Air Traffic Control Newsletter #157

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #157

Remote tower progress, NextGen, reducing delays in the Northeast corridor, and more.

In this Issue

U.S. Remote Tower Progress—and Questions

There is progress to report on both U.S. remote tower pilot projects, funded by the states of Colorado and Virginia, with cooperation and oversight from FAA. Another phase of operational testing of the remote tower at Leesburg (VA) Executive Airport resumed on June 25th. As testing continues, the backup mobile control tower’s role will be gradually reduced, to a point where FAA is satisfied that the remote tower can handle the traffic by itself.

There’s been increasing news coverage of the second project, at currently non-towered Northern Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland, CO. Most news reports focused on the completion and equipage, by Searidge Technologies, of the three camera masts: one mid-field near the fuel farm and one at each end of runway 15/33. The central array of cameras will provide a 360-degree view of the airfield, with the runway arrays providing 180-degree views up the arrival/departure path at each end of the runway. The camera arrays include both fixed-view and pan-tilt-zoom models.

The plan was to begin Phase 0 testing of the equipment next month, leading up to a year of Phase 1 testing of the whole system, with full operations beginning in 2020. But as this is written, there is a snag. The design concept calls for supplementing the camera information with local radar data from a nearby ASR 9 radar that serves the Denver TRACON. For some reason, FAA has not agreed to do this—despite Congress last year finally providing the agency with some funding to begin serious remote tower work. Alternatives being looked into are obtaining such data from an FAA vendor or getting a data feed from FAA’s SWIM data system (but the latter would not be real-time data). Rumor has it that FAA is considering giving a $1.2 million STARS system to the Leesburg project, which would solve its radar feed problem, but doing that for one remote tower pilot but not the other would be gross discrimination.

Local-area radar data is “a critical element of the remote tower system,” notes Air Traffic Management, since the human eye loses depth perception at a distance of about 1.5 miles. It’s not clear what will happen if radar track data is not made available. ADS-B data would be an alternative starting in 2020, assuming FAA sticks to its equipage deadline of the first of that year. But it would be no help during the planned testing period between now and then since most aircraft are still not ADS-B equipped. Another alternative might be to use one of the growing number of surplus CARTS systems that are being replaced by STARS and are now apparently sitting unused in warehouses.

Denying radar feed for this FAA-blessed project is bizarre, since federal contract towers across the country have Dbrite scopes that display radar data to their controllers for the purpose of “situational awareness,” not to control traffic (which is not carried out at the small towers that comprise the bulk of the contract tower program). This situation bears a close look by FAA Acting Administrator Dan Elwell.

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Noise and NextGen: We Need Fresh Thinking

Last year the NextGen Advisory Committee took a bold stance. It urged FAA to apply the same kind of Metroplex fixes being implemented at major airports around the country to the congested airports and airspace in the Northeast Corridor—from Boston to Washington, DC. NAC chairman David Bronczek, COO of FedEx, said it was time for FAA to take a major step to redesign the corridor’s airspace using the same tools applied to the defined Metroplex airports: more-precise performance-based navigation (PBN) arrival and departure paths, data communications (DataComm), and ADS-B surveillance. For the first time, NAC is also recommending the installation of ground-based (GPS) augmentation systems (GBAS) at LaGuardia and Kennedy Airports, as already exists at Newark. The Northeast Corridor accounts for about 50 percent of all U.S. flight delays, so there should be a lot of bang for the buck in streamlining this airspace.

FAA has previously shied away from taking this on because there is already lots of grass-roots opposition to the concentration of noise impacts along precise flight tracks. While the total number of households affected by aircraft noise will be less, noise impacts under the revised flight tracks will be more intense, even if far fewer people will be affected. There is already a bipartisan congressional Quiet Skies Caucus with 43 members, formed in 2014. FAA’s Metroplex community outreach efforts have been criticized as insufficient and challenged by litigation, prompting Bronczek and other NAC members to call for more pro-active efforts.

