Air Traffic Control Newsletter #133
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Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #133

U.S. falling behind in ATC modernization | Weak arguments from status-quo defenders

In this issue:

U.S. Falling Behind in ATC Modernization

Two events last week highlighted aviation stakeholder concerns that the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization is falling further behind the state of the art in implementing advanced technology and procedures. The first was the Phoenix International Aviation Symposium on May 10th; the second was a panel on ATC modernization at the Bipartisan Policy Center May 13th. I was a panel member at the latter, and I talked with several who attended and spoke at the former.

At both events, NATCA President Paul Rinaldi lamented the slow pace of U.S. modernization, due not only to unstable and inadequate funding but also to a byzantine procurement process. Because that process takes many years and sometimes decades, the technology that finally gets implemented is often 10 or more years old. “The World War II technology is phasing out,” he told the BPC audience, “and we’re bringing in 1990s technology—because it takes that long.” Referring to the recently completed ERAM software, he said this “new system” was 15 years out of date and $1 billion over budget by the time it finally went online.

“It may be that we are moving up to an iPhone 1 level, but some of our competitors are on iPhone 6 or 7,” he told the Phoenix audience. By contrast, he said, Nav Canada is moving “full speed ahead.” Regarding the continued use of paper flight strips in FAA facilities, he noted that Canada has had electronic flight strips for over a decade (and sells the system to other ANSPs), while it is taking FAA 25 years to finally replace its paper flight strips. At both events he informed listeners that when controllers at Nav Canada hand off a flight to the FAA, they have to do it manually—by telephoning their FAA counterparts, rather than doing it electronically. He also noted that while controller-pilot data link is operational nationwide in Canada (and across the North Atlantic), the earliest that FAA projects en-route use of that capability is 2022-24.

Given the wholly aviation audience in Phoenix, there was much discussion of corporation models, with comparisons of FAA, nonprofit corporation Nav Canada, and for-profit corporation NATS (U.K.). Willie Walsh of British Airways said he was not sure that NATS is the best model, and Rinaldi himself said Nav Canada is “an excellent model for Canada” but should not be blindly copied here. He repeated at both events that NATCA is opposed to a for-profit model.

In Phoenix, Jim Bowman of FedEx discussed the benefits and importance of space-based ADS-B. Rinaldi agreed, and noted that Iridium (developer of the Aireon space-based ADS-B system) had initially approached the FAA, but after the agency could not find a way it could invest in the system, Iridium turned to Nav Canada and very quickly got to “yes.” Will Ris (recently retired from American Airlines) asked why space-based ADS-B has not been made a priority of the NextGen Advisory Committee, which Bowman agreed would make sense.

At both events Rinaldi raised the possibility that as other ANSPs that subscribe to global ADS-B reduce oceanic spacing to 15/15 nm (from today’s 30/30 nm), the incompatibility with U.S. oceanic airspace will become a serious problem. He questioned whether ICAO, the entity that designates which ANSP is responsible for which oceanic airspace, would continue to tolerate U.S. oceanic airspace bottlenecks, raising the possibility of bit-by-bit loss of U.S. oceanic jurisdiction to more technically advanced ANSPs. Both Bowman of FedEx and Jeff Martin of JetBlue said that most U.S. airlines favor space-based ADS-B.

Note: you can watch a video of the one-hour BPC panel, moderated by USA Today transportation reporter Bart Jansen, at: http://bipartisanpolicy.org/events/modernizing-air-traffic.

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Weak Arguments from Defenders of ATC Status Quo

Two of the staunchest defenders of the FAA status quo are congressional appropriators (who fear loss of the ability to micromanage ATC via the budget) and business jet organization NBAA (which fears having to join the entire rest of the world in being expected to pay for the ATC services they use). But the caliber of the arguments these groups are making is, frankly, pathetic.

One example is the Senate Appropriations Committee’s recent report accompanying the Senate’s FY 2017 bill to appropriate funds for transportation and housing. It states that converting the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization into a self-supporting ANSP:

  • Would be fraught with risk;
  • Could lead to uncontrollable cost increases;
  • Could ultimately harm users and operators in the system.

