Air Traffic Control Newsletter #115

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #115

The FAA Management Advisory Council's reform agenda, How to "right-size" the national airspace system, Controller staffing flunks TRB's assessment

In this issue:

ATC Reform Agenda from Outgoing Management Advisory Council

In previous newsletters I have referred to recommendations made last year by the FAA Management Advisory Council (MAC) that served from 2011 to 2013. But until a few weeks ago, I had not fully appreciated the breadth and depth of what this group of aviation professionals had accomplished during their three-year terms of office. But now I have perused the briefing presentation the outgoing MAC gave to the incoming team on January 29, 2014 (which includes several holdovers). This article summarizes the important contribution they have made to a better-funded and better-governed ATC system (and FAA as well).

The MAC started off in 2011 by focusing on “creating a sustainable funding future for the FAA.” That year witnessed the lapsing of FAA authorization with 4,000 furloughs and $400 million in lost revenues to the Trust Fund (due to the lapsing of authority to collect aviation user taxes). Consequently, in 2012 the MAC members decided that more-sweeping reform was needed, including a new funding system and advisory or governing boards to provide stakeholder input on major strategic initiatives. Alas, in 2012 Congress’s “Supercommittee” failed to come up with a budget solution, setting the stage for sequestration. Hence, in 2013 the MAC members wrote to Senate and House aviation leaders, urging them (in advance of the impending sequester) to create a sustainable funding future for FAA, establish an FAA governing board, assess and codify FAA authorities and programs, and to charge the new governing board with coming up with a new tax and fee structure for aviation programs.

In the wake of the sequester, the MAC members did further work to flesh out the previous recommendations, so as to insulate aviation programs as much as possible from the vagaries of the general fund and the federal budget/appropriations process. By this point, they were actively engaging aviation stakeholder groups to discuss these ideas and get their feedback. This led to four more-detailed reform principles bequeathed to the incoming MAC, as follows:

  1. Sustainable funding: dedicated user-based revenues to pay for the ATC system and the rest of FAA, to enable phasing out general fund support as soon as possible.
  2. Separation of the Air Traffic Organization from FAA, converting it into a user-funded business governed by a board of aviation stakeholders.
  3. Simplification of statutes, regulations, and policy to enable FAA to be a smarter and more effective safety regulator.
  4. Elimination of current user taxes, replacing them with transparent, cost-based fees sufficient to fund both the new ATO and FAA’s safety certification activities.

Briefing charts in the presentation illustrate how FAA capital budgets (Facilities & Equipment) have been squeezed over time, while also pointing out how the current system increasingly pits aviation infrastructure against the other transportation modes, all now viewed de-facto as discretionary spending. Another chart shows that most of the factors driving the revenue from aviation user taxes have either been flat or decreasing in recent years. Overall, those numbers strongly reinforce the MAC’s finding that the current funding system is not sustainable.

It’s also important to note that the membership of the 2011-2013 MAC included senior people from large and small airlines, aviation unions, general aviation, airports, consultants, and the ex-officio participation of both DOD and DOT. Working together, and with a lot of external stakeholder input, the MAC produced a very credible analysis of the problem and a coherent set of recommendations. Everyone concerned about the future viability of the FAA and especially of the ATC system should review this product of three years’ worth of excellent work. (Note: as a public service, and with the permission of its author, we have posted the January MAC briefing online at /wp-content/uploads/2012/10/faa_mac_joint_report.pdf.)

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Shared ATC Services and “Rightsizing the NAS”

Supporters of the FAA’s Federal Contract Tower Program, as well as FAA controllers and various general aviation groups, are concerned about the FAA’s current effort to match the agency’s ATC services and facilities with actual traffic demand, under the rubric of “right-sizing the National Airspace System (NAS).” The agency has also created a Low Activity Tower Working Group within the Air Traffic Organization to look at options for those towers. These are obvious responses to the dire state of FAA funding, as discussed in the previous article. But they are also concerns that relate to a potential ATO revamped as a self-supporting air navigation service provider, as recommended by the MAC and currently under discussion by various ATC stakeholder groups.