It’s important to keep some perspective on aircraft noise. A group of aviation stakeholders sent a letter to Senate aviation leaders on July 26th pointing out how much less noise there is today, compared with prior decades:

  • The number of people exposed to “significant noise” has decreased by 94 percent since the late 1970s, despite a four-fold growth in enplanements.
  • Between 2000 and 2016, noise exposure decreased by 53 percent, while enplanements increased 22 percent.
  • And the fleet continues to get quieter, as older airliners are retired and quieter replacements are put into service.

It’s also important not to take literally the number of noise complaints received by airports. A California homeowner, Chris McCann, last year began marketing the “Airnoise Button,” by which annoyed residents can use a hand-held clicker to file a noise complaint via the internet. The Wall Street Journal (July 6th) reported that 200 people around the country have thus far used the device to file 297,000 complaints. The article cited a New York woman who used it to file over 3,300 complaints with the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.

Despite these caveats, airlines and airports face a serious political threat to continued growth unless they come up with a solution. New York’s two Senators have announced legislation that would put the EPA in charge of aircraft noise rather than the FAA. That could lead to more aggressive and less-informed regulations.

In the September 2018 issue of Airport Policy News, I suggested that airlines and airports should consider a policy of buying noise easements from property owners newly impacted by significant increases of aircraft noise, measured objectively. The money for this could come from increased landing fees since it is aircraft flights that generate the noise. (Heathrow and Gatwick Airports already include noise-related charges in their landing fees.) Over time, as quieter planes replace noisier ones, the amount of noise impact would decline, and likewise, the amounts paid to homeowners in compensation.

That may sound radical, but I think it is in the aviation industry’s best interest to come up with a solution, rather than forego the capacity and safety benefits of decongesting critical airspace near major airports.

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Did NATS Discriminate Against Ryanair?

A September 3rd news release from Ryanair showed up on my screen, headlined “Airline-Owned UK ATC Provider NATS Discriminates Against Ryanair and Other Stansted Airlines.” The text stated that the airline that day was filing complaints with the UK Civil Aviation Authority and the European Commission “over this blatant discrimination against Stansted Airport and Ryanair.”

As is often the case with lurid claims, there’s more to the story than was revealed in Ryanair’s news release. First, despite the airline’s use of the present tense, the only data it cited were for the three-month period January-March 2018, during which it claimed that data from the CAA showed that 52 percent of all ATC delays attributable to NATS during that time period affected flights serving Stansted and another 30 percent flights to and from Luton; Gatwick had only 10 percent, London City 8 percent, and Heathrow 0 percent. Data from no other time period were cited.

The claim was absurd on its face, and NATS responded quickly. As Aviation Daily reported two days later, the UK air navigation service provider explained that during a seven-month period, NATS was phasing in electronic flight strips for all the airspace over southeastern England. All airlines and airports were notified in advance that when their sectors of the airspace would be cut over to e-strips, there would be temporary reductions in capacity—and they should plan accordingly. The sector that involved Stansted and Luton was cut over during the January-March 2018 period—and apparently, Ryanair did not plan accordingly.

NATS also noted that Ryanair had made a similar complaint of discrimination in 2016, and that “The CAA has found no evidence that [NATS En-Route Ltd.] has unduly preferred or discriminated against any party.”

Thus, another tempest in a teapot.

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The Limits of ANSP Corporatization
By Graham Lake

Corporatization of air navigation service providers emerged as a means of addressing some of the structural problems that ANSPs have faced in meeting their existing and future operational needs. Aviation is undergoing constant change, whether driven by advancing technology, demands for more capacity with ever lower unit costs, environmentally sustainable development, and ever-safer operations. While helping ANSPs deal with these factors, corporatization has limits which are rooted in the genesis of civil aviation and national interest.

ANSPs exist to fulfill government obligations agreed in the Chicago Convention in 1944 to ensure that sovereign airspace is managed globally in accordance with ICAO requirements. For most governments at the time, that meant establishing a Civil Aviation Department (CAD). These departments usually encompassed ownership of aviation assets (airlines and airports), regulatory and oversight functions, and the establishment of an ANSP owned by the government.

