Air Traffic Control Newsletter #116

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #116

Government corporation or nonprofit corporation, STARS problems worse than expected

In this issue:

Government Corporation or Nonprofit Corporation?

The debate on how to fund and govern the U.S. ATC system has continued all summer. It appears to me to have moved beyond the question of whether fundamental reform is needed; the questions have now become what lessons can we draw from the 50 or more ATC systems that have been corporatized over the past 25 years, and how can we use those lessons to design a U.S. version?

By far the most common model is a government corporation, as in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Italy, and many others. NATS in the U.K. is a public-private partnership, and to some extent so is AeroThai, while Nav Canada is a not-for-profit shareholder-governed company. There are far more examples of government corporations to draw upon than other models. Nevertheless, partly because it’s close-by and partly because it obviously works very well, senior people from just about every aviation stakeholder group have made the trip to Ottawa this year to get a first-hand look at how Nav Canada operates.

Even so, I’m not surprised that some stakeholders incline toward the government corporation model. The track record of ANSPs such as Airways NewZealand and Denmark’s NAVIAIR is very good, and it seems like a less-radical change for us to select that path rather than emulate one-of-a-kinds like NATS or Nav Canada. But I think that preference fails to account for the profound difference between a “government corporation” in other developed countries and what that term means in U.S. practice. Companies like Airways NZ are incorporated under normal corporation law and operate just like ordinary businesses, but with the government as their only shareholder.

But not here. Most of our government corporations remain part of the federal budget, and many receive annual appropriations. They usually have congressional oversight committees, their budgets must be approved by OMB, and they are subject to audits by the GAO and the Inspector General. They are also subject to 15 specific federal statutes, unless specifically exempted. Nearly all have politically appointed boards, rather than having boards drawn from the field of business they are in.

Thus, the nominally independent and self-supporting U.S. Postal Service is subject to congressional intervention in what should be business decisions (like ceasing Saturday mail delivery and closing money-losing post offices), and its rates are determined by a Postal Rate Commission that pursues multiple goals beyond ensuring a well-run, cost-effective business. Even the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), one of America’s largest electric utilities, though only nominally on-budget, still has congressional oversight committees, an arbitrary cap on its bond issuance, and a politically appointed board.

That is night-and-day different from the ANSPs that are organized as government corporations overseas. Their board members are generally non-political, appointed by the minister in charge (representing the government as shareholder). They are not part of the government budget, have unfettered access to the bond market, and can make business decisions (e.g., about consolidating facilities) without political approval. The 1994 USATS proposal, from the DOT Office of the Secretary, was as close as we’ve come to getting a government ATC corporation. But it resembled our other government corporations in having a politically appointed board, a $15 billion cap on its bonding authority, and very likely would have been subject to congressional oversight committees, GAO audits, etc. It would not have been able to operate entrepreneurially like Airways (going into the controller training business) or Nav Canada (as lead investor in satellite navigation company Aireon).

Overlooked thus far in the search for the right model is the federally chartered nonprofit corporation. You know of some of them, but you might not realize their organizational structure. Both the American Red Cross and the U.S. Olympic Committee were chartered via acts of Congress as self-supporting nonprofit corporations. (COMSAT also originated this way, but later became an ordinary for-profit company.) The Red Cross and Olympic Committee boards are not political appointees; they are selected by those organizations based on candidates’ relevant knowledge and expertise, including some who are stakeholders in their fields. This model is much closer to what are called government corporations overseas.

While being wholly American in origin and legal position, the federally chartered nonprofit corporation would provide a better organizational model than the government corporation, as that form has evolved in this country. It would provide a framework into which we could plug the best features of ANSP corporations worldwide, tailored to the specifics of the world’s largest and most diversified aviation system.

» return to top

STARS Difficulties Point to Much Larger Problem

On August 14th, the DOT Office of Inspector General (OIG) sent FAA a six-page “management advisory” on weaknesses in the deployment of the Standard Terminal Automation Requirements System (STARS) at the DFW TRACON. It identified serious problems at this site, because dozens of additional requirements unique to DFW have been identified during the deployment of this “standard” system. Because STARS (for TRACONs) is one of the key automation platforms on which NextGen rests (comparable to ERAM at Centers), this kind of problem “has a cascading effect on the other 10 sites” scheduled for STARS implementation by 2017.

