Air Traffic Control Newsletter #126

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #126

ATC corporation: progress; ERAM glitch affects 968 flights

In this issue:

ATC Corporation Progress

With Congress on vacation during all of August, there was very little news about ATC corporatization. But things have been jumping in September. Probably the biggest news was the speech by former FAA Administrator Allan McArtor, at the International Aviation Club in Washington, DC on Sept. 2nd. He strongly endorsed separating the Air Traffic Organization from the FAA and setting it up as a self-supporting, stakeholder-governed corporation-a real ANSP like other developed countries have. As someone who understands how the procurement game is played, he also argued that gaming of the system by contractors “has actually set back NextGen,” and that “this cycle must be broken.” McArtor is just one of many former FAA officials who have supported corporatization; others include former Administrators John McLucas, Langhorne Bond, and David Hinson, as well as all three previous chief operating officers of the ATO: Russ Chew, Hank Krakowski, and David Grizzle.

The same day the DOT Inspector General’s Office released audit report AV-2015-084, which reviewed the ANSPs of Canada, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, each of which had been represented at the Transportation Research Board’s July 7th ATC restructuring symposium. While pointing out similarities and differences, the report also cited the recent study by MITRE Corporation that found not only no diminution of air safety in the years after corporatizations overseas but also that officials in none of the countries MITRE studied would consider returning to the pre-corporatization status quo. Aviation Today gave a mostly negative spin to the I.G. report, alleging that corporatization “would have a major impact on the nation’s ability to continue rolling out the technological initiatives” of NextGen. But Eno Transportation Weekly pointed out that a recent National Research Council report found that the “big bang” transformation of the original NextGen vision is not what is being implemented; instead “NextGen has very much become an incremental, not transformational, program.”

Transition questions were an important part of the I.G. report, so it is good to learn that the Government Accountability Office has been asked by Congress to provide data and analysis from experts on the nature and scope of key transition issues, relevant lessons from previous [U.S.] cases of transitioning major functions from government agencies, and key lessons learned from other countries’ experiences in separating the ATC function from transportation agencies.

One inherently flawed idea seems to have been set aside in recent weeks.Back in July, it still looked as if the current FAA Management Advisory Council might officially adopt a draft proposal that the entire FAA be separated from DOT and set up as a quasi-independent corporation. That would retain the current conflict of interest in having the same agency serving as both the aviation safety regulator and as the operator of a major aviation service. But in a Sept. 4th memo to Administrator Huerta, the MAC submitted its reauthorization recommendation, limited to funding stability and increased flexibility within the existing flawed structure. Any long-term FAA reauthorization bill, the MAC said, should feature stable funding, including bonding authority; increased management flexibility to spend money where needed; enabling (somehow) much-needed facility modernization and the closure of redundant or aging facilities; and “pushing” the FAA to do more risk-based decision-making. In other words, de-politicize the FAA while retaining political control. Good luck with that one.

Pilots’ union ALPA, which had not previously spoken out on restructuring/corporatization, on Aug. 21st released a four-part litmus test on the subject. Any ATC restricting must comply with the following:

  • Any non-governmental organization operating ATC must be safe;
  • It will have to operate as a non-profit company;
  • It must implement a fee schedule that is “fair and equitable across all users”; and,
  • It must not “impinge against” the collective bargaining rights of the current employees.

Sounds good to me.

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ERAM “Glitch” Affects 968 Flights

August may have been a slow month for ATC policy, but it was a difficult month for the FAA. The first blow was a failure of the highly touted ERAM software at one of the 21 en-route centers responsible for high-altitude flights, Washington Center (ZDC). A software upgrade ended up hogging so much memory that ERAM had to be shut down at ZDC. During the five-hour period (11 AM to 4 PM on Saturday, Aug. 15th), FAA reported that 492 flights were delayed and 476 cancelled due to this problem. Moreover, FAA initially announced that the problem was just a “glitch” that had nothing to do with ERAM. Service was restored after the upgrade was removed and its data cleared from the system’s memory.