International civil aviation has developed globally from the basis of this national political structure. The CEOs, Directors General and Executive Directors of the emerging aviation organizations were appointed by governments—political appointees. It should be no surprise that this political structure led to nationally based aviation infrastructure around the world, particularly in the many countries able to develop their own solutions. In most cases, aviation employees were either directly or indirectly working for their governments, and usually subject to their government’s pay and pension policies. Similarly, government procurement policies also applied, meaning for instance that acquisition of aircraft, airport and air traffic control equipment was often subject to the government’s own “buy local” purchasing rules and restrictions. This led to the development around the world of a patchwork of national solutions for aviation.

For example, in France by the 1960s, the state-owned airline would buy and operate French-built aircraft, operated at state-owned airports, fitted out with French-manufactured equipment for operation in airspace managed by the national ANSP, also using equipment developed and supplied by French manufacturers. Similar examples were and are to be found across the globe. This culture is still endemic in much of the ANSP world, more than 70 years after the Chicago Convention and despite the corporatization trend of the past 30 years. This patchwork of national systems is not easily harmonized into the integrated and interoperable network sought by civil aviation today, despite the agreed ICAO Global Air Navigation Plan developed and adopted to address this issue.

By the 1970s, deregulation and divestment by governments were already emerging. The pace of technology change and the duration and purpose of related investment programs stretched the ability of many government departments to cope with the demands that aviation was creating.

Aviation infrastructure and operation are expensive. Charges levied on aircraft operators for air traffic services were instituted to generate revenue for governments to cover their costs for meeting their aviation obligations.  Charging was also intended to recover operating costs from airlines based overseas, to ensure that these visiting carriers contributed to the costs incurred by their hosts. This revenue did not always find its way directly to the ANSP or airport, but instead went to the treasury for dispersal according to government needs (not always back to aviation – still a problem today). Major capital investments by the ANSP required financing, but treasury rules forbade the ANSP from any option other than government finance that was often hard to come by and even when agreed, sometimes suddenly disappeared for apparently political reasons (an issue still affecting the FAA budget).

At the same time, industrial relations had matured from the first ATC labor disputes of the 1950s. By the 1970s, air traffic controller unions were realizing that they had serious bargaining power, with the ability to shut down aviation on a national basis, often with international implications. With airspace closed, for some countries, tourism was hamstrung. Hoteliers, restaurant owners, taxi drivers, and airlines all protested to governments to fix the ATC labor problem and to return the tourists to the cash registers. A short-term political-fix culture developed to address this problem. It led to some extreme outcomes in terms of ANSP labor costs and working practices, the consequences of which are still felt today.

By the 1990s, ANSP managers realized that different ownership, management and financial arrangements, better separated from the government could be beneficial, just as they had been for airlines and airports. The limits of the original structure of civil aviation were self-evident. Many ANSPs had realized that operating as a government department had negative implications for:

  • Their ability to make capital investments;
  • Their ability to receive a fair revenue for the tasks they were carrying out;
  • Their ability to participate in business growth ventures;
  • Their ability to hire the best leaders;
  • Their ability to pay staff what was being demanded, or to find alternative solutions; and,
  • Their ability to identify, obtain and use the most suitable equipment for each project.

With corporatization, some ANSPs have been able to address the need to break free from the civil service pay and benefit structures constraining their ability to react to labor demands, by offering market-rate compensation packages. ANSPs are also now able to directly receive revenue from charges as a result of corporatization and (some) are able to borrow commercially on that basis to invest in new technology. But corporatization has its limits, for the following reasons:

  • Most corporatized ANSPs are still government-owned monopoly providers, with associated limits, especially in procurement policies.
  • Corporatized ANSPs are not always, permitted to procure from beyond the national supply chain and to invest in business ventures.
  • Only some industrial relations and social issues have been successfully addressed because of the flexibility enabled by corporatization.
  • Even with corporatization, not all nations have separated regulators and service providers (ICAO policy since 2001).
  • Some ANSPs, whether corporatized or not, are obliged to accept political appointees as their leaders.
  • The governance and oversight are still sometimes hampered by the structure of government ownership. Airspace is a shared and finite resource, and reconciling the different needs and priorities of the different users, whether civil, military, or other, is the role of government, not ANSPs.
  • Airports have also been corporatized and in some case privatized, but they are usually still obliged to sole-source their control tower services from the state-owned ANSP, stifling the development of a competitive market.