Will low-activity towers get shut down or have their hours of operation curtailed? Given the kind of triage the ATO is operating under with respect to NextGen programs, such an outcome is conceivable. Needless to say, losing towers in rural and smaller city areas may have serious economic consequences for those communities. Preventing such consequences is one of the reasons to replace the current unsustainable ATC funding system with a bondable revenue stream that is insulated completely from the federal budget process. That is what I would call a necessary condition, but is not sufficient to address the small-tower problem.

Some people take it as a given that a self-funded ATC corporation would take a green eye-shade approach to low-activity towers and shut them down. But the ATC system exists to serve all its customers, and a smarter commercial approach would be to figure out how to provide tower services more cost-effectively in such cases. And on that score, there is encouraging news from Europe.

Graham Lake, former Director General of CANSO, sent me a paper last month that he co-authored for Helios called “Shared ATC Services for Airports.” After explaining that much of Europe faces the same dilemma as we do regarding low-activity airports, the report explains the remote tower concept, along with what we Americans would call consolidated TRACONS (for those airports with radar approach control). DSNA, the French ANSP, last November announced the completion of approach control consolidation for four airports in southern France, which are now served 24/7 by a facility in Montpelier. (www.askhelios.com/shared-atc-services-for-airports)

I reported last month that Sweden’s air safety regulator has cleared LFV (the ANSP) to begin operating the world’s first remote tower this fall. Air Traffic Management recently reported that Germany’s DFS is making good progress on its first such facility, under which the tower at Leipzig will take over tower functions at Dresden, Erfurt, and Saarbrucken. The target date for the latter is 2016, with the other two added by 2018. And the Saab system that will soon go live in Sweden is being tested by Norway’s Avinor and Airservices Australia.

Contract towers also exist in at least four European countries. They have a long history in the U.K., where tower services are the responsibility of the airport, not the ANSP. Some airports self-provide, some contract with NATS, and others contract with commercial tower operators. Under its previous government, Spain outsourced about a dozen small towers as part of a reform of its ANSP several years ago. In Germany nearly a dozen smaller airports have tower services provided under contract by Austrocontrol. Sweden began allowing contract towers several years ago, and a company called ACR Sweden now operates five towers. Graham Lake sees LFV’s remote tower program as a response to the competition from ACR.

But the biggest news on the contract tower front is the recent entry of Germany’s ANSP-DFS-into this market. Just last week privatized Gatwick Airport announced the selection of DFS’s Tower Company for a 10-year contract to provide tower and approach control services. Gatwick held a competition in which DFS and other providers bid against incumbent provider NATS, and DFS was judged to provide the best value.

Obviously, Gatwick is a large airport, not a small rural one. But I’ve included it simply as an illustration of how the ATC status quo is changing in Europe. A more entrepreneurial approach to the problem of small U.S. towers could provide alternatives such as shared services. As the Helios report reminds us, there is no inherent reason why an ATC facility must be located directly beneath the piece of airspace it is responsible for. After all, en-route air traffic control operates entirely without visual contact with the aircraft it is responsible for, from a “remote” facility.

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Controller Staffing Needs Poorly Estimated, Says TRB Study

The Transportation Research Board’s Special Report 314 is an assessment of the FAA’s approach for determining future air traffic controller needs. The study was requested initially by controllers’ union NATCA and was then mandated by the 2012 FAA reauthorization measure. In last month’s issue, I wrote about the report’s discussion of controller fatigue and shift scheduling. This month we’ll review the rest of this important study, carried out by a 12-member expert panel chaired by Amy Pritchett of Georgia Tech. (onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/sr/sr314.pdf)

Most of the report is a review of FAA’s process for estimating controller staffing needs. Congress got interested in this based on several factors noted in the report, among them that while ATC operations have decreased by 23% between 2000 and 2012, the size of the controller workforce has remained essentially the same. For example, airline mergers and the downsizing of former hubs in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Memphis, and more recently Cleveland, reduced flight activity in those locations, but staffing in facilities serving those locations has not been reduced proportionally.

