Air Traffic Control Newsletter #134
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Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #134

What caused the May 26th LAX flight delays? | Fixing the ATC mess in the Caribbean

In this issue:

What Caused the May 26th LAX Flight Delays?

News reports on May 26th said that 145 flights into and out of LAX were delayed, and seven were cancelled, due to the FAA’s imposition of a ground stop at 8 AM that day. That halt was lifted at 8:30, but delays in flights continued for much of the day. The only explanation offered was a “software glitch” at “a control center in San Diego.” I decided to dig a little deeper to see what actually happened.

The facility in question was the Southern California TRACON in San Diego County. And the system that had the problem is STARS, the endlessly troubled replacement flight management software system for towers and TRACONs. STARS was installed at this TRACON last year and was declared operational last summer. The failure that occurred on May 26th was a repeat of one that had occurred in January. A fix had been defined, but had not been installed by the date of this latest failure, so to get planes back in operation the TRACON reverted to an earlier software system.

The problem relates to the location of ATC radars in Southern California, with some portions of the airspace not fully visible due to radar reflections, etc. STARS has a fusion function which is supposed to combine data from several surveillance sources to compensate, but it appears less capable than the fusion function of the system it replaced, Common ARTS; the latter was able to cope with the radar shortcomings, whereas STARS currently cannot. The FAA is looking into possible fixes, including the implementation of a wide-area multilateration (WAM) capability in the region, to make the TRACON less reliant on radar signals. This is hardly unprecedented. FAA is installing a WAM system in Charlotte to deal with a similar problem of inadequate radar signals, and another is operational in Colorado.

This is just the latest problem in the long, troubled history of STARS. FAA began implementing the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System 20 years ago, aiming to replace all 172 of the terminal systems in towers and TRACONs by 2005, at a contract price of $940 million. Because the system had been poorly specified, the program experienced delays and cost overruns, and by 2003 the cost had escalated to $1.69 billion. The following year FAA revamped the program into three phases, and renamed it Terminal Automation Modernization & Replacement (TAMR), with a further increase in the price tag to $2.7 billion. But because of these delays, an interim replacement was deemed necessary at the larger sites. That system was named Common ARTS (CARTS), and was installed in Southern California TRACON, among others, where it worked reasonably well. But in 2010 FAA decided to proceed with STARS for the large facilities that had CARTS in operation. By the time that process is completed, the estimated total cost of TAMR will be in excess of $3.7 billion.

Yet as we’ve seen, STARS in the Southern California TRACON is performing less well than the interim system it replaced. To those who still maintain that FAA’s modernization of the ATC system is going well, the troubled history of STARS stands out as an object lesson. As NATCA President Paul Rinaldi said at last month’s Bipartisan Policy Center event, “We worked hard and have replaced the World War II vintage systems with 1990s systems.” Meanwhile, Nav Canada is selling its highly cost-effective NAVCANsuite tower automation products (which, of course, include electronic flight strips) all over the world.

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Fixing the ATC Mess in the Caribbean

Several months ago a reader of this newsletter sent me a copy of a report from a task force of aviation advisory body RTCA called, “Recommendations to Improve Operations in the Caribbean,” dated July 2015. It’s an eye-opening discussion of a region with rapidly growing air traffic but obsolete airspace design and hopelessly outdated technology. (Example: to hand off a flight to the next Flight Information Region, controllers in the first FIR have to call their counterpart in the next FIR by dial-up phone). There is little radar coverage, so most of the over-water separation is “procedural,” requiring up to 80 nm longitudinal (in-trail) separation between planes at a given altitude.

The report makes a number of recommendations, in the categories of improved infrastructure (communications, automation, surveillance), airspace redesign, and harmonized planning. The FAA operates two FIRs in the region: Miami Oceanic (ZMA) and San Juan CERAP (ZSU). They interface with New York Oceanic and with FIRs of Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Curacao, Venezuela, and Trinidad & Tobago. FAA also provides ATC services for the Bahamas’ airspace via an agreement with ICAO and delegation of control; the Bahamas’ own ATC capabilities are quite limited.