Because of the global legacy of civil aviation, the barriers to change are immense, the incentive to change is low, and hence progress will continue to be slow. While the trend to ANSP corporatization has developed over the past 25 years and its effects have undoubtedly been positive, more recent politically nationalist trends may delay further progress. Politicians are in general neither particularly interested in, nor truly understanding of, the ANSP world. It is only when a crisis occurs—usually related to safety or sustained heavy delays and cancellations, however caused—that the politicians sit up and take an active interest. A safe and reliable airspace system that isn’t particularly efficient or cost-effective is politically acceptable more often than not.

Airspace congestion and technological change are the factors most likely to provide the disruptive forces that will drive further advances in the structure of the ANSP world. There is little compelling evidence currently available that the noble objectives of programs like NextGen and SES, both begun more than a decade ago, can ever be fully achieved, or for that matter will need to be.

Instead, because of relentless technology change and the trend of reversion to more nationalistic political agendas around the world, it is possible that the ANSP role in terms of operational ATC staff could shrink, and that the trend to corporatization could reverse, returning ANSPs to closer government ties. Perhaps the corresponding role of the national defense of airspace will increase, with military and cyber management organizations taking more of a center-stage role.

ANSPs will need the structural flexibility to be able to react and evolve to meet these changing needs. Corporatization has its limits, but today it still looks rather better than the alternatives.

Graham Lake served as Director General of the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO) from 2009 to 2012.

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Progress and Regress on GPS Backup

Recent months have seen a few steps forward and a few steps backward on the subject of GPS backup.

In response to a growing problem of intentional interference with GPS for military testing (always made clear in advance to FAA, which informs pilots via NOTAMs), RTCA’s Tactical Operations Committee (TOC) was tasked with making recommendations to limit the negative impacts on civil aviation. Its March 2018 report, TOC advised FAA to improve its NOTAMs process and to clarify related regulations about what to do when GPS is not available. TOC also commented that “The FAA’s current GPS resiliency plan, namely VOR MON and DME/DME [two types of legacy ground-based navaids], is insufficient to maintain continuity of NextGen operations in the [National Airspace System].” It also recommended that FAA confer with industry before decommissioning any secondary surveillance radars. So it’s ground-based legacy systems all the way.

An article by two aviation experts defending this aviation-only/legacy navaids approach appears in the 3rd-quarter issue of Air Traffic Management. The editor invited me to write a column on this approach, and it appears in the same issue. In the piece I cited previous studies by the Joint Planning & Development Office (JPDO) and by the multi-agency Independent Assessment Team that both recommended an economy-wide GPS backup capability, operating in an entirely different frequency band from GPS. Both recommended an electronic, 21st-century version of the Loran system that was discontinued by the Coast Guard early in the Obama Administration, but is being used in a number of other countries subjected to significant GPS jamming and interference.

Congress in 2014 halted further dismantling of the sites of the legacy Loran C antennas and infrastructure (which had been recommended as the location of eLoran transmitters). Congressional advocates of economy-wide GPS backup include Sens. Ted Cruz (R, TX) and Ed Markey (D, MA), along with Rep. John Garamendi (D, CA). The 2017 Cruz/Markey National Timing Resilience and Security Act would have required DOT to move forward with a demonstration of an economy-wide GPS backup but did not pass. Garamendi succeeded in 2018 in providing funds for a DOT/DOD/DHS technology demonstration, but little action has been taken with the $10 million allocated for this purpose. The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act sent to the President for signature last month did not include the Cruz/Markey measure, but supposedly a deal has been made to include that in a future DOT bill.

