- Shuster shot down on a modest ATC reform
- Remote tower progress overseas—and maybe here
- Military ADS-B problem worse than previously known
- Digitized ATC trialed in Europe
- Electric urban air taxis: hype vs. reality
- Airlines warm up to ADS-B/In
- Upcoming ATC Event
- News Notes
- Quotable Quotes
Among the numerous amendments filed as the House FAA reauthorization bill (minus the ATC corporatization section) reached the House floor last month was a step toward separating the provision of ATC services from aviation safety regulation. This would have brought the United States at least partly into compliance with ICAO principles calling for organizational separation, as nearly all developed nations have done since 2001.
The amendment called for the Chief Operating Officer—the FAA official in charge of the Air Traffic Organization—to report to the Secretary of Transportation, rather than to the nation’s air safety regulator, the FAA Administrator. Besides changing the wording of the current law that created the COO position, it also added a provision requiring that candidates for the COO position have “at least 10 years of demonstrated ability in organizational leadership of a large private-sector organization,” as well as the current requirement to have experience in aviation.
The amendment also revised and renamed the FAA Management Advisory Council, while abolishing the basically defunct Air Traffic Services Subcommittee of the MAC. The revised Aerospace MAC would still have 13 members, including a designee of the DOT Secretary and a designee of the DOD Secretary, a member representing the air traffic controllers’ union, and 10 members representing aviation interests, still appointed by the Secretary of Transportation. Eight categories of aviation interests were listed for those10 position, leading to some ambiguity as to whether any sector (e.g., passenger airlines) would get more than one seat. And like the existing MAC, the slightly revamped body would be exempt from the Federal Advisory Committee Act.
Shuster’s Manager’s Amendment, containing the above in addition to many other changes, was filed on April 23rd. The firestorm erupted the next day from opponents of ATC corporatization. At 3:08 PM on April 24th, AOPA sent out a “breaking news” alert, headlined “Trojan Horse Threatens US ATC System.” It referred to the above amendment as “an airline-derived Trojan Horse” that “would place the US air traffic system under the control of an airline-dominated board under the Department of Transportation, and outside the Federal Aviation Administration, the only federal agency with the expertise and background to safely operate” the ATC system. About two hours later, NBAA’s alert showed up: “Urgent Message: Oppose Airline Efforts to Control ATC System.” It ignored the fact that the advisory council was only a slightly revised version of the existing FAA MAC and would in no way be able to “control” the system as alleged, or be “dominated” by airline influences. And three hours after that, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D, OR), the Ranking Member on the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, sent out his own blast, skewering the “totally bizarre idea that the head of the FAA will not choose his or her chief operating officer.”
As a result, the next day when the House voted to approve the reauthorization bill, the amendment to provide a step toward arm’s-length safety regulation of air traffic control was deleted, and even this modest good-government reform was killed.
The only good news from this sordid episode is the comments made by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R, SD). Referring to Shuster’s amendment, Thune said, “I think what he was trying to accomplish there is to create more accountability for NextGen implementation, for air traffic control reform. So it seems like a fairly sensible amendment, at least on the surface.” He then added, “I think we’re all looking for new ways to get the FAA to focus on NextGen implementation. Lord knows, we spent a lot of money for very little results, so far. And clearly the initial [corporatization] approach by Chairman Shuster is not going to make it into this bill, so we’re looking for other ways that we can hopefully highlight and get some results when it comes to implementation of NextGen technologies.”
Thank you Sen. Thune. How about a Senate Manager’s Amendment along these lines?
There is more good news to report on remote towers: implementation plans for remote towers in Sweden and New Zealand, operational simulation of controlling multiple European airports from a single location, and the beginning (finally) of an FAA remote tower effort.
The ANSP of New Zealand (the first in the world to be corporatized, back in 1987), announced that it will install that country’s first “digital” tower at Invercargill Airport on the South Island. It will replace an aging conventional tower. Airways issued an RFP for the new tower on May 8th, with the plan being to first install all the equipment at Invercargill for operational testing, to be followed by relocating the staffed portion to what will become a central hub for a number of remote towers. The initial operational date is planned to be 2020. Airways also announced plans to implement a digital tower at Auckland International Airport, initially as a back-up to the conventional tower but later to serve as its replacement.
