Air Traffic Control Newsletter #140
ID 141277470 © Jakub Zajic |

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #140

Is there really an ATC problem? | Time for dialog on ATC reform

In this issue:

Is There Really an ATC Problem to Solve?

Last month Sen. Jim Inhofe (R, OK) was appointed to the Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over aviation policy in the Senate. According to Politico, when asked about ATC reform, Inhofe said he doesn’t think the current system is so bad. “Before you get a solution, there has to be a problem,” he said. “I don’t want to try to jump in there and just revamp a system that is working pretty well right now.” Sen. Inhofe is a GA pilot, and I imagine he gets pretty good service in the mostly uncongested airspace in which he flies. But as this newsletter has been reporting for more than 15 years, our ATC system is beset by numerous problems of governance, funding, and organizational dysfunction. It’s the last of these that I’d like to focus on here.

During the presidential transition effort last fall, I obtained a document called “Reforming FAA Acquisitions.” It took an outside look at NextGen and FAA’s “reformed” Acquisition Management System. Here is one excerpt from this assessment:

“Compounding the problem of fielding NextGen and other major ATC upgrades is an ineffective procurement system known as AMS . . . . Mandated by Congress in the late 1990s, the AMS was designed to give the agency greater flexibility in acquiring products and services so that it could more quickly meet the growing demand for air travel. Unfortunately, the exact opposite happened as FAA tried to build procurement rules from scratch.

“As a result, rather than being able to field its inventory more efficiently and at lower cost, AMS became a bureaucratic quagmire. To award a contract, FAA has codified many lengthy steps—each involving complex procedures and large numbers of federal and vendor employees who must develop customized materials for each step in the process. It is no accident that every modernization program is ‘developmental,’ and that workable, less-expensive, and commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions do not fit the AMS model. Virtually all [ATC] equipment is now available in the marketplace and could be purchased accordingly. FAA has never accepted a COTS solution, perhaps due to the fact that they would need to reduce the number of acquisition employees. Accordingly, FAA churns out detailed contract specifications that in some cases have thousands of requirements, the majority of which have little to do with evaluating the equipment or services in the tender. Companies spend years and millions of dollars trying to meet these specifications and conducting the endless testing associated with them to successfully deliver a system.”

Lest you think that’s hyperbole, about a month later I heard—unbidden—from an acquaintance whom I only know via email. He’s a systems engineer with more than two decades of experience at FAA. He emailed me after the election, and mentioned that “this place seems dysfunctional in many ways.” When I asked for elaboration, his long reply included the following:

“Most of the folks I regard as ‘thinkers’ believe our acquisition system is broken. There is some move afoot to ‘tailor’ the process . . . but it’s too early to see if that will make a difference. Meanwhile, they continue to define new JRC artifacts that must be developed to get through the process, each artifact coming with a list of reviewers and approvers, any of whom can slow things down by ‘adding their value’ via additional comments and exit criteria.

“And all this occurs in an organization that is both too broad and too deep, so much of the energy and funding intended to get work done is expended bouncing around in the approval process matrix for years. Each acquisition process stage—Concept & Requirements Definition, Investment Analysis and Requirements Definition, Initial Investment Decision, and Final Investment Decision—can take a year or more. Even though the process is theoretically ‘tailorable,’ it is difficult to get tailoring approved, because so many entities are able to non-concur. When one’s raison d’etre is the execution of an acquisition hoop, one is loathe to say that hoop is unnecessary.”

I’ve summarized numerous GAO and DOT Inspector General reports over the years, but the auditors who write those reports have learned to write in gentle, tweak-the-process terms. These two experienced observers are making the same points, but in far more direct language.

So yes, Sen. Inhofe, there are major problems with the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization as currently constituted. We can do far, far better than this status quo.

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Time for Dialog on ATC Reform

There is an overwhelming case that the funding, governance, and organization culture of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization prevent its talented people from delivering better technology and procedures for users of the National Airspace System. Those users include not only airlines but also general aviation, business aviation, and the military. And other stakeholders include the ATC system’s employees and the airports that are an integral part of the NAS.