An inoperative ATC facility is called an “ATC Zero” event, and according to Aviation Daily, such events occur somewhere in the system “on a monthly or bimonthly basis.” But the agency does not appear to have explained what this means to pilots, a number of whom were baffled by the brief radio announcement at 11:20 AM, “Attention all aircraft: Washington Center Charlie ATC Zero has been declared. ATC Zero. Stand by for further instructions.” This somewhat terrifying announcement caught many pilots completely by surprise.

Former Administrator Allan McArtor referred to this incident in his Sept. 2nd speech:

“What that ‘glitch’ was really about was the failure of a marquee program-ERAM-that was rolled out nationwide earlier this year, replacing a 40-year-old system. . . . Fortunately, safety was never an issue (because we protect safety by degrading service) . . . but it begs the question: how could something like this happen? How could a software ‘glitch’ bring a system that’s supposed to be the backbone of NextGen to its knees? . . . I believe that this incident was more of an indictment of the broader government contracting process than anything else. . . . To more forward, this cycle must be broken. And this can happen only by removing ATC from federal procurement and oversight.”

To gain more insight into the context of ERAM replacing the former HOST software, I asked consultant Gary Church, who was there at the beginning. Here is what he reported:

“The first en-route NAS automated system, the IBM 9020 Central Computer Complex, was fielded in 1974. . . . At the time, FAA was programming in BAL (Basic Assembly Language) and JOVIAL. The en-route replacement, known as HOST, had to overlay and emulate some of this antiquated software code. DOD’s ADA programming language was big at the time. Again, the complexity of the programming grew with HOST, with its continuing need to make local and unique software changes, at times through undocumented adapting software. The latest iteration-ERAM-has continued to build on the basic automation functionality and architecture deployed in 1974. Think of it as remodeling a very old house with a crumbling foundation.”

As to what should be done (and presumably could only be done once the system is de-politicized and has access to revenue bond-financing), Gary suggested that en-route ATC be consolidated into three to five new, interoperable, redundant facilities, with new modernized automation and communication architectures and systems. Operations would be cut over from old to new in a “very measured and deliberate manner,” leaving the current facilities in place and operational until the new systems are shown to be fully functional.

Under the above scenario, any of the new centers could fully back up and substitute for any center that experienced an ATC Zero event. And providing for such a backup is under way at the ANSP of Ireland. IAA is building a backup facility for its key Shannon Center, which handles up to 90% of all transatlantic air traffic that transits Irish-controlled airspace. It is scheduled for completion by the end of 2016, with testing planned for the first half of 2017 and commissioning by mid-year. “Having robust resilience in our air traffic management system is essential to maintain safety, and the new Contingency Centre is a cost-effective solution to enhance our existing capability,” says IAA. It is incomprehensible that no such capability exists or is planned here in the United States.

New Events Show Conflict Between Regulation and Operations

Nearly four years ago, NASA completed a study for the FAA, finding that controller work schedules lead to chronic fatigue that leads to operational errors. Despite many requests for its release, the FAA kept the study under wraps, while it negotiated with controllers about modest changes to work schedules and began educational efforts on fatigue.

One of the targets of the study was the “rattler” shift schedule that I and various human factors experts have repeatedly criticized. Beloved of controllers because if gives them long weekends after working successive day, evening, and midnight shifts, the rattler is dramatically more fatigue-inducing than most other schedules. The NASA study found that those coming to work for the midnight shift on the last day of the rattler schedule averaged only 3.1 hours of sleep in the prior 24-hour period. And controllers disclosed that it is on the rattler schedule that they are most likely to find themselves “about to doze off.” Moreover, as human factors expert Ashley Nunes reported in a guest editorial for Aviation Week (Aug. 18), 66% of rattler controllers reported attention lapses while driving to work, with 28% of them falling asleep at the wheel.

AP reporter Joan Lowy gained access to FAA’s controller safety database and reported that, despite three years of FAA anti-fatigue efforts, “controllers are still complaining that they make dangerous errors because their work schedules don’t provide enough time to sleep.”