From Sweden comes news that the joint venture of the Swedish ANSP (LFV) and Saab Digital Air Traffic Solutions will install remote tower equipment at the airport being built to serve Sweden and Norway’s biggest alpine destinations, Scandinavian Mountains Airport. It will serve ski resorts such as Sälen and Trysil near the border between the two countries. The digital tower will be operated from LFV’s remote tower center in Sundsvall, starting in December 2019.
The SESAR 2020 effort within the European Union has conducted its second multiple remote tower validation for three airports. The simulation exercise was carried out at the DLR Air Traffic Validation Center in Braunschweig, Germany. In one demonstration a controller from the ANSP of Lithuania—Oro Navigacija (ON)–managed traffic at three Lithuanian airports simultaneously. In another simulation, six ON controllers managed extensive traffic in a mixed VFR/IFR environment. The exercises made use of systems provided by Frequentis AG, including a new electronic flight strips system plus the usual remote tower technology suite. The exercise was planned and managed by human factors and simulation experts at DLR’s Institute of Flight Guidance.
Finally, there is some good news from FAA. Until this year, the agency had no budget for remote tower work, though it was monitoring the two remote tower projects under way at Leesburg, VA and Fort Collins, CO (which are being funded by private and state government funds). But in the recent Omnibus FY 2018 budget bill, Congress provided $5 million to begin an FAA remote towers program., requiring the agency to deploy remote towers “to at least two additional airports.” At the Aviation Week Network MRO Americas conference last month in Orlando, FAA Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety Ali Bahrami said that “Remote towers are going to have to happen. It’s inevitable.” And he added, “The issue becomes what type of robustness and design is necessary to provide the same level of visibility and awareness as sitting in the tower at the location. That’s the part that is very challenging.”
Let’s hope FAA aviation safety regulators don’t decide they have to completely reinvent the wheel on remote towers, as opposed to learning from the extensive research and implementation that is already going on worldwide.
It’s been widely known that the large military aircraft fleet operated by the Air Force and other branches of the Defense Department will come nowhere close to complying with FAA’s 2020 equipage deadline for ADS-B/Out. But a report from the Government Accountability Office, “Urgent Need for DOD and FAA to Address Risks and Improve Planning for Technology that Tracks Military Aircraft” (GAO-18-17), reveals that the problem goes far beyond late equipage. More serious is that DOD correctly fears that ADS-B on all military aircraft would compromise homeland defense. And perhaps even more serious, although these concerns have been known by both agencies for at least a decade, no solutions have been worked out.
From DOD’s standpoint, the basic problem is that ADS-B/Out broadcasts (in the clear) detailed, real-time information about equipped aircraft in flight. This includes registration number, aircraft dimensions, both barometric and geometric altitude, and latitude and longitude. Hobbyists and services such as FlightAware for years have used networks of connected receivers to track aircraft. This was already possible using signals from planes’ Mode S transponders, but ADS-B provides more-detailed information. As the GAO report notes, adversaries “can identify military aircraft by type and registration number, and can track the aircraft in flight.”
Worried by FAA’s original NextGen plan to eliminate most of its radars (some of which directly share data with the military), DOD’s concerns have already led FAA to backtrack, agreeing to retain all of its primary (skin-paint) radars which can identify “non-cooperative targets”—e.g., with transponder and/or ADS-B turned off. According to GAO’s report, FAA also plans to retain numerous secondary-surveillance radars (which read transponder signals)—all those for high-altitude surveillance and also those near 30 or more of the busiest airports. That adds large costs to FAA budgets in the NextGen future, where there were supposed to be cost savings from radar retirements. (GAO notes an FAA estimate that maintaining the secondary surveillance radars that would have been shut down will cost $442 million from FY 2017 through 2030.)
There are good reasons for the military not to broadcast the real-time movements of high-performance fighters, military transports during actual hostilities, and other cases. Both RAND Corporation and MITRE Corporation have issued reports on risks to national security from release of such information. GAO also cites a 2015 report from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) on the vulnerability of ADS-B to spoofing and jamming. GAO notes that both DOD and FAA claim to have a potential solution to this vulnerability, “However, this solution has not been tested and, as of November 2017, no testing has been scheduled.”