Meanwhile, DARPA is pursuing research on alternative positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) capabilities. One of these, reported several months ago in National Defense, is called Spatial, Temporal, and Orientation Information in Contested Environments (STOIC). It uses a different signal type than GPS, including very low-frequency signals, as does Loran. This program is now in Phase 3, field testing of low-frequency commercial receivers small enough to be used on vehicles. At least somebody is taking this need seriously.

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Good News and Bad News for FAA’s DataComm Program

One of the key components of the NextGen modernization plan is the introduction of digital messaging between pilots and controllers, referred to as DataComm. Replacing voice with text for routine communications will reduce errors due to mishearing words or noise on the frequency and will thereby increase air safety. It will also reduce delays, potentially leading to reduced fuel usage, and should also increase controller productivity.

The good news is that Phase 1 of the program, equipping control towers and commercial aircraft, was finished back in February—two years ahead of schedule and under budget. That means 57 larger airport control towers are now equipped (with seven more to come, based on airline requests). Phase 2 will begin equipping en-route centers with DataComm, with the first operations planned for next year. This is better performance than most FAA technology procurements.

But according to a DOT Office of Inspector General audit released in July, there are security risks in the system that FAA has not yet fixed. To be sure, the agency has identified what those risks are and developed “plans of action and milestones” (POA&M) to address those identified in the two DataComm systems that the OIG audited: Data Communications Network Services (DCNS) and Tower Data Link Services (TDL). But those plans have not yet been implemented, OIG found. They were both supposed to be finished by October 2017, but neither one is. The POA&M for DCNS has a new deadline of Dec. 31, 2018, some 14 months late. And the one for TDL has a new target date of March 31, 2019, which is 17 months late if the revised schedule for fixing the problems is met. Hence, OIG’s audit found that FAA “did not meet, reduce, or eliminate the vulnerabilities by the planned completion dates.”

Because the publicly released version of DOT FAA report FI2018059 understandably omits classified information about the “multiple security risks” in the two DataComm systems the audit discovered, ordinary readers have no way to judge how serious these risks are. But the fact that the implementation was rushed without a careful analysis of the risks that were being introduced suggests that the old adage of “haste makes waste” may have been operative here.

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News Notes

Aireon ALERT System Opens for Pre-Registration. With just one more launch to complete its constellation of satellites for space-based ADS-B surveillance, Aireon announced on August 24th that it is now encouraging ANSPs, aircraft operators, and others to pre-register for its forthcoming free global aircraft locating and emergency response tracking (ALERT) service. The planned operational date is the first quarter of 2019. ALERT will be operated out of the Irish Aviation Authority’s North Atlantic Communications Center in County Clare, Ireland. The service will provide the exact, last-known position of an aircraft in apparent distress or experiencing a loss of communication, anywhere on earth.

India Considering Nationwide Remote Tower Program. The Airports Authority of India has begun a study of the potential of implementing remote control tower facilities across much of the country. With air travel growing rapidly, the agency is planning to revive 50 regional airports over the next two years. To enhance these airports’ safety at a relatively modest cost, remote tower technology appears to be an attractive approach. Both Saab and Searidge have made presentations on remote towers in India recently, and Saab has estimated that remote towers would save between 15 and 50 percent of the cost of adding conventional towers at these airports.

Exemptions Loom from Europe’s ADS-B Equipage Mandate. The European Commission has announced that it is willing to consider large-aircraft exemptions from the June 2020 equipage deadline. A recent survey by the SESAR Deployment Manager found that only 20 percent of the 3,108 aircraft in the survey covered by the mandate were currently equipped—and most of those were recently acquired new planes. The European Aviation Safety Agency and European ANSPs will, therefore, confront a more complicated mixed fleet (some equipped, others not) in the years after 2020.

New FAA Visibility Standard Will Reduce Take-off Delays. The Wall Street Journal (July 27th) reported that new rules for take-offs during reduced visibility are being finalized by FAA, for implementation this fall. They will allow take-offs with only one-third or one-half the 1,000 ft. minimum visible runway distance now required. This would apply only to aircraft equipped with specific enhanced vision systems. The changes may have the greatest impact at smaller airports that lack advanced ground-based navaids, according to reporter Andy Pasztor. The new visibility rules for take-offs will be similar to existing visibility rules for landings.

