Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #30

Topics include: preconditions for implementing NGATS; the Cost of collecting user fees; GPS navigation going nationwide; more on out-of-control facilities; and next-generation controllers.

In this issue:

Institutional Reforms Needed for Next-Generation ATC System

The high-level inter-agency group charged with defining the next-generation air transportation system (NGATS) has set a very challenging target: triple the capacity of the ATC system by 2025. So far, it’s made good progress defining a concept based on network-enabled operations with far greater use of information and automation to separate routine traffic, with the controller role becoming mostly a resolver of problems rather than a micro-manager of traffic. But getting from here to there involves huge challenges, including getting rid of no-longer-needed facilities and assembling the funding needed for about 15 years of $2-4 billion per year in capital investment . . . all while continuing to operate the changing ATC system safely. And all of this is hugely compounded by the FAA’s emerging funding shortfall.

One of the best reports I’ve read on this subject emerged last month from consulting firm Aviation Management Associates. “The ‘No New Money’ Scenario for the Next Generation Air Transportation System” was written by Michael J. Harrison, formerly FAA’s Director of Architecture and Systems Engineering. It begins by looking realistically at the Air Traffic Organization’s likely expenses and revenues from FY 2006 through 2012. Assuming (correctly, in my view) that neither Congress nor the White House will agree to an increase in general fund support for FAA, it projects a cumulative shortfall of $2 billion by 2012—before any monies are spent on NGATS capital investments. Assuming an aggressive start on NGATS in 2008-09, the cumulative shortfall by 2012 is over $19 billion. (And 2012 is a long way from 2025!)

The balance of the report is a serious assessment of where to find savings that could pay for the NGATS capital investment. It looks for major changes that will be needed, in any event, by NGATS and calls for an aggressive schedule for implementing them. It includes:

  • Sweeping redesign of the airspace to facilitate the consolidation of ATC facilities;
  • Major facility consolidation, combining 21 centers and 171 TRACONs into 35 service hubs;
  • Expanding the contract tower program for low-activity towers and consolidating many larger towers into one of the 35 service hubs;
  • Retirement of most existing ground-based navigation aids (navaids) by 2010, retaining only a backbone (backup) set of VORs in the event of trouble with GPS;
  • Consolidation of FAA regional offices from nine to three;
  • Leasing, rather than owning, telecommunications infrastructure;
  • Leasing out sites of closed navaids for uses such as cell towers, to generate ongoing revenue.

Harrison estimates the annual savings in 2010 would be $3.2 billion, about 75% of the $4.1 billion shortfall previously estimated for that year.

The report’s closing sections acknowledge that Congress is likely to be a huge obstacle to such an effort, resisting the consolidation of facilities and regional offices (jobs in my district) and wanting to protect all existing programs from cuts or elimination (vendors and campaign contributors in my district). So Harrison calls on the aviation community to quit wasting time pleading for increased general funding (not gonna happen) and to focus instead on presenting a unified front in favor of ATC reform.

This is a very important piece of work. But it also illustrates the limitations of trying to implement a major paradigm shift and a nearly two decade-long modernization program in a highly politicized environment. Since an epic battle with Congress will be necessary in any event, why not go for the whole enchilada: transforming the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO) into a user-funded, user-governed ATC provider that can go to the capital markets for the tens of billions needed? That way, the political battle need be fought only once—during the FY 2007 reauthorization—rather than over every year’s appropriations bill. Thereafter, the ATO corporate entity will be empowered to redesign airspace, consolidate facilities, terminate unneeded programs and launch the ones needed for NGATS, under the guidance of a board of directors made up of aviation stakeholders.

Note: this report is not on-line but can be obtained directly from its author:

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Would ATC User Fees Be Costly to Collect?

In a recent address to the Air Transport Association of Canada, the head of the U.S. Air Transport Association, Jim May, said a system of user fees is the best and most equitable way to pay for ATC services. Moreover, having users pay the provider directly for ATC will give the provider “independence of action and thought” thanks to operational and funding independence.

But during the same 10-day period, the two principal U.S. general aviation groups-the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) and the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association (AOPA)-both held national events in Florida, at which user fees were attacked. This is nothing new, but one of the arguments now being heard from these quarters is relatively new: that it would cost an arm and a leg to collect the user fees; therefore we should stick with the tried and true fuel tax for general aviation.