The last half of GAO’s report documents both DOD and FAA foot-dragging on this problem, noting that they “have not approved any solutions to address ADS-B risks.” This is the situation more than seven years after DOD identified the serious problems discussed in the GAO report. A memorandum of agreement on this subject was supposed to have been finalized by June 2017, but last May DOD told GAO that the date had slipped to February 2018. That was three months ago, but there has been no public announcement that such an agreement has been reached, even now. GAO goes on to list specific action items that were supposed to have been accomplished in recent years, most of which are still to be done
This is a sorry case of failure by both agencies, with consequences for the missions of both.
As part of the efforts to create a Single European Sky, a number of efforts are under way to make it possible to manage air traffic in a region from facilities outside the region.
One of these concept is called “dynamic sectorization.” The first trials of this concept took place in 2016 in a joint project of the ANSPs of the UK (NATS) and Ireland (IAA). Both trials took place in airspace over the North Sea. In the first, IAA managed a portion of UK airspace, and in the second, NATS managed a portion of Irish airspace. This would have been easier to do had both ANSPs used the same flight data processing system. But NATS is part of the seven-member iTEC group, which all use Indra flight data processing. And IAA is part of the six-member COOPANS group of ANSPs, which all use Thales flight data processors. But the project worked out how to make the two systems interoperable. According to an article in CANSO magazine Airspace, one key to accomplishing this was to use latitude and longitude coordinates rather than named waypoints.
On a larger scale, both IAA and NATS are members of the Borealis Alliance, a group of nine northern European ANSPs working toward creation of a single, borderless flight information region based on free-route airspace, with an implementation goal of 2021.
Another effort took place in 2017 as a joint project between Eurocontrol and the ANSP Slovenia Control. The project was called ATM Data as a Service (ADaaS), and involved the provision of real-time ATC data from one provider to another. After an organizational phase, the second phase was an open interface between Eurocontrol’s MUAC flight data processing system and Slovenia Control’s controllers working in the ANSPs ATC control simulator. Phase 3 then used a distributed flight data processing system, processing flight data at both MUAC and Slovenia Control centers in autumn 2017.
Where this will all lead remains to be seen, but there has been airline talk for several years about wanting ATC to have the ability to cope with frequent controller strikes in Europe by switching operational control of the “struck” airspace to other providers. Luc Lallouette, head of Thales’ SESAR efforts, told Aviation Week last fall that, “Virtualization is definitely a wider concept that we are addressing for ATC,” and will allow the creation of virtual ATC centers when needed. “That approach will certainly evolve in coming years. Its success will depend, especially in Europe, on [the extent of] political resistance, but it will definitely be a way to defragment or rationalize the way air traffic management is performed.”
Early this month, at its second Elevate conference, in Los Angeles, Uber announced that it had signed an agreement with NASA to share data about its proposed uberAIR service in Dallas/Fort Worth. NASA will use the data to run simulations of the people-carrying vehicles over the Metroplex during times of peak air traffic in the region. The company hopes to begin test flights there in 2020 (and start commercial service in 2023), with similar services planned for Los Angeles and Dubai.
Uber is not alone in planning for electric-powered, autonomous delivery drones and air taxis (unmanned aerial systems–UAS). In the past several years, more than 50 teams, most of them start-ups, have announced conceptual designs of these types of UAS, nearly all envisioned as powered solely by electric motors and flying in large numbers over urban areas. According to a May 15th article in Scientific American, the specifications Uber is providing to would-be air vehicle developers include speeds of 240 to 320 kph (150 to 200 mph) at a cruising altitude of 300 meters (985 ft.)
Popular media have been full of such visions for the last several years, but several fundamental problems must be solved in order for such services to be possible. One, of course, is solving the low-altitude air traffic control problem. The domain envisioned by would-be developers and operators is currently uncontrolled airspace (except near airports). NASA is working with various industry groups on conceptual designs for a UAS Traffic Management (UTM) system, which some envision as operating separate from the existing FAA ATC system, while others envision turning over the design to FAA to implement. UTM is a more complex topic than I have space for in this issue, and I will return to it in a future newsletter. But for now, let me say that we are a long way from a solution ready to be implemented.