So I was pleased to see House Aviation Subcommittee chairman Frank LoBiondo tell Politico (Feb. 7th) that “We are in full listening mode. There have been a huge number of meetings with stakeholders [and] they will continue.” While I am not privy to discussions that may have occurred behind closed doors, in coming months I will be making suggestions for a more inclusive stakeholder board for the ATC corporation that that the Air Traffic Organization should be converted to.

Along these lines, last week I read an encouraging piece in Flying magazine. The CEO of a transportation logistics software startup in Seattle told the GA magazine that general aviation needs to join the ATC “privatization” discussion. Roei Ganzarski is CEO of BoldIQ. He said that this reform “would lower costs, boost efficiency, and usher in new technologies that are impossible to implement quickly under the current NextGen modernization program.” He went on to say: “ATC in this country is antiquated. The president is exactly right; by the time NextGen technologies are implemented, they’re already outdated. [Reform] could solve all of this by enabling ATC to advance at the same rate as the technology aboard aircraft has.”

Flying quotes Ganzarski further as saying, “It’s time [for GA] to stop fighting to block privatization and focus instead on ensuring this segment of the industry has a place at the table. For [the reform] to work, we need equal representation from all parties, including the airlines, general aviation, and even the military. No one group should be able to dominate the conversation about the future of ATC modernization.”

BoldIQ develops software for both aviation and surface transportation companies. A major customer is Jeppeson, a Boeing subsidiary. Earlier in his career Ganzarski was chief customer officer for Boeing’s Flight Services division in Seattle.

In response to NBAA President Ed Bolen’s all-out opposition to ATC reform, claiming that any ATC corporation would be controlled by an airline-centric board, Ganzarski says that could only happen if the rest of aviation remains on the sidelines. Instead of saying “hell, no,” he argues that a well-structured ATC corporation “could be good for everybody, and that’s the conversation we ought to be having right now.”

Just this week another stakeholder group, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), issued a policy statement called “We Keep America Flying.” Its section on ATC modernization and reform says that “ALPA believes a different construct for ATC could provide system efficiencies and operations benefits,” if implemented in accordance with the following:

  • Structured as a not-for-profit entity, funded based on use of the system;
  • Long-term funding available for sustained development and continuous modernization;
  • A governance structure that includes operators, such as controllers and pilots;
  • Agile enough to embrace new technologies in a timely manner;
  • With sufficient staffing to maintain safe operations in all of the airspace; and,
  • With protection of existing employer/employee relationships.

This statement shows a willingness to engage in dialog on the details, which is very constructive.

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Comparing ANSP Performance

Until about a decade ago, we had very little information on the relative performance of air navigation service providers in different countries. It was assumed, more or less correctly, that economies of scale exist in air traffic management, so that, ceteris paribus, larger systems should have lower unit costs, but there was very little real data. All that has changed in the past decade, thanks to yeoman work by two entities: Eurocontrol’s Performance Review Unit and the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO). Both entities have issued their latest reports in the past two months.

Eurocontrol’s report is “2006-2014 U.S.-Europe Continental Comparison of ANS Cost-Efficiency Trends,” November 2016. Overall, it finds that unit costs of providing ATC services are 35% lower in the United States than in the 27 Single European Sky (SES) states. That is hardly surprising given that the SES countries operate 50 en-route centers compared with 23 in the United States while ours handles nearly twice as many IFR flight hours in domestic airspace. The SES countries also employ 14% more controllers to staff that excessive number of facilities. The good news from Europe, though, is that the productivity gap with the United States narrowed considerably during the 2006-2014 period. Back in 2006, SES flight hours per controller operating hour were 104% greater in the United States, but the gap was down to 46% by 2014.

To get a look at how individual ANSPs compare, however, we must turn to the latest report from CANSO, “Global Air Navigation Services Report 2016,” which covers 2011-2015. This is the 7th annual report of its kind from CANSO, and is based on carefully vetted data submitted by three ANSPs in Africa, three in North America, six from Asia/Pacific, 12 from Europe (though excluding Britain, France, and Germany, unfortunately), and one from the Middle East.