Upgrading the automation systems at TRACONs has been under way since 1996, when FAA’s initial $953 million contract was issued, to deploy STARS at 172 TRACONs and towers. Due to software problems leading to delays and cost over-runs, in the early 2000s FAA contracted for an interim system called CARTS that was installed at many sites. But FAA resumed STARS deployment in 2004, installing it at 52 sites in a $1.4 billion program. And in 2010, it began the final phase: replacing CARTS with STARS at 11 of its largest TRACONs and at 97 small sites. The DFW TRACON is the first of the 11 major sites.

OIG identified the specific problem at DFW TRACON as a proliferation of system requirements unique to that facility. FAA’s 2011 study had identified 68 such requirements, but during the actual deployment-with FAA working cooperatively with controllers and vendor Raytheon-another 46 unique requirements have been identified. Because of this added complexity, the OIG advisory notes that FAA has postponed STARS deployment at the Northern California TRACON, one of the largest and most complex, since it must interface with 25 control towers in its region. The advisory concludes that “it is unclear how many software updates are needed at DFW TRACON or at any other site.”

In researching this story, I contacted a number of knowledgeable people. How, I asked, could a “common” platform need such extensive revisions to fine-tune it to each specific facility? And why didn’t FAA know in advance how extensive such revisions would have to be? The most comprehensive answer came from a well-respected consultant to FAA and NASA, himself a former controller. He explained that ever since the first automation systems were introduced in the 1970s, FAA has allowed extensive customization at hundreds of facilities, such that “virtually no two FAA towers, TRACONs, or Centers meet a national standard of portability.” Moreover, most of these changes have not been documented. In the 1990s, FAA began an effort toward “configuration management,” setting up a special office that was to be staffed by as many as 150 people. But that effort lasted only 18 months before being abandoned. As a result, every time it buys a new automation system, “FAA buys a baseline and then tries and fields it without a clue of the individual site challenges they will encounter,” as the long delays and cost over-runs in implementing ERAM recently illustrated. Now the same thing is happening with STARS at large TRACONs. FAA’s intent is to have one baseline for all STARS sites (compared with five different baselines for CARTS), but the customization now going on may end up with 11 considerably different systems. (And this array of differences also reduces the ability of controllers to transfer from one TRACON to another without extensive retraining.)

For comparison, I also contacted an overseas ANSP that has replaced its own automation systems and gone on to market the platforms to other ANSPs. They encounter a need for some degree of customization for the initial location in a country. Thereafter, the process is much easier, since the software is designed for easier adaptation. In effect, my source emphasized the importance of configuration management and having basically the same version of software at all towers, all centers, etc. It appears that a number of ANSPs are far ahead of FAA in this regard.

» return to top

Aircraft Tracking Group Avoids the Key Issue

In response to the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in May created an industry-led Aircraft Tracking Task Force (ATTF) to come up with better solutions for keeping track of planes in flight. Its members include CANSO, IFALPA, the Flight Safety Foundation, and the leading aircraft manufacturers. It has held three meetings, and its interim report is due out sometime in September. It is expected to focus on operational requirements for better real-time tracking, which will be presented to ICAO, with a formal concept of operations to be delivered to ICAO in February. Any standard issued by ICAO would come sometime later in 2015.

Unfortunately, the ATTF has opted not to deal with “issues associated with the inadvertent or deliberate disabling (regardless of intent) of aircraft reporting systems,” according to a CANSO summary in July. But John Sheridan reported in AIN that “An ATTF member suggested that as part of the team’s investigation, the avionics architecture of all air transport aircraft are to be analyzed for vulnerabilities that would allow unauthorized access for disabling by skilled or unskilled people.” That would certainly help.

Because as James Careless pointed out in Air Traffic Management, “The disappearance of MH370 appears to be due to the pilot and/or copilot’s deliberate actions in disabling the ADS-B, ACARS, and transponder systems.” And he quotes Dan O’Donnell, United’s director of flight operations technology as saying that “To ensure continuous ADS-B transmissions from aircraft, it may be desirable to make minor modifications to the aircraft. This could be done with a minor wiring modification to the transponder control panel and the installation of ‘non-pullable’ circuit breakers.”