You might expect San Juan (ZSU) would be a full-fledged Center, like ZMA, but it’s not: it operates as an appendage of ZMA, lacking its own flight data processing and is not currently planned for inclusion in the roll-out of DataComm. This is nuts, and the report rightly calls for changing that orphan status.

Where the report really misses the target is in its call for improved surveillance. Yes, it does call for implementing ADS-B in the region—but only via adding ground stations. As for space-based ADS-B, its blithe dismissal reads, “While space-based ADS-B may have operational benefits in the future, it is an emerging technology with many technology, operational and policy questions. As such, the ERTG stands by its recommendation of implementing ground-based ADS-B in the region.”

While it’s true that the region has many islands on which ADS-B ground stations could be located, the report’s cautious authors fail to appreciate the very real near-term benefits of space-based ADS-B, expected to be in full operation globally by 2018. As John Croft reported in Aviation Week (February 29-March 13, 2016), by that point ANSPs on the North Atlantic (NATS and Nav Canada) will be offering 15 nm in-trail separation, rather than the 30 nm separation those inbound aircraft will encounter when they transition to U.S. airspace. In its section on Caribbean airspace, the RTCA report calls for reduction in in-trail separation to 50 nm (from the current 80 nm that is standard in the region), based on using the dated ATOP automation platform currently used for west-coast oceanic airspace, as well as for New York oceanic airspace (ZNY). But this kind of “progress” would still leave the region grossly out of step with the 15 nm separations soon to be realized across the North Atlantic. And it would also require many financially strapped ANSPs in the region to invest in ground stations, buildings to house them, power connections, backup power in remote locations, and ongoing maintenance. Sources tell me that ATC infrastructure in this region routinely suffers from poor maintenance and very little logistical support.

So far, within the Caribbean only Curacao’s ANSP has signed a 12-year data services agreement with Aireon, the space-based ADS-B provider. None of the others has even signed a Memorandum of Understanding to explore the specifics of how space-based ADS-B could be applied to their airspace. The FAA does have such an MOU, but has made no decision about whether or when to sign up. That may be why the RTCA report takes such a cautious position on the subject. But the Senate’s FAA reauthorization bill would give FAA a strong push in that direction. It would require the agency to be able to use space-based ADS-B data for tactical aircraft separation over the oceans by 2018. And given the time needed for planning such efforts, that would mean signing a data services agreement this year. I hope this provision remains in whatever bill the House and Senate agree to pass.

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Remote Towers Continue to Advance—Except Here

According to the April issue of Aviation Intelligence Reporter, at the 2016 World ATM Congress in Madrid, “All anyone could talk about was remote towers.” And it was not all hype, since a number of new developments were discussed.

The ANSP of Sweden, LFV, announced the signing of a letter of intent with the country’s primary airport operator, Swedavia, to establish a remote tower center to serve five airports: Malmo, Visby, Ostersund, Umea, and Kiruna. The center would be located near LFV’s ATC center at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport. If the study finds the concept feasible, the earliest implementation at the first of the five airports would be 2018-19.

The French ANSP—DSNA—has teamed with Searidge Technologies to develop a remote tower at Miquelon Airport and a remote tower center at Saint Pierre Airport, both on the French overseas island territory near Newfoundland. Searidge also is involved with several ongoing remote tower projects in Europe.

Hungary’s HungaroControl is proceeding with its project with Thales and Searidge to develop a remote contingency tower for Budapest Airport, as well as a full-time remote tower to serve other Hungarian airports. Interestingly, Thales’ approach differs from some others in not seeking to provide a full 360-degree camera view of the airport. Its ATC vice president Todd Donovan told Aviation Week that its approach calls for using video “where video makes sense.”