Since both the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization and Nav Canada report their data to CANSO for this report, we now have objective data to answer the question of whether one is more-productive than the other. As I’ve reported in this newsletter previously, corporatization opponent Delta and its allies continue to claim that the ATO, as the world’s largest ANSP, is the most efficient and therefore has the lowest unit costs. The data show otherwise.

The most important overall number is total cost per IFR flight hour. CANSO reports this separately for domestic (“continental”) and oceanic airspace. All cost numbers are expressed in US dollars, at exchange rates in effect at the time of the reporting, and these data are all from 2015. The other key metric is controller productivity, defined as IFR flight hours per on-duty controller hours.

Metric FAA Air Traffic Organization Nav Canada
Cost/IFR flight-hr. domestic $453 $335
Cost/IFR flight-hr. oceanic $  98.8 $  62.9
IFR hours/ATCO hour domestic 1.04 1.17
IFR hours/ATCO hour oceanic 5.96 6.53

There is a great deal more in both of these reports, for those interested in the details. But the numbers above are by far the best available, so all those involved in the debate on ATC reform should take them seriously.

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About that Survey on ATC “Privatization”

Early this month, a coalition of groups released a survey of 800 registered voters around the country which they said showed 62% of voters oppose “privatizing” the FAA’s air traffic control system. The survey was carried out by the Global Strategy Group, a national public affairs and political campaign consulting firm serving corporate and political clients. The survey was basically a repeat of one GSG had run in summer 2015 for the same group of clients: the Alliance of Aviation Across America, the League of Rural Voters, and Air Care Alliance—all of which strongly oppose ATC reform.

The 2017 survey first asked general impressions of five federal agencies: US Postal Service (86% positive), FAA (74%), TSA (58%), FEC (52%), and SEC (50%). Next, respondents were asked how good a job they think FAA does operating the ATC system. Most replied “good” (53%) with another 34% saying excellent. After that, they were asked about privatization in general (“allowing private entities to provide services currently or traditionally performed by government”); just 43% supported and 46% opposed. Finally, they were told the following:

“There is currently a proposal in Congress to privatize the operations of the national air traffic control system by taking it from the FAA and turning it over to a non-profit corporation that would be responsible for all aspects of air traffic control, including management of the air traffic control system, funding, and regulation. Do you support or oppose privatizing the national air traffic control system?”

Did you spot the loaded words aimed at getting the desired 62% negative response?

  • taking it from the FAA”
  • “the national air traffic control system”
  • and regulation

The last of these is an outright falsehood, since providing for arm’s-length safety regulation is one of the key aspects of ATC reform, and has been included in all such proposals over the past three decades.

The Alliance for Aviation Across America appears to be the creation of business-jet group NBAA, whose CEO Ed Bolen serves as president of the Alliance’s board. Bolen’s claims—that ATC “privatization” means turning the system over to “a self-interested airline-centric board of directors” and would “open the door for countless communities served by general aviation to be left behind”—have created fear, uncertainty, and doubt among many small-town and rural state elected officials. They have been spreading that fear via letters to members of Congress and newspaper op-eds in many parts of the country. It’s quite possible that some of the 800 respondents to the Alliance’s survey have been influenced by those false claims.

Be that as it may, air traffic control reform is a complex issue, requiring not only a grasp of the technologies and procedures involved but also of the track record of the FAA as manager of the U.S. system, and the track record of corporatized systems around the world. The average voter knows little or nothing about any of this, any more than he or she knows enough to make a serious assessment of reform of the Federal Elections Commission or the Securities & Exchange Commission. One reason we have representative government, rather than direct democracy, is that most issues of public policy are highly complex, taking far more time and analytic effort than the average voter wants to spend.