The usual pilot response to such suggestions is that they must be able to turn off any equipment on the plane that could catch fire. So we face a dilemma between the pilot’s obligation to ensure the safety of the aircraft and the need to prevent the deliberate disappearance of location information about that aircraft. As Lawless puts it, “Either we trust that the pilots flying our aircraft are sane and acting in the best interests of the passengers and crew, or we don’t. If we do, then the current level of flight tracking technology is sufficient. If we don’t, then airlines have to take some element of in-flight control away from their pilots.”

That may over-dramatize the situation, but the underlying point needs to be faced, in a realistic way. The almost certain foul play involved in MH370’s loss suggests the need for some way of overriding absolute control by whoever is in the cockpit-but without compromising a responsible pilot’s ability to manage aircraft systems in the interest of safety. That means at least one communications link must remain operable in case of hostile cockpit occupants.

In the May issue of this newsletter I wrote about Rick Castaldo’s proposal, which I think could be the solution. He would address the fire danger by means of a “fusible link” in the wiring for each: ADS-B, ACARS, and transponder. If one box caught fire, the fusible link would break the connection, isolating the danger. But the cockpit crew would no longer have a pullable circuit breaker available to do this task. That would appear to achieve both goals: fire safety and continued transmission of location information in the event of foul play or hostile takeover of the cockpit.

If the ATTF is unwilling to take on this issue, it will be up to ICAO to make it a part of its Concept of Operations for Flight Tracking.

» return to top

VOR Decommissioning Plan Raises Larger Question

I read with great interest an article in the July/August Managing the Skies headlined “VOR Decommissioning Plan Expected to Produce Huge Savings.” It summarized recent work by MITRE Corporation to figure out the “minimum operational network” (MON) of legacy VOR navigation beacons that would enable VOR-equipped planes to navigate to the nearest airport in the event of a GPS outage. Out of FAA’s 971 VORs, MITRE concluded that about 500 could be safely shut down, while leaving a basic network available. It’s an elegant piece of work, and although no specific cost savings figure is given, the article says that the plan will save “billions of dollars in maintenance and replacement costs.”

Well, those of us with long memories still recall the early vision for what became NextGen. It promised much larger savings by phasing out virtually all legacy navigation equipment (except primary radars, needed for defense reasons to track non-cooperative targets). The current FAA plan is a stop-gap attempt to come up with something plausible to deal with GPS interruptions, jamming, etc. just for aviation. Yet as we know, aviation comprises only about 3% of all GPS uses in America. As the Government Accountability Office pointed out in a report last November (GAO-14-14), “GPS is used extensively and in various ways in many critical infrastructure sectors for PNT (position, navigation, timing) information”-including electricity transmission, financial services, railroads, mapping and surveying, maritime navigation, mobile communications, and recreation.

That’s why President Bush in 2004 issued National Security Presidential Directive 39 (NSPD-39), which directed the U.S. DOT to lead, in coordination with the Department of Homeland Security, a government-wide effort to assess the need and develop a plan for backup of GPS’s position, navigation, and timing functions. DOT and DHS commissioned the Institute for Defense Analysis to study the problem, assess alternatives, and recommend the best solution. Its expert panel unanimously recommended replacing the outdated LORAN-C system with an electronic version called eLORAN. Their recommendation included the following:

“eLORAN is the only cost-effective backup for national needs; it is completely interoperable with and independent of GPS, with different propagation and failure mechanisms, plus significantly superior robustness to radio frequency interference and jamming. It is a seamless backup, and its use will deter threats to U.S. national and economic security from disrupting (jamming) GPS reception.”

DOT and DHS in 2007 told the National Space-Based Position, Navigation, and Timing Executive Committee that they agreed with the eLORAN recommendation, and DHS issued a news release in 2008 saying it would implement eLORAN using the old LORAN-C infrastructure. DHS’s proposed budget for FY 2009 proposed transferring $34.5 million/year from the Coast Guard (operator of the legacy LORAN-C) to DHS’s National Protection & Programs Directorate to begin the transition to eLORAN.