Another video approach is being pursued in Norway by ANSP Avinor and its contractor Kongsberg. Instead of a suite of cameras to cover 360 degrees, Kongsberg provides a single rotating camera to capture near-real-time panoramic video. This is supplemented by a stabilized pan/tilt platform that can function as zoom-in binoculars for a controller. Avinor announced last fall that it is under way on a project to provide remote tower equipment at 15 lower-activity Norwegian airports, all managed from a remote tower center in Bodo. The first deployment is set for 2017. Avinor’s aim is not to reduce ATC staff, but to centralize them in more-urban locations. The objective is to provide remote airports with better service at a lower cost.

These various projects include infrared as well as ordinary video cameras, to provide controllers with better visual surveillance in in rain, fog, snow, and at night—compared with 20th-century towers. From the United States comes a recent MITRE Corp. project to provide improved airport surveillance under low-visibility conditions using low-cost infrared cameras. Called Low-Cost Surface Awareness, it is intended to provide surveillance to prevent runway incursions at smaller airports that cannot afford the $20-25 million ASDE-X system. MITRE estimates that a commercial version of its LCSA would cost under $2 million. But LCSA could also be a building block for U.S. remote tower systems, if FAA ever gets around to developing them.

And speaking of U.S. towers, there has been a flurry of costly new FAA (20th century) tower projects recently. Chicago O’Hare’s second tower cost $65 million, and its third cost an additional $45 million. Both were justified by FAA because controllers at the original tower could not see all of the new runways added under the airport’s runway expansion program. The new Las Vegas tower cost a cool $100 million, and the new SFO tower $77 million (plus $50 million to demolish the old tower). And May 30th saw the announcement of a replacement for Charlotte’s 37-year-old tower, at a cost of $60 million.

There is not yet a rule of thumb for how much of the cost of a new 20th century tower could be saved by developing it as a remote tower instead. Surely someone at FAA knows this . . . maybe? Or maybe it has not yet occurred to anyone there.

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More Developments on GPS Backup

On January 26th of this year, a software problem threw off the GPS network’s coordinated universal timing message off by 13 microseconds, which affected the timing data on GPS’s L-band signal and the time provided by GPS timing receivers. The widespread problem “disrupted user equipment globally . . . as the affected satellites traveled along their orbits,” reported Inside GNSS, an industry publication. The “glitch” led to renewed calls for a global backup for the position, timing, and navigation functions of GPS and similar satellite systems.

In April, hundreds of South Korean fishing boats returned to port, after GPS jamming from North Korea caused them to be unable to locate their nets. In 2013 the U.S. Navy reported jamming of GPS signals on one of its ships sailing near Iranian territorial waters.

Interest in a reliable, global backup system for GPS is increasing, after a period in which previous plans seemed to have stalled. As I’ve reported previously, an inter-agency group coordinated by the U.S. Departments of Defense and Transportation concluded in 2008 that an electronic version of the legacy navigation system Loran would be the most cost-effective overall backup approach for position, navigation, and timing (PNT), and the agencies agreed to move forward with that approach. But that decision was suspended in 2010 by the Obama Administration, and the legacy Loran installations were to be shut down. A similar effort to implement eLoran in Europe, led by Ireland and the UK, was terminated in 2015, when most other EU countries shut off their existing Loran-C transmitters.

But the lack of any plan for a comprehensive PNT backup has led to growing concerns in Congress. In 2014, Congress directed the Coast Guard to cease current activities of dismantling and disposing of legacy Loran infrastructure and sites, to preserve them for possible conversion to future eLoran sites. And in late 2015, in response to strenuous efforts led by Rep. John Garamendi (D, CA), the Deputy Secretaries of DOD and DOT informed members of Congress that the Administration was proceeding to develop a near-term solution to GPS vulnerability by establishing a complementary “timing-focused eLoran capability” as a prelude to a “full complementary PNT capability for the nation.”

In March, the Norwegian Transport & Communications ministry, in response to a request from the British government, agreed not to dismantle its Loran-C transmitters, so as to review with the UK the potential of repurposing those sites as part of a European eLoran network. And in May the South Korean government announced a contract to develop an eLoran system aimed at providing a backup alternative to GPS for PNT functions. The announcement came shortly after nearly a week of North Korean jamming that affected the signal reception of more than 1,000 planes and 700 ships. Reuters’ story about the Korean effort noted that India and Russia are also looking into deployment of eLoran as a GNSS backup.

