Air Traffic Control Newsletter #158

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #158

Some progress on GPS-based landing systems, new thinking on drone traffic management, FAA reauthorization, and more.

In this issue:

FAA Reauthorization Finally Enacted, Three Years Late

What if you ran a high-tech 24/7 business, such as mobile telecommunications, freight logistics management, or Uber—and your regulator dithered for three years before approving needed changes in your operations and your much-needed capital-investment plans? You would obviously conclude that this was a dysfunctional way to operate. That, incidentally, was the conclusion of the first three well-qualified people hired to run the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization: Russ Chew, Hank Krakowski, and David Grizzle, all of whom endorsed getting the ATO out of the federal budget as a self-supporting nonprofit corporation.

So while everyone in US aviation breathed a sigh of relief when Congress finally approved the long-delayed FAA reauthorization bill last month, this is still a ridiculous way to run a high-tech 24/7 service business. The previous authorization expired on Sept. 30, 2015. For the three years between then and now, Congress passed five extensions of the previous law, ranging in length from 3.5 to 14.5 months. They were just too busy to deal with the FAA, which is a rounding error in the overall federal budget. And if you think that’s bad, recall that the previous FAA authorization that expired Sept. 30, 2007, required 23 separate extensions before a reauthorization was finally agreed to in January 2012.

What finally passed last month—while addressing an array of airline passenger questions and new policies relating to drones—is basically status quo for the Air Traffic Organization. The capital investment portion (called Facilities & Equipment) is authorized at $3.398 billion for FY 2019, a meager 2% increase. And over the remainder of the five-year reauthorization period, further annual increases range between 2.0% and 2.2%. FAA will tell you that they got what they requested here—but what that means is that they got what the White House Office of Management & Budget allowed them to ask for. Moreover, they cannot be sure of getting even that, since in each of those five years, the Appropriations committees in both houses of Congress must agree on how much will actually be approved to be spent. In keeping with the status-quo approach, the reauthorization leaves the existing aviation excise tax structure unchanged for the next five years.

And why did it take three years for Congress to actually get around to enacting this bill? One reason is that now that Congress (unlike the rest of us) basically works only a three-day week, there is far less time on the congressional calendar than there used to be. But another reason is that since a bill to enable federal aviation safety regulation and the operation of the ATC system eventually becomes “must-pass” legislation, it often ends up as a kind of Christmas tree for unrelated measures.

For example, many months of delay occurred over a provision calling for federal pre-emption of a California law that mandates certain rest and meal breaks for truck drivers. Along the way, a list of 46 amendments, selected from a much larger list for a Senate “manager’s amendment,” included:

  • Creation of a Concrete Masonry Products Board;
  • Requiring DHS to report on airports where planes from Iran’s Mahan Air operate;
  • Codifying TSA’s practice of granting automatic membership in PreCheck to active-duty military personnel;
  • Requiring TSA to improve the security of public charter operations to and from Cuba;
  • Requiring airports to install baby-changing tables in restrooms;
  • Requiring lactation rooms at airports; and,
  • Allowing AIP funds to be used for snow-removal equipment storage sheds.

As you can see in the above examples, a number of the amendments do not relate to FAA at all, but impose requirements on the Department of Homeland Security and/or TSA. And in the final negotiations on the FAA bill, a whole section that reauthorizes the TSA (for the first time in its history) was added to the bill

If you think the U.S. air traffic control system is fine, you can relax for the next five years. But if you agree with me that the status quo is dysfunctional, we have five years to figure out how to convey this to the portion of the aviation community that still does not understand this, and to create broader support for change within the business community and among the general public.

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Some Progress on GPS-Based Landing Systems

One of the most promising improvements in ATC technology is the GPS-based landing system called GBAS (ground-based augmentation system). It is more accurate and more cost-effective than legacy ILS (instrument landing systems), but despite having been certified in Australia, Germany, and the United States, it’s in use at only a handful of U.S. airports. That is because despite approving GBAS, for some reason FAA is unwilling to fund its purchase and installation at airports, as it continues to do with ILS.

There is good news on this front, as reported in Aviation Week’s Sept. 17-30 issue. First, Honeywell (the only certified U.S. GBAS producer) has perfected the very high-precision Category III version, though it is not yet in production because too few aircraft are equipped to use it. The second piece of good news is that Boeing has delivered 3,500 airliners with GBAS-compatible avionics (now standard on 747-8, 777, and 787) capable of Category I and Category II landings. GBAS avionics are also offered on the newer versions of the 737 series. And Airbus offers Cat. I GPS-landing avionics on the A320 family, A330, A350, and A 380. The third piece of good news is that more U.S. airports are going forward with acquiring GBAS to replace obsolescent ILS. Besides the already-operational Houston Intercontinental and Newark Liberty systems, those now planning to implement GBAS include New York’s Kennedy and LaGuardia, as well as Seattle. The Aviation Week story also revealed that GBAS is installed and operational at Charleston, South Carolina (which also serves a Boeing assembly plant), Moses Lake, Washington (used for Boeing test flights), and Johnson County Executive Airport in Olathe, KS (used by Honeywell for testing).