Fortunately, we don’t have to speculate about how much it costs to bill users for ATC. We can actually observe how this is being done in the more than 40 countries with commercialized systems, such as Canada and most of Europe.

  • In Canada, Nav Canada tells me it costs them an average of $1.75 per flight to do the billing, which is done monthly for planes over 3 metric tons (most of which are operated by fleets). For a typical airliner ATC fee of around $1,000, that is less than two tenths of one percent in billing costs. Most GA planes, which are smaller than that, pay a small annual or quarterly fee.
  • In Europe, en-route charges are billed and collected (on behalf of the various ATC providers) by Eurocontrol. The annual cost of the billing operation is E17.9 million—on a dollar volume of E5.7 billion—or three tenths of one percent.

As for customer satisfaction, Nav Canada claims a billing error rate of only a few tenths of one percent. And that seems borne out by the head of the Canadian Business Aviation Association, Rich Gage. When I interviewed him several months ago, he reported essentially no complaints from his members about late or incorrect bills (see Issue #27).

Now, none of this suggests that if the FAA, as it exists today, were to somehow get the authority to charge user fees for ATC, it would be comparably efficient. Rather, this is what customers should expect from a commercialized ATC provider, as the ATO could and should become.

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ADS-B Going Nationwide

One of the key concepts for a network-centric air traffic management system is the ability of everyone in the system to have the same real-time information available. At present, pilots of commercial planes have no display of other traffic, and controllers see only the returns from the radars in their particular sector of airspace. But GPS in principle makes it possible for everyone to know where all the traffic is, more accurately than with radar, and with much greater information-sharing.

A key enabling technology for this purpose is called ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance—broadcast). Each equipped plane broadcasts its GPS position continuously, and can receive both traffic information and weather information on a graphic display. Every new Airbus and Boeing airliner these days comes equipped with this capability, and it’s available for general aviation planes, as well. UPS has outfitted a large portion of its fleet with ADS-B and is using it to better sequence flights landing at its major hub in Louisville.

The FAA has moved slowly in putting in the needed ground stations, first running a pilot program in Alaska aimed at general aviation and more recently installing some east coast stations. But last week’s Aviation Week carried a full-page story announcing that FAA’s Joint Resource Council had approved nationwide deployment of some 400 ground stations over the next decade. This will permit 200 or more radars to be decommissioned, saving some $2 billion over the next 20-25 years.

But the cost savings are only the beginning of the benefits. Because ADS-B can report aircraft positions to +/-23 feet (compared with ¼ to ½ mile for radar), it should be possible to reduce separations between planes down to one mile from the current 3-5 miles. That’s critical to expanding the capacity of the ATC system. And the system will provide coverage not just at high altitudes (up to 60,000 ft.) but all the way down to 1,000 ft.

ADS-B is one aspect of ATC modernization that just about everybody wants-including general aviation. In the Alaska pilot program, called Capstone, the agency gave onboard ADS-B receivers and displays to 300 private plane owners, and the GA community greatly benefited from the increased safety the system has made possible. In Australia, where most of the Outback (like Alaska) has no radar coverage, the commercialized ATC provider, Airservices Australia, is implementing nationwide ADS-B. But to be truly effective, all planes must be equipped to send and receive the signals. So Airservices has asked vendors to quote prices for a bulk-purchase order of small-plane units. It has not said whether it will give, lease, or sell these units—or perhaps give discounts on ATC charges to pilots that buy and install them.

Given its budget woes, as well as its status as a government department, I just can’t see the FAA doing a nationwide ADS-B give-away to several hundred thousand private pilots. But if a corporatized ATO were to decide that the business case were there (due to much quicker elimination of costly ground radars and other navigation aids), who knows what might be possible.

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Out-of-Control Centers: a Postscript

I continue to get feedback from current and retired FAA managers about the problems of ATC facilities where management has lost effective control. Here is one more that I thought worth sharing.

