Air Traffic Control Newsletter #125

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #125

ATC corporation: progress and dissent; ATCA magazine on ATC restructuring

In this issue:

ATC Corporatization: Progress and Dissent

As the prospect of taking the Air Traffic Organization out of FAA and reconstituting it as a self-supporting air navigation service provider (ANSP) draws closer, many supporters and opponents are making stronger statements about their positions-while a few seem to be hedging their bets.

House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee chair Rep. Bill Shuster (R, PA) had planned to unveil the draft bill language for a federally chartered nonprofit ATC corporation the week of July 6th, but at the last minute that decision was rescinded by House GOP leadership, allegedly due to lack of floor time to debate the bill until after the August recess. But a brief summary of the overall reauthorization bill was posted on the T&I website the next week. The two-page Aviation Innovation, Reform, & Reauthorization Act summary included six bullet points about the proposed “independent, not-for-profit corporation, to operate and modernize the ATC system,” along with other sections dealing with streamlining FAA certification, enhancing aviation safety, improving consumer service, modernizing airport infrastructure, and integrating unmanned aircraft systems into the airspace.

Pulling the draft ATC portion disappointed the organizers of the Transportation Research Board’s July 7th “Air Traffic Control Symposium on Organizational Reform Options.” The event drew a large in-person attendance, supplemented by scores of online attendees. Former senior DOT official Jeff Shane’s opening address put the ATC reform effort in historical context, as he urged stakeholders not to let the current opportunity (at long last) slip through their fingers. Panelists discussed the disappointing accomplishments of the reform that created the Air Traffic Organization (Russ Chew), the Clinton/Gore government corporation proposal (Dorothy Robyn), the idea of corporatizing the entire FAA (Craig Fuller), a federally chartered nonprofit corporation (Robert Poole), and retaining the status quo (Kevin DeGood). Subsequent panels related the successful stories of ANSPs overseas, with participants from Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, and the U.K., as well as a summary of MITRE’s findings that safety regulation improved after ATC corporatization overseas. A stakeholders’ panel revealed nothing new-airlines and NATCA for reform, airport groups waiting to see how airports would fare, AOPA preferring continued use of fuel taxes in any new structure, NBAA adamantly opposed, and likewise technicians’ union PASS.

Separate from that event, several other stakeholders have expressed potential support. At a recent conference, Regional Airline Association interim president Faye Malarky Black said that although RAA has not yet taken a position, it does see “a compelling case for taking [ATO] offline,” adding that “We are uniquely vulnerable to inefficiencies of the current system.” The FAA Managers Association (FAAMA) released a statement in its May/June magazine outlining four principles for any ATC restructuring-including that FAA managers be involved in the design and transition, that there be solid funding reform, that the new structure must permit real business decisions, and that current employee benefits be protected. And the Aerospace Industries Association, while noting airline support for corporatization and AOPA and NATCA willingness to discuss it, said that the complex challenges could lead to a lengthy transition and hoped that the main problems can be fixed “without uprooting the entire system.”

But the Establishment has begun what appears to be an effort to create fear, uncertainty, and doubt. FAA’s Edward Bolton said in June that NextGen delays should not be used as a reason for “privatization” of the ATC system, and warned of a “seven-year transition period” that would be disruptive. In early July, Administrator Michael Huerta warned in a speech that corporatization would not, by itself, address underlying safety problems or potential dangers of unintended consequences. DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx joined in on July 8th, saying that FAA has “done exceptionally well” with modernization and questioned whether there would be meaningful benefits from moving to a different structure. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D, OR), the ranking Democrat on the T&I Committee, has increasingly called for shifting the entire FAA into some kind of corporate entity (which is the proposal being mulled over by the FAA’s Management Advisory Council).

Most troubling of all, in my view, is Administrator Huerta’s call for a unified industry position on reform. Since most key stakeholder groups have expressed willingness to discuss and potentially fine-tune an ATC corporation proposal, the demand for unity would, in effect, hand veto power to NBAA. That organization is just about the only key stakeholder (other than PASS, a much smaller FAA union than NATCA) that is adamantly opposed to any form of ATC corporation. If nothing can be done without the blessing of a relatively small stakeholder, aviation policy-making in this country will have reached a new low.

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ATCA Magazine on ATC Corporations

The Journal of Air Traffic Control, published by the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA), devoted the bulk of its Summer 2015 issue to the cover theme: “Privatization: Examining the Potential Solutions to FAA Reform.” The content provides a useful indication of how far this subject has come in the last few years.