Given the superiority of GBAS, FAA’s continued devotion to ILS remains something of a mystery. As I chronicled in my 2014 Hudson Institute Policy study (“Organization and Innovation in Air Traffic Control”), GBAS began as a privately researched effort, with Honeywell and Raytheon doing the initial R&D, and FedEx contributing to the development effort. By 1998 enough progress had been demonstrated that FAA launched its own development program, called Local Area Augmentation System (LAAS). In 2003 the DOT Office of Inspector General reported that LAAS was experiencing significant technical problems and was unlikely to be capable of handling Cat. II and Cat. III landings. The next year FAA pulled the plug, but Honeywell and others continued R&D using their own funds.

By 2007, a Honeywell prototype (Cat. I) was in test operation at Sydney. FAA certified this version in 2009, but only as a “non-federal” system. Hence, airports that want to implement GBAS have to buy and install it themselves, which Houston and Newark did—as did a number of major airports overseas. The Aviation Week article includes a long list of such airports, including Bremen and Frankfurt in Germany, Zürich, Malaga-Costa del Sol in Spain, both Melbourne and Sydney in Australia, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Gimpo in South Korea, Shanghai Pudong in China, Chennai International in India, and Galeao in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Given the advantages of GBAS over ILS, observers still wonder why it has not been made part of FAA’s NextGen modernization program. As I have noted previously, a single GBAS provides precision guidance for up to 48 approach procedures at all of an airport’s runways, compared with the need for a separate ILS for each end of every runway. GBAS can also serve runways that cannot use ILS due to geographic constraints. It seems like an obvious component of a more accurate and more cost-effective ATC system.

One of the objections FAA cited back in 2004 in cancelling LAAS was that it was unlikely to ever be capable of providing Cat. II/III precision. But that capability has now been demonstrated, and Boeing and Airbus will be offering it on their latest production models. The NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC) seems sold on GBAS, as being beneficial for offering lower-noise approaches, reducing weather-related delays in which ILS cannot operate, and hence increasing effective runway capacity. Why doesn’t FAA get on board with GBAS?

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What Ever Happened to Facility Consolidation?

Back in July, I read an article by Frank Frisbie and James Cistone, “A House Built on Sand,” in the Summer issue of The Journal of Air Traffic Control. In the piece, they referred to the original NAS Plan of 1981 (a.k.a. the Brown Book), which called for both reduced reliance on ground-based infrastructure and consolidating ATC facilities. Emails to both authors produced references to various documents with specifics of what was proposed, both in the Brown Book and much later in the JPDO’s initial research and analysis to develop the modernization plan we know as NextGen. Here is what I learned.

Unfortunately, the original Brown Book is not online, but since Congress required annual progress reports, I was able to obtain a copy of the 1989 update from Suzette Matthews (who had also worked on early NextGen planning). That document still reflected the original plan’s concept of replacing centers and TRACONs with consolidated Area Control Facilities. As noted on p. III-1, “The present artificial boundary between en-route and terminal air traffic control will be increasingly eliminated as the NAS Plan is implemented.” And the next page adds, “The new computers, software programs, and displays now being developed will be capable of providing both en-route and terminal services. This will enable the agency to consolidate and reduce the number of facilities needed.” And a bit further on, “The capability of the system to support both en-route and terminal functions allows for consolidation into area control facilities.” A 2005 paper for the Transportation Research Forum (TRF), by Arthur Shantz and Matthew Hampton of the DOT Inspector General’s Office, reported that the 1983 plan called for just 23 area control facilities, replacing all domestic and oceanic centers and TRACONs.

The 1989 Brown Book update provided some specific goals for increased productivity increases. For example, on page I-4, one goal was to increase the productivity of controllers and flight service specialists by a factor of at least two between 1980 and 2000, with a goal for the year 2000 of 10,982 flight operations per position per year. Shantz and Hampton reported that the actual number for 2000 was just 6,171 operations, and that the estimated number for 2004 was an even-lower 5,576. Productivity at en-route centers was somewhat higher, at an average of 7,297 in 2000 (but decreasing to an estimated 6,274 in 2004).

