Air Traffic Control Newsletter #119

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #119

Who is the most efficient ATC provider? Growing concerns over FAA controller hiring

In this issue:

Who Is the Most Efficient ATC Provider?

CANSO last month released its 2014 Global Air Navigation Services Performance Report. Its 82 pages of text, graphs, and tables are aimed at giving stakeholders of air navigation service providers (ANSPs) objective data on how well they are converting inputs (such as staff, facilities, and equipment) into outcomes, as measured by various key performance indicators. This latest report is more detailed than previous ones-except that several large ANSPs are no longer providing the data needed to generate the KPIs. While more of the smaller ANSPs have joined the effort, four major ones are conspicuous by their absence: Airservices Australia, DFS (Germany), ENAIRE (Spain), and NATS (U.K.).

The most commonly used measure of ultimate cost-effectiveness is cost per IFR flight hour. This is the most important factor driving the cost that shows up in en-route and oceanic charges (except for the out-of-step United States, which still funds ATC via aviation excise taxes). On this measure, the top performer among developed-nation ANSPs remains Nav Canada. The table below provides data for leading ANSPs, based on the CANSO reports for 2011 through 2014.

ANSP 2011 2012 2013 2014
Air Traffic Organization (U.S.) $429 $433 $454 $450
Nav Canada $297 $327 $339 $340
Airways New Zealand $344 $396 $431 $420
DFS (Germany) na $650* na na
ENAIRE (Spain) $870 $801 na na
NATS (U.K.) $875 $774 na na
* from Eurocontrol 2012 Performance Review Report 2012

The last time I wrote about a CANSO performance report, several readers suggested that cost per IFR flight hour was not the only indicator of efficiency, given the many differences among ANSPs in the composition of services provided (e.g., oceanic vs. domestic, long flights vs. short flights, etc.). The most common additional KPI suggested was IFR flight hours per controller (per year), as shown in the table below, based on the same set of CANSO reports.

ANSP 2011 2012 2013 2014
Air Traffic Organization (U.S.) 1803 1800 1729 1725
Nav Canada 1619 1683 1739 1760
Airways New Zealand 747 718 697 680
DFS (Germany) na na na na
ENAIRE (Spain) 732 748 na na
NATS (U.K.) 922 1081 na na

Advocates for the status quo in U.S. air traffic control continue to state that the United States has “the largest, safest, most efficient, most complex, most diverse airspace system in the world.” All of those points were true for most of aviation’s history. But the numbers above demonstrate that-at least on two widely accepted measures of efficiency-the U.S. Air Traffic Organization is no longer the world’s most efficient. In terms of both absolute numbers and trends, Nav Canada takes the prize as the most efficient ANSP for large developed countries. Its low overhead and productivity-increasing technology investments have enabled it to operate without a rate increase since 2007, and after adjusting for inflation, its real rates are 33% less than they were in 2004.

As I’ve written a number of times before, the ATO’s problem is not just uncertain funding. It is also an organizational culture that is not focused on productivity gains, and a set of institutional constraints that make it incapable of operating as a business. The restructuring that transformed a similar tax-funded, government-run ATC provider into Nav Canada addressed all of those problems. It will take a reform of similar scope to solve the ATO’s problems.

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Growing Concern Over FAA Controller Hiring Policy

The FAA’s controversial 2014 controller hiring policy-opening it up to “off-the-street” candidates and requiring everyone to first “pass” a Biographical Assessment (BA)-is attracting more critical attention. A bipartisan Safe Towers Act was introduced last year by Reps. Randy Hultgren (R, IL) and Dan Lipinski (D, IL), and will be reintroduced in the new Congress. It would eliminate use of the BA and reinstate the long-standing FAA preference for graduates of ATC courses at colleges in the Collegiate Training Initiative and former military controllers. It would also allow those who did not “pass” the 2014 BA to re-apply, which is not currently allowed.