The other major problem is safety certification of this new generation of aircraft by the FAA. This subject was discussed at the American Helicopter Society’s (AHS) fifth annual Transformative Vertical Flight Workshop in San Francisco in January. In what follows I am relying on Guy Norris’s excellent report in Aviation Week’s January 29th-February 11th issue. Setting the stage for this discussion was Chris Van Buiten, VP of the Innovations division of my first post-MIT employer, Sikorsky Aircraft. He told attendees:
“If you are working on a new platform and you are not ready to put your family on it and fly on it every day, then you are working on a toy. [But] if this means leaving from the 60th floor of a high-rise building in an urban environment, then you are thinking about an aircraft.”
He went on to remind attendees of the rather dismal safety record of both civil and military helicopters. Sikorsky’s latest S-62 model is aiming for a record-low one fatal accident per million flight hours. But for urban mobility, Van Buiten argued that this must be reduced by at least one order of magnitude. Consider these numbers: With, say, 50,000 eVTOLs each flying 3,000 hours per year, today’s best VTOL accident rate would produce 150 fatal accidents per year. “And that’s . . . not even close to being acceptable.”
Scott Drennan, Director of Innovation for Bell Helicopter, agreed, but both he and VanBuiten said they believe that advances in autonomy and other technical changes could make such safety improvements possible. But there is also the question of how difficult it will be for developers to demonstrate such improvements to FAA, and how many years it will take the agency to actually certify specific autonomous electric air-taxi and delivery vehicles to operate at low altitudes over densely populated urban areas. AHS International’s executive director, Michael Hirschberg, suggested that the envisioned time-line for the start of commercial service by companies such as uberAIR is “sporty,” and noted that FAA’s recently revised, non-prescriptive, Part 23 standard, which Uber hopes to use, has not yet been tried. “Since the new Part 23 came online in 2017, nothing has been certified, so it is a big unknown.”
Another key challenge for the startup eVTOL developers is large-scale production. As Tesla has learned the hard way in attempting to produce a mass-market electric car, there is a very real difference between producing hundreds or a few thousand vehicles per year and turning out much larger quantities. Bell’s Drennan acknowledged that this is a new paradigm, even for the legacy helicopter producers, let alone those who have never produced aircraft at all.
The bottom line is that these are still early days. We don’t yet really know if pure-electric (rather than hybrid propulsion) is the most cost-effective propulsion method for quick turn-around urban air taxis. We don’t know which firms will be able to develop effective mass-production techniques that will have to meet FAA requirements, in addition to the basic design being found to be safe, at a price that customers will pay. And many challenges remain in developing a UAS Traffic Management system or systems. Some version of these envisioned futures may well come to pass, but the time-line is still a big unknown.
About a decade ago, US Airways and UPS were among the airlines that installed ADS-B/In, aiming to use it to improve flight performance, via such applications as more-precise merging and spacing on approach to airports. UPS equipped a significant number of its cargo aircraft with ADS-B/Out and an ACSS ADS-B/In display and software to enable merging and spacing as its aircraft approached its major hub at Louisville. And US Airways used an FAA grant to equip 20 Airbus A330s to demonstrate conflict avoidance on the ground at Philadelphia Airport. But after using the systems for a number of years, both airlines removed the equipment and went back to normal operations. One problem was that since few other aircraft were broadcasting ADS-B/Out signals, there was little other traffic to be seen on the display. In addition, those early installations required an expensive Class 3 electronic flight bag, since the software was not included in the box ACSS provided. (ACSS is a joint venture of L3 Technologies and Thales.)
But now that airlines are facing a deadline of January 1, 2020 to install ADS-B/Out (which helps the ATC system to manage traffic but provides no direct benefit to aircraft operators), airlines are getting on board with ADS-B/In in order to obtain operational benefits. Aviation Week and other media reported near the end of April that American Airlines will equip its large fleet of A320 and A321 aircraft with the latest version of ACSS’s ADS-B/In over the next five years. American already has FAA approval to conduct flight operations using cockpit display of traffic information (CDTI) to assist in visual separation from other air traffic. And it is seeking FAA approval to use CDTI to monitor traffic via the display without having to locate it simultaneously out the window.