A second issue, reported this month but receiving far less publicity, concerns five controllers in Detroit who have pointed out that when flight plans are changed at the last minute, the system does not flag this, so that apparently multiple flight plans for the same flight can exist in the system. CBS news reported that “An FAA investigation found that these multiple flight plans were occurring regularly-most commonly during inclement weather-and introduced ‘a safety risk into the air traffic control system.'” The FAA has known about this problem since 2012, but it has not been fixed-hence, the whistle blowers’ complaint.

Both problems illustrate the tendency of the FAA to treat airlines, aircraft and powerplant manufacturers, mechanics, pilots, and others that it regulates at arm’s length more stringently than it treats its own people. As one former senior DOT official wrote to me about the controller fatigue question, “That FAA can treat fatigue in the tower as a human resources issue instead of a regulatory issue should be touted to Congress as a very powerful justification for separation” of ATC from safety regulation. And a long-time FAA consultant emailed me, writing that, “An independent regulator could simply tell ATO that a compressed schedule is unsafe and no longer allowed.” Indeed.

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Budget Reality Hits Planned Sacramento Tower

The control tower at Sacramento International Airport is nearly 50 years old, is too short for controllers to view all of the airfield, has obsolete wiring, and fails to meet California’s earthquake safety standards. A new, taller (180 ft.) tower has been in the airport’s master plan since 2007, budgeted at $60 million. But in February of this year, the FAA’s FY 2016 budget request did not include funding for any new tower projects in either FY 2016 or 2017. That is one aspect of the budgetary triage the FAA must carry out, given the overall fiscal condition of the federal government.

Needless to say, local officials and their congressional representatives are outraged that Sacramento is not getting its turn in the ongoing parade of replacing aging towers, TRACONs, and centers. But instead of bitching and moaning, it might make better sense for those officials to consider a step into the future: propose that Sacramento be the first U.S commercial airport to replace its obsolete 20th century tower with a surface-level remote tower facility. Cameras and other sensing devices can be strategically placed around the airport to provide better real-time information about planes on the ground and in the air near the airport-especially in times of darkness and ground fog, when out-the-window views from a tower cab are essentially useless anyway.

FAA is a laggard on remote towers, but finally has its first pilot program under way at Leesburg, VA. The three-month program at this currently non-towered general aviation airport began August 3rd, with a system provided by Saab based on its already in-service system in Sweden. The closest parallel to the Sacramento situation is what is under way at Budapest’s Liszt International Airport in Hungary. Instead of creating a temporary remote tower while their old tower was refurbished, airport and HungaroControl officials decided to use the “temporary” facility as the permanent replacement for the old tower. An initial contract for the key sensing devices was signed in March with Norwegian company Indra Navia.

Norwegian ANSP Avinor this month signed a contract with Kongsberg Defense Systems and Indra Navia to provide the equipment that will enable Avinor to provide tower services to 15 small airports from a single remote tower center in Bodo. In June, Saab signed a contract with the Irish Aviation Authority to build a remote tower center at Dublin Airport, which will provide tower services to Cork and Shannon Airports. German ANSP Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS) is under way on a project to build a remote tower center to serve Saarbrucken Airport in 2016, adding Dresden and Erfurt several years later.

A survey article in Aviation Week (June 22/July 2) quoted one remote tower expert as predicting that it will be about a decade before remote towers become a reality in this country. That’s sad, but probably realistic, unless fundamental institutional changes-in both ATC operations/funding and FAA safety regulation-take place soon.

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Tower Productivity Dinged by Inspector General Audit

One of the long-standing concerns of the ATO’s aviation customers is the lack of significant gains in productivity-in the world’s largest ATC system where there are significant economies of scale. The DOT Office of Inspector General reports that from 2004 through 2014, total air traffic operations handled by the ATO declined by 19%, yet the FAA operations budget (which is largely the ATO) increased marginally (by 0.6%). In an effort to sort out where the productivity problems are, OIG released an audit report on Aug. 20th, titled “Efficiency of FAA’s Air Traffic Control Towers Ranges Widely” (ST-2015-080).