“The ‘bizarre management/labor relationship’ [referred to last issue] goes much deeper. There is a management agenda that will not allow bad managers to be disciplined or fired. Solve that internal FAA problem and then maybe you can work on labor relations. I was a manager in a field facility, and when I documented inefficiencies in the ATC system, I could not even get my facts out of the facility. Once when I did have a face-to-face with the Regional Quality Assurance Manager at my facility in my office, I swear his expression was a ‘deer in the headlights.’ And the outcome of that meeting was that nothing was ever investigated. He has since been promoted to another regional office. . . .What happened in Dallas is all too often the tip of the iceberg. Most FAA managers and supervisors are reluctant to take disciplinary action or corrective action, because once attempted, they get to know very quickly that their input is not welcome.”

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Next-Generation Air Traffic Controllers

Everyone knows that the majority of the controller work force will be retiring over the next decade or so, and the FAA has embarked on a major program to hire and train their replacements. But what kind of people should they choose, and how should they be trained?

In August, the Air Traffic Control Association held a day-long conference on “ATC Training for the Future.” Alas, according to reporter Andrew Wood, nearly all the speakers assumed ATC-as-usual and hence recruitment and training more or less as usual. The exception was George Donohue, director of the Center for Air Transportation Systems Research at George Mason University. His provocative presentation suggested that the core competencies needed for controllers in our future ATC system will be quite different from those of today, and that recruits should have at least a B.S. from an accredited university and coursework in economics, statistics and probability, network control theory, safety and risk management, and other technical subjects.

Donohue knows whereof he speaks, having once been FAA’s Associate Administrator for Research and Acquisition as well as being a licensed pilot. He argued that today’s controller training, which stresses memorizing standard rules and procedures, will just not hack it in a network-centric system in which tactical separation of planes will be done routinely by pilots, while strategic flow control decisions will require more sophisticated knowledge and judgment than is typical of controller jobs today. And he noted that the need to replace more than half the current work force in the near future offers a one-time window of opportunity to change both the selection criteria and the curriculum.

The conference apparently did not delve into the question of how many controllers would be needed in 2025, when NGATS hopes to have tripled ATC capacity. But clearly scaling up today’s labor-intensive system to three times the workforce is both unworkable and unaffordable. The ability to automate many of the routine aspects of aircraft separation is essential to expanding capacity affordably. And that, in turn, requires a different kind of person for the job now known as “controller.”

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News Notes

Outsourcing Upper Airspace Management. Commercialized ATC provider Airservices Australia has landed another overseas ATC contract. This time, it will provide en-route ATC services for planes flying above 29,000 feet over Papua New Guinea (PNG), under a three-year contract. The service will be paid for by a weight-distance charge on all overflights. Airservices is accepting liability relating to incidents in that airspace. It will also help PNG’s Civil Aviation Authority rebuild its training programs at the now-defunct Civil Aviation College in Port Moresby.

Turkey Joins CANSO. DHMI, the air navigation service provider for Turkey, became a full member of the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO) last spring. That brings membership in this relatively new association of commercialized ATC providers to 42.

Nav Canada and Apptis Join Forces. Information-technology provider Apptis has made a deal with Nav Canada to market the latter’s ATC technology in the United States. The systems involved are the converging runway display technology called VAST (operational at Calgary airport) and the scheduling and sequencing system SASS (in operational evaluation at Toronto airport). Both systems increase effective airport capacity.

NATS Wins 16th Control Tower Contract. Under the UK’s decentralized approach to ATC, control towers are the responsibility of each airport and may be operated either in-house or by an ATC service provider. In October Bristol International Airport selected NATS, the part-privatized national ATC provider, to operate tower and approach control services there. It is the 16th such contract for NATS in the UK.

Airservices Aids India. The Airports Authority of India has contracted with Airservices Australia to help improve ATC safety standards at Delhi and Mumbai (Bombay) International Airports, which are in the process of being privatized. This is a follow-on to a previous Airservices contract to help AAI develop a corporate strategy management framework and ATC safety management system manual.

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Quotable Quote

“A whole new way of managing [air] traffic must be created for there to be any hope of tripling system capacity, and that is what the current growth rate of traffic requires. . . . The cost of air navigation services must be reduced. The volume of air traffic that can be handled must increase. And if aviation stakeholders merely try to defend turf or protect advantages under the status quo, the results will be economically disastrous.”

-Editorial, Aviation Week, Oct. 24, 2005

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