The review panel describes the complex process FAA uses to revise estimated staffing needs each year. The process begins with several mathematical models run by FAA’s Office of Labor Analysis (which is not part of the Air Traffic Organization), some of whose assumptions the experts consider questionable. They also point out that a number of ANSPs in other countries “have replaced their legacy scheduling tools with sophisticated software capable of incorporating all constraints while generating efficient controller schedules”-something FAA is working on but has not yet begun to implement. The model outputs are then adjusted using facility-specific operational data and input from subject matter experts. Much of this process is poorly documented and “does not appear to have a consistent, established, and clearly understood basis and can thus appear to be an arbitrary adjustment to the mathematically generated staffing standard process.”

When it comes translating all of the above into a specific staffing plan, there are more problems. Given the large differences in traffic volume and complexity of facilities, and the turnover in recent years as large numbers of controllers retire and are replaced by trainees, a rational staffing plan would involve significant transfers of controllers among facilities. Yet FAA and NATCA have not agreed on appropriate incentives for transfers, which the expert panel concludes “could help the agency make more effective use of voluntary transfers in rectifying staffing imbalances.” It points to a small number of facilities that are “chronically hard to staff” (such as New York TRACON) as especially needing greater attention. Yet current practice seems to work in the opposite direction: in 2012, “30 percent of transfers were from facilities below the staffing range to those at or above the staffing range, and only 9 percent of transfers were from facilities that were within or above the range to those that were below.” Moreover, in 2011 only 73% of facilities properly executed their staffing plans, and 2012 was even worse, with only 52% doing so.

The report also notes that despite all the emphasis on NextGen’s intent to transform air traffic control into air traffic management, “the agency makes no explicit allowance for the demands placed on controllers by NextGen-related activities in developing its controller staffing plans.” It adds that “Other ANSPs, in contrast, make explicit plans for controller staffing needs associated with technology development, training, and deployment.”

In looking at controller productivity, the report finds that at en-route facilities between 2000 and 2012, operations per controller decreased by only 7%. But at towers and TRACONs, operations per controller fell by 32%. Some of this decrease in productivity appears to be due to a much larger number of trainees in the 2012 workforce compared with 2000, but the overall decrease is a trend in the wrong direction, from the perspective of airspace users. And this trend is particularly troubling given the FAA’s increasingly serious budget problems. If airspace users are expected to pay more in future years, they would reasonably expect productivity gains, rather than productivity declines. In this regard, the report also notes without much comment that so far, FAA has projected no productivity gains from either NextGen overall or facility consolidation.

This is an important report that should be perused by all of those who use (and pay for) the National Airspace System. Further assessment of ATC productivity should be forthcoming from the DOT Office of the Inspector General, which began an audit of controller productivity this spring.

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Further Information on DUATS and FSS

Last issue I wrote about the concerns being raised by the two providers of online services to general aviation pilots (DUAT and DUATS) about the FAA’s planned termination of their services. They are to be replaced by what FAA is calling its Future Flight Service Program (FFSP), whose aim is to replace both DUATS contractors and the existing Automated Flight Service Station (AAFS) program run by Lockheed Martin with a single fully automated service. Most of the feedback came from AAFS-related people, including a useful phone discussion with several AAFS people from Lockheed Martin. So here is what you might call the other side of the story.

As background, the FY 2015 FAA budget request calls for another $1 million (same as in FY 2014) to continue development of FFSP, whose goal is “to replace the existing Automated Flight Service Station contract” to “reduce or eliminate human delivery of flight services as much as possible.” The two DUATS contracts will not be renewed when they expire this fall, says the document, and the AAFS contract will be replaced at the end of FY 2015 by the new, more-automated program. A background document provides figures on annual radio (voice) contracts for Flight Services from 2002 (prior to the LM contract) through 2013. They have declined from 2.3 million to 483,000-i.e., from a daily average of 6,319 in 2002 to 1,323 in 2013. Clearly, an ever-larger fraction of GA pilots now go online instead of calling FSS briefers.