Several companies are working on PNT backup systems. The UK’s Chronos and US’s UrsaNav formed a joint venture company called Taviga last December, whose objective is to provide a commercially operated low-frequency PNT service. Taviga’s current focus is on preserving the Loran-C sites in Europe and the United States as potential sites for a global eLoran system.

Iridium, the company whose satellite constellation will host Aireon’s space-based ADS-B system, announced last month that it plans to offer a global Satellite Time and Location (STL) system, which it has developed with a company called Satelles. Users will be able to purchase an inexpensive microchip the size of a postage stamp to obtain PNT data anywhere on earth, via Iridium’s 66-satellite constellation.

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Self-Certification: A Safety Assurance Paradigm for Small UAS

Guest article by Suzette Matthews, Washington Progress Group, LLC

Federal law charges the FAA with certifying the safety and airworthiness of aircraft and aircraft operators. FAA has long grappled with the problem of how to fulfill this responsibility while the numbers and sophistication of vehicles keep increasing, and at the same time federal budgets stagnate or decline. Historically, the agency has addressed this problem by leveraging aircraft manufacturer technical capabilities, enlisting the assistance of volunteer standard-setting organizations, and certifying private-sector experts to perform preparatory functions on the certification applicant’s tab. But FAA has generally reserved to itself the ultimate authority to approve/disapprove all certification and safety decisions.

The projected proliferation and sophistication of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) threatens to overwhelm FAA’s current safety certification and assurance capabilities, in terms of both human and financial resources. It is widely acknowledged that either the FAA must add significant staff and resources or some innovative safety certification and assurance paradigm must be devised to meet the UAS challenge.

In its April 1, 2016 Final Report, the FAA Micro-UAS Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) takes the new paradigm approach, recommending that certification of small UAS be performed pretty much entirely by the private sector. The ARC proposes that the manufacturer be permitted to “self-certify” that its small UAS meets “industry consensus” safety standards “acceptable” to FAA for operations that fly over people. The ARC chose this alternative over (1) FAA certification of conformity with standards, or (2) mandated third-party certification (such as by an independent laboratory). Given federal laws making FAA the safety certifier of pilots, airframes, and aircraft operators, this self-certification approach challenges the status quo in at least two respects: (1) there is no stated assurance that the “industry consensus standards” would be independently validated and formally promulgated or approved by FAA, and (2) no FAA official would do the certifying.

Self-certification has precedent in other transportation modes—in fact, it’s more the rule than the exception in the private sector generally. And it can effectively promote and assure safe practices. Although various federal and state agencies promulgate or approve industry standards addressing the most likely, significant, or egregious instances of risk or abuse, there is no comprehensive federal government certification or licensing system for the manufacture of most things the public uses every day. Injury or damage from most defective products is primarily—and pretty effectively—deterred and remedied through the legal liability (tort) system and related insurance industry. It can be argued that fear of lawsuits and financial liability for negligence, as well as coverage requirements and limitations imposed by insurance carriers, have produced a remarkably safe environment for consumers and provided a viable source of redress for those injured or damaged by defective products. In the case of aviation products, legal liability principles can be expected to be especially effective: “strict liability” versus “negligence” principles apply—that is, manufacturers and operators are liable for any loss or damage they cause, regardless of whether they acted negligently or with reasonable care.

For better or worse, however, when it comes to aviation it has been demonstrated time and again that the public trusts the FAA more than the private sector to protect its safety. The worst of all possible outcomes is the situation in which the public relies on a government safety watchdog that fails—or that lacks the will or resources—to do its job. If the private sector is going to assume the role of self-certifier, it should be explicit that FAA is deliberately not exercising its certification role with respect to the small UAS involved, but on the other hand, that manufacturers and operators are legally responsible for whatever damage or injury they cause. This self-certification paradigm would be consistent with the regulatory construct FAA already applies to ultralight and light sport aircraft, which might serve as a models.