No evidence whatsoever is provided for these claims, nor is there any reference to reports from the MITRE Corporation, the Government Accountability Office, the DOT Inspector General, and academic researchers which have found that in nearly all 60+ instances of ATC corporatization, performance has improved, costs have been reduced, and safety is either the same or better. Nor does the committee express any interest in the fact that supporters of corporatization include nearly all major U.S. airlines, IATA, the air traffic controllers union, several pilots unions, a number of former DOT Secretaries and FAA Administrators, and all three former heads of the FAA’s ATO.

The Committee’s real agenda is contained in subsequent wording in its report: “The Committee strongly believes that air traffic control should remain . . . subject to ongoing congressional oversight so that resource needs and activities are reviewed . . . [via] the annual congressional oversight process.” How’s that been working out for airlines, controllers, etc.?

Even worse is the rhetoric from Ed Bolen, long-time CEO of NBAA. In “Our Battle Against ATC Privatization” in the April issue of Professional Pilot, Bolen lists four “facts” about the ATC Corporation plan included in HR 4441, the bill passed in February by the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

First, he says that control over ATC “would be stripped from Congress and placed in the hands of a privately-elected Board of Directors that HR 4441 terms a Corporation.” Left unsaid is that this would be a federally chartered nonprofit corporation, of which thousands exist (mostly credit unions), and is directly modeled after what many have judged to be the world’s best ANSP, Nav Canada.

Second, “Airline reps would dominate Board control.” He says that of 12 (actually 13) board seats, “only 2” would be held by noncommercial owners and operators, while airlines would dominate. He never notes that only 4 members would be nominated by airlines, which is hardly domination, and that since airlines would pay more than 95% of the user fees and noncommercial flyers would pay zero, this board structure is actually overly generous to non-paying system users. Yet airlines have not objected to the unfairness of this disparity.

Third, “airports and airspace use would be decided by the Board.” This point was debated during the February hearing at which I testified, and it was made clear that the intent of the drafters was that safety regulator FAA would still be in charge of such decisions, by having to approve or disapprove of new ATC procedures.

Finally, Bolen writes that “New user fees are probable and would be voted by the board.” Nowhere does he disclose to his readers that the language in the bill flatly prohibits user fees for noncommercial general and business aviation (which includes corporate jets).

Bolen’s real agenda is to protect the very comfortable status quo, under which business jets pay a pittance in fuel taxes into the Aviation Trust Fund but use significant amounts of ATC services. At the BPC panel discussion last week, panelist Bolen was asked what fraction of current ATC costs general and business aviation pays via current aviation user taxes. His reply was eight and a half percent. I could not let that pass, and told the audience that the GRA, Inc. analysis of FAA data (FY 2013) showed that general and business aviation fuel taxes provide less than 1% of Aviation Trust Fund revenue, while a DOT Inspector General report found that business jets alone account for 12% of tower operations, 13% of TRACON operations, and 11% of en-route miles flown. Those are not numbers Bolen likes to see publicized.

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Some Progress on Conservative “Union Give-away” Claims

The attacks on the ATC Corporation provision in the House reauthorization bill by a small number of conservatives are continuing, but some of those critics are conceding that ATC does need to be removed from the FAA and corporatized or privatized. Some of this change may be due to responses that Marc Scribner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and I have posted on conservative online sites. National Review Online posted my piece “Conservatives Against Modern Skies?” on May 2nd, recounting the Reagan-era roots of ATC corporatization and countering the main “union-giveaway” claims. The Capital Research Center published my shorter piece, “Why Conservatives and Libertarians Support ATC Corporatization” on April 15th. Scribner posted an excellent response on the CEI website, “Conservatives for Big Government: Air Traffic Control Opponents Have Lost Their Minds or Principles” on May 10th.

Subsequently, James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation conceded that there is, indeed, a need to get ATC out of the FAA and that a federally chartered nonprofit corporation is a sensible approach that might emulate the success of Nav Canada. But his May 13 post, “Union Giveaways in Air Traffic Control Bill Set a Bad Precedent,” repeated previous conservative arguments against provisions calling for binding arbitration, the absence of a federal salary cap, allowing controllers to retain their current retirement benefits, and what he claims are reduced strike penalties compared with the status quo. Scribner’s latest CEI post, “Air Traffic Control in Urgent Need of Reform . . . If Only Critics Could See That,” argues against these points as made in yet another post by Diana Furchtgott-Roth.