The new ACSS equipment, whose applications are called SafeRoute, is provided on new processors that can use existing flight deck navigation displays, so adding ADS-B/In is now less-costly than in the early trials a decade ago.
Mid-May brought announcements that both Alaska and United are now planning to test ADS-B/In application in 2019. They will test paired approaches to parallel runways using the ADS-B/In flight deck displays to assist pilots. These tests will build on the Flight Deck Interval Management prototype system that NASA developed for FAA in the Air Traffic Management Technology Demonstration 1 project (ATD 1). The system provides speed guidance to pilots, enabling them to attain precise spacing with the aircraft ahead of them in the landing pattern. Alaska and United will conduct paired approaches to closely-spaced parallel runways, most likely at San Francisco International Airport. FAA mathematician Ian Levitt told Aviation Daily that the paired approach is “almost formation flying on final.”
FAA Infrastructure Modernization, Innovative Financing & Public Private Partnerships, June 4-5, 2018, National Press Club, Washington, DC (Robert Poole speaking). Details from: firstname.lastname@example.org
Post-Mortem on 2018 ATC Reform Defeat. One of the most comprehensive assessments of how and why the coalition supporting corporatization of the U.S. ATC system failed to reach the finish line was published earlier this month by Jeff Davis in the Eno Transportation Weekly. He shows how addressing the problems that need solving runs up against the interests of an array of players, ranging from business jet operators and manufacturers to congressional appropriators of both parties. The only constituency given little attention in the piece is rural interests, who were bamboozled by NBAA’s veracity-challenged propaganda offensive, which likely dissuaded a critical mass of Senate members from being willing to engage on this subject. (https://www.enotrans.org/article/why-did-air-traffic-control-reform-efforts-fail-again)
NATS Invests in Space-Based ADS-B Provider Aireon. The UK’s air navigation service provider (ANSP) NATS earlier this month announced that it will invest $69 million in Aireon, the company begun by Iridium and Nav Canada in 2012 to provide global ADS-B surveillance to subscribing aircraft operators. Aireon has partnered with FlightAware to provide a global tracking dashboard called GlobalBeacon. Besides Nav Canada and NATS, other ANSP investors in Aireon include Italy’s ENAV, Ireland’s IAA, and Denmark’s Naviair. Thus far 11 ANSPs have signed up for Aireon’s ADS-B data service, with many others studying doing so via Memoranda of Agreement with Aireon.
Sixth SpaceX Launch Lofts Five More Aireon Payloads. A May 22nd launch of a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California put into orbit five more IridiumNext satellites which include the Aireon space-based ADS-B payload. That brings the constellation to 55 of the planned 66 plus on-orbit spares. The orbiting payloads are already providing ADS-B signals worldwide, and are performing very well in tests by aircraft in various flight information regions.
FAA Developing Rules for Supersonic Aircraft. Avweb (May 15th) reports that FAA is developing two new rules that could aid in the development of a next generation of supersonic aircraft. One will address noise certification for such aircraft, and the other will deal with getting permission to conduct supersonic flight testing in domestic airspace. With several companies working on prototype of such aircraft, some members of Congress have been urging FAA to revisit the current prohibition on supersonic flight over U.S. land area.
Space Traffic Management May Go to Commerce Department. Vice President Mike Pence announced last month that the National Space Council has recommended shifting the space traffic management function from the Defense Department to the Commerce Department. Some had expected this function to be shifted to FAA. Commerce would also get the responsibility for licensing “non-traditional” space applications, while FAA will continue to handle launch approval and airspace coordination for launch and recovery of rockets.
Pilots’ Unions Oppose Study of Single-Pilot Cargo Aircraft. A provision in the FAA reauthorization bill that has passed the House calls for a study by FAA and NASA on “single-piloted cargo aircraft assisted with remote piloting and computer piloting.” The general idea is that a cargo carrier’s aircraft would be operated by one pilot on board the plane, assisted by a pilot on the ground monitoring multiple in-flight aircraft. I’m old enough to remember a strike by flight engineers (in those days the third man in the airline cockpit) that shut down Eastern Air Lines, where my Dad worked. Technology made the flight engineer function obsolete, and automation will eventually do the same for first officers.