To support tort liability as the safety assurance mechanism, registration of all UAS with FAA should be required from the point of original sale onward, and legal liability should adhere to the registered owner regardless of knowledge or fault until the vehicle is effectively transferred to a new owner on the record. Mandatory registration would help members of the public identify malefactors in the event of loss or injury, and encourage UAS owners to make sure their vehicles are flown responsibly and to keep registration records updated upon sale or transfer of the vehicle.

In the current federal budget environment, self-certification of small UAS appears to be the only practical alternative. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, for FAA to fund and staff up at the levels and within the time frames necessary to accommodate the tidal wave of UAS on the immediate horizon.

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News Notes

Costly New Towers Need Retrofit for Paper Flight Strips. Brand-new control towers at Las Vegas and San Francisco cannot go into operation yet, because they do not have the equipment in place to handle paper flight strips. Design of the new towers presumed that FAA’s prototype electronic flight strips system would be operational by the time the towers were finished. But that prototype system, being tested in Phoenix, is too unstable and crashes too often to be relied on. And while there is room for the paper flight strips equipment in the Las Vegas tower, the $77 million SFO tower will need extensive modification to accommodate such equipment.

Paul Rinaldi Wins Highest ATC Honor. The president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Paul Rinaldi, is the recipient of the 2016 Glen A. Gilbert Memorial Award. The award is named for a pioneer of air traffic control in the 1930s. It will be presented to Rinaldi at the 2016 annual conference of the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) in October. As noted in the previous issue of this newsletter, in retirement Glen Gilbert called for air traffic control to be shifted from the FAA to a federally chartered nonprofit corporation.

1994 Clinton ATC Corporation Documents Now Online. Our friends at Eno Transportation Weekly posted as their May 27th Document of the Week a set of 1994 Clinton White House documents on the proposed divestiture of the ATC system from the FAA. Included are an options paper, a video of the news conference in which Vice President Gore and DOT Secretary Pena announced their U.S. Air Traffic Services Corporation plan, and the April 1995 legislation that DOT submitted to Congress, including a section-by-section summary. Go to: https://www.enotrans.org/article/document-week-1994-clinton-white-house-memos-air-traffic-control-spinoff.

Jane’s ATC Technology Award. The winner of IHS Jane’s ATC Award for technology is Saab and LFV (the Swedish ANSP) for pioneering the development of remote tower technology. The major milestone occurred in April 2015 when the world’s first Remote Tower Center in Ornskoldsvik began controlling traffic at Sundsvall Airport, 150 km away. The award was presented at the 2016 World ATM Congress in Madrid, cosponsored by CANSO and ATCA.

Jane’s ATC Runway Award. Eurocontrol, Heathrow Airport, Lockheed Martin, and NATS shared the 2016 IHS Jane’s ATC runway award for their project to implement time-based separation for approaches to the airport from continental Europe. The award was presented at the CANSO/ATCA 2016 World ATM Congress in Madrid.

Global Aircraft Locating System One Step Closer. Space-based ADS-B provider Aireon and the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) announced on May 24th that IAA’s service delivery equipment that will interface with Aireon’s satellite constellation is performing to rigorous standards. Under a contractual agreement, IAA will be the host ANSP for Aireon’s free global emergency-tracking service called Aircraft Locating and Emergency Response Tracking (ALERT). Plans call for the system to go live in 2018, after Aireon’s full constellation of ADS-B equipped satellites is operational.

NAVCANatm Lands New Business. Nav Canada’s February/March newspaper, in recapping developments from the company’s fiscal year 2015, reported additional customers for deployment of the company’s tower automation system, which includes electronic flight strips. Four additional control towers in Australia and six towers in Italy will be equipped with this system in the coming year.