Since I am not an expert on labor law, I defer in part to experts like former ATO chief David Grizzle, who defends the labor provisions of the bill as fair and reasonable, and giving management a stronger hand than airline managers have in labor negotiations. But here are a few other points to consider in assessing these claims.

It appears to me that these conservative critics can’t quite grasp that a federally chartered private corporation is not the government. Of course there should not be a federal salary cap for a new entity that is not in any way covered by federal civil service laws. One of the main points of the reform is to free air traffic control from that constraint so it can offer market-based compensation to attract and retain highly skilled engineers, software people, and controllers.

Second, if the provisions in the bill are not explicit enough about strikes by controllers not being allowed, it would be simple to fix that via a one-sentence amendment expressly authorizing the new corporation to fire illegally striking workers (as Sherk proposed). And that, as it turns out, would be no big deal for NATCA. After the BPC panel adjourned, I asked Paul Rinaldi if such an amendment would be a problem for him—and his reply was absolutely not. They have no desire to strike, he told me; they just want a better ATC system like those they observe in other countries. And he didn’t just say that to me, in private. One of my Phoenix conference informants tells me that Rinaldi said the same thing from the stage in the session on ATC reform. He does not want a right to strike, he told the audience. He “loves the system and wouldn’t want to do anything to hurt it.”

I’m encouraged by these developments, and hope conservative opponents will move toward making constructive suggestions rather than denouncing the bill.

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Civil/Military Cooperation in Air Traffic Control

During February’s hearing on the ATC Corporation provision of the AIRR Act, several Members expressed concern over a feared disruption of the relationship between civil and military ATC. This is hardly a new issue, and it has been addressed in every one of the 60+ countries that have corporatized their ATC systems. Provisions are included in the bill to deal with this, and civil/military collaborations in a number of other countries go well beyond what exists here.

To begin with, according to the DoD Policy Board on Federal Aviation, DoD operates 235 airports and heliports in the United States, shares 29 military airports with local governments, and is a shared user (with active-duty military units) at three civil airports. As an ATC provider, DoD manages about 16% of U.S. airspace, employs over 8,000 air traffic controllers in one en-route center and 168 control towers, and maintains 438 navigational aids and 1,600 instrument approach procedures.

The AIRR Act provides continuity with this civil/military status quo. On the website of the Coalition for Modern Skies (www.modernskies.org), you will see that DoD personnel will sit side-by-side with ATC Corporation personnel at the ATC System Command Center and other major facilities just as they do now. Existing lines of communication for both day-to-day operations and national emergencies would continue as they are today. The legislation also provides that in time of war, the President may temporarily transfer control over aspects of the ATC system to DoD, just as at present. A DoD member would occupy one of the seats on the new corporation’s Advisory Board.

Australia is well under way in a major effort to implement a single civil/military ATC software system called OneSKY, to replace ANSP Airservices Australia’s current Australian Advanced Air Traffic System (AAATS), implemented in the late 1990s, and the current military system. Defence and Airservices are jointly funding and managing procurement of the new system, which Thales Australia is under contract to deliver. It is planned to be phased in from 2018 to 2021.

Belgium might be the second country to merge civil and military ATC. Belgian ANSP BelgoControl and the military’s Belgian Air Component launched a joint study effort last year to explore full integration of the two systems, including the development of a business case. The UK’s NATS has a close working relationship with Defence Airspace and Air Traffic Management. At NATS’ Swanwick London Area and Terminal Control Center, military air traffic staffers are embedded throughout the operation.

In short, active cooperation between corporatized ANSPs and military ATC is well-established globally, and has been provided for appropriately in the proposed US corporatization.

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Nav Canada Model Gains Increased Visibility

Last month saw the 20-year track record of Nav Canada gain far greater visibility to the general public. Major national media coverage documented its successes, and an aviation group in Australia called for shifting to Canada’s nonprofit, private corporation model instead of their current government corporation (Airservices Australia).