Against this background of failed accomplishment, the team assembled by the JPDO to develop the plans for NextGen thought even bigger. Again, the assumption was that advanced technology and facility consolidation would lead to significant gains in productivity. Matthews described their plan as replacing all ATC centers and TRACONs with three national ATC facilities: east, center, and west, each able to control the entire airspace. (This is similar to what Australia and the U.K. have done, about a decade ago.) There would be no sector or regional boundaries. The function of air traffic controllers would evolve to become airspace managers.

Once again, however, the actual NextGen program has ignored facility consolidation, despite some initial discussions within FAA about a decade ago. Although most of the existing TRACONs and centers are aging and in need of replacement, the FAA’s inability to finance large-scale development of new replacement facilities, combined with understandable resistance from controllers opposed to being required to move to consolidated facilities, seems to have deep-sixed that major portion of the original NextGen concept.

In assessing what was already going wrong as of 2005, Shantz and Hampton noted that “NAS modernization architecture and project designs have been consistently subverted by requirements growth, development delays, cost escalations, and inadequate benefits management. But all these things were symptomatic of the fact that FAA didn’t think it needed to reduce operating costs.”

And that is a great disservice to those who operate aircraft in the National Airspace System.

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Another Lawsuit Over FAA Biographical Assessment

Last month a college graduate with two aviation-related degrees filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in Texas, alleging that FAA illegally discriminated against the best-qualified applicants to become air traffic controllers, by requiring all applicants to first “pass” a newly created Biographical Assessment. Lucas Johnson filed suit on behalf of himself and up to 28,000 other applicants who took the BA, were told they did not pass it, and were thereby disqualified from further consideration.

National news media covered this issue when it first became known in 2014, and Fox Business in 2015 documented that the National Black Coalition of FAA Employees had worked with the FAA Human Resources office to change the controller recruitment process, which had always been based on qualifications. The suit alleges that the BA was never properly validated and was used to eliminate well-qualified applicants based on race. It maintains that “FAA ignored qualified veterans, college graduates with aviation degrees, pilots, and other applicants with substantial aviation experience.” It further claims that the BA “was specifically designed to favor those who performed poorly in science, had not been employed for over three years prior to taking the exam, and who lacked aviation experience and penalize those who had prior military, aviation, air traffic control, or college aviation experience.” A related lawsuit is underway by the Mountain States Legal Foundation.

I don’t know if all the specific claims in the new lawsuit can be documented, but even prior to the introduction of the BA in 2014, there is a long history of FAA efforts to promote diversity in its workforce, at least some of which has raised safety questions. Below is a story related to me by a former FAA manager and contractor on FAA projects, now in private industry. I take it seriously because I have known this individual for many years and respect his knowledge of ATC technology and programs. He also told me of an individual whom I also know and respect who witnessed the episode described here as a contractor, prior to going to work for FAA.

“A female technician at the SFO tower had been a secretary and had no technical training. Through the [FAA] diversity office, she was moved into the technician workforce as a trainee in 1993. I ran into her while installing ASDE-3 and AMASS at SFO in 1995. She had become a GS-9 technician through a ‘rubber stamping’ process and substandard qualifications. She succeeded in blowing up most of the test equipment and strained that budget to the point that she was not allowed to use it. One day the ILS alarm kept going off (meaning the Cat. II was malfunctioning). She then put a rubber band around the reset toggle switch so that it was held in the up position. This kept the alarm from sounding; in her mind, problem fixed. The supervisor, a bright hard-working retired E8 Navy technician, chastised her for this unsafe action, and he was disciplined—so good luck having him discipline her again.”

I cannot verify this as true, but my source has no reason to make it up. To the extent that anything like this happens, the safety of aircraft and passengers in the system is put at risk. So how can something like this occur, without corrective action being taken? I don’t know the answer, but this is another example of the need for arm’s-length regulation of air traffic control, rather than the self-regulation within FAA that could allow situations like this—and the use of the Biographical Assessment—to put “diversity” ahead of aviation safety.

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New Thinking on UAS Traffic Management

Back in 2015 at the Air Traffic Control Association’s annual meeting, I heard a presentation by Google’s Dave Vos on small unmanned aerial systems (UASs). To the surprise of most of us in the room, he did not propose somehow extending the FAA air traffic control system down to ground level to manage thousands of small UASs. Instead, Google’s vision was that those flying below 500 ft. above ground level would interface with multiple local airspace service providers. Those providers would register the vehicles, interface with ATC when/where necessary, provide users with airspace data, and keep the UASs from colliding or intruding into restricted areas.