Book-ending the whole set of articles on this topic were contributions from me (“Corporatizing the U.S. ATC System”) and by former Air Traffic Organization COO David Grizzle (“The What and Why of it All”). My piece was a slightly edited version of my written testimony before the House Aviation Subcommittee, drawing on research to show how a self-supporting ANSP governed by a stakeholder board could solve the inter-related problems of funding, governance, and culture that beset the ATO. And David Grizzle fleshed out what such a corporation would look like: structure, board composition and governance, assets acquisition, employee transitions, revenue, regulation, and the perennial questions of transition and scale.

Two long-term veterans in the decades-long effort for ATC reform, Frank Frisbie and Chip Barclay, each provided provocative articles. Frisbie, an FAA veteran, set forth a “half a loaf” transition proposal, under which all high-altitude en-route ATC would be privatized, possibly via investment and management by an existing (non-US) ANSP or a newer entity such as Aireon. He cited as precedents the creation of Eurocontrol for a portion of the high-altitude airspace in Europe and the outsourcing of Flight Service Stations by FAA. Barclay’s piece cited the precedent of separating Dulles and National Airports from the FAA in the mid-1980s, setting up a self-funding airport authority to improve and manage the airports. He also pointed out that no other entity in the federal government operates the “production line” for a major industry. So the ATC system should be separated and run commercially, with the FAA responsible for safety regulation and the protection of aviation stakeholders with “minority economic influence”-e.g., general and business aviation.

The issue’s other contributors included Kevin Burke of Airports Council International-North America, Paul Rinaldi and Dale Wright of NATCA (each with separate articles), and two articles about Nav Canada, one by CEO John Crichton and the other by Communications Director John Morris. All in all, a very thorough treatment of the subject.

The Journal of Air Traffic Control is available at no charge to ATCA members. In this particular case, ATCA has agreed to make the content of this issue available to readers of this newsletter. To download the issue: www.atca.org/Uploads/Journal/ATCA%20Journal%20Summer%20Q2%202015%20FINAL%20lr.pdf.

And to join ATCA, email Tim Wagner: tim.wagner@atca.org.

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Corporation, Yes; User Fees, No?

As momentum builds for reform of the funding, structure, and governance of the U.S. ATC system, the rhetoric from general aviation groups appears to be softening, at least on the idea of organizational and governance change. AOPA President Mark Baker recently noted in AOPA Pilot that, “I think almost everyone agrees the FAA is in need of an overhaul in many areas, but it’s vital that any changes protect the interests of all system users, including GA, while ensuring the highest levels of safety.” I certainly can’t quarrel with that.

But in the same article, Baker reports that he recently met with T&I Committee chairman Shuster and told him that user fees for GA are not acceptable. “The fuel tax system we already have in place is effective and cost-efficient. It works, and we believe it’s the right way to fund aviation going forward.” Moreover “We know from the experience of other nations that user fees can stifle general aviation, restrict access to airports and airspace, and prevent pilots from using the safety services they need-and that’s why AOPA won’t support user fees in any form.”

I’m sure Baker is sincere in his belief, but that position is at odds with solving the problems that ATC corporatization is intended to address. A major funding problem is that annual appropriations by Congress are subject to cutbacks in response to overall federal budget problems (remember partial FAA shutdowns, controller furloughs, and the plan to shut down several hundred contract towers?). Those revenues are also not bondable, which means major capital improvements have to be done in dribs and drabs, rather than being financed by revenue bonds, as new airport runways and terminals are. None of this can be changed if the funding continues to be from taxes.

Another serious problem is micromanagement. The revenue from every federal tax, including the GA fuel tax, gets deposited in the U.S. Treasury. It can only be spent if and when Congress decides to spend it. But everything funded by federal tax money is subject to “oversight” by congressional committees, the GAO, and the DOT Inspector General, to make sure taxpayers’ money is not wasted. And while there is some value in this continual and extensive oversight, it ends up diverting huge amounts of ATO management time and attention to responding to the overseers-rather than focusing on how to best serve its ATC customers. If even a few percent of the ATC corporation’s budget comes from taxes, that opens the door to all the same “oversight” that makes it impossible for today’s ATO to operate as a business.

General aviation is, indeed, a special case, because charging for every flight, or every landing and takeoff, would quickly make GA flying unaffordable for large numbers of private pilots. And that is why many of us look to the non-profit, stakeholder-governed corporation model that is exemplified by Nav Canada. Since its creation in 1996, Nav Canada has charged piston GA planes only a small annual fee, analogous to your annual car registration, that for most private pilots is $68/year.