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Politicized Controller Recruitment: Another Reason for ATC Reform

In the more than 60 countries where air traffic control is considered a service business, regulated for safety by a government agency, the ANSP itself is in charge of recruiting and training its air traffic controllers. Not so, alas, here in the United States since 2014. That was when the Air Traffic Organization’s parent agency (FAA) took control controller recruitment away from the ATO, in a misguided attempt to increase “diversity” in the controller workforce. That move disqualified several thousand graduates of FAA-affiliated colleges and universities who had already passed the controller aptitude test (AT-SAT) but had not been able to enter the FAA Academy for training due to the Academy’s nine-month shutdown in 2013 due to the federal budget sequester. Last year Congress intervened to correct some of the damage going forward.

A new audit report from the DOT Inspector General reports how this debacle came about, and some of its consequences. Despite reports by outside experts last decade urging FAA to hire only former military controllers and graduates of the ATC curriculum at Collegiate Training Initiative schools, to increase quality and reduce the amount of coursework needed at the Academy, the FAA’s Human Resources branch hired outside diversity consultants who claimed to find potential barriers to hiring women and minorities as controller trainees. This led to transfer of control from the ATO itself to the FAA Human Resources office and the sudden introduction of a new recruitment process in early 2014, in which all applicants had to pass a Biographical Assessment as a screening device, before being allowed to take the aptitude test. Even CTI graduates who had previously passed AT-SAT had to re-apply under the new procedures (and many of them were told that they had flunked the Biographical Assessment).

The I.G. audit documents the consequences of this disruptive change. Once the Academy re-opened in 2014, only 10% of the applicants had progressed to the Academy, with the balance still stuck somewhere in the hiring process. As a result, the Academy had to cancel 34 air traffic basic classes and 614 seats were left unfilled. By October 2015, half the applicants (741) had progressed to the Academy or were placed at an ATC facility for on-the-job training. As a result, FAA failed to meet its hiring goals by 14% in 2014 and by 24% in 2015. These training shortfalls contributed to the controller shortages that controllers’ union NATCA has rightly been complaining about.

Because it takes several years after graduating from the Academy for a trainee to either wash out or become certified as fully qualified, the I.G. audit points out that it is too soon to tell if FAA’s new hiring process has improved or reduced the success rate of hiring and training controllers. The report also points out that FAA cannot even tell if the new process increased the “diversity” it was aimed at doing. That’s because candidates are not required to disclose their race or ethnicity during the application process, and “there was a social media campaign among applicants not to self-identify.” In 2015, that was changed to provide multiple opportunities for applicants/trainees to provide that information, and “officials at the Academy are now visually observing newly hired controllers  . . . to attempt to properly classify their candidates.”

By this point, I imagine readers at non-US ANSPs are shaking their heads in dismay. This whole effort was a disgrace, and is yet another reason to de-politicize the Air Traffic Organization by separating it from the FAA and from the federal budget. Support for reforming the controller hiring process last year was truly bipartisan. I hope those who went to bat for well-qualified controllers will consider having the United States join the mainstream of countries with de-politicized, self-supporting ANSPs.

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Mike Levine, RIP

Earlier this month the Renaissance man of U.S. aviation, Michael E. Levine, died at a dismayingly early age. He was perhaps best-known as one of the principal architects of airline deregulation, serving as the right-hand man of Civil Aeronautics Board chairman Alfred Kahn. But his career in aviation was far broader than that.

Mike graduated from Yale Law School and was a law and economics fellow at the University of Chicago Law School. Over his academic career, he held faculty positions at Caltech, Harvard, Yale, USC, and, most recently, NYU. If that were not enough, after his history-making stint at the CAB, Mike joined the airline industry, first as an advisor to Eastern and Continental, next as a Continental executive, and then as CEO of start-up New York Air and later as Executive VP at Northwest.

Dorothy Robyn did an extensive interview with Mike at DePaul University on April 17, 2006. It covers the evolution of his thinking about the economics and politics of aviation, as well as many career highlights, and once I began reading it I could not put it down. It’s published in the journal Issues in Aviation Law and Policy, Vol. 11, No. 2. For the next 30 days, you can download the interview at no charge from the following site.

A video of the interviews is online here.