In the three years since then, that approach has become the mainstream view. NASA continues to work on concepts for UAS traffic management (UTM), and FAA has begun contracting with multiple providers of Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) services called USSs (UAS Service Suppliers). The first two USSs approved by FAA were AirMap and Verizon’s Skyward. LAANC is considered a precursor to an eventual NASA-developed UTM.

But the field is wide open for fresh thinking on what UTM should consist of. MITRE is doing research on various communications and surveillance concepts and has concluded that ADS-B will likely be unable to handle huge numbers of small UASs due to co-channel interference. It is looking into the possible use of 4G or 5G wireless communication for low-altitude surveillance, but says that some kind of UAS-to-UAS surveillance will be needed for UAS operations above 500 ft. and below about 2,000 ft. That may be the airspace targeted by air-taxi UAS operators.

The most interesting approach I have seen is the Altiscope Blueprint—a proposed UTM roadmap developed by Airbus’s A3 operation in Silicon Valley. It begins with the premise that between urban package delivery and air taxi services, the UTM system below 2,000 ft. must be able to cope with huge numbers of UASs—e.g. up to 11,000 flights per hour of UAS air taxis during peak periods in large urban areas. As outlined by Graham Warwick in Aviation Week (Oct. 1-14, 2018), Altiscope suggests two sets of rules, analogous to conventional aviation’s VFR and IFR. They would be Basic Flight Rules (BFR) and Managed Flight Rules (MFR). The former would be based on self-separation, in which UAS operators take full responsibility, but this will be possible only in low-density areas. MFR requires flights to coordinate their trajectory with a (not the) traffic management service.

In high-demand (especially urban) low-altitude airspace, flight corridors will need to be defined, each managed by a single traffic service. Regulators would certify providers of “microservices” such as flight tracking or fleet management. A detect-and-avoid (DAA) capability for UASs would serve as a backup to the traffic management services, much as TCAS provides a backup to prevent collisions that ATC has failed to prevent.

Finally, the Blueprint envisions progress occurring at various levels, defined as follows:

  • Level 0: visual line-of-sight UAS operation, no automation.
  • Level 1: basic detect-and-avoid to enable beyond-visual-line-of-sight operation.
  • Level 2: autonomous beyond-visual flight in low-density airspace.
  • Level 3: conditional automation, with BFR and MFR plus DAA, to permit some flights into controlled airspace.
  • Level 4: high automation, with certified autonomy, fleets that self-coordinate, and corridor control services in high-density airspace.
  • Level 5: on-demand operations in high-density airspace, with UASs certified for all phases of flight.

The Blueprint is visionary, and may or may not be what actually evolves. But it exemplifies the consensus that traditional air traffic control will not be extended down to very low altitudes. Rather, various companies will provide traffic and coordination services for specific locations and levels of operation. And if these ideas prove themselves at low altitudes, might they eventually inspire new models for air traffic management at higher altitudes?

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News Notes

FAA Will Evaluate Aireon’s Space-Based ADS-B . At the annual meeting of the Air Traffic Control Association, Acting Administrator Dan Elwell announced that FAA will evaluate the use of space-based ADS-B in oceanic airspace. He said the agency “is working toward a funding decision” that would likely involve becoming a subscriber to Aireon’s service, which other ANSPs have been signing up for. According to Aviation Daily (Oct. 2, 2018), the first phase will evaluate space-based ADS-B in the Caribbean next year, with the second phase being to integrate space-based ADS-B into the ATOP automation system used for oceanic airspace at the Anchorage, Oakland, and New York centers. And the third phase will be operational testing by airlines in oceanic airspace.

Frequentis Awarded First U.S. Military Remote Tower. The Defense Department has selected Frequentis to provide what appears to be the world’s first use of remote towers for military service. The contract calls for two fixed-base remote virtual tower centers, as well as two deployable systems for U.S. Air Force use. The combination will permit controllers to be located out of harm’s way while controlling traffic using the suite of sensing devices of the field-deployable systems. The first fixed base installation will be in Florida; the other location has not been announced.

Advanced Radar Concept Loses One Application. The highly ambitious four-agency plan to develop an all-purpose radar just lost one of its four participants. Called Spectrum Efficient National Surveillance Radar (SENSR), the effort was launched several years ago by the FAA, the Defense Department, Homeland Security Department, and NOAA. Spurred on by the opportunity to free up a huge block of valuable spectrum for commercial uses, the SENSR concept called for replacing all of FAA’s radars, all of DOD’s radars (used also by DHS), and both the Weather Service’s Nexrad weather radars and FAA’s Terminal Doppler Weather Radars. But NOAA has decided that the technology needed for those radars’ replacement is not ready. The SENSR Technical Panel has agreed to NOAA’s departure from the program. Despite this simplification, I remain skeptical about this one-size-fits-all approach, which could turn out as badly as DOD’s TFX and F-35 programs and NASA’s space shuttle.