Neither the FAA documents nor LM could provide an estimated Flight Services budget for the next five years, assuming the above changes are implemented. LM did tell me that their contract is now running about $100 million per year-a very large decrease from the pre-contract status quo of around $600 million. They have reduced what used to be dozens of staffed facilities down to just five. And while there is indeed a strong and growing trend for GA pilots to file flight plans and get briefings online (which LM is also now providing), there is still a non-trivial fraction of GA pilots who don’t have smart phones and don’t go online.

LM sent me a paper describing an array of online FSS functions they have been implementing since Fall 2012, and reported that as of July 2014, they have 14,500 registered users on their pilot web portal. It also says that “LM now supports more VFR flight plans than DUATS and DUAT combined, and is the 2nd leading service provider for IFR flight plans.” Among the most popular is Adverse Condition Alerting Service (ACAS), which alerts those who have filed flight plans with AFSS to new or modified adverse conditions. Pilots receive such updates via inexpensive cockpit devices that use the Iridium satellite network-or in future, via ADS-B/In.

In principle, I agree that FAA’s planned FFSP will “bring Flight Services into the 21st century,” consistent with the ongoing implementation of NextGen. But there are several problems that will need to be addressed in bringing about this transition. For those GA pilots who don’t go online and don’t want to equip with anything that is not mandated (as is ADS-B/Out, but not the “In” version), the alternative alluded to in the FAA documents is for them to contact controllers on voice radio. If human briefers are no longer available for this residual set of pilots, that could pose problems for busy controllers. And if controllers are often not available to help, that could present a safety problem. FAA is presumably developing a safety case for its FFSP, and that will warrant careful review.

Finally, if FAA receives the go-ahead to implement FFSP to replace the DUATS contractors and the existing AFSS program, let’s hope it does this via open competition, as it did in the AAFS competition that LM won. Incumbency generally gives an existing contractor a competitive advantage, but should never lead to what amounts to sole-source procurement. FAA should develop a sound set of performance requirements, and let the competition produce the most cost-effective provider.

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User Co-ops in Aviation

Earlier this month at the Transportation Research Board Transportation Finance Conference in Irvine, CA, one of the most interesting presentations was on the idea of user co-operatives for transportation infrastructure (such as toll roads). David Ungemah of Parsons Brinckerhoff explained the surprisingly large role that co-ops play in the U.S. economy: in agriculture (Ocean Spray, Sunkist), electric utilities (with $140 billion in assets and 42% of distribution lines), and mutual insurance companies (e.g., Nationwide Insurance). In my student days at MIT, I was a member of the campus store, the Tech Coop (which we pronounced “koop”‘), and got an annual dividend check.

User co-ops are also widely used in aviation, in the United States and overseas. One example is common-use local users’ boards at airports, under which the principal airlines create a co-op to acquire and maintain common-use equipment-baggage systems, check-in kiosks, flight display systems, etc. At Los Angeles International Airport, LAXFuel Corporation is a non-profit company jointly owned by LAX’s principal airlines, operating a fuel farm and providing fueling services.

Two of the best-known aviation user co-ops are ARINC and SITA. Both were created by airlines as nonprofit co-ops to provide an array of services. ARINC was launched in 1929 to develop the beginnings of air traffic control. It pioneered air-to-ground VHF radio, omnidirectional navigation beacons (VORs), and the earliest instrument landing systems. The first two ATC centers were created by ARINC in 1935 and 1936. Although the Commerce Department took over the ATC function in 1936, ARINC remained in existence, primarily developing new avionics and writing specs. It also set up the initial ATC systems of Cuba (RACSA) and Mexico (RAMSA), both as nonprofit corporations modeled after its initial US system. SITA was incorporated in 1949 to create an international telecommunications network for aviation. Although ARINC was acquired by the Carlyle Group about a decade ago and was bought last year by Rockwell Collins, SITA retains its nonprofit, user co-op status. It is now actively pursuing business under Eurocontrol’s Centralized Services Initiative.