My thanks to Prof. Steven Rudolph at DePaul University; anyone who wishes to order bound copies of the interviews or to subscribe to the journal, please email

My first interaction with Mike took place in 1973, while he was holding down teaching positions at both Caltech and USC. He’d given a presentation on airport problems at a Los Angeles forum called Town Hall. Because he’d argued for market pricing of runway access, I asked if we could turn it into an article for Reason magazine, and he agreed. His “The Airport Crisis, and How to Solve It,” appeared in Reason‘s April 1973 issue.

When I began serious research on the FAA and air traffic control in 1977, I visited Mike at Caltech to get his perspectives. He gave me quite a briefing on FAA and ATC. When I told him that several of my former co-workers had previously worked at ARINC and explained that ARINC had pioneered the introduction of air traffic control five or six years before the federal government took it over, he confirmed that as correct. And he added that after World War II ARINC had helped Cuba and Mexico set up comparable airline-owned nonprofit corporations to provide ATC services, Radio Aeronautica de Cuba (RACSA) and Radio Aeronautica de Mexico (RAMSA), both later nationalized by their governments. He told me about flying to and from Mexico and paying the RAMSA ATC fees.

Many years later I began encountering Mike again on the invitation-only online discussion group Mifnet, where he was revered as the guru of aviation law and economics. In 2007, as I was advising a DOT task force on New York airports congestion, I was also working on a major Reason Foundation policy study on how to apply runway pricing at those airports. Mike agreed to be a reviewer on the draft, and his comments on conditions needed if pricing were to be implemented were so insightful that we published them as a stand-alone policy brief here.

Also in 2007, during my discussions of airport pricing and ATC corporatization with White House domestic policy chief Karl Zinsmeister, the subject of a new FAA Administrator came up. The Bush White House needed a successor to Marian Blakey, whose term had expired, but was very concerned about being able to get any nominee confirmed by the Democratic-majority Senate. I told Karl about Mike Levine, who as far as I knew was a Democrat, and Karl was intrigued by the idea. I pitched Mike about this, and he was cool at first, but eventually agreed to spend a day in Washington talking with various people, including former Administrator Langhorne Bond and several others, in addition to Karl. I don’t know if he ever decided he’d go for it, but the White House decided not to risk losing a confirmation battle, and did not nominate anyone during their remaining year in office.

I often wonder how the FAA might have changed, if Mike had become the Administrator. He had no experience running a federal agency, but had been very effective as a change-agent at the CAB. And he’d had no previous experience running an airline, but did very well at New York Air and Northwest. Alas, we will never know. U.S. aviation has lost one of its giants.

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News Notes

Separating Fact from Fiction re ATC Corporatization. An op-ed in the widely read Washington, DC newspaper, The Hill, earlier this month, made numerous false or misleading assertions about the kind of ATC reform that controllers, airlines, and many former FAA and DOT officials support. In response, The Hill published my op-ed, “Air Traffic Control Debate Should Focus on Facts, Not False Terms” on February 10, 2017. Go here.

Multiple Airports with a Single Remote Tower Center. Ireland’s ANSP, IAA, recently announced completion of operational trials of controlling air traffic at several airports from a single remote tower center. The project involved remote sensing equipment installed at Cork and Shannon airports, a remote tower center in Dublin, and network connections between the two remote airports and the control center in Dublin. In the demonstrations, a single controller managed the low-activity traffic at both airports.

UK Researching Major Airspace Redesign. A coalition of airports, airlines, and U.K. air navigation service provider NATS, called Sky’s the Limit, was launched in December to build public and political support for large-scale redesign of U.K. airspace to permit continued aviation growth. In response, the U.K. Department for Transport has launched a series of public consultations on the subject. Without airspace redesign, by 2030 there could be 3,100 days’ worth of delays and 8,000 flight cancellations per year, DfT estimates. The consultation will study not only redesign of the airspace but also changes in ATC operations and procedures, and possible compensation for those affected by increased noise from aviation.