FAA has never given a straightforward explanation for the new procedure, which is widely believed to be motivated by concerns within the FAA Human Resources office that too high a fraction of controllers are white males. Officials of CTI colleges, such as Curt Scott of Green River College in Auburn, WA, told Air Traffic Management that “CTI schools had already provided a large and very diverse pool of available, ‘ready to train’ candidates-which the FAA BA personality test screened out for the most part, disqualifying over 90%.”

Fox 10 in Phoenix reported on Dec. 23, 2014 that it had obtained internal FAA documents and emails relating to the new hiring approach, claiming that they “show the biographical assessment was never validated, and the agency knew it was flawed.” It reported an email saying the agency “has restricted briefings on the background and development of the BA, citing advice [from counsel] amid concerns of legal challenges.” An email from a deputy assistant administrator was reported as saying, “I want to consolidate a few different email chains and make sure everyone is on the same page . . . we have to find a way to address Congressional inquiries without hurting our cause when it comes to litigation.” Our cause?

Despite this defensiveness, yet another email reported as “particularly troubling . . . the large number of CTI candidates who were previously qualified, many of whom had already passed the the Air Traffic Selection and Training (AT-SAT) test with high test scores, who were subsequently deemed ineligible because of the BA.” Another such email noted that “Some FAA Employee Associations have expressed concern that many very qualified minority and women candidates, as well as veterans, were deemed ineligible based on the BA.”

The only defense from FAA that I’m aware of is that the BA was intended as a screening device, to avoid the huge expense of administering the AT-SAT to some 22,500 applicants-as opposed to the 1,591 deemed to have passed the BA and thereby eligible to take the AT-SAT. But that justification is ludicrous. It rests on the premise that FAA should open its doors to “off-the-street” applicants, rather than limiting applicants to former military controllers and CTI graduates, as had been the practice prior to 2014.

That’s the course recommended in 2005 by the DOT Office of Inspector General in AV-2006-021, “FAA Has Opportunities to Reduce Academy Training Time and Cost by Increasing Educational Requirements for Newly Hired Air Traffic Controllers.” The idea was that FAA would shift some of the coursework now taught at its Academy to the CTI schools, enabling most such graduates to finish the Academy course in less time and possibly enabling some to bypass it altogether and go straight to on-the-job training. This would also be consistent with the requirement in many federal professional job categories for a college degree. It would also be consistent with the 2011 recommendations of FAA’s Independent Review Panel on the Selection, Assignment, and Training of Air Traffic Control Specialists.

Frankly, the effort to politicize the selection and training of air traffic controllers does great harm to the ATO’s standing as one of the world’s best ANSPs. It is yet another reason to de-politicize the ATO, by removing it from the FAA and converting it into a self-supporting, commercialized ANSP.

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Remote Tower Progress Raises Questions and Concerns

Last fall the concept of remote towers moved from the aviation media to the mainstream, when the New York Times published a fairly long article by Nicola Clark on the pioneering remote facility in Sundsvall, Sweden, where it will begin early this year to control traffic at the Ornskoldsvik Airport 60 miles to the north, following its certification by the Swedish Transport Agency in November. The article was quite positive about the concept, accepting the potential cost-saving and safety benefits of remote towers.

But as the concept nears its first all-up operational use, concerns are being raised in some quarters of the aviation community. The largest set of concerns was set forth in November by the European Cockpit Association, a pilots’ advocacy group. In response to certification of the Sundsvall facility, ECA released a position paper that, while noting the potential cost savings and safety benefits, warned of the need for contingency/backup plans in case of hardware failures or interference with devices such as cameras (e.g., in case “bugs sat on the camera, blocking the view”). They also raised cyber-security concerns, and urged mandatory reporting of all such occurrences.