I bring this up because there is one additional, very important example of an aviation user co-op: Nav Canada. The Canadians don’t call it that; they prefer the term “non-share capital corporation” operating on a not-for-profit basis, with a board consisting of aviation stakeholders. By any practical definition, that’s a user-or stakeholder–co-operative. As aviation stakeholders in this country consider alternative forms that a self-supporting Air Traffic Organization could take, the alternatives are generally described as either a government corporation (best-case example TVA) or a non-profit corporation. Somehow, even though the latter is described as non-profit, it seems to have connotations of being so commercial that the interests of some stakeholders would get short shrift. But if the intent is to create something akin to the very successful Nav Canada, the user co-op idea does a better job of capturing its essential characteristics. It is not just non-profit but is operated and managed in the interests of its stakeholders, all of whom have seats at the table.

Creating a user/stakeholder co-op model for the liberated ATO would also represent a return to the roots of U.S. air traffic control, since it was this model, in the form of ARINC, that created the initial system to begin with.

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Upcoming Events

Panel on Reform of the Air Traffic Control System, Aug. 6, Washington, DC, Reason Foundation (Robert Poole speaking). Details and reservations from DC Chapter of Transportation Research Forum, jack.ventura@verizon.net

ALPA 60th Air Safety Forum, Aug. 6-7, Washington, DC, Washington Hilton (Robert Poole speaking). Details at www.safetyforum.alpa.org.

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News Notes

Editor Calls for Airline Boycott of Certain Airshows. In the wake of the downing of MH17 by a Russian surface-to-air missile (SAM), Karen Walker of Air Transport World has called for airlines to boycott airshows where SAMs are sold. ATW is owned by Penton, which also publishes Aviation Week. In her blog post proposing the boycott, she noted that at the Farnborough Air Show from which she was reporting, there were exhibits of the type of SAM that brought down MH17. “I propose that airline executives join together and boycott airshows for as long as they are inclusive of both airliner makers and airliner destroyers,” she wrote. I second the motion.

World ATM Congress Sets New Attendance Record. In only its second year of existence, the CANSO/ATCA World ATM Congress, held again in Madrid, attracted over a thousand more people, for an official total of 6,265 registered attendees. Delegates came from 128 countries, compared with 104 for the debut conference in 2013. Next year’s event will again take place in Madrid, March 10-12, 2015.

Aireon Completes Latest Round of Financing. The Aireon joint venture to provide global satellite-based ADS-B surveillance completed another round of financing early this month. Nav Canada made its third investment late in June, bringing its total thus far to $120 million (for its 36.5% stake in the company). In early July, ANSPs ENAV (Italy), Naviair (Denmark), and IAA (Ireland) completed their second tranche with payments totaling $12.5 million. All four have agreed to another round of funding in the first quarter of 2015. Total commitments by these ANSPs by 2017 will be $150 million by Nav Canada and $120 million by the other three. After a partial redemption of Iridium’s initial investment in 2018, Nav Canada will own 51%, ENAV 12.5%, IAA and Naviair will each own 6%, and Iridium will retain 24.5%

Sydney’s GBAS Now Operational. Airservices Australia and Sydney Airport received certification from safety regulator CASA for the Honeywell ground-based augmentation system (GBAS) that had been in test operation there for several years. The single GBAS will replace the six instrument landing systems (ILSs) at the airport’s six runway ends (both ends of three runways) and provides coverage for a 42 km radius around the airport. Sydney is now the world’s fifth airport with a certified, fully operational GBAS.