Alas, Congress failed to authorize that transfer, and the new Administration never took up the subject. So here we are 10 years after NSPD-39 with no GPS back-up plan, and a few agencies (such as FAA) cobbling together single-sector plans like MON, cutting deeply into the originally expected cost savings from NextGen.

It’s not as if eLORAN is an orphan technology. The U.K. is investing in it initially for maritime uses, as is the Port of Rotterdam, due to increasing GPS jamming in the North Sea, English Channel, and other shipping lanes. Germany and France are upgrading their legacy systems to eLORAN. South Korea is implementing eLORAN due to extensive GPS jamming from North Korea. Russia, too, has announced that it is upgrading its system to eLORAN, and so are India and Saudi Arabia.

Dana Goward of the Resilient Navigation & Timing Foundation outlined a possible public-private partnership to implement a U.S. eLORAN system, in an article in GPS World back in January. Since the sites already exist, the modest cost of equipping them was estimated at $40 million, with annual operating costs of $16 million per year.

As always in aviation, there are worries about the cost of equipping planes with this additional capability. But the eLORAN equipment would benefit from the same microminiaturization that enables a fully functional GPS receiver on a chip to be included in your phone. Indeed, the likely technology path is that next-generation GPS receivers for aircraft would incorporate the eLORAN receiver, operating continuously in the background, ready to take over if the GPS signal were interrupted. To be sure, we have no such devices on the market yet, because there has been no decision to implement the 2008 decision on comprehensive GPS backup.

And that is scandalous. The GAO’s report last November strongly criticized both DOT and DHS for not getting their act together to implement NSPD-39. Congress should insist that they do so.

» return to top

FAA Finds Minimal Benefits from New Controller Hiring Process

On July 30th the Wall Street Journal published results from the first go-round of FAA’s new “off-the-street” controller hiring process. As you may recall from previous stories, instead of recruiting from graduates of the several dozen colleges with specialized two-year or four-year ATC curricula and people with prior military controller or other experience, it invited anyone from the public to apply. And instead of passing only the usual controller aptitude test, they first had to “pass” a biographical questionnaire (BQ), whose content and scoring are not public knowledge but which circumstantial evidence suggests was intended to recruit more minorities.

About 28,000 people applied, and of those who passed both of the above hurdles and received offers of employment as controller trainees, 65% were Collegiate Training Initiative graduates, former military controllers, or others with aviation work history. The remaining 35% were off-the-street hires with no aviation background or knowledge. The WSJ story reported that the pass rate for CTI graduates was 12.6%, compared with an overall average of 3.7% for all the others who applied. These pass rates refer to clearing both hurdles: the bio questionnaire and the aptitude test.

What the FAA did not disclose was the pass rate for the “street” hires with aviation backgrounds-former military controllers, private pilots, etc. Presumably, they would be more likely to qualify than the purely street hires, but that number is not available. That also makes it impossible to know the pass rate of the purely street hires (with no aviation backgrounds). But it’s possible to estimate one pass rate and thereby derive the other, since we know the weighted average of non-CTI grads is 3.7%.

To begin with, I figured out from the aggregated pass rates that the total hired was 1,588, of which 756 were CTI grads and 832 were street hires (including those with aviation backgrounds). The next step is an if/then calculation. It seems likely that street hires with aviation backgrounds would have a pass rate somewhere between that of CTI grads and non-aviation street hires. I started by assuming the aviation ones did half as well as CTI grads. Solving the equations based on the weighted average pass rate of all 832 street hires, with the aviation ones at 6.3%, the pure-street ones would be at 3.2%. Alternatively, if the aviation ones did three-quarters as well as CTI grads, averaging 9.45%, then the pure-street average would drop to 2.9%. That’s a very small pass rate after all this trouble.

Those numbers, of course, are only for getting into the FAA Academy. We have no idea what the wash-out rate will be, and how it will differ among these three groups of just-hired trainees. Nor will we know for several years what fraction of those who graduate from the Academy make it to full performance level controllers.