Those concerns apply to all initial plans, live those of LFV, the Swedish ANSP, to control traffic at one remote airport from a facility in another location. But their larger concerns are directed at two other likely modes of operation: multiple-tower operations and cross-border operations. Operating several low-activity airports from a single facility, in some cases via a single controller, ECA suggested, is risky, with many unknowns. Hence, it recommended that single-tower facilities be operated for a “prolonged” period of time, to gain experience and document controller performance, before going on to multiple remote towers. The latter could lead to “fragmented” situational awareness, given the likely different airport layouts and operating practices. ECA is also concerned that using remote towers in cross-border ATC could lead to “regulatory forum shopping,” leaving some portions of airspace with lower-quality ATC service.

On the first of these, to the best of my knowledge all ANSPs that are developing remote tower plans intend to start with a single remotely controlled airport before attempting multiple airports. That is the announced plan of Germany’s DFS, beginning with the remote control of Saarbrucken Airport in 2016 and tentatively planning to add control of Erfurt and Dresden several years later. Obviously, DFS will have to develop and present a safety case to its air-safety regulator before proceeding with each of these steps. As for different levels of service in different flight information regions, that is exactly the current situation with Europe’s fragmented airspace, and the goal of the Single European Sky is to replace that with seamless, borderless airspace.

Aviation Week published a Viewpoint on the subject (Dec. 15/22 issue) by human factors expert Ashley Nunes. Its main focus was that the aviation community should not rely solely on positive controller response to the systems and displays used to make remote towers possible, “since a person’s perception of his or her performance is a poor guide to actual performance.” Developers, he urged, should “conduct methodologically sound studies that compare [actual] controller performance when operating from manned towers versus remote centers that emulate towers.” That certainly makes sense, and should be part of the safety case required by air safety regulators before approving remote tower projects.

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UAS Proliferation Challenges FAA

Congress’s well-intentioned mandate for the FAA to develop regulations permitting the integration of unmanned aerial systems into the National Airspace System (NAS) was very likely premature. On the one hand, for large UASs already operated extensively by the military, both the Air Force and the Army are developing multi-technology sense-and-avoid systems, as discussed in some detail by Valerie Insinna in the May 2014 issue of National Defense (“Military, Industry Racing to Create Sense-and-Avoid Systems”). Of far more near-term relevance is the need to clarify who can do what, when, and where with the rapid proliferation of small UASs intended to operate in “uncontrolled” airspace, generally below 500 feet above ground level.

For that need, let me call to your attention an excellent proposal by Gary Church, published online by on December 8th, titled “Small World.” Given both the rapid pace of small-UAS technology and the Nov. 18, 2014 decision by the NTSB that a small UAS operated commercially is not a “model aircraft” falling under FAA’s permissive 1981 Advisory Circular, the need for a workable small UAS rule is urgent. Church sets out to propose such a rule, aimed at being “flexible and permissive enough to allow a nascent new industry and aviation business model to grow and prosper.”

As a principal author of a major 2013 report, Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Service Demand, 2013-2035, Church is well-versed in the likely benefits of commercial uses of small UASs. Accordingly, he warns against blanket prohibitions on operating them beyond line of sight and argues that keeping small UASs away from airports is a very easy problem to address. He also points out that large military UASs (like Global Hawk) already operate autonomously, and it would be unwise to prevent such capabilities from migrating to smaller UASs.

The core of his small-UAS proposal is to separate these craft into three different categories: toys (under 4.4 lbs.), recreational (up to 55 lbs.), and commercial (same maximum weight as recreational). Operators of toy UASs would not require either operator certification or vehicle registration. Recreational UAS operators would register the vehicle online and receive a registration number to be inscribed on it. Commercial operators would go through a more detailed online registration, and their vehicles would probably have to follow ASTM small UAS design and build standards.

Toys could be operated by children under age 16 only under adult supervision, while anyone 17 and over could operate a recreational UAS, as long as he or she passed an online training course. Commercial operators would have to pass a more detailed training course and be able to demonstrate their operating skill in order to receive an operating certificate. Beyond-line-of-sight operation would be allowed if the operator demonstrated the ability to do so. Toys and recreational UASs would be limited to operating at 500 ft. or below, with commercial ones limited to 1,000 ft. All three categories would be required to stay clear of Class A, B, C, and D controlled airspace.