COCESNA Upgrades Another Airport’s Radar. The ANSP serving six Central American countries (Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua) has announced a contract that will replace the aging radar at Nicaragua’s Sandino International Airport in Managua. The new primary surveillance radar is being provided by Indra, which recently installed a similar radar at El Salvador’s main airport, and is under contract to do likewise for the airport in San Jose, Costa Rica. COCESNA, the Central American Corporation for Air Navigation Services, provides integrated air traffic management for Central America.

Correction re Australia’s OneSky Contract. Last issue’s article about the joint civil/military air traffic control modernization in Australia referred to a contract between Airservices Australia, Australian Defense Forces, and Thales. In fact, while Thales was the winning bidder, at press time the contract was still being negotiated.

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Quotable Quotes

“For Washington, DC residents, it was shocking to hear the U.S Secretary of Transportation threaten to shut down the region’s Metro subway system. When major portions of our nation’s infrastructure are neglected, it can have devastating impacts. The same is true of the air traffic control (ATC) workforce and the technology they use. Now, imagine the reaction to headlines announcing air travel shutting down due to a shortage of air traffic controllers and system neglect. The U.S. ATC system is at a critical juncture. If we don’t act soon, there could be dire consequences. . . . In addition to staffing issues, our current ATC system is running on dated technology and data recorded on paper strips that are passed around by hand. Canada, by contrast, has an advanced system. Pilots actually say that passing from our airspace to theirs feels like switching from black-and-white television to modern high-definition color. . . . Those who support the status quo cannot deny these facts. If we don’t take action to fix these problems soon, we will have human capital and infrastructure crises on our hands much bigger in scale than what is happening now with Metro.”
—Paul Rinaldi (President of NATCA), “Don’t Let Our Air Traffic Control System Become the D.C. Metro of the Skies,” The Hill, May 25, 2016

“Not only do we rely on antiquated technology, but we’re also facing a looming crisis as staffing becomes a major issue. Currently, about one-third of the 11,000 certified air traffic controllers can choose to retire at any time. Without any other changes, that’s hardly a recipe for success as the demands on air travel continue to increase. . . . Without a modernized ATC system, we will continue to find ourselves in the same place five, 10, or 15 years down the road. That is unacceptable, and opponents are relying on a fear of change to spread misinformation about these important reforms.”
—Jim Burnley (former Secretary of Transportation), “World’s Busiest System Would Benefit from ATC Reform,” The Hill, Feb. 15, 2016

“The reality is that as it is currently structured, FAA has been unable to move NextGen forward at a pace commensurate with the requirement. . . . [M]uch of the problem lies outside the agency’s control. It is subject to the vagaries and shifting priorities of the annual federal budget process. Given the importance of the US market, a modernized and efficient US air traffic control system is critical to the future growth of commercial aviation, and it is for that reason that we support legislation to modernize the system through creation of an independent, corporatized non-profit entity to perform these services.”
—Tony Tyler (Director General, IATA), in “Corporatized United States Air Navigation Proposal Sees Support Grow,” International Air Transport Association, April 28, 2016

“I think there are benefits that we can’t ignore as it relates to potentially changing and reforming government to improve the way FAA can manage air traffic and deliver NextGen benefits. There have been stacks and stacks of reports that identify challenges that the FAA’s had, and some of the challenges appear to be related to some structural issues. That said, Chairman Thune is listening to his colleagues. We think the best way to proceed at this point is to proceed, introduce a bill without it, and continue the conversation and see how things play out.”
—Bradley Edwards (Policy Director, Senate Commerce Committee), in Dee Ann Davis, “How Privatizing Air Traffic Control Could Affect Satellite Navigation’s Role in Aviation,” Inside GNSS, March/April 2016

“[eLoran] has acquitted itself not only as a general-purpose, multi-modal utility but has also amply fulfilled its aviation PNT requirements for terminal and en-route navigation and surveillance. In the United States alone, experts estimate that an eLoran system—with a shelf life of decades—could be built and operated surprisingly swiftly—with an annual budget of around $30 million. The question remains whether there will be the political will necessary to make progress on developing this as a global system.”
—Aimee Turner, “Worth the Wait,” Air Traffic Management, Issue 3, 2015

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