The two major newspaper stories appeared two weeks apart, and covered similar territory. Alan Levin of Bloomberg focused on U.S. controllers’ envy of the Canadian system (“Paper-Pushing Flight Controllers See Future in Canada’s System,” April 12th), while the Wall Street Journal‘s Scott McCartney focused on the better service received by airlines (“The Air Traffic System U.S. Airlines Wish they Had,” April 27th).

Levin’s article recounted Nav Canada’s initial challenge of fixing and implementing a troubled new computer system, which led to the company’s shift to developing many improvements in-house. Led by MITRE Corporation veteran Sid Koslow (as VP and Chief Technical Officer), the company hired top-notch engineers and software people that it teamed up with controllers and technicians to develop solutions that worked right from the outset. This has led to an array of new systems and procedures, including electronic flight strips, digital controller-pilot messaging, and investment in global space-based ADS-B provider Aireon. Levin quotes MIT aeronautics professor John Hansman saying “There are a lot of positives to be learned from the Canadian experience. They run a really good shop, and they have been technically innovative.”

McCartney covered some of the same ground, but more from the perspective of Nav Canada’s airline customers, such as American Airlines VP Lorne Cass, who praised the company for “continuous modernization” and greater flexibility than FAA has. Improvements such as digital communications and conflict-alerting software enable more planes to fly optimal routes that minimize fuel burn and stay on schedule. McCartney also noted Nav Canada’s April 8th announcement of its upcoming third reduction in ATC charges, after 12 years without any rate increases.

And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the proposal from The Australian Aviation Associations’ Forum (TAAAF) on April 28th shows the increasing appeal of the Nav Canada model. That organization—representing regional airlines, private plane owners, and several other aviation stakeholders—called for the Australian government to convert Airservices Australia from a government corporation into a private nonprofit corporation similar to Nav Canada. Major airlines (such as Qantas and Virgin Australia) have neither supported nor opposed the plan, being focused on a current efficiency campaign at the ANSP. TAAAF pointed to cost increases and political micromanagement as ongoing problems at Airservices, in contrast to the self-managed Nav Canada which runs a lean but highly productive organization. TAAAF is chaired by Greg Russell, a former CEO of Airservices Australia.

I close with an excerpt from the closing portion of McCartney’s WSJ article, in which he describes the transition of a flight from Canadian to U.S. airspace:

“Rarely do [Nav Canada] controllers have to call each other to coordinate flights anymore, but making changes with the FAA on cross-border flights can’t be done electronically. As [shift manager Jerome Gagnon] explains the process in the Montreal tower, other controllers start laughing. One blurts out incredulously, ‘You still have to call the FAA by phone!'”

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An ATC History Lesson

I did my first research on air traffic control in 1979, when I visited the library at the Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC and the corporate archives of ARINC in Annapolis, MD. In my second job out of college, two of my co-workers had come from ARINC, and they told me that this nonprofit corporation had actually started U.S. air traffic control. I’d subsequently met law professor Michael Levine, who told me that ARINC had later set up nonprofit, airline user co-op companies to provide ATC in Cuba and Mexico.

My research confirmed these points, and I wrote about them in a chapter called “Toward Safer Skies,” in the Reason Foundation book Instead of Regulation (Lexington Books, 1982). I learned that fledgling U.S. airlines created ARINC in 1929 to be the licensee of radio frequencies for air-to-ground communications, which were just being introduced. ARINC pioneered improvements in radio navigation equipment in the 1930s, and when the need for managing air traffic became apparent, it created the first Airway Traffic Control Centers in Chicago, Cleveland, and Newark in 1935-36. Each managed traffic only within 50 miles of the respective airport. But with a growing role of the federal Bureau of Air Commerce (in setting up lighted beacons along airways, etc.), that agency took over the three ARINC centers in 1936 and began setting up others. After World War II, ARINC set up RAMSA for Mexico and RACSA for Cuba, in each case as nonprofit airline user co-op corporations. Both were later nationalized, but operated those countries’ ATC systems for many years prior to government takeover.