FAA Adding Taxiway Landing Detection at Airports. In response to the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board on several near-disasters (e.g., the 2017 case at SFO when an Air Canada aircraft nearly landed on top of four airliners waiting on a taxiway), FAA has announced plans to modify the ASDE-X systems installed at 35 major airports to detect such impending conflicts. ASDE-X will be modified over the next two years to add a Taxiway Arrival Prediction capability. This would give controllers both visual and audible alerts if any arriving plane is within 3,000 ft. or 20 seconds of landing on a taxiway. The goal is for the systems all to be in operation by Sept. 30, 2020.

FAA Launches New ADS-B Rebates for General Aviation Aircraft. In an effort to get more of the GA fleet equipped with ADS-B/Out by the January 1, 2020 deadline, FAA has announced a new $4.9 million program under which rebates will be available to owners of GA aircraft. The program is aimed at assisting equipage of 9,800 planes, according to the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association. That works out to $500 per aircraft. FAA Acting Administrator Dan Elwell reaffirmed the equipage deadline, following which unequipped planes will not be allowed in controlled airspace. What part of Best-Equipped/Best-Served did these lagging pilots miss?

Model Planes Re-defined as Drones in FAA Reauthorization. Model aircraft enthusiasts are likely not pleased that the 2012 regulation exempting model planes from most FAA regulations has been repealed. The FAA bill signed into law this month replaces the old Sec. 336 with a new Sec. 349 that redefines model planes as “unmanned aircraft” that can be exempted from some UAS regulations only if they meet eight requirements, which includes the operator passing a test and the model plane being registered and marked so that it and its owner can be identified in case of mishaps.

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Quotable Quotes

“I think space-based ADS-B is a natural evolution of the technology developments we’ve seen over the decades. I think it’s going to be the wave of air traffic control in the future.” —Acting Administrator Dan Elwell, in Bill Carey, “FAA Plans Phased Evaluation of Space-Based ADS-B,” Aviation Daily, Oct. 2, 2018

“I was part of the JPDO discussions on NGATS/NextGen. In the cost estimate and cost/benefit analysis performed in the mid-2000s, there was facility consolidation considered. However, it was not highlighted in the reporting due to the anticipated [negative] response. . . . When the National Airspace System was ‘created,’ there were technology limitations (mostly in communications) that required the geographic distribution of NAS facilities for air traffic control Just as was the case with Flight Service Stations, those limitations are gone today. There is no technological reason why a person sitting in New Jersey could not control aircraft flying over Oregon.” —James Cistone, email to Robert Poole, July 31, 2018 (used with permission)

“Controllers who have worked in VFR towers without radar displays have learned to sequence airport traffic with pilot reports and traffic advisories. No one has ever been able to see a single-engine aircraft beyond a mile and a half, until the advent of tower radar displays. . . . Controllers have become so dependent on radar that they no longer have the skills to provide VFR ATC services without it. [Even so,] this [remote tower] system without radar is a quantum safety leap over the chaos of a non-tower airport with the traffic activity of Leesburg. This remote tower would have been approved by now, except for the FAA bureaucrats who are afraid to sign off on almost any changes.” —Ed Drury, retired controller/manager and aviation consultant, email to Robert Poole, Sept. 24, 2018 (used with permission)

“The EU is threatening to ban the UK from using the more-accurate sectors of the Galileo satellite navigation system when we leave the EU. . . . It is not clear why the UK feels the need to start a feasibility study into a UK system that would be independent from the others, when the sky is already becoming saturated with satellite positioning and timing systems. Would it not be better to invest the money into a back-up navigation and timing system that would be available if terrorists or enemy nations decided to jam the satellite signals? [GPS] signals are extremely weak, like looking at a 100-watt light bulb from 100 miles away, so they are relatively easy to jam or [spoof]. There are many experts in this field who have been calling for a back-up system, and one is readily available in the form of the terrestrial-based system called e-Loran. It is claimed to offer much the same sort of accuracy as [GPS], but be very hard if not impossible to jam. Such a system covering the British Isles and adjacent waters would reassure current navigators and those who are using the accurate timing of GPS, such as communications suppliers, power supply operators, and even the stock market.” —Dag Pike, Royal Institute of Navigation, Letters to the Editor, The Daily Telegraph, Aug. 31, 2018

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