AOPA’s top management and a number of its board members have visited Nav Canada and know that it does not charge per-flight “user fees” to GA planes. If it is serious about fixing the many problems that afflict our ATC system, AOPA should acknowledge that nobody (to the best of my knowledge) is advocating the kind of “user fees” that AOPA has fought against for several decades. If the draft ATC corporation legislation calls for adopting a fee system similar to Nav Canada’s-with an annual “registration fee” for piston GA-AOPA should declare victory and work with other aviation stakeholders to fine-tune the governance structure to ensure that it properly protects GA’s interests.

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Cybersecurity Acknowledged as a Serious Aviation Problem

When I reported (in the May issue) on the Government Accountability Office’s report on the need for FAA to get more serious about cybersecurity threats, several readers suggested that such threats were being exaggerated. But subsequent events have changed that assessment.

June produced a wake-up call, with the news that hackers had penetrated the flight-planning computer system of Polish airline LOT, leading to the grounding of at least 10 planes at the Warsaw airport. Late in June, the FAA issued a draft Advisory Circular (AC) on the need to develop an aircraft network security program. Its primary focus is aircraft that rely on Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) connectivity, instead of older means such as ARINC 429 buses, for connecting flight-critical avionics systems. The AC noted that, “As with other TCP/IP applications, a real threat exists that may be intentional or unintentional with a detrimental effect on system performance.”

Both the Wall Street Journal and eWeek reported that FAA has set up a high-level advisory committee focused on cybersecurity risks, hoping to reach consensus on international design and testing standards to protect against cyberattacks. While both Airbus and Boeing maintain that their onboard systems are adequately protected from hacking, the greatest concern appears to be ground networks that link ATC facilities and that send information to aircraft, both on the ground (e.g., preflight clearances) and in the air. It appears that neither ADS-B nor controller-pilot data link communications (CPDLC) are encrypted. Also of concern are airline systems that upload information such as required fuel loads.

Nextgov.com discovered that the FAA itself has recently been the victim of a cyberattack. While the agency does not disclose such attacks, the clue was its hiring of SRA International to deal with this vulnerability.

Aviation cybersecurity is a global problem, and the European Aviation Safety Agency held its first workshop on the subject in May. The International Air Transport Association is also engaged on the issue. IATA Director General Tony Tyler has urged regulators to share information beyond their borders. He also told Dow Jones Business News that a report the organization had commissioned suggested that “airlines are the highest-value target for swindlers, and close to 50% of all phishing attempts are made against airlines and airline passengers.”

The growing attention to aviation cybersecurity is overdue, especially since so much of ATC modernization depends on TCP/IP applications. Dealing with cybersecurity vulnerabilities may further delay some NextGen programs, but that is a price aviation will have to pay.

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Entrepreneurial ANSPs and Controller Training

Being a self-supporting ANSP means not just the ability to run a country’s ATC system as a customer-focused business. It also includes the possibility of generating revenue from offering related services. I have previously reported that several ANSPs, such as DFS (Germany) and NATS (UK) have business units that operate control towers under contract to the airports that own them. Another line-extension is offering controller training and related services.

Perhaps the grand-daddy of controller training providers is Airways New Zealand, the first ATC provider to be corporatized (in 1987). As detailed in an article in Air Traffic Management (Issue 2, 2015), its first overseas clients were the small ANSPs of nearby Pacific island countries. That training business evolved to serving ANSPs in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and the Middle East (Oman, Saudi Arabia, UAE). To better serve its growing international business, Airways in recent years has established three overseas training facilities, each in cooperation with a local university: San Juan (to serve Latin America and the Caribbean), Dubai (Middle East and Africa), and Beijing (China). These days, domestic (New Zealand) controller training makes up only about 25% of the total, generating healthy cash flows for Airways.

Airways Training Manager Kelly de Lambert told Air Traffic Management that, “Airways have identified requirements for a broader range of skills and competencies to meet future challenges for the provision of air navigation services. Incorporating ATC training as part of a university degree will ensure the workforce is equipped to lead important strategic initiatives.” That sounds like the philosophy that led to creation of the Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI) here in the United States.

Another large and growing provider of controller training is Entry Point North, created in 2005 as a joint venture by several northern European ANSPs. Today it is jointly owned by Avinor (Norway), IAA (Ireland), LFV (Sweden), and Naviair (Denmark). It has three training centers-in Sweden, Ireland, and Hungary-and also offers training services at client ANSP facilities. It has served more than 80 clients from 29 countries in its 10-year history. Last month it announced the development of a tower simulator facility in Denmark, with five tower positions and 10 pilot simulator positions, to be operated by Naviair to train controllers for all its towers.