TRB Offering Webinar on Wake Recategorization. On August 24th, the Transportation Research Board will host a webinar on the FAA’s Wake Recategorization (RECAT) program, currently in operation at four U.S. airports. Presenters from MITRE Corp., FedEx, and FAA will be featured. It will take place from 1:00 to 2:30 PM, EDT. Further information is at: www.trb.org/main/blurbs/170960.aspx

Southwest Signs Up for Superior Winds Data. Avtech Sweden and Southwest Airlines have announced that the airline will be the first customer for the company’s Aventus NowCast system to provide advanced wind forecasts to the airline’s entire fleet. The information comes from Panasonic’s TAMDAR-based atmospheric models. Its primary use will be for the descent phase of all Southwest flights at the 96 destinations it serves. Data will be uplinked to each plane’s flight management system to provide a more accurate 4-D descent profile.

ERAM Rollout to be Completed This Year. The FAA announced this month that the final en-route centers will begin operational trials of the ERAM operating system by the end of FY 2014, Sept. 30th. Jacksonville and Atlanta are the last two centers to receive the system, and both are expected to reach initial operating capability (IOC) by the fourth quarter of this fiscal year. Eighteen of the 20 centers have achieved IOC and of those, 15 are now in continuous operation.

Three Systems Aim to Reduce NYC Delays. With air traffic delays in the New York metro area accounting for a large fraction of total national delays, DOT and FAA are testing several new tools to reduce delays. DOT’s Volpe Systems Center has installed its Airport Surface Traffic Management tool (developed by Metron) in the LaGuardia tower to be evaluated for delay reductions during this summer’s severe weather events. NASA has transferred its time-based metering tool-Terminal Sequence and Spacing-to FAA for operational testing, and FAA hopes to make a decision on investing in the system by year-end. And Saab has partnered with NextGen Aerosciences under a NASA program to develop 4-D trajectory tool to be tested in the New York terminal airspace area.

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Quotable Quotes

“ATC is changing fast. New technology has increased controllers’ capacity to handle busier traffic, but the controllers are still making the interventions. So, for many, it is time to call it a day on old systems and get something new. So whereas at present the majority of [controller] activity is in tactical controlling, instructing aircraft to climb, descend, or turn, the future will be different. Planning will take on greater importance, allowing for conflicts to be reduced at the early flight planning stage, possibly days before the flight takes off. It is likely that [controllers] will no longer have sector but tool or system validations. In other words, the future role of controllers will look very different. As these changes are in the near future, they will impact on current controllers who have been selected for their interventionist skills, which may not be the same as those required for a planning and monitoring role.”
-Dr. John Roberts, Chief Medical Officer, NATS, “An Important Diagnosis,” Airspace, Quarter 2, 2014

“When operations are too costly to continue or no longer socially acceptable, transformation must replace evolution as the way to move forward. Transformation is brought about by changes in policy, practices, roles of individuals, and application of technologies to (1) drive productivity and enhance economic growth, (2) deliver capacity to accommodate future demand, (3) expand flexibility while improving security, (4) retain U.S. technological leadership, and (5) transform the way government interacts.”
-“JPDO Is in the Transformation Business,” briefing chart, Joint Planning & Development Office, 2004

“It is very important to reconsider the [Functional Airspace Block] concept and to foster the cooperation of ANSPs within and among FABs. FABs as we know them today are rigid in terms of boundaries, while if we really want to be driven by operational requirements, inter-FAB cooperation should be favored. This can be done via a more flexible and proactive cooperation among neighboring ANSPs sharing similar requirements.”
-Masimo Garbini, ENAV, in Andrew Charlton, “Maximum Forza,” Air Traffic Management, Issue 2, 2014

“I strongly believe that ANSPs should not form part of a country’s aviation regulator or be too closely linked to government. In the UK, separating NATS from the CAA allowed both of those entities to focus on their core businesses. Thus, the NATS CEO was able to focus on delivering a great ATM service without worrying about his contribution to the CAA’s broader regulator responsibilities. And the CAA could focus on the proper regulation of NATS-on economic matters, on safety matters, and on airspace-without worrying about the fact that it was-in effect-regulating itself.”
-David McMillan, Chairman, Flight Safety Foundation, “In Your Own Hands,” Airspace, Quarter 2, 2014

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Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation.