Air Traffic Control Newsletter #118

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #118

Major ATC reforms urged at congressional hearing

In this issue:

Major ATC Reforms Urged at First FAA Reauthorization Hearing

The full House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee (not just its Aviation Subcommittee) held a three-hour hearing to discuss major issues that should be addressed in next year’s FAA reauthorization bill. Most of the testimony and discussion focused on reforming the ATC system-not just its unstable funding but also the governance and organizational culture of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO).

Chairman Bill Shuster (R, PA) set the tone with a nine-page memo (Nov. 14, 2014) on the scope of the hearing, focusing on reform of the ATC system. It discussed the many problems that have afflicted the agency’s efforts to implement the transformational NextGen programs, and included a useful table summarizing seven previous reform attempts that have not solved chronic, ongoing problems.

Those points were re-emphasized in the testimony of DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel. He noted that FAA has not taken full advantage of personnel and procurement reforms enacted years ago, and illustrated this point with a table detailing problems with seven major acquisition efforts. Among the bullet points in Scovel’s written testimony were these:

  • Despite changes to FAA’s organizational and operating structures, costs have increased and operational efficiency has decreased.
  • Workforce and management practices impede FAA’s ability to meet reform goals.
  • FAA’s acquisition management system has not improved acquisition outcomes.
  • Recent organizational changes strengthen project management control [only] after contract award.
  • Systemic contract management weaknesses and underlying programmatic and organizational issues impede FAA’s ability to meet reform goals.

I emphasize these points because several witnesses (and several Members) seemed to be saying that the only real problem is unstable funding, and that things would be fine if, say, 100% of the ATO’s funding came from the Aviation Trust Fund and could be exempted from things like sequestration and government shutdowns. That position ignores decades of findings by the Government Accountability Office, the DOT Office of Inspector General, and independent outside researchers that the agency suffers from serious governance and organizational culture problems.

Business Roundtable CEO John Engler, a former governor of Michigan, emphasized these points in his testimony. He was the only witness to remind the Committee that the FAA’s own Management Advisory Council in January 2014 unanimously called for not just independent ATO funding (outside of the federal budget) but also for a governance structure involving aviation stakeholders instead of numerous federal overseers, and for separating the ATO from the FAA (as the aviation safety regulator). All three of those reforms reflect the global trends in ATC reform over the past two decades. As the head of a leading business organization, Engler also emphasized the absurdity of funding a major capital modernization program out of unpredictable annual funding, rather than issuing revenue bonds like those used by airports, railroads, electric utilities, etc.

Similar points were made by Airlines for America (A4A) CEO Nick Calio. His testimony noted that “The Committee has a historic opportunity to drive the institutional changes needed to ensure that we have the very best ATC system in the world.” He explained that A4A “is in the process of benchmarking and developing a fact-based assessment of governance, financial, and operational performance of the U.S., Canadian, and European ATC models.” And that this work thus far “has shown that the FAA’s organizational structure and funding model are hindering the agency’s efforts to modernize the ATC system and implement NextGen.” He pointed to overseas air navigation service providers with multi-stakeholder boards of directors and noted that a number of these ANSPs have implemented NextGen-type technologies and procedures “faster and at lower cost than the FAA due in large part to a collaborative approach with stakeholders who also fund the system.”

Paul Rinaldi, president of controllers union NATCA, emphasized funding reform, going into detail in his written testimony of how disruptive FAA budget problems have been not just to the workforce but also to implementation of various NextGen projects and procedures. During the question period, Rinaldi revealed that he has visited Nav Canada, is aware of the interest in ANSP models of that kind, and remains open to considering new models, but cautioning that any such changes must be made “very methodically” and with an emphasis on not disrupting day-to-day operations.

As a long-time observer of debates over ATC reform-including the Clinton Administration’s USATS proposal for an ATC corporation, the Mineta Commission, and the G.W. Bush Administration’s effort to give FAA bondable ATC fees-I was impressed by the generally bipartisan willingness of most Committee members to consider serious reform along the lines suggested by Chairman Shuster, Gov. Engler, and A4A’s Calio. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D, OR), who will likely become the T&I Committee’s ranking member in January, emphasized funding reform but also opined that FAA procurement is worse than the Pentagon’s, and that while a large-scale reform would represent a “steep slope,” he is willing to engage in that discussion with stakeholders. Rep. Rick Larsen (D, WA), currently ranking member of the Aviation Subcommittee, also seemed open to discussing these ideas, as did Subcommittee member Michael Capuano (D, MA). This is a refreshing change from the polarized nature of debates over ATC reform in previous decades.

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FAA Agrees to Near-Term Stakeholder Priorities

With some fanfare, FAA Assistant Administrator for NextGen Edward Bolton announced that the agency will move forward to implement the near-term priority recommendations provided to it last month by the NextGen Advisory Committee’s NextGen Integration Working Group. The commitments apply to the 2015-17 time period and apply to four key areas of NextGen modernization: multiple runway operations, performance-based navigation, surface operations, and data communications. The specifics are as follows.

Multiple Runway Operations. FAA will implement wake recategorization (RECAT) procedures at 17 airports, increasing runway throughput via smarter separation standards based on a better understanding of the wake vortices generated by aircraft on final approach and on departure. FAA also agreed to decide by sometime next year on implementing Wake Turbulence Mitigation for Departures-an experimental procedure that permits departures on closely spaced parallel runways depending on real-time cross-wind conditions, with likely initial implementations at BOS and SFO.

Performance Based Navigation. The agency has agreed to add three additional metro areas to its near-term Metroplex upgrades-Northern California in 2015 and starting implementation at Atlanta and Charlotte in 2017. Increased use of PBN procedures is a key feature of the Metroplex program, thus far implemented at a handful of airports. FAA also committed to publishing national standards for two additional PBN procedures: Equivalent Lateral Spacing Options (ELSO) in 2015 and RNP for Widely Spaced Operations in 2017.

Surface Operations. FAA has agreed to replace paper flight strips (!) with Advanced Electronic Flight Strips at three towers (Cleveland, Las Vegas, and San Francisco), install the System Wide Information Management (SWIM) surface visualization tool at five TRACONs (bringing the total to nine), and distribute nationwide 11 data items that industry has agreed to provide. They will also complete a feasibility analysis of the Terminal Flight Data Manager program, for better departure management, for a 2015 investment decision.

Data Communications. Digital departure clearance information, from controllers to pilots, will be implemented at 56 airports by the end of 2016 rather than the end of 2019.That’s a big change from the three-airports-by-2016 plan in place early this year. And they will also decide by the end of this year on Data Comm’s second phase, for the en-route phase of flight.

From the standpoint of aviation stakeholders, these somewhat-accelerated implementations-assuming FAA can actually deliver within these deadlines-represent tangible progress on providing improvements that offer real benefits, such as fewer delays and reduced fuel use. They also rely mostly on equipment already on commercial aircraft and business jets (though not all are RNP-capable nor are most equipped yet for Data Comm).

But two other factors help us put these near-term measures in context. First, in at least several of these areas (e.g., replacing paper flight strips and implementing controller-pilot data link), FAA’s ATO is lagging behind a number of other ANSPs (see the following story on Data Comm). Second, since the FAA budget is not likely to increase during the 2015-17 time frame, the resources used to carry out the four priorities will not be available for other components of NextGen. In other words, the prioritization established by this effort is a form of triage, based on very limited resources.

As noted here last month, FAA Assistant Administrator for policy Rich Swayze recently told the NextGen Advisory Committee that between now and 2022 FAA will be accumulating a $5 billion shortfall between what it needs to spend on operations and capital investment and what is likely to be available from its current revenue sources. And FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told the Aero Club of Washington last month that the agency cannot simultaneously (1) implement NextGen as planned, (2) recapitalize its aging infrastructure, and (3) continue its current level of services based on currently projected revenues. So while it’s good to see the agency trying to give customers more bang for the buck in the near term, the question those customers should also be asking is: At what cost, in terms of other things that will not get done?

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Data Comm Overseas Is a Different Story

As I recounted in my recent policy study, “Organization and Innovation in Air Traffic Control” (http://reason.org/files/Air_traffic_control_organization_innovation.pdf), digital communications between aircraft in flight and both airline dispatchers and air traffic controllers on the ground was originated by airlines flying oceanic routes in the 1990s. Working with several airlines, Boeing developed FANS 1, which uses GPS for navigation and Inmarsat satellites for digital communications between pilots and dispatchers; it also includes ADS-C for sending position information digitally to controllers. Airbus developed a similar FANS A, and today most airliners in oceanic airspace are FANS 1/A equipped.

Given this background, it is hardly surprising that across the North Atlantic, controller-pilot data link has been well-established. NATS (the U.K.’s ANSP) began providing data link on its portion of the North Atlantic in the late 1990s, and Nav Canada began in 2002. Today, equipage of aircraft flying North Atlantic tracks exceeds 75%, according to NATS. And the en-route fee structure provides a discount for using data link instead of voice in that airspace. Professional Pilot reported back in March that some airways across India and across the Himalayas are data-link only, as are the two most central flight tracks across the North Atlantic-a functioning example of “best-equipped/best-served”.

Nav Canada began implementing data link in its domestic airspace in December 2011 (Montreal Center) and rolled it out across the country over the next several years, with Toronto Center the last to do so in April 2014. Equipage levels, and digital messages, have been growing rapidly. As of Spring 2014, it ranged from a low of 27% in central Canada airspace to 75% near the east coast.

Under its Single European Sky program, Europe mandated the use of data link for all airspace above 28,500 feet by February 2015, and numerous trials were held in individual countries, with NATS among the pioneers. But as equipage, and therefore transactions, began increasing in 2014, frequency congestion became a noticeable problem. The problem stems from an early decision to use a single frequency for data link-one that was already in widespread use for digital messages between cockpits and airline dispatchers. European safety agency EASA issued a report earlier this year, concluding that using this Aeronautical Telecommunications Network (ATN) for controller-pilot data link is far too vulnerable to congestion and random disconnections. Eurocontrol, which has operated a small data link system in the Maastricht Upper Airspace where it provides ATC services, says it warned about this limitation a decade ago, but was ignored.

So it looks as if, despite lagging far behind domestic data link in Canada and the NATS/Nav Canada success on the North Atlantic, the FAA at least did not make the mistake of selecting a single, much-used frequency for its Data Comm program. But having only departure clearances provided digitally by 2016, and only at 56 airports, with no announced target dates for any use of data link in en-route airspace, should make the ATO’s customers wonder if that’s really the best they should expect from their air navigation service provider.

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ADS-B Summit Produces Talk But Little Action

Last issue’s lead article mentioned FAA’s “Call to Action” ADS-B Summit, then upcoming on October 28th. I received several emails from aviation reporters asking where this event would be held, thinking they would be able to cover it, but that was not to be. No media were invited or allowed, which explains why there has been no coverage of what happened.

As I wrote last time, two major stakeholder concerns over the current ADS-B implementation plan are (1) the cost and timing difficulties for owners of general aviation planes to meet the 2020 equipage deadline and (2) the far more stringent precision requirements in the specification for ADS-B equipment required by 2020 for commercial aircraft. As U.S. airlines and IATA have both pointed out, that set of requirements ranges from three times to 100 times more stringent than the standard being implemented in Europe under SESAR. Supposedly NextGen and SESAR are working together to harmonize their specifications and standards, but the ADS-B specs are a glaring exception to this declared policy.

I’m sure both of these issues were brought up by the relevant stakeholders during the Oct. 28th summit. Whether FAA made any commitments to even consider changing the 2020 deadline for GA equipage, or to adopt an initial commercial aircraft ADS-B spec consistent with Europe’s, is impossible for a non-participant to determine at this point. There were no post-summit announcements by FAA, and I’ve been unable to get any details from attendees at the meeting.

However, both issues were brought up during the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee hearing on Nov. 18th. One of the main points of AOPA President Mark Baker’s written testimony concerned the ADS-B equipage mandate, which imposes large costs (potentially 20% of a single-engine piston plane’s value) for no apparent benefit to their owners in the near or medium term. Baker noted that at the Oct. 28th summit, FAA listened to AOPA’s discussion of the barriers to GA equipage, but could only say that AOPA hopes to work with FAA to find solutions.

A4A President Nick Calio’s written testimony pointed out that the current ADS-B spec “is not harmonized with European and other international ATC systems,” and will primarily benefit the FAA, not airspace users. He noted that this problem was discussed at the Oct. 28th meeting, but said that while this discussion was “a good first step, we cannot support the current 2020 mandate for ADS-B/Out until these issues are resolved.”

When I became aware of this problem of an overly-precise specification last month, I assumed that this must have been a recent change on FAA’s part. That was despite getting regular feedback from some very knowledgeable readers routinely criticizing the way the FAA is going about implementing ADS-B. One of them finally pointed out to me that this problem was discussed in some detail back in early 2008, when FAA issued its Notice of Proposed Rule Making on ADS-B performance requirements (Docket No. FAA-2007-29305). I found the 38-page comments submitted at that time by the Air Transport Association (A4A’s previous name) making the case that equipping airliners with equipment compliant with those ultra-precise ADS-B/Out specs would involve “enormous costs” to airlines with little benefits. It laid out an alternative, two-phase approach that would begin with specifications consistent with those planned for Europe, Canada and Australia and running demonstration projects to validate various operating concepts that might produce better-than-radar separation standards. It would also involve simulations and demonstrations of advanced ADS-B/In operational applications. Only in a later phase 2 would higher-precision standards be considered, if necessary to achieve higher performance, but those would only be implemented in harmony with international inter-operability.

Two things amaze me about the current ADS-B equipage situation. First, why are stakeholders only now making the case that costs far exceed benefits if FAA’s current plans are carried out? And second, why hasn’t the Office of the Inspector General looked into the problem raised by the airlines back in 2008, as part of its otherwise excellent work on ADS-B?

Clearly, both general aviation and the airlines face costs far in excess of benefits with FAA’s current 2020 ADS-B/Out equipage mandate. Solutions for both sets of users must be developed and adopted with all deliberate speed. This sounds to me like another job for the NextGen Advisory Committee.

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“NetGen Weather”-Outside of NextGen

A common theme among airlines regarding NextGen is to first make full use of the capabilities already on board airliners before expecting them to shell out large sums for new equipment (especially if the future benefits are hazy). A great example of this is the system I’ve reported on previously, under which Southwest is about to start getting new benefits from its existing flight management system (FMS) computers.

As discussed at some length by Ryan Ellison in “Winds of Change” (Air Traffic Management, Issue 3, 2014), during descent from cruising altitude to the runway, a plane passes through numerous changes in temperatures and winds. The FMS can take these into account, to optimize the descent profile, but is traditionally pre-programmed only with estimates for a few intermediate altitudes. And the weather data used are typically old and not very location-specific. The ideal situation would be real-time weather data input to the FMS at top of descent (TOD), enabling it to adjust the descent profile for optimal fuel burn.

Something approaching that has been developed by the small Swedish firm Avtech, using far better weather data from Panasonic. The latter firm several years ago acquired the start-up company that had developed the TAMDAR system, which has weather sensors on hundreds of commercial aircraft reporting real-time weather parameters to the company’s weather data center in Orlando. The real-time TAMDAR data are merged with the best available weather information from other sources, and input into forecasting models for aviation.

Avtech developed a system called Aventus NowCast and has been marketing it to airlines to improve flight efficiency via much-improved weather data. Its airline customers thus far include Air New Zealand and Air Malta, in addition to Southwest. For NowCast Descent, which is what these launch customers have subscribed to, it works as follows. When the aircraft nears TOD, Aventus NowCast automatically queries its FMS, requesting data on its trajectory to the destination airport. Within a minute or two, NowCast sends back a tailored winds package to be inserted into the FMS, to optimize its descent profile. This is essentially a 4-D trajectory (three dimensions in space plus time). Avtech’s Ellison says NowCast could also be used for flow management, wake vortex applications, performance based separation, and other NextGen-like procedures.

After testing, Avtech and Southwest have declared the system operational, and the airline will be rolling it out in coming months for all 96 airports that it serves. Since there are no hardware or software changes needed, the airline’s only cost is a monthly service fee to Avtech. Southwest expects fuel savings to more than cover the cost, given Avtech’s estimate of up to 20 lb. of fuel saved per descent (narrow-body) and up to 150 lb. per descent for a wide-body. If we assume an average of 10 lb. per descent for Southwest’s all-737 fleet, a fuel price these days averaging $2.50 per gallon, and the airline’s 94,000 landings a month, I estimate the annual savings at around $4.2 million.

Aviation Daily (Nov. 3rd) reports that Avtech is also marketing a NowCast version to optimize an entire flight’s trajectory, via better weather inputs to the FMS throughout the flight. This is a great example of real progress toward 4-D trajectories developed outside any formal program like NextGen or SESAR, and offering a sound business case without requiring any equipage costs.

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News Notes

ATCA Compiling ANSP Data. Pete Dumont, President of the Air Traffic Control Association, last month announced that ATCA is in the process of creating a database on ANSPs worldwide. It will explain each one’s structure, funding, governance, stakeholder participation, and various performance metrics. The material will be compiled as the ATCA Online Reauthorization Information Center, as a resource primarily for the U.S. aviation community as it addresses ATC reform as part of next year’s FAA reauthorization legislation.

Looming Retirements at FAA. An article in the November/December 2014issue of Managing the Skies, the magazine of the FAA Managers Association, notes that “Fully 59 percent of FAA leadership is eligible to retire by 2018.” That creates a large window of opportunity for changing the organizational culture of the Air Traffic Organization, as part of reforming its structure, funding, and governance over the next several years.

RTCA and IATA Working to Enhance Latin American ATC. RTCA in late October announced a working relationship with the International Air Transport Association to promote a more seamless and higher-tech ATC system in Latin America. The two groups aim to work with ANSPs in the region, along with trade group CANSO, to assist with implementing the Aviation System Block Upgrades agreed upon by the industry via the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). RTCA is known for its efforts to bring aviation stakeholders together in efforts to reach consensus.

RECAT in Europe, Too. Eurocontrol has developed and gained acceptance of a European version of wake-separation recategorization similar to what is being implemented at selected U.S. airports. As with the U.S. RECAT, the new RECAT-EU is based on extensive new data on the behavior of wake vortices generated by aircraft on final approach to and departure from airports. Instead of applying standards based only on aircraft gross weight, the new standards take into account the interaction between the vortices generated by a specific type of aircraft and the one immediately following it. Safety regulator EASA has blessed the detailed safety case developed for RECAT-EU, which allows it to be implemented. Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) is the first to implement RECAT-EU, as of this month.

GBAS Now Operational at Zürich Airport. To provide for more precise approaches and landings even during low-visibility conditions, Flughafen Zürich has purchased and installed a Honeywell GBAS ground station, to be operated by Swiss ANSP Skyguide. This Ground Based Augmentation System augments the GPS signals available at a fixed location to provide highly precise real-time position information. Though capable of providing precision (Category 1) approaches to all of an airport’s runways, the GBAS will initially be used for approaches from the north on runway 14. The first landing using the new system took place on Oct. 14th, by a Swiss Airlines A 320. The project to implement GBAS at EU airports is part of the overall SESAR ATM program, similar in objectives to NextGen in the United States.

Initial Global Tracking Solution Not Tamper-Proof. The Wall Street Journal (Nov. 17th) previewed the forthcoming near-term recommendations from an ICAO/IATA task force on global aircraft tracking. It will focus on measures that involve only software changes and possibly minor additional communications service charges. IATA’s board is expected to approve the recommendations early next month, along with plans for further study of tamper-proofing options. Those would be more costly, since they would involve changes to the wiring and possibly other hardware changes.

NATS Produces Time-Lapse ATC Video. Using a new data visualization tool, NATS (the U.K.’s air navigation service provider) has created a depiction of all air traffic flows in U.K. airspace. The video includes a few key statistics, including 3,500 daily flights into and out of London’s airports each day. It shows stacked-up flights in holding patterns near London, general aviation traffic, military flights, and helicopter flights between Aberdeen and oil rigs in the North Sea. It is available on the website of The Daily Telegraph, a leading British newspaper. (www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelnews/11236552/Air-traffic-timelapse-untangling-the-traffic-in-Britains-skies.html)

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Quotable Quotes

“Discussions are under way for the aviation reauthorization, and everything is on the table and up for consideration. This is a top priority for full Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster and me, and we’re having meetings, roundtables, hearings, and listening sessions to get stakeholder input and ensure that the lines of communication are open with users of our aviation system.”
-Rep. Frank LoBiondo, Chairman, House Aviation Subcommittee, “Perspective from the Hill,” The Journal of Air Traffic Control, Fall 2014

“Together with our partner ANSPs involved in the North Atlantic, we have developed a phased implementation plan [for Aireon]. Initially, we will apply reduced separation of 15 nautical miles longitudinally on the core organized track system (OTS) tracks in the same direction only. Over time, and in phases, that will be expanded to aircraft operating off the North Atlantic OTS, to opposing direction aircraft, and eventually to 15 nautical mile lateral separation. The analysis shows that air carriers will experience benefits of $127 million in fuel savings annually after fully implementing Phase One. From then on, it just keeps getting better.”
-Rudy Kellar, Executive VP, Service Delivery, Nav Canada, “Signals from Space,” Airspace, Quarter 3, 2014

“Ultimately, however, what ADS-B compliance is about is herd immunity. There is a medical analogy: some people are so worried about the effect of immunization that they forego having their children immunized. The harm caused by this isn’t just to the non-immunized kid; the harm is the larger effect on the human population. When groups of people aren’t immunized, then certain diseases grow and spread, but when most people are immunized, the entire human herd is more protected. The same is true of ADS-B. The more aircraft are equipped with ADS-B/Out, the greater the benefits for all aircraft in the air (someday this will include drones; in fact, drones ought to be required to be fitted with ADS-B/Out). It’s like herd immunity for aircraft,”
-Matt Thurber, “ADS-B: It’s Herd Immunity,” Aviation International News, Aug. 8, 2014

“Technological trends are changing the aviation system as a whole, and they will continue to reshape all three nodes within the system: aircraft, airports, and air traffic management. Increases in information availability between the nodes, and navigation and decision-making autonomy of pilots in aircraft with advanced capabilities, will transform the core status of ATM [air traffic management] from making capacity available to managing 4-D trajectories. How soon this transformation will take place will depend partly on technological advances and largely on the willingness of ANSPs, airports, and States to rethink business models, ownership, and governance.”
-Paul Riemens, CEO of LVNL and Chair, CANSO, “Chair Interview: Doing What Is Right,” Airspace, Quarter 3, 2014

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