides aircraft identity and altitude information. A senior staff engineer from pilots’ union ALPA pointed out that the current collision avoidance system required on all airliners and business jets—TCAS—requires the current transponder in order to function; an ADS-B-only aircraft would be invisible to TCAS. I should have recalled reading about this several years ago in a technical paper. So to the long list of avionics changes required for NextGen we must include an eventual modification or replacement of TCAS.

Controller Retirement Age Change
In June the FAA proposed amending its current rules that require controllers to retire upon reaching the age of 56. There is already a procedure by which controllers can request an age waiver to continue working until age 61. But that requires the controller to certify that he or she had not been involved with an operational error, deviation, or runway incursion during the past five years. The proposal would delete this requirement, in order to be consistent with current FAA policy intended to foster a safety-related “just culture” that encourages full and open reporting of errors.

French Controllers’ Perks

In the June 12th issue of The Economist, an article on the excesses of France’s public sector draws upon a recent report from the national auditor, the Cours de Comptes. Its section on air traffic controllers says they can retire at age 50. And they get 31 paid weeks off per year. Despite these perks, the French ANSP is not among the five most-costly ANSPs in Europe; Spain’s AENA retains at the top of that league table, according to the latest data from Eurocontrol.

Quotable Quote


“[I]t appears that the ‘transformation of the ATC system’ is being driven primarily through enhancing avionics, communications, navigation, surveillance, and other technologies with less work being focused directly on enhancing actual controller workstation functions and capabilities. . . . The significance of this observation leaped out at me during a recent visit to the Washington ARTCC where I began my career. Visiting the same control area of the Center where I worked back then, I noticed that while many air traffic procedures have changed to achieve significantly more  airspace capacity and efficiency, once you looked past the technological ‘bling,’ it appeared that the basic underlying procedures we used in the 1970s to provide ATC services and ensure aircraft separation have remained virtually unchanged 40 years later.”
--Stephen Alvania, “NextGen—Let’s Talk,” The Journal of Air Traffic Control, Spring 2010, p. 11.

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





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