In other words, the nonprofit, self-supporting stakeholder-governed corporation has a long pedigree in aviation.

And there’s more. Glen A. Gilbert is often known as the “father of air traffic control.” The Air Traffic Control Association’s highest annual award is named after him. As a dispatcher for American Airlines, he developed the first “flight following system” in Chicago in 1934. In 1935, when the airlines, via ARINC, agreed on a plan to develop Airway Traffic Control Centers, Gilbert set up the Newark center and helped establish the Chicago and Cleveland ones. When the government took over those centers, Gilbert became one of its first air traffic controllers. In retirement in the 1960s, he published several articles on the history of air traffic control. And in 1968 he called for the ATC system to be separated from the FAA and set up as a “Comsat-type nonprofit corporation.” In 1975 Gilbert fleshed out that concept in a two-volume study called The U.S. Air Traffic Services Corporation, published by his consulting firm.

What the Clinton Administration proposed in 1994-95 and what Chairman Shuster has proposed in 2016 have their roots in the pioneering work of ARINC and Glen A. Gilbert.

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News Notes

Lauer in the Tower Aghast at Paper Flight Strips. Matt Lauer of the Today show recently spent a day “interning” in the control tower at JFK International Airport. One of his duties was “stuffing strips”—organizing the paper flight strips onto which controllers hand-write notes, which get passed along by hand to fellow controllers. Back in the studio, Lauer marveled at how low-tech this system is in the high-tech world we live in. It’s still available to watch at: http://www.today.com/money/matt-lauer-interns-jfk-s-air-traffic-control-tower-t77201.

Prominent Democrats Endorse ATC Corporatization. Last month seven former Democratic officials sent a letter to every member of the House and Senate endorsing the corporatization of air traffic control. Included were former DOT Secretaries Federico Pena and Norm Mineta, former OMB Director Peter Orszag, former DOD and OMB official Josh Gottbaum, former Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles, former National Performance Review director Elaine Kamarck, and former White House infrastructure expert Dorothy Robyn. They pointed out that all the same problems still exist that the Clinton Administration highlighted in its plan for a U.S. Air Traffic Services Corporation.

Space-Based Surveillance for Southern Africa. On May 3rd, space-based ADS-B pioneer Aireon announced an agreement with the ANSP of South Africa—ATNS—to provide space-based surveillance for all 15 member countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). For the past decade, ATNS has operated the regional VSAT communications network linking the region’s ANSPs, and that network will be used to provide them with real-time ADS-B data from Aireon’s constellation of Iridium Next satellites. The first launches are scheduled for this summer on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets, with the entire constellation to be in place by the end of 2017 and Aireon service in operation by 2018.

ASECNA’s New Ground-Based ADS-B Network. Across central Africa, the regional ANSP ASECNA has signed a contract with Indra to provide ground-based ADS-B systems to be used for approach and landing surveillance in 17 countries and several French Overseas Departments in the Indian Ocean. Indra will provide the network of ADS-B sites, central ADS-B servers, and data merging services. The information will be provided to individual ATC facilities via ASECNA’s existing communications network.

Lawsuit Targets FAA and EEOC Over Controller “Diversity”. Last December Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF) sued the FAA for using its Biographical Assessment to screen out highly qualified applicants for controller positions. FAA sent the complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for a ruling on the complaint’s validity. But since EEOC had not responded by April, MSLF amended its original complaint on April 18th, adding EEOC chair Jenny Yang. The Daily Caller‘s Evan Gahr has been unable to get a response from EEOC on the matter.

DFS Implements Arrivals Management at Munich. The ANSP of Germany, DFS, has implemented a second arrivals management procedure, this one for arrivals to Munich from the west. An earlier procedure, handling arrivals from the Vienna control center, has been in operation since 2010. Both adjust aircraft flight speed in real time to enable as close to on-time arrivals as possible, using continuous descents and other streamlined procedures to eliminate planes ending up in holding patterns prior to approach and landing. This Karlsruhe/Munich Extended Arrivals Management is part of a project involving the set of ANSPs in the FABEC functional airspace block, and is similar to the system recently implemented by NATS for arrivals to Heathrow Airport from Europe.