Given what a departure this new hiring process is from the previous approach, and that it flies in the face of previous ATO intentions, based on recommendations from the Office of the Inspector General, to revamp hiring to rely mostly or entirely on CTI graduates, I’ve been surprised at the relative silence of both controllers union NATCA and the FAA Managers Association. NATCA’s current statement on this process explains that the union is not involved in the hiring process, but is “hopeful that FAA will continue to make improvements to its new process and make a successful hiring effort in 2015.” It goes on to say that because NATCA’s top priority is safety, “We have urged the FAA to hire the most qualified air traffic control candidates and place them in facilities where they have the best opportunity to successfully train to achieve full certification.” Is that praising with faint damns, or what?

The July/August issue of the FAAMA magazine, Managing the Skies, includes a short paragraph on the subject, which refers to a position statement on their website. I could not find it there, but was able to obtain a copy. While supporting the goal of seeking a more diverse controller workforce, the statement says it is not clear that the BQ helps with increasing diversity, and that FAA has not demonstrated a nexus between the BQ and its goals. In its summing-up points, it states flatly that “Lowering entry and performance standards is not acceptable,” and that “FAA must incorporate transparency in hiring” such as “explaining how the new hiring plan will achieve better, cost-effective results than the old system.” And it also notes that controversy and litigation over the new approach “threatens to slow the entry of critically needed students into the FAA Academy.” Well-said, FAAMA.

Upcoming Event

59th ATCA Annual Conference and Exposition, Sept. 28-Oct. 1, Gaylord Hotel, National Harbor, MD (Robert Poole speaking). Details at: www.atca.org/59Annual

» return to top

News Notes

ERAM Completion Delayed Until March. Although FAA still expects to achieve initial operating capability (IOC) of the ERAM software at all 20 domestic en-route centers by Sept. 30th, the latest FAA update says that fully operational status at all of them will not occur until March. Atlanta Center achieved IOC on July 12 and Jacksonville Center is aiming for IOC by end-September. A demonstration of operational readiness has been achieved by only 14 sites as of mid-summer, and only one more is expected to reach that status by Sept. 30th.

NAC Priorities to Be Endorsed in October. The NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC) of advisory body RTCA, is nearing completion of its project to set near-term priorities for NextGen implementation, and expects to wrap up this triage effort by October 8th. FAA Assistant Administrator for NextGen Edward Bolton told the annual ALPA Air Safety Forum that by 10 days after that “you’ll have a plan with my signature on it that has milestones, timelines, metrics, [and] costs, by location, to deliver capability in the one-to-three year time frame” in those areas.

Airlines Want Wake Recategorization Speed-Up. One of the near-term priorities expected to be in the NAC plan is to double, from four to eight, the number of airports at which the new “wake recategorization” procedures will be implemented by 2015. That had been FAA’s plan until budget cutbacks in April led to the program being scaled back. “Recat” is already in place and producing time saving benefits at Cincinnati, Louisville, and Memphis. It uses a more rigorous approach to adjusting the in-trail spacing between aircraft departing from and arriving at airports.

Electronic Pilot Reports Debut at Oshkosh. Inflight pilot reports (e.g., on icing or other weather conditions) have always been done either by voice radio or filed after the flight. But digital messaging is arriving for general aviation aircraft, so that Pireps can be filed electronically while the plane is in flight. At this summer’s annual Experimental Aircraft Association fly-in (in Oshkosh, WI), Honeywell and Lockheed Martin introduced their new panel-mounted “SkyConnect” system, to enable pilots to transmit electronic pireps via the Iridium satellite constellation. Several other offerings that also use Iridium were discussed in Oshkosh.

ENAV Buying Nav Canada’s Control Tower Automation. ENAV, the Italian air navigation service provider, announced August 11th that it will install Nav Canada’s NAVCANsuite technology in the control towers at Milan Malpensa, Milan Linate, Rome (da Vinci) International, Rome Ciampino, Bergamo Orio, and Catania-Fontanarossa in Sicily. The two key components of the system are electronic flight strips and an integrated situational display for en-route, terminal, and ground surveillance. Nav Canada will work with ENAV to install the new systems beginning in 2015. Previous ANSPs that have purchased this tower suite include those of Australia, Denmark, Dubai, Hong Kong, and the U.K.