More Threats to GPS from Russia and China. Last month the government of Norway protested to Russia about that country’s resumed jamming of GPS in Norway’s Eastern Finnmark region, near the border with Russia. And the Wall Street Journal (April 12th) reported that the Chinese government has installed GPS jammers on two of its fortified bases in the Spratley Islands, located in international waters in the South China Sea. The story included a photo of the military installation on Mischief Reef, provided by Digital Globe, with the jamming antenna mast highlighted. These escalating threats underscore the need for global back-up capability for GPS.
New Report Highlights Aviation Privatization and Public-Private Partnerships. The 2018 Annual Privatization Report chapter on air transportation was released by Reason Foundation earlier this month. As this report has done for several decades, the new document covers developments in airport privatization, airport security, and ATC corporations. https://reason.org/privatization-report/annual-privatization-report-2018-aviation
Update on NATS Board. UK reader Barry Humphreys emailed to correct my oversimplification of the current board membership of ATC provider NATS in last month’s issue. When the public-private partnership structure was set up in 2000, the Airline Group (of UK-based airlines) bought a 46% interest in the company, but had “effective control” of key decisions via a Strategic Partnership Agreement (of which I was unaware). Their shareholding was reduced to 42% via the post 9/11 refinancing, with the SPA remaining in effect. What the Airline Group sold in 2013 to pension fund USS was 49% of Airline Group shares, not NATS shares. So the Airline Group retains effective control of key decision making.
“At the end of the day, separating the ATC provider from the government safety regulator to avoid conflicts of interest is still an official recommendation of the United Nations aviation body, ICAO. Remaining part of the discretionary budget means that FAA operations and procurement are going to be squeezed once again when the Budget Control Act spending caps snap back to lower levels in fiscal 2020. Reports from watchdog agencies on the inefficiency of FAA procurement and personnel rules continue to pile up. And the costs of providing ATC services are still not fairly allocated to system users (in the case of private jets, grossly so). Just because Congress has decided not to address these problems in any kind of fundamental way in 2018 does not mean that the problems are going away anytime soon.”
—Jeff Davis, “Why Did Air Traffic Control Reform Efforts Fail (Again)?” Eno Transportation Weekly, Week of April 30 and May 7, 2018
“Engineering groups are often viewed as an expense, which they are in fact. So they are a good target to be cut. That’s easy. However, they are responsible for the acquisition and support of operational systems. Getting that service effectively is the hard part. Perhaps that service can be obtained less expensively by outsourcing. The trouble is that although the cost may be attractive initially, the ANSP becomes dependent on contractors who tend to get additional work and renewals on a sole-source basis. In addition, the ANSP quickly loses internal competence and is really at the mercy of the contractors. Further, innovation and the ability to steer the direction of development will likely be reduced severely. All this while the ANSP pays someone else’s overhead and profit. Still, outsourcing can be attractive for smaller ANSPs that buy standard systems and cannot support a substantial engineering workforce. I would not recommend outsourcing for larger ANSPs. That means that the internal engineering workforce must be managed effectively. The deal has to be: effectiveness for support; no free lunch.”
—Sid Koslow, former VP and Chief Technology Officer, Nav Canada, personal communication, January 2018
“The U.S., with 517 towered airports and 2,800 other public-use airfields eligible for federal funding, is ripe for a system that improves safety by equipping non-towered airports with controllers, and—perhaps—replacing some aging towers with a less-expensive, but functionally equivalent, alternative.”
—Sean Broderick, “Remote Towers ‘Inevitable’ in U.S., FAA Safety Chief Says,” Aviation Daily, April 13, 2018
“My definition of a seamless global air navigation service is simply that aircraft can cross different flight information regions (FIRs) without affecting fuel efficiency. A global interoperability standard is, in my opinion, more important than amalgamation of FIRs, which presents massive political and legal hurdles. I will not see a single Asian sky in my lifetime, but if we can get global ADS-B coverage across greater parts of Asia, we will have delivered most of what the airlines need in that continent.”
—Ashley Smout, former CEO of Airways New Zealand, “Ashley Smout, Parting Thoughts,” Airspace, Quarter 2, 2011