PANSA to Deploy Data Link in Poland. Polish ANSP PANSA has signed a contract with SITA to implement air-to-ground data link services in Polish airspace. SITAOnAir will provide VHF ground stations to provide controller-pilot data link communications (CPDLC) across the country. The company has signed contracts with 14 European ANSPs to deliver such services, including DFS (Germany) and ENAV (Italy). Due to frequency constraints, the European Commission recently postponed the date by which all aircraft flying at 28,500 ft. and above must be equipped for CPDLC; the revised date is Feb. 5, 2020.

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Quotable Quotes

“Since a blue-ribbon panel formed by President Bill Clinton two decades ago first recommended creating an independent entity accountable to the public, little has been done to make that plan a reality. Meanwhile, other nations have taken action to adopt such a model—and proven that it successfully works. Our northern neighbors in Canada have demonstrated that separating safety and management responsibility can yield a more innovative and efficient approach to air traffic control. The U.S. is one of the few advanced nations where you find the same agency regulating safety and operating the air traffic control function. This needs to change. The recently proposed Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act will establish an organization that will be free from senseless partisan bickering. America’s air travelers should not be forced to endure subpar air traffic control services because of sequesters, continuing resolutions, and other feuds in Washington.”
—Robin Hayes, CEO, JetBlue, “A Call to Modernize Our Nation’s Air Traffic and Safety,” Boston Business Journal, April 27, 2016

“As corporatization has come into air traffic management, costs have gone down, cooperation has gone up, transparency has gone up, and the ability for these organizations to manage themselves in a businesslike manner has provided them untold benefits. . . . The fact is, to run a 24-hour system 365 days a year, you have to continue to plow money into technology that takes you to a smarter future. You have to be competitive in terms of providing services in what is without question, one of the busiest air spaces in the world. . . . The politics need to be separate from the business, and right now it’s all mixed up. It is very difficult for people that work in the FAA to actually do their job in a businesslike manner when they are really hamstrung with an awful lot of procedures that wouldn’t be necessary in a businesslike environment.”
—Nancy Graham, former director, Air Navigation Bureau, ICAO, quoted in Dee Ann Divis, “How Privatizing Air Traffic Control Could Affect Satellite Navigation’s Role in Aviation,” Inside GNSS, March/April 2016

“More than 50 countries have adopted modernized air traffic control systems, and senior officials at every one have said that the benefits of separating from government control have vastly outweighed the challenges of putting the system in place. Rapid technology upgrades and changes in the ability to recruit skilled engineering talent, and the predictability and availability of adequate financial capital were all common reasons for reform. . . . In 1994 I joined the Clinton Administration to help lead an effort to modernize our country’s air navigation system. At the time, I thought that a properly managed government agency could do almost as good a job as the private sector. I was wrong. Several of my colleagues from the Clinton Administration have reached this same conclusion, including former Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles, who served as chairman of the 1993 Commission to Ensure a Strong Competitive Airline Industry. Baliles joined six other former senior administration officials in authoring a recent letter to members of Congress asking them to adopt air traffic control reform.”
—George L. Donohue, George Mason University, “Benefits of Air Traffic Control Reforms Outweigh Challenges of Transition,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, April 30, 2016

“We [at Aireon] are going to worldwide, real-time surveillance everywhere on the planet. Just in oceanic airspace, the fuel savings are in the billions of dollars, and the greenhouse gas emission savings are millions of tons. So in that respect alone, the impact will be staggering. But it’s also going to bring surveillance to the whole continent of Africa overnight, and to all kinds of areas where radar is less effective, such as mountainous regions in North America. At this time, we can’t even itemize all the benefits it’s going to bring. I think as we go forward in the next year or two, we’re going to keep discovering all kinds of new applications and efficiencies [Aireon] will enable. ANSPs will be able to operate better because now they’re going to have one big unified picture to tie into their system. So I really think this is revolutionary.”
—John Crichton, Chairman, Aireon, in Adrian Schofield, “Proven Model,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, February 29-March 12, 2016

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