Australia Switched to ADS-B This Month. As of Feb. 2, 2017 all aircraft flying IFR in Australia must be equipped with ADS-B/Out equipment. Australia’s ANSP last year decommissioned around 180 ground-based navigation aids, including VORs, NDBs, and DMEs. Some 213 navaids will be kept in service as a Backup Navigation Network. In response to pleas from general aviation, the deadline for noncommercial GA planes to be equipped was extended to Jan. 1, 2020, but those non-equipped planes must fly below 10,000 ft. in non-controlled airspace and may only fly or land in controlled airspace with permission from ATC.

FAA Seeks Land for New York ATC Facility. Last Dec. 16th, FAA issued a Request for Information from owners of land parcels of 27 to 35 “contiguous buildable acres” within the State of New York, suitable for building a replacement for the New York TRACON. Information was to be submitted by Jan. 30, 2017, but I have seen no announcement from FAA regarding what information the agency may have received. The original plan from several years ago was for FAA to build the first of a number of new centers that would consolidate a major TRACON with a Center, but budget limitations appear to have terminated that plan.

Iceland Will Improve North Atlantic and Polar Air Routes. The ANSP of Iceland, Isavia, has signed up as a customer of space-based ADS-B provider Aireon to provide greatly improved separation for flights in polar regions. Isavia is responsible for over 5.4 million square kilometers of airspace via the Reykjavik Oceanic Control Area. The Aireon service will permit Isavia to provide real-time surveillance and tracking in the region from 70 degrees north to the North Pole. About one quarter of air traffic across the North Atlantic passes through airspace controlled by Isavia. With Isavia’s decisions, all North Atlantic ANSPs (except FAA) have committed to use space-based ADS-B: Ireland’s IAA, Isavia, Naviar (Greenland), Nav Canada, and UK NATS.

CANSO Chair Retires. Ed Sims, the current chairman of ANSP trade association CANSO, has announced his resignation effective May 2017. He is also retiring from his position as CEO of Airways New Zealand, the ANSP of that country.

ATC Reform Online Resource. The Eno Center for Transportation maintains a comprehensive online compendium of information about reform of the U.S. ATC system. The information is organized in four main categories: (1) action in the current Congress; (2) analysis of ATC structure and funding from government entities (such as GAO, CRS, and the DOT Inspector General); (3) analysis of ATC structure and funding from non-governmental sources (such as think tanks); and, (4) past legislative efforts on ATC reform. Go here.

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Quotable Quotes

“Most aviation experts believe that space-based ADS-B is a game-changer with the potential to transform the air traffic control landscape. The FAA’s failure to date to embrace this exciting new capability reflects the agency’s dire budget situation and inability to impose user fees. And while budgeting is necessarily about making trade-offs, under the current FAA funding arrangement there is a significant disparity between who would pay for and who would benefit from space-based ADS-B. Federal policymakers need to find a way to overcome that disparity so that it does not result in the loss of an opportunity that is highly net beneficial.”
—Dorothy Robyn and Kevin Neels, “Warranted Surveillance: SpaceX Satellite Launch Holds Promise for Air Traffic Control,” Brookings Institution, January 17, 2017

“Remember, this isn’t a trillion dollars of taxpayer spending. It is how do we leverage private-sector dollars so we can leverage more private-sector spending on infrastructure like pipelines and things like that. . . . We have to overhaul the entire air traffic control system. That’s a huge infrastructure piece with airports. That’s all part of this.”
—Speaker Paul Ryan (R, WI), “Fox & Friends,” February 2, 2017

“NextGen has been fraught with delays and cost overruns and, despite having spent $7.4 billion over the past 12 years, is still 13 years away from being finished. Up north, meanwhile, the Canadian air traffic control system—which is second busiest after the U.S.—has already deployed truly state-of-the-art technology throughout its system, letting it handle 50% more traffic while trimming its work force by 30%. What’s the difference? In 1996 Canada sold its government-run air traffic control to a nonprofit corporation called Nav Canada. User fees pay for its operations and pay for upgrades, and Nav Canada is free of the suffocating bureaucracy and endless budget battles that plague the US. System. The Canadian government’s role is limited to regulating Nav Canada for safety. Other industrialized nations have taken similar steps.”
—Editorial, “Here’s How Trump Can Make Air Travel Great Again,” Investor’s Business Daily, February 10, 2017

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