What about keeping small UASs from colliding with each other, or buildings, or other obstacles? Some interesting work is going on to deal with this need, some of it by NASA, some by Google, and some by smaller companies. Aviation Week‘s Graham Warwick profiled one such effort last month, under which Aurora Flight Sciences has recently spun off Panoptes Systems to develop collision-avoidance systems for consumer and commercial UASs. Their initial system is designed as an add-on for the popular quad-copter called Phantom 2. Called eBumper, it uses echolocation and algorithms to avoid obstacles, and is intended to sell “for a couple of hundred dollars on the Internet.” The second-generation product will add optical sensors, a third will add radar, and the fourth will include ADS-B. Panoptes sees its market as not just UASs but also general aviation operators who fly in uncontrolled airspace.

This kind of innovation differs significantly from typical Defense Department or FAA top-down programs. It is bottom-up, starting small and incrementally adding capabilities, based on the latest miniaturized technology advances. It exemplifies the kind of development that a permissive, flexible FAA approach should encourage.

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ATC Outage Contingency Plan Falls Short

It took 60 days rather than the promised 30 days, but FAA did come up with a plan to address the vulnerability of its en-route centers, in the wake of the sabotage that shut down Chicago Center last Sept. 26th. The review found-no surprise-that FAA has “limited technical flexibility to support operational contingencies” and hence is highly vulnerable to single-point failures.

The plan announced by Administrator Michael Huerta on Nov. 25th calls for three stages of improvements. Stage 1, intended to be implemented within 12 months, calls for FAA to work with its telecom and radar suppliers to make data available more rapidly to support contingency operations. The initial goal is to reduce the response time to a major facility outage “from days to hours.” No estimate of the cost of those changes was provided, and may not be known yet, but given the FAA’s dire budget situation, whatever is spent on those changes will reduce other needed facility and equipment spending.

Stage 2 calls for modifying various automation systems to as to “create new sectors at other en-route centers” to “allow for more robust sector management” at centers taking over portions of the downed center’s workload. This capability is targeted for completion by FY 2018. And Stage 3 would draw upon NextGen capabilities in unspecified ways to provide more robust recovery from outages.

What is not mentioned explicitly in the five-page report is the need to standardize the ERAM software, so that it works the same at all the centers, rather than existing as 20 customized versions. That should be a key element of making the system more robust and less vulnerable to single-point failures. As Air Traffic Management editorialized (Issue 4, 2014), “The fear now must be that the non-uniform implementation of ERAM at FAA facilities makes what has been dubbed the chassis of NextGen ultimately not fit for purpose. The tragedy is that this was hardly, to quote [Donald] Rumsfeld, an unknown unknown.”

Sen. Mark Kirk (R, IL) responded to the FAA’s plan by proposing that the agency implement the kind of auxiliary ATC network that is already in place at the Defense Department. Apparently, this system provides “hot-warm backup” via a set of backup facilities kept in readiness to take over various sectors on short notice. That sounds a bit like what NATS has, located near Heathrow, or the two backup centers Eurocontrol maintains to deal with outages of its two MUAC centers. You’d think the “world’s best ATC system” would have thought of that years ago.

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Congress Reconsiders eLoran as GPS Backup

Last October 10th the government’s Space-Based Position, Navigation & Timing National Executive Steering Group created a “Tiger Team.” Its mission was to (1) re-explore eLoran as a back-up GPS technology-not just for aviation but for all GPS uses, (2) evaluate other technologies as comprehensive backups for GPS, and (3) investigate the feasibility of providing global positioning, navigation, and timing backup separately.

The Tiger Team formally reported to the Executive Committee on December 15th, but its findings in support of eLoran as a feasible GPS backup appear to have influenced Congress. On December 10th, the Senate passed and sent to the President HR 5769, the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act of 2014. Sec. 221 of that measure requires the preservation of existing, unused U.S. Loran infrastructure for at least one year, mandates that thereafter Loran infrastructure may only be disposed of if the DHS Secretary certifies to Congress that it is not needed as part of a GPS backup system, and authorizes the Secretary to engage in a cooperative agreement to build an eLoran or other system to use in the event GPS becomes unavailable.