Several other ANSPs have recently announced training contracts. NATS won a multi-year contract with Avinor to provide initial training for student controllers at the NATS academy in Hampshire. And last month Skyguide of Switzerland announced a contract with Integra AS to develop and operate the Integra Tower Training Center for Avinor in Oslo. It will be used primarily for transitional and continuing training of tower controllers.

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New Life for GPS Backup Efforts

Growing awareness of the vulnerability of GPS signals to interference and jamming led FAA to abandon early NextGen plans to eventually scrap most legacy ground-based navigation equipment (e,g,, VORs, secondary radars), in order to have a residual capability for surveillance and navigation in the event of large-scale unavailability of GPS signals. This undercut a significant part of the business case for NextGen.

But the problem affects far more than just aviation. GPS today is the primary means of providing precise information for positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) for much of the economy-including the power grid, the financial system, the mobile phone network, the Internet, surveying, agriculture, and personal navigation systems. Organizations such as the National Space-Based PNT Advisory Board argue that the country needs an overall backup or complement for GPS that can provide all three capabilities (P, N, and T). After an exhaustive evaluation of candidates back in 2007, an expert panel commissioned by the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security recommended that a modernized version of the low-frequency LORAN system-called Enhanced LORAN (eLORAN) be implemented. Both agencies endorsed that recommendation in 2008, but the plan sank without a trace in the early years of the Obama administration, apparently for budget-cutting reasons.

But today things seem to have changed. Last year saw the release of the 2014 Federal Radionavigation Plan, which states that it is now a federal policy objective for the government [and presumably the rest of the country] not to be critically dependent on a single system for PNT. That plan was released jointly by the Secretaries of Defense, Homeland Security, and Transportation. Early this year, the U.S. DOT posted a Federal Register notice inviting public comments on potential plans for the government to implement an eLORAN system as a complementary PNT capability. The comment period closed on May 22nd.

That same month the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Coast Guard announced a one-year cooperative research and development agreement with Exelis/Harris and UrsaNav to evaluate eLORAN as a potential PNT complement to GPS. On June 19th, the team began the first broadcast of eLORAN signals from a decommissioned LORAN-C site in Wildwood, NJ. Throwing the switch was Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R, NJ), currently chair of the House Aviation Subcommittee as well as a member of the Armed Services Committee.

Not everyone in aviation thinks eLORAN is the best solution for aviation. It provides two-dimensional positioning, not three-but altitude data is readily available on aircraft via conventional altimeters. And for terrestrial users, eLORAN signals penetrate concrete in urban areas, offering performance far superior to GPS for those applications. InsideUnmannedSystems.com has suggested in recent articles that eLORAN could be a good fit for unmanned aerial systems (UASs) operating at low altitudes in urban areas-e.g., for proposed delivery services. Prof. Girish Chowdhary of Oklahoma State University, who is working on UAS navigation systems, notes that the eLORAN signal is 1.3 million times stronger than that of GPS, and is virtually invulnerable to jamming or interference.

Exelis/Harris and UrsaNav will be exploring the UAS potential during their year-long research and development project. One of their goals is to figure out how to reduce the size, weight, cost, and power requirements of airborne eLORAN receivers, similar to what has taken place with GPS receivers over the past two decades. Their primary task is to identify both the strengths and weaknesses of eLORAN for the full array of PNT functions. From everything I’ve read in recent years, it sounds very promising. But we won’t know for sure without serious R&D, of which this project is a good start.

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News Notes

FABEC States Ordered to Implement Functional Airspace Block. The five member states responsible for the largest of nine planned Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs) in the Single European Sky plan have been ordered by the European Commission to complete implementation of their FAB, named FABEC, within two months. Member states Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands have defined direct routings through their airspace but have not implemented them, apparently due to a combination of projected revenue losses and union opposition. Only two FABs are fully compliant with the plan (the Danish-Swedish FAB and the North European FAB of Estonia, Finland, Latvia, and Norway).

Aireon and Isavia Sign MOU. Space-based ADS-B provider Aireon has signed another Memorandum of Understanding with an ANSP, this time with Iceland’s Isavia. They will explore the implementation of Aireon service in Isavia’a North Atlantic and Polar airspace, provided in the Reykjavik Flight Information Region and the Reykjavik Oceanic Control Area. Aireon is already working on such plans with North Atlantic ANSPs Nav Canada and NATS.

First Cross-Border ATC Communications Center. The Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) and Iceland’s Isavia are developing identical voice communications control systems, able to operate as a single Virtual Center. In the event that one of them goes off-line, the other would be available to provide uninterrupted service. The system will provide HF, VHF, and SatVoice operations in the Shanwick and Reykjavik flight information regions (FIRs).

NATS Renews Belfast Control Tower Contract. UK air navigation service provider NATS has signed an extension of its control tower operations contract with Belfast International Airport, extending the five-year contract term to seven years. The extension will facilitate the completion of ongoing projects to replace the airport’s instrument landing system (ILS) and upgrading its semi-automatic meteorological observation system (SAMOS).

Honeywell Nears Cat. 2 Capability for GBAS. An important upgrade for Honeywell’s Smartpath GPS-based landing system will be available by the end of summer to provide more-precise Category 2 landing capability. The current Cat. 1 system requires the cockpit crew to be able to see the runway at 200 ft. altitude while approaching the airport, but with Cat. 2, this “decision height” is reduced to 100 ft. The upgrade to the ground-based system involves a software modification that makes use of data on the real-time behavior of the ionosphere (from the FAA WAAS system). That additional information modifies a worst-case assumption built into the Cat. 1 system. No changes are needed on planes already equipped to use Smartpath for Cat. 1 landings.

Airservices Australia Meets ICAO 14-Minute Oceanic Update Rate. Australia’s ANSP announced last month that it has achieved the new monitoring capability set forth by ICAO under which planes in its oceanic airspace will provide position updates every 14 minutes via ADS-C, via satellite provider Inmarsat. The new policy covers oceanic airspace under control by Airservices Australia both east and west of the country. The trials that began in January included only Qantas and Virgin Australia, but were subsequently expanded to all airlines serving Australia. The next phase will involve working with ANSPs of New Zealand, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, and the FAA.

Ryanair Petition to Outlaw ATC Strikes. In response to a rash of strikes and proposed strikes by air traffic control unions in Europe, discount airline Ryanair early this month launched an online petition urging that such strikes be made illegal (as they are in the United States). Interestingly, the petition offers the alternative of allowing other European ANSPs to manage the airspace of a country whose controllers are on strike. Ryanair’s Kenny Jacobs said that it is “unacceptable that Europe’s customers repeatedly have their holiday and travel plans disrupted or cancelled by the selfish actions of ATC unions every summer. . . . If the EU won’t listen to the airlines, perhaps they’ll listen to Europe’s citizens.”

Video of TRB Symposium on ATC Reform Options. A video of the entire one-day symposium put on by the Transportation Research Board on July 7th is available online, and individual sessions can be viewed separately. I was a member of the steering committee that organized the event, and took part in one of the morning panels. Go to www.trb.org/PolicyStudies/Blank6.aspx.

Update on Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC). Reader Matthew Ross emailed following the June issue of this newsletter. After noting my point that FAA plans its roll-out of CPDLC to en-route airspace in 2021, he reported that CPDLC has been available in Australian en-route airspace, both continental and oceanic, since 2000.

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Quotable Quotes

“When I first started in the airline business 20 years ago, the scheduled time for our flights between our Newark/New York hub and Washington National Airport was about an hour. Today, many of these flights are scheduled for about an hour and a half. I’m pretty sure that the tectonic plates haven’t caused the cities to drift 50 percent farther apart during that time. Instead, our nation’s air traffic control system, which relies on World War II-era ground-based radar technology, has become increasingly inefficient. That means you as customers must spend more time on the ground and in the air while traveling the same distances as you did before, and we as airlines must incur higher operating costs and burn more fuel simply to get from point A to point B. This antiquated and inefficient system, while safe, threatens the primacy of U.S. aviation.”
-Jeff Smisek, CEO, United Airlines, “Are New York and Washington, DC Drifting Apart?” Hemispheres, July 2015

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old order of things, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”
-Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, 1532

“When considering a big departure from the conventional approach to something, just pretend that the big departure had been our policy from the get-go, and somebody is now proposing that you change to the policy you actually have. . . . So now imagine that the United States had set up its air traffic control system as a not-for-profit corporation at the outset. It has always been funded by user fees, it has long enjoyed access to the bond market, and it has managed upgrades in keeping with a disciplined capital budget. Now somebody comes along and proposes that we abandon that structure and place the system within the FAA. Our premier aviation safety regulator would now be dual-hatted as a provider of air traffic services as well. No borrowing authority, a newfound fealty to federal procurement regulations, and with funding based on a complicated assortment of taxes and fees. It seems pretty clear that we would never accept a change to the structure we currently have if it were being proposed now for the first time. It’s not easy to understand, therefore, why we cling to that structure so slavishly.”
-Jeffrey N. Shane, General Counsel, IATA, keynote address to the TRB Air Traffic Control Symposium on Organizational Reform Options, July 7, 2015

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