The study’s data set was 130 stand-alone radar control towers (i.e., excluding facilities that consist of both a tower and a TRACON); also excluded were towers operated by contractors under the Federal Contract Tower program. Because FAA has no standard definition of an “efficient” tower, the OIG researchers used a methodology that would make comparisons among groups of similar towers, from most-efficient to least-efficient. And to ensure an apples vs. apples comparison, the methodology needed to account for contextual factors such as crossing runways and other factors in the local environment; the analysis also separated the towers into two groups based on the type of airline activity-hub versus non-hub. Finally, since the study used multiple data inputs that produce multiple data outputs, it employed a methodology called Data Envelopment Analysis (DEA). I’m not an economist, so I won’t try to explain DEA, but I have seen it used in peer-reviewed economic studies (e.g., on an international database assessing the productivity of different models of airport ownership).

Basically, the analysis measured what amount of labor hours and equipment (by dollar value) it takes a tower to produce two outputs: a given level of flight operations and converting trainees into full-fledged controllers. The results were striking: the least-efficient towers used 42 to 98% more resources than those in the relatively most efficient group. And generally, over the period from 2008 to 2013, towers ranked as relatively efficient remained so year after year, and likewise for those ranked least efficient. The report lists the towers, their rankings, and their category of “environmental difficulty.” Interestingly, some of those judged to have “high” environmental difficulty scored in the high-efficiency group (e.g., Newark Liberty and Houston Intercontinental), while others listed as “high” scored in the bottom rank on efficiency (e.g., Reagan National and Dulles International).

In aggregate, the OIG analysts estimated that relatively inefficient towers cost the ATO about $142 million per year in extra costs, or $853 million over the six-year period of analysis. That’s a relatively small part of the ATO’s $11 billion budget, but remember that this study looked only at 130 out of ATO’s 315 staffed ATC facilities, and those 130 towers account for only 18% of its controller workforce. A 2013 Reason Foundation study found significant differences in productivity at ATO’s centers and TRACONs. (/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/air_traffic_control_facility_consolidation.pdf)

The FAA’s response to the study was dismaying. Instead of welcoming the report as providing useful management information, it disagreed with the methodology used, and appeared to reject the report’s recommendation that it identify the factors contributing to increased resource use by the least-efficient towers. It promised a more detailed response within 30 days, which would be no later than Sept. 20th, now past. I emailed the OIG official who signed the report asking if they had received the promised response, and was told FAA had asked for and was granted an extension until Sept. 25th. For now, OIG considers its recommendation “open and unresolved.”

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NBAA, Tea Etiquette, and Paying for ATC Services

As you know, the leading opponent of ATC corporatization is the National Business Aviation Association, which continues to defend the U.S. ATC status quo as the best in the world. It is certainly the least expensive place to operate business jets, given the tiny amount these aircraft operators pay in fuel taxes, which pays for what NBAA considers its “fair share” of the capital and operating costs of the ATC system, as well as its share of the airport grants that go to many hundreds of small airports used only by business and general aviation.

A friend recently sent me a link to the announcement of NBAA’s Flight Attendants/Flight Technicians Conference, held June 30-July 2 in Tucson. Among the sessions that caught my eye were these two: “The Art and Etiquette of Tea,” and “Complete Hygiene” for aircraft cabins. The tea session promised instruction in how to serve “afternoon tea, high tea, cream tea, or ‘elevenses,'” whatever that may be.

I mention this simply to contrast the high style within this industry with its penny-pinching attitude toward paying for the service that keeps its planes more or less on schedule and safe while in flight. The blather about ruinously costly ATC user fees needs to have some flesh put on its bones. For this illustration, I am relying on a detailed Reason Foundation study that I carried out 10 years ago, using data from The Aircraft Cost Calculator, Fall 2005, an industry data source produced by Conklin & deDecker. With the caveat that these data are 10 years old, here is what applying Nav Canada’s ATC weight-distance fee schedule to five representative business jets would mean for their operators.

Aircraft

Flight-Hours/Year

Fuel Tax/Hour

Wt.-Distance Fee/Hour

Difference

Variable Cost/Hour

% Change

Citation 2

526

$39.46

$78.85

$39.39

$1,399

2.8%

Lear 35

408

$49.92

$121.07

$71.15

$1,786

4.0%

Hawker 800

455

$56.90

$114.22

$57.32

$1,926

3.0%

Falcon 900C

419

$71.50

$172.45

$100.95

$2,336

4.3%

Gulfstream G-V

403

$109.66

$283.95

$174.29

$3,193

5.4%

Yes, each would pay more than they do today. But for aircraft operators that can afford flight attendants serving high tea, a few percentage-point increase in variable cost per hour will hardly make their business jets uneconomical. More important, the value proposition of having a better and more cost-effective ATC system ought to be worth paying for.

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Upcoming ATC Event

ATCA 60th Annual ATC Conference & Exhibition, Nov. 1-4, 2015, Gaylord National Resort, National Harbor, MD (Robert Poole speaking). Details at www.atca.org/60annual.

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News Notes

TRB’s ATC Reform Options Summary Now Online. A 12-page summary of the day-long July 7, 2015 “Air Traffic Control Symposium on Organizational Reform Options” has been posted on the website of the Transportation Research Board, which organized the event. It includes summaries of each session and each speaker’s remarks. Go to www.trb.org/main/Blurbs/173048.aspx.

Sid Koslow to Receive 2015 Glen A. Gilbert Award. The Air Traffic Control Association will present its highest award this year to Sid Koslow, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Nav Canada, the ANSP of our northern neighbor. Prior to his 18 years leading Nav Canada’s technical efforts, Koslow spent three decades at MITRE Corporation. The award is named after Glen A. Gilbert (1913-1982), the “father of air traffic control” and author of the first ATC manual.

Flight Tracking Advances in Europe and the Pacific. European Union member states agreed in July to require all new aircraft put into use in 2018 and beyond to be capable of providing flight tracking for the duration of each flight. ICAO has set a deadline of November 2016 for all aircraft to be equipped for some kind of flight tracking. As of now, the Asia Pacific region leads the world in flight tracking, at least for flights between Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Since the end of June, Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Contract (ADS-C) has been used by controllers of all three countries to track aircraft positions every 14 minutes in this airspace.

Norway Opts for Wide-Area Multilateration. Norwegian ANSP Avinor has selected a wide-area multilateration (WAM) system from Saab to replace its aging radar surveillance system nationwide. The system will improve coverage, accuracy, and redundancy compared with traditional radar, at lower initial and life-cycle cost. Saab WAM systems are already in operation in other countries, including Australia, Austria, Portugal, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

Revised FAA Overflight Charges Upset Air Carriers. A proposed upward revision of the FAA’s charges for flights in U.S. oceanic airspace and overflights of the United States is causing concern among non-U.S. airlines. The FAA was a latecomer to overflight fees (which have long been standard everywhere else), only beginning to charge them in 1997. FAA does not follow ICAO weight-distance charging principles, using distance only and attempting to recover its costs of providing the service. The current rates were set in 2011 based on costs of that time period; the planned new rates are based on 2013 data. The FAA disagrees with a proposal from foreign airlines and their trade association, on grounds that their more-modest rate increase would not fully recover its costs.

Industry Groups Favor eLoran as GPS Backup. Some 94% of the comments received by U.S. DOT in response to its Request for Comment on making eLoran the national GPS backup system for position, navigation, and timing data were in favor of this approach. Among those submitting favorable comments were the GPS Innovation Alliance and the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions. The Regional Cargo Carriers Association argued against the idea, favoring the use of VOR-DME-ILS (which works for aviation but not for most other uses of GPS). The Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association urged that eLoran not be mandated for non-commercial aircraft. Details on the responses are available from the RNT Foundation, www.rntfnd.org.

Nav Canada Renews Contract with CATSA. As a not-for-profit corporation, Nav Canada is free to enter into commercial activities that generate ancillary revenue, which helps hold down its ATC charges to airspace users. Under a contract awarded in 2011, Nav Canada maintains airport security equipment at 90 airports across Canada. The contract, with the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), was renewed for five years in July. Generating about $10 million a year, it is one of Nav Canada’s largest sources of ancillary revenue.

Third Functional Airspace Block OK’d in Europe. The European Commission has dropped infringement proceedings against the Danube FAB, comprising the airspace of Bulgaria and Romania. Danube FAB demonstrated that it has made sufficient progress-including the first phase of its free-route airspace program and a signed contract for data link services-to justify withdrawal of the European Union’s infringement procedures. Six other FABs are still not in compliance with the Single European Sky mandates.

FAA Considering ADS-B Privacy Protection for Business Aircraft. Various private flight-tracking companies are able to identify aircraft in flight in real time thanks to the information broadcast by their Mode S transponders used for ADS-B surveillance. Under a long-standing FAA program called Block Aircraft Registration Request, business aircraft owners desiring confidentiality of their plane’s identity can apply to have the 24-bit code for the aircraft’s registration number suppressed. A working group of the ADS-B Equip 2020 panel has proposed several possible ways to deal with this concern, which are still under discussion.

Three German Airports Choose Multilateration. The airports of Cologne/Bonn, Dusseldorf, and Stuttgart will implement combined ADS-B/Multilateration surveillance systems between now and 2018. The systems will be provided by ERA, under contract to German ANSP Deutsche Flugsicherung. The new systems will supplement the existing secondary surveillance radars already in place. The contract includes equipping airport ground vehicles with vehicle tracking units, so they can be accurately tracked via ADS-B.

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Quotable Quotes

“[The] ATO was a well-meaning start by good people with good intentions, but with very little leeway to change the status quo in Washington. Small incremental steps will not get us there, folks. It’s not the way to make big things happen. The United States remains the last developed country that hasn’t separated air traffic from safety [regulation], though it’s been ICAO policy for more than a decade. And I think most of us would agree that the benefits of doing so have long been studied, debated, and now have become settled among stakeholders both in the U.S. and around the world. It’s time to move the debate forward. . . . [Canada’s] federal government had been struggling with huge deficits . . . and was no longer able to make capital investments to modernize air traffic. Any of this sound familiar? Today, delays are down and efficiency is up. The Canadian model worked. So does New Zealand’s. The question is no longer ‘Does the corporate model work?’ But rather, ‘What’s taken American so long?'”
-Allan McArtor, Chairman, Airbus Americas, former FAA Administrator, speech at the International Aviation Club, Washington, DC, Sept. 2, 2015

“This Aviation Bill will look forward to our future. It will provide a transformational, comprehensive reform of the FAA and our aviation system, driven by several principles:

  • Providing a safe, efficient, modern aviation system;
  • Benefiting passengers with fewer delays and greater reliability;
  • Fostering innovation;
  • Keeping America competitive in this vital economic sector.

To fulfill these principles, it’s essential to separate air traffic control from our safety regulator. This is not a revolutionary concept. Presidents Bush and Clinton attempted to do this. In the last 20 years, 50 countries around the world have successfully separated out their ATC service. In virtually every place this has been done, safety levels have been maintained or improved, ATC systems have been modernized, service has improved, and costs have generally been reduced. After examining various models, I believe we need to establish a federally chartered, fully independent, not-for-profit corporation to operate and modernize our ATC services.”
-Rep. Bill Shuster (R, PA), Chairman, House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, “Authorization of U.S. Aviation Programs,” Managing the Skies, July/August 2015

“We can eliminate the paradigms of VFR and IFR operations. There shouldn’t be two different sets of rules, two different kinds of training, two different ways that people and vehicles operate in the airspace. If we do this successfully, we can do it as one in terms of the cockpit always being VFR.”
-Randy Bailey, NASA Langley, quoted in John Croft, “Seeing Green: FAA Rule Stokes Vision System Resurgence,” Aviation Week, Aug. 31/Sept. 13, 2015

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