These activities are consistent with the conclusion of the 2007 Independent Assessment Team, whose study was commissioned by the Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security. After reviewing a wide array of possible backup approaches for the myriad uses of GPS in our economy, “The IAT unanimously recommends that the U.S. Government complete the eLoran upgrade and commit to eLoran as the national backup to GPS for 20 years.” That finding, in turn, led to a Feb. 7, 2008 announcement by DHS that it would begin implementing the GPS backup system based on eLoran. Yet this plan disappeared under the new Administration that took office in 2008, apparently killed by OMB on spurious cost-saving grounds. Ever since, there has been no overall GPS backup plan, leaving all GPS users-including aviation-seriously vulnerable to GPS interruptions.

Congress has finally paid attention to this potentially disastrous situation, and has at least opened the door for the revival of eLoran as the GPS backup.

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News Notes

AENA Spins Off Its ANSP as ENAIRE. Spain’s state-owned airports and ATC company AENA late in 2014 was split into two, as a prelude to the partial privatization of its airport holdings. The former ATC division is now a stand-alone air navigation service provider called ENAIRE. It owns five area control centers and 22 control towers, about a dozen of which are operated by contractors.

DFS and Eurocontrol Offer 466 Direct Routes. In a joint project, German ANSP Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS) and Eurocontrol’s Maastricht Upper Area Control (MUAC) announced in December that 466 direct routes are now available in the airspace managed by DFS’s Karlsruhe center and MUAC. That airspace encompasses Belgium, most of Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Their Free Route Airspace Maastricht and Karlsruhe project estimates that airlines using the new direct routes will save about 1.5 million nautical miles a year, saving 9,000 tonnes of fuel and 30,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Danube FAB Creates Two Cross-Border Sectors. The functional airspace block (FAB) comprising Bulgaria’s BULATSA and Romania’s ROMATSA last month inaugurated the first cross-border airspace sectors created by any FAB in Europe. The two new sectors apply to airspace above flight level 245 (24,500 ft.) and operate 24 hours a day.

Nav Canada Helped FAA Cope with Chicago Outage. Last fall’s closure of Chicago Center due to sabotage led to large-scale disruption of air traffic in central North America. Neighboring FAA Centers were able to take over portions of Chicago Center’s airspace, with Nav Canada’s Toronto Area Control Center doing likewise. In the first eight days following the closure, traffic volumes in Toronto’s West High, East High, and North increased by 33%: 6,811 more flights than in the same period the previous year. Toronto Center normally handles a lot of traffic headed to and from Chicago; in addition, the FAA and Nav Canada have a long-standing agreement under which the former can off-load traffic to Nav Canada during times of bad weather, high volumes, etc. At the Air Traffic Control Association annual meeting, Air Traffic Organization chief Teri Bristol thanked Nav Canada for its support during the outage.

NATS to Compensate Customers for 45-Minute Outage. A software glitch last month resulted in the cancellation of 120 flights in London, and delayed 500 others by an average of 45 minutes each. Under the UK’s ATC regulatory structure, NATS must compensate its customers for those cancellations and delays. The total amount of compensation has not yet been announced.

ADS-B’s 10th Anniversary in Australia. Airservices Australia last month celebrated the 10th anniversary of using ADS-B to separate air traffic. The first service of this kind debuted over Queensland on Dec. 5, 2004. By the end of 2014, ADS-B was nationwide, with a network of 75 ground stations, and aircraft equipage is running at about 60% for IFR flights. By Feb. 2, 2017, all aircraft flying IFR at all altitudes in Australia are required to be equipped.

RECAT in Europe, Too. Recategorization of separation distances for takeoffs and landings is close to being implemented in Europe, analogous to the RECAT effort under way in the United States. RECAT-EU was developed by Eurocontrol and optimized for the aircraft fleet mix within the EU, which includes a higher percentage of A-380s than the U.S. fleet. Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport will be the first to implement it, this year, with other major hubs such as Heathrow actively considering it as a way to increase hourly runway throughput.

Another Center Adds to Europe’s Mix. November saw the start of operations at the new Bosnia Herzegovina Area Control Center (BH ACC), providing ATC services for much of the Sarajevo Flight Information Region up to FL 325. The remainder of that airspace will continue to be served by the ACCs in Belgrade and Zagreb. While BH ACC will likely mean improved service, it adds to what is already an excess of Centers in Europe, which the Single European Sky effort is meant to deal with.

Deakin to Head Borealis. The CEO of the UK’s NATS, Richard Deakin, will chair the Borealis Alliance beginning in January. Borealis consists of nine European ANSPs working together to harmonize airspace across national boundaries, as part of the Single European Sky effort.

Crichton Honored by Canadian Government. The CEO of Nav Canada, John Crichton, was named a Member of the Order of Canada in December. According to the announcement by Governor General David Johnston, Crichton was honored “for his contributions to the safety and efficiency of air transportation in Canada.”

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Quotable Quotes

“The FAA took two weeks to get back online, which shows they were really having to build something from the ground up, in contrast to the Eurocontrol requirement for each European area control center to have 48-hour contingency provision-defined plans in place that have been tested and shown to work. Huerta was clearly saying to his critics: look, NextGen will eventually offer all these capabilities. The difficulty with that is that NextGen transformational programs offer these things as promises, but when you get down to specifics, about capabilities and dates, I fear we will be disappointed.”
-Steve Winter, “Viewpoint,” Air Traffic Management, Issue 4, 2014

“Chairman Bill Shuster has said he wants FAA reauthorization to be transformational. We agree-it needs to be. The current situation requires it. That means everything has to be on the table to improve our system, including getting NextGen fully up and running. It also requires us to explore models that allow the FAA to make decisions more like a business. Through an independent third party, A4A is currently benchmarking and developing a fact-based assessment of the financial, operational, and governance factors of the U.S. ATC system. We need the facts to drive any decisions about ATC reform, not the other way around. We are also developing U.S. ATC options highlighting economic benefits and implications for NextGen, while identifying potential risks and benefits of reform. . . . In the end, we have a choice. We can continue with the status quo, or we can usher in innovation, speed, and efficiency by pursuing a smarter approach.”
-Sharon Pinkerton, Senior Vice President, Legislative & Regulatory Policy, A4A, “Seizing the Chance to Implement NextGen and Improve Our Aviation System,” NextGen Now! Issue No. 2, National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Winter 2014

“ATM needs to be organized according to the operational needs of its users rather than according to national boundaries. There must be a seamless airspace. There is a compelling business case for air traffic growth based on the economic and social benefits. It is so powerful that I have no doubt that the barriers to seamless airspace will eventually be dismantled. We are all very conscious that the main barriers to change are political, institutional, and regulatory. If ATM operations people were able to work together freely and in partnership across borders, a transformation of airspace would happen much more quickly and naturally. This won’t be easy, of course, but we must move toward ever bigger airspace blocks. From that point, there will be an inevitable pull towards global seamless airspace. It will take longer than we would like, and the massive programs like SESAR and NextGen have their challenges.”
-Jeff Poole, “Things Will Only Get Better,” Airspace, Quarter 4, 2014

“Once customers-even the most demanding ones-realize they can do their job with 90% of their requirements at 10% of the cost, they won’t hesitate long before jumping ship. And this kind of step change is now made possible by the digital economy: directly, because digital convergence blurs the frontiers between industries; and indirectly, because wealth created in sectors such as the Internet and consumer electronics is finding its way into the aerospace and defense industry.”
-Antoine Gelain, “Disruptive Imperative,” Aviation Week, December 15/22, 2014

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