Air Traffic Control Newsletter #156

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #156

Will we ever fix the ailing ATC system?

In this Issue

FAA Doesn’t Know How Many Maintenance Technicians It Needs

In a report released on June 27th, the DOT Office of Inspector General (OIG) finds that the FAA “does not have an effective method for accurately determining maintenance technician staffing levels . . . true staffing requirements remain unknown.” (Report AV2018057)

This is important for several reasons. First, the 6,000 Airway Transportation Systems Specialists (aka maintenance technicians) are FAA’s second-largest workforce, after controllers—and hence are presumably its second-largest payroll expense. Second, in recent years, FAA has outsourced maintenance of two major new programs—ADS-B ground stations and Data Communications—to the contractors who have implemented those systems and will operate and maintain them for many years. To the extent that this trend continues, a smaller fraction of overall equipment maintenance will be carried out by FAA’s own technicians. Hence, it is obviously important for FAA to know how many technicians it needs to properly maintain the systems still directly operated by FAA rather than contractors.

This is not a new subject. Reports dating back to 2010 (by the Government Accountability Office) and 2013 (by the National Research Council) have called for FAA to develop a modern staffing model and use it to decide where technicians should be placed. FAA did develop a Tech Ops Staffing Model (TSM) in response to the NRC report, but in its new audit, OIG finds serious flaws in the model itself and how FAA uses it. It finds that:

  • The data used in the TSM are “incomplete, inaccurate, and in some instances outdated.”
  • The process used to place technicians “does not ensure that technicians are placed when and where they are most needed.”
  • FAA has not validated its staffing targets, to verify their adequacy.

The staffing model includes only six of the nine factors recommended by the NRC report. The omissions are quite dismaying. The TSM does not factor in the time needed to train and certify new technicians. But that seems minor compared to the other two omissions. TSM does not take into account the fatigue mitigation requirements that were negotiated with technicians’ union PASS in 2014. That might not sound like much, but changing work plans on the fly to comply with the fatigue measures can wreak havoc with work schedules that are established a year in advance.

An even bigger problem is that the model relies on records of technician time spent on various activities which are “incomplete, inaccurate, and outdated.” There are 48,243 unique project codes by which technicians are supposed to categorize each hour of work—far too many to be practical. A 2012 audit found that technicians do not consistently enter their time in the Labor Distribution Reporting (LDR) system. And technicians themselves told the OIG investigators that they typically enter their codes in LDR at the end of each pay period, rather than at the end of each day, which is the minimum requirement. Moreover, the time that FAA assumes is the proper amount for each task is based on workload assessments by consultants, which OIG reports have been found to historically overestimate workload to such an extent that TSM today “overestimates staffing needs by as much as 50 percent.”

There’s further gory detail in the OIG report, but I think the message is clear. FAA does not know how many technicians it needs, and may well have too many—especially due to the outsourcing of maintenance for the large ADS-B and DataComm programs. If FAA’s aviation customers were paying directly for its services (as is true in nearly all other developed countries), I’m sure they would be raising hell over this kind of mismanagement.

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Will We Ever Fix America’s Ailing ATC Institutions?

Late in June the White House issued a major organizational reform plan, Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century. A portion of page 72 of this 128-page document called for removing ATC and the St. Lawrence Seaway from DOT, as anomalies for an agency that primarily funds and regulates transportation rather than operating such systems. Needless to say, in less than 24 hours, both AOPA and NBAA put out blistering news releases attacking that proposal as a discredited (by them) idea.

The next day (June 24th) I received a phone call, out of the blue, from two well-known aviation people, both of whom have ties to general aviation. Having not actually seen the White House report, their first question was whether this was simply a rehash of the Shuster proposal from earlier this year. I explained that this was a major study launched by the Office of Management & Budget in the first half of 2017, and pointed them to the project’s time-line on page 6.

With that out of the way, the conversation turned to the fact that the AOPA/NBAA coalition, by focusing solely on demonizing ATC corporatization, had de-facto defended the institutional structure of U.S. ATC—provision by a large and unwieldy bureaucracy, uncertain and erratic tax funding, micromanagement by Congress, etc., leading to ever-rising costs and technology lag. By the end of this conversation, they agreed that these are serious problems that need to be addressed, and lamented the lack of any serious engagement by AOPA/NBAA with the reality of these problems and the need to solve them.

Recent articles in aviation media reinforce these points. A June 4-17 article in Aviation Week headlined “NextGen Reality Check: Problems Persist as FAA Installs Framework,” reflected presentations at the Air Traffic Control Association’s annual Atlantic City conference. On June 19th, DOT Secretary Elaine Chao told the Aero Club of Washington that, “Since 2007 there have been 39 audits of NextGen implementation by the DOT Inspector General, and six are currently ongoing.” NextGen progress, she told the audience, is lagging.

Then there is Congress, which still has not found time to reauthorize the FAA, despite the previous authorization having run out on Sept. 30, 2017. As I write this, Eno Transportation Weekly (July 23rd) reports that getting the FAA bill to the Senate floor may slip to mid-August. Of all the many amendments senators hope to offer, 46 have been selected by Commerce Committee chairman John Thune (R, SD) for possible inclusion in a manager’s amendment. They include such vital topics as:

  • creating a Concrete Masonry Products Board,
  • allowing AIP funds to be used for snow-removal equipment storage sheds,
  • requiring GAO to do an aviation workforce study,
  • requiring airports to install baby-changing tables in restrooms. and
  • requiring DOT to prohibit storage of live animals in overhead bins (the WOOFF Act).

As Dave Barry would say, I’m not making any of this up.

In just about every other developed country worldwide, the annual budget of the ATC provider is determined by its management and board, without the interference of elected officials. The program of capital investments in new technology and facilities (such as consolidated centers and remote towers) is likewise decided by management and board, and financed when appropriate via long-term revenue bonds.

We could have—and should have—had a serious discussion of the pros and cons of different models for an ATC corporation: government corporation, nonprofit private corporation, or long-term public-private partnership. All aviation stakeholders—including airports, general aviation, business aviation, etc.—should have taken part. Discussion and debate could have included how to structure a governing board representing a balanced cross-section of aviation stakeholders (such as exists on the NextGen Advisory Committee), what kind of fee structure would be fair to all ATC customers and consistent with ICAO charging principles, etc.

Instead, AOPA and NBAA defaulted and resorted to a propaganda campaign that defined and attacked a caricature of the actual attempt to create an American version of Canada’s successful and widely-admired Nav Canada (which has won the support of the Canadian counterparts of AOPA and NBAA). Because of this, we will be stuck with an unreformed FAA Air Traffic Organization for the duration of the 2018 reauthorization.

To which I pose the following questions:

  1. Will the rest of the aviation community hold AOPA and NBAA accountable for maintaining the failing status quo?
  2. And will those two organizations engage in serious discussions of reforms between now and the next FAA reauthorization?

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Overcoming ATC Strikes in Europe

It’s summer, and that means strikes by air traffic controllers are disrupting air traffic in Europe during the year’s busiest travel season. Airlines and other travel groups are increasingly speaking out for change, as ATC strikes reach unprecedented levels.

Individual airlines EasyJet, Ryanair, and Wizz Air, along with trade group Airlines for Europe (A4E), have filed a complaint with the European Commission, claiming that French ATC strikes are restricting freedom of movement across Europe. They argue that France is breaking EU law, by not providing ATC services for overflights (flights that neither take off nor land in France) when French controllers take strike action. By contrast, overflight services are provided in Greece and Italy during strikes.

A4E says that since 2004, there have been 423 ATC strike days in Europe, of which 70% took place in France. The role of French ATC has been underscored by French Senator Vincent Capo-Cannellas, following a six-month study he led for the Senate’s finance committee. He links the problem to a subset of French controller unions as well as major problems with ATC provider DSNA’s technology modernization efforts (which sounds a lot like FAA’s NextGen problems). His study found that French ATC accounts for 33% of all delays in European airspace, although DSNA manages only 20% of Europe’s air traffic.

It turns out that while DSNA is known as an air navigation service provider (ANSP), it has not been corporatized. Rather, it is a division of the French government’s Director General of Civil Aviation (DGAC), which is part of the Ministry of Transport. As a 2014 report from the MITRE Corporation noted, in France “ATC is neither privatized nor corporatized, and all functions are performed by the French government inside DGAC, by the Directorate of Air Navigation Services, similar to the US FAA and its Air Traffic Organization (ATO).” Thus, I am not surprised by Sen. Capo-Cannellas’s findings about bureaucracy and budget limitations.

There are several different controller unions at DSNA. One—SNCTA, which represents 50% of the controllers—seems to agree with Sen. Capo-Cannellas, and says French ATC needs to be far more flexible in scheduling in accordance with variations in air traffic. SNCTA signed a new contract in 2016 enabling more-flexible working hours, but another large union, UASC-CGT, appears to be more militant and defensive, based on media reports. Both the senator and SNCTA argue for staffing based on traffic forecasts, not strictly on government budget constraints.

For several years now, European airlines have called for high-altitude ATC to be provided over countries where controllers are on strike by the ANSPs of neighboring countries, but the means to actually do this have not been spelled out. That may be changing. Air Traffic Management (Issue 2, 2018) reports that European lawmakers are increasingly talking about creation of a European Upper Flight Information Region (EUIR) that would be Europe-wide and outside the direct control of the ANSPs of individual countries. Florian Guillermet, director of the ongoing EU airspace architecture study, was interviewed in that issue of the magazine, and seems cautiously optimistic about the idea. He told editor Aimee Turner that the study offers an opportunity to start with a blank page, “to see if the notion behind EUIR can be exploited” in a way that individual national governments can accept. In many respects, implementation of EUIR would be one way to realize the initial vision of a Single European Sky without necessarily undermining the sovereignty of individual EU members.

These developments certainly bear watching.

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Controller Training Companies Offer Many Benefits

Historically, air navigation service providers (ANSPs) generally provided their own recruitment and training for air traffic controllers. This has worked relatively well for large ANSPs, but smaller ones often experience higher unit costs due to their size. In recent years some smaller ANSPs have gotten into the controller training business themselves, realizing that if they could spread the costs of staff and equipment over a larger number of trainees, they could accomplish training at a lower cost per trainee.

Airways New Zealand is a good example of a relatively small provider that has branched out and now offers controller training at its own facility in New Zealand for trainees from around the world. It has developed a detailed method of selecting trainees (Sure Select) and a sophisticated ATC simulator called Total Control. Another approach is for several small ANSPs to create a joint venture company to meet their own training needs more cost-effectively and then reduce unit costs further by offering training services to others. Entry Point North is a good example. It was launched in 2005 by three ANSPs: IAA (Ireland), LFV (Sweden) and Naviair (Denmark). In 2011 it created a jointly-owned subsidiary with HungaroControl in Budapest. In 2014 it opened Entry Point North Academy in Ireland, and in 2017 it opened an Entry Point North Academy in Spain.

In a recent article Isobel Oxley of the ATM Policy Institute summarizes the case for smaller ANSPs to contract with ATC training companies. First, of course, is lower costs, thanks to economies of scale at the training firms. Another is the development of advanced training and assessment methods, aimed at reducing the often high wash-out rate of trainees. The existence of a training market for controllers also provides a way for an ANSP to cope with unusual traffic growth or unexpected staff turnover.

There are several limitations on the growth and effectiveness of controller training companies. One of these is different regulatory provisions among aviation regulators in different countries. Mutual acceptance of training providers that have been certified by one aviation safety regulator would address this concern. And global standards for controller training would help even more.

Recently, some controversy has arisen over controller training companies. In Spain, after the ANSP was reformed and renamed ENAIRE, it began charging would-be controllers for their training, reportedly as much as €75,000. A member of the European Parliament raised concerns that paid training would somehow reduce the number and potentially the quality of controllers. But the European Commission did not take this claim seriously. Andrew Charlton of Aviation Intelligence Reporter (July 2018) notes that paid training cannot be blamed for what some claim is a shortage of controllers in Spain. He also points out that FerroNATS, which is providing control tower service as 12 Spanish airports, recently opened its own training academy, charging €27,000—and is not short of customers. He also pointed out that self-funded training is the norm in many professions, including airline pilots. “What makes controllers so very different from lawyers, dentists, vets, or doctors?” he asked.

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Airlines vs. Commercial Space Launch Companies

As one who grew up reading science fiction, I’m a big fan of the rapidly growing commercial space launch industry. With the growing use of reusable launch vehicles, led by SpaceX and with Blue Origin proceeding along a similar path, reduced launch costs are leading to projections of very large increases in commercial space launches in coming years and decades.

And that poses a problem for users of U.S. airspace, especially scheduled airlines. For understandable safety reasons, airliners and business jets must be detoured around chunks of temporarily restricted airspace. In the old days, this mostly involved just the initial launch, but with re-usability, this also involves the return of boosters and—in the case of SpaceX’s cargo and personnel Dragon capsules—their return and splashdown days or weeks later.

How large a block of airspace must be restricted, and for how long, is partly a function of technology. And it turns out that the world’s largest ATC system has only primitive technology for addressing this problem. As of now, when a launch is imminent, FAA blocks off large amounts of airspace for hours, resulting in delays and additional flight miles for users of that airspace. For example, for the historic Feb. 6th launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, pilots’ union ALPA reported that over 560 flights were delayed and the average flight had to fly 62 nm extra, with an average schedule delay of 8 minutes.

The underlying reason is inadequate technology. FAA radars cannot track most launches and re-entries. The launch companies have precise, real-time information on where their vehicles are, but there is no way to feed that information directly into ATC software and displays. Daniel Murray, in charge of this subject at FAA, says the agency’s process of interfacing with the launch companies is “very manual.” He explained to Politico (July 23rd) that “We get emails from the operators, we get information over telephones. And what we have to do is write that information down and then key it in by hand into the air traffic tools that we have available to us that can give us at least a little bit of an idea of how the mission is progressing.”

Fortunately, FAA does have a project under way to bring its space-launch interface into the 21st century. It’s called Space Data Integrator (SDI), aiming to take telemetry data directly from launch vehicles and returning boosters and capsules, process it, and provide it to controllers, hopefully in something approaching real time. Alas, like most FAA technology projects, SDI has been trudging slowly forward since its official beginning in 2014, four years ago. In its first year the agency worked with SpaceX to create a prototype that now works in what Murray calls “shadow mode” for Dragon capsule re-entries. But the current schedule projects SDI to become operational “to some degree” in 2021. And that would include only partial functionality. Later features are intended to include a tool to calculate the potential debris area in case of a launch failure and guidance for controllers on how to prioritize actions in such cases, including directions to be given to pilots.

NATCA spokesman Jim Ullman told Politico that, “I don’t think we are close to having [SDI] available to the [controller] workforce yet.” But of course the controllers’ union is very desirous of having an “integrated program that allows air traffic control to see this on their radar scopes and have this change in a quick and dynamic fashion, which allows quicker access and less impact on the airspace.”

Airlines, needless to say, would like to see a faster timeline for getting SDI operational, given the projected growth in commercial space launches. So would Blue Origin and SpaceX, whose representatives urged a faster pace at a recent House committee meeting. “I think they could be developed more quickly,” Blue Origin’s Audrey Powers said at the hearing. “I think the resources and budgetary constraints are hindering the process.” That’s probably true, but also hindering it is FAA’s highly conservative organizational culture, which I documented in a peer-reviewed report commissioned by the Hudson Institute. Unless and until that changes, even urgent projects such as SDI will continue to face budgetary and bureaucratic delays. (https://reason.org/policy_study/organization-and-innovation-in-atc).

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News Notes

NAC Urges FAA to Sign Up for Space-Based ADS-B. The NextGen Advisory Committee has urged the FAA to negotiate a service agreement with space-based ADS-B provider Aireon, under which the agency would budget for the subscription fees for global surveillance in oceanic airspace for which FAA is the ANSP. The radar-like separation would permit reduced lateral and longitudinal spacing in those Flight Information Regions. The recommendation was developed by NAC’s Enhanced Surveillance Task Group, as Aviation Daily reported in its June 26th issue.

Ten More 10 Iridium Satellites Launched. Another 10 Iridium NEXT satellites were launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg AFB on July 25th. Each includes an Aireon ADS-B package, bringing the total to 65 now in orbit. When the full constellation of six polar-orbiting planes is completed, projected by late autumn, global space-based ADS-B surveillance will be offered, starting early in 2019, making oceanic and polar airspace considerably safer and more efficient. Aireon will offer both global aircraft tracking and emergency location service.

Avinor Validating Multiple Remote Tower Operations. Norwegian ANSP Avinor has announced the completion of an initial validation exercise which simulated control of air traffic at three airports from a single remote tower center. The validation exercise was carried out with technology and assistance from Indra Navia, an airspace technology firm. The simulation used a fully integrated 3D tower environment re-creation of Norwegian airports Bodo, Haugesund, and Rost, with simulated traffic. Three experienced controllers took part, operating three scenarios of increasing traffic complexity. This was the first in a series of remote tower validation exercises under the EU’s SESAR 2020 program.

Australian Airports Get New Data-Sharing System. A multi-location Airport Collaborative Decision Making (A-CDM) has been implemented by Airservices Australia, the country’s corporatized ANSP. The system was developed by Saab Sensis Corporation, and provides A-CDM capability to Australia’s four largest airports: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Perth. This is apparently the first multi-airport A-CDM system to be implemented anywhere in the world.

Serco Joins Ninox Team for Remote Towers. UK contract service provider Serco has signed an agreement with Norway’s Kongsberg to offer the latter company’s Ninox Remote Tower and Remote Virtual Tower services to UK airports. The Ninox technology has been selected by Norwegian ANSP Avinor for 15 airports in that country by the end of 2021, with an option to equip up to 21 others. For the UK tower market, Serco’s Paul McCarter told Air Traffic Management that there are more than 190 airports in the UK, and “much of the supporting ATC infrastructure is outdated and due to be renewed in the next few years.” The Ninox approach can offer solutions for either a single airport or multiple airports controlled from a single remote tower center.

Seven-Airport Remote Tower System in Scotland. Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) has announced the selection on Inverness Airport as the location for Scotland’s first remote tower center. The project is part of HIAL’s ATM 2030 project to modernize how its airports provide tower services. The six other airports to be controlled from the new center at Inverness are Benbecula, Dundee, John O-Groats, Kirkwall, Sumburgh, and Wick. HIAL managing director Inglis Lyon told reporters that a consensus of staff agreed that Inverness is the best choice, being centrally located and with air, highway, and rail connections to the other airports. An implementation schedule has yet to be worked out.

Nav Canada Freezes ATC Rates for 2019. Last year Nav Canada instituted a temporary reduction of 0.4% in its ATC charges. But on May 30th the ANSP announced that a series of minor tweaks in its rate structure would result in no increase in 2019—basically continuing last year’s temporary reduction for another year. Written comments on the rate proposal must be received by Nav Canada by July 31st.

Staffing Problems for New Gatwick Tower Contractor. The shift from one control tower contractor to another has led to a short-term shortage of qualified controllers, aviation media report. In one case, London Gatwick had to shut down its runway in the wee hours of the morning on April 9th, when illness led to only one of the three required controllers being on duty. The new tower operator is Air Navigation Solutions Ltd. (ANSL), a division of DFS, the German ANSP. It replaced the control tower division of NATS, the UK’s ANSP, earlier this year. Part of the problem is that some former NATS controllers at Gatwick resigned rather than accepting job offers from ANSL.

Regional Airspace Agreement for Southern Africa. An agreement to create seamless upper airspace encompassing the 19 member states of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) was announced this spring. The organization has drafted legal instruments to make this airspace reform possible, in hopes of reducing the cost of air travel in Africa. COMESA members range from Egypt on the north to Zimbabwe on the south, but the organization does not include Mozambique or South Africa.

ANS Czech Republic Considering Remote Towers. In a recent interview in Air Traffic Management, the CEO of ANS CR, Jan Klas said that this ANSP’s likely first experience with remote towers would be to provide tower services for the airport in Ceske Budejovice, which currently lacks a tower. The ANSP is also considering a project with the Czech military to develop a joint remote tower center to provide tower services at airports with military traffic.

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Quotable Quotes

“I recently gave a presentation to a state pilot group and gave my spin on [ATC] corporatization. I emphasized the not-total-FAA support from the Trust Fund, and that the funding gap means the FAA budget would always be competing in an arena with much bigger gorillas. I focused on trying to win $2B in funding every year in a contest against DoD, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. was virtually impossible. It is difficult to imagine a budget year when all the other entities are feeling sated and the FAA’s budget is smooth. I had quite a few pilots come up to me and say, ‘Thanks, no one has talked to us like this. All we hear are people saying something terrible might happen and we are fighting for you. We don’t know if we need anyone fighting for us.’”
—Greg Dyer, email to the editor, June 27, 2018 (used with permission)

“NATCA worked with Congress to pass bipartisan legislation that exempts applicants from taking the [biographical] assessment if they have prior controller experience, graduated from a Collegiate Training Initiative school, or are military veterans. Staffing has reached a 29-year low of fully certified controllers, making it a critical issue for NATCA with the administration and Congress. Claims that controllers are putting public safety at risk unfairly malign the reputations of these great professionals.”
—Paul Rinaldi, President, NATCA, letter to the editor, Wall Street Journal, June 22, 2018

“As a retired air traffic controller, I saw this change in hiring on a personal basis before I could get out the door. I, and other controllers, were tasked to train individuals of all races who weren’t capable of performing the job. This profession isn’t like any other. Errors are deadly, and perfection is the standard. Anything less is gross negligence.”
—W. Holley, letter to the editor, Wall Street Journal, June 22, 2018

“A lot has changed since 2004 with the advent of digitalization and virtualization set to revolutionize the industry’s view of what is possible in terms of efficiency—and safety. Combined with the prevailing spirit of cross-border co-operation among many ANSPs now working in independent alliance on the basis of traffic flow, the Single European Sky project could finally surprise everyone and start delivering. . . . Yes, the creation of a single flight information region that allows the upper airspace to be reconfigured into delimited control areas without regard to national frontiers will challenge the status quo. Militant elements that have held the system a hostage to the airspace fortunes of Europe, and that have hobbled the aviation system for years, will soon be called to account and be required to change.”
—Aimee Turner, “Seamless Skies,” Air Traffic Management, Issue 2, 2018

“Australia is a good-news story. The OneSKY project will manage congestion in the sky by taking a holistic view of civilian and military [ATC] capabilities. We just need to be sure that the expected benefits are realized within an acceptable budget and timeframe. And it is important that the good reputation of Australia in terms of cost-efficiency in air traffic management is not damaged by cross-subsidization of civil aircraft operators for military air traffic management.”
—Alexandre de Juniac, IATA, “Airlines to Scrutinize Cost of OneSKY Benefits,” Air Traffic Management, June 5, 2018

“Airways New Zealand haven’t officially selected AirMap as their UTM provider for the main contract. . . . Airways stressed that they are looking at multiple programs to address the drone issue, as they believe there is no ‘silver bullet.’ . . . Airways is really keen to include as many features as possible in the UTM system that would be very useful for drone operators—they believe that by doing so, they will make it really attractive for operators to use (carrot rather than stick). That’s part of the reason for the trial (and other outreach efforts)—they want to identify how to make it a ‘must-have’ for drone operators.”
—Adrian Schofield, Aviation Week, email to editor, June 20, 2018 (used by permission)

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