Leonardo Adding Space-Based ADS-B to its ATM Software. Italian aerospace company Leonardo has signed a memorandum of understanding with Aireon, the provider of global space-based ADS-B surveillance as of next year. The MOU will add ADS-B data from Aireon to the other data sources being input to its LeadInSky air traffic management software. The ANSP of Italy, ENAV, is one of the shareholders in Aireon, along with the ANSPs of Canada, Denmark, Ireland, and the U.K.

Airlines and Airports Call for Deleting “Flag of Convenience” Provision. In a letter to members of Congress earlier this month, a coalition of airlines, airports, and aviation manufacturers called for removing from the House FAA bill Section 350 which would forbid non-U.S. airlines registered in a country other than their home country—dubbed “flag of convenience” operations—from operating in the United States. The coalition said this would override Open Skies provisions in effect with 125 countries and would prevent numerous foreign airlines from serving the United States. The measure has been lobbied for by aviation labor unions.

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Quotable Quotes

“[T] congressional authorization and appropriations processes have broken down, which makes it difficult to plan. During my tenure at the FAA, we never began a fiscal year with clarity on funding levels. Although the aviation industry pays dedicated fees and taxes, it is nevertheless still subject to annual appropriations and periodic longer-term authorization, neither of which has been done on a timely basis. Aviation and aerospace represent 5 percent of our nation’s gross domestic product and need the certainty of political funding to continue to fuel economic growth.”
—Michael P. Huerta, “It’s Time for an Honest Talk About Delivering Air Traffic Services,” Aviation Week, June-18/July 1, 2018

“Earlier this year we introduced a new electronic flight progress strip system into London Terminal Control. This was an enormous undertaking, years in the planning, not just from an engineering perspective but in terms of understanding and trying to mitigate the operational impact. You can’t introduce a major new system into one of the world’s busiest pieces of airspace without incurring some delay, and we spent months working with the airlines on ways to reduce that wherever possible. For each transition we offered tactical re-route scenarios to help avoid the worst of the delays. Most airlines took up the opportunity—and I’d like to thank them for their great engagement in the transition. But those that didn’t, suffered comparatively poorer on-time performance as a result, and then complained the loudest after the event.”
—Martin Rolfe, CEO of NATS, “Breaking Out of the Blame Cycle,” Air Traffic Management, Quarter 3, 2018

“I have said many times that there is no precedent for the US government to operate and control the private industry of air transportation as it does with ATC. I include both GA and commercial as privately operated air transportation. The federal government operates the system 24x7x365 that controls the daily operation of a private industry. Regulation is one thing, but control over each operation is unprecedented. It is analogous to having the federal government take over the operation of our Interstate highway system. One could argue that the highways would be safer, all users would have equal access, and the operation would represent the most economical manner of system operation. . . . As a GA pilot, I understand the fear that ‘privatized ATC’ might expose GA to higher costs and restricted access, but these are issues that can be worked out in the details. Doesn’t the electric power industry operate the power grid (privately)? Have users of electricity (private or commercial) been inequitably singled out for service denial or higher costs? Have private users of the Interstate highway system suffered inequity or higher costs? I think the GA community should at least consider the privatization proposals and let some of the details be worked out before crying that it won’t work.”
—James H. Cistone, Ph.D., email to the editor, July 31, 2018 (used with permission)

“[T]he idea that a number of [small] airports can be served and consolidated into one remote tower center offers additional benefits. There will still be one controller available for one airport, but the concept increases the flexibility of staffing and will help to make operations more efficient. In air route traffic control centers, sectors are opened and closed in line with traffic demand and weather forecasts. We expect a similar concept of operations to be implemented in the future for remote tower centers.”
—Markus Klopf, “Rethinking ATC Towers,” Airport Business, August/September 2018

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