FAA Responds to Inspector General on RNP Problems. The June issue of this newsletter summarized a recent report from the DOT Office of Inspector General that criticized the FAA’s slow progress on implementing RNP procedures that yield meaningful cost and time savings for aircraft operators. I noted, as did the OIG report, that FAA had failed to respond to the OIG findings and recommendations. On July 31st, FAA finally did respond, saying that it is taking steps consistent with the report’s recommendation that it complete an action plan, provide a time frame for streamlining procedures under the plan, and establish metrics to gauge the success of implementation.

FAA Managers to Hear Nav Canada Presentation. The FAA Managers Association (FAAMA) has unveiled the program for its annual convention taking place Nov. 2-6. On Nov. 5th, they will hear a presentation from Nav Canada on the elements that make up this not-for-profit, stakeholder governed ANSP. The description of the session in the FAAMA magazine notes that “There is no longer any substantive debate about the effectiveness of the Nav Canada model as the organizational and corporate basis for managing what is the world’s second largest ANSP in terms of air traffic movements.”

Another User Co-op Category. Newsletter reader Rob Britton of AirLearn pointed out, in response to last issue’s discussion of the user co-op organizational form, that another important example is credit unions. Many corporations, in aviation and elsewhere, have organized credit unions open to their employees, and those institutions have an excellent track record as an alternative to commercial banks.

Clarification re FAA Controller Numbers. Doug Church, the Director of Communications for controllers’ union NATCA, emailed regarding my statement last issue that between 2000 and 2012 the size of the controller workforce “has remained essentially the same.” That statement came from the TRB’s Special Report 314, and used data only through 2012. Church points out that over the past decade total head count is down 1,600, to a total of 14,058 as of May 2014. That is the result of the continuation of controller retirements and the year-long shut-down of the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, which reduced the number of trainees in the system.

Correction re NATS at Gatwick. Mike Stoller, Director of Operations (Airports) for British ANSP NATS emailed to correct a statement in last issue’s article about Germany’s DFS having won the competition for tower services at Gatwick Airport. DFS will be providing tower services only, not tower and approach control services as stated in the article. NATS will continue to provide approach control for Gatwick.

» return to top

Quotable Quotes

“The global value of [Aireon] will become quite apparent as its launch customers-Nav Canada, NATS, the Irish Aviation Authority, Naviair, and ENAV-fulfill their commitments to develop its operational use in the years ahead, generating valuable jobs and economic growth for their regions. But if the ongoing U.S. budget constraints impair the FAA’s ability to incorporate this new technology into its NextGen Implementation Plan, the U.S. will be in danger of falling behind as more efficient aircraft operations are introduced into the rest of the world’s airspace. The pace of new developments in aviation technology will not abate any time soon, and global commercial aviation interests will not wait for the US. budgets to recover. Policy makers need to be as creative and innovative as the U.S. industry.”
-Norman Mineta, former Secretary of Transportation, “Extending NextGen in the Oceans Is Important to the U.S.,” Aviation Daily, July 30, 2014

“I see no sign of an intention to ever install tamper-proofing. The aviation community is going to look remarkably inept if an MH370-type event happens again, complete with tampered communication links. Perhaps the “I”s need to be dotted as well, by at least tamper-proofing one of the comms links. In pursuit of this, I’d like to see some analysis of Emirates CEO Tim Clark’s repeated insistence that someone very knowledgeable onboard Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 tampered with three systems.”
-Peter Young, “Too Many Unanswered Questions,” Aviation Week, Aug. 25, 2014, p. 8

“The time has arrived for NASA to shift from building and operating space launch systems to purchasing these services from commercial firms. Further, utilizing America’s emerging space transportation companies will ignite ingenuity and innovation. It will result in multiple commercial firms offering space launch services, offering redundancy in space access. Competition will reduce the cost while enhancing capability.”
-Roger Launius, former chief historian of NASA, quoted in Frank Morring, Jr., “Historical Perspective,” Aviation Week, July 21, 2014

» return to top

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