Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #53

Topics include: ATC reform and emission reduction; GPS landing systems here now; new book challenging US aviation; getting NextGen implemented; and other news.

ATC Reform Is Key to Reducing Emissions

Aviation accounts for about 3% of global CO2 emissions, but that share is expected to increase as a more-affluent world makes greater use of air travel and air cargo. Radical greens want to curtail aviation growth, but more sensible people are pointing to the great potential of next-generation air traffic management to reduce emissions. CO2 is directly proportional to fuel burn, and with jet fuel prices at all-time highs, aircraft operators have a powerful incentive to go green by reducing fuel use. Fortunately, ATC reform-both organizational and technological– provides many ways to do this.

In Europe, the fragmentation of airspace based on national boundaries makes it almost impossible to fly optimal routes from origin to destination, a major goal of the Single European Sky (SES) reform plans. The International Air Transport Association estimates that this kind of inefficiency in Europe results in 12% wasted fuel and additional CO2 emissions, most of which could be eliminated if SES can be achieved.

The 20th-century paradigm of air traffic control-in which planes must fly on a limited number of fixed airways, with huge separations in all three dimensions-is also at fault. A whole raft of demonstrations is under way in various parts of the world, showing how next-generation technology can do better. Here are a few examples.

  • Airservices Australia’s Brisbane Green project is using precision RNP (required navigation performance) arrival routes to reduce the time and distance to land at Brisbane. In the first-year trial, using Qantas 737s, the average RNP approach saved 279 lbs. of fuel (and 887 lbs. of CO2). Other airlines and more types of planes will be added in the project’s second and third years. (
  • In tests of 4-D arrivals at Stockholm, SAS 737s saved 220 lbs. of fuel per landing (and SAS expects significantly greater savings as it refines the technique).
  • Airbus has been testing closely-spaced in-trail climb procedures using ADS-B for trans-Atlantic flights; they estimate fuel savings of 370 lbs. per climb-out.
  • Optimal altitudes for trans-Atlantic flights could save up to 1,700 lbs. of fuel per flight, according to Airbus, which would mean about 5,400 lbs. less CO2 emitted.
  • And in Airservices Australia’s long-haul flex-track routes between the Middle East and Sydney or Melbourne, the average flight is saving 2,334 lbs. of fuel, thanks to very flexible routings to take best advantage of winds aloft.

Those kinds of results got the attention of members of the House Aviation Subcommittee, in a May 6th hearing on reducing aviation’s greenhouse gas emissions. The general thrust of industry presentations was that ATC reform could produce meaningful emission reductions, as an alternative to including U.S. aviation in the CO2 cap-and-trade system being put forward by the European Union. As currently proposed, that system would in effect tax U.S. airlines for trips from Los Angeles to London-a prospect that did not sit well with subcommittee members.

Decades of work by national commissions, academics, and think tanks has made the case for fundamental ATC reform. But those arguments have fallen largely on deaf ears in Congress. Perhaps the need to reduce greenhouse gases can do what arguments for increased capacity, lower cost, and increased efficiency have failed to do.

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GPS Landing Systems Will Soon Be Arriving

Several years ago, the FAA pulled from its agenda a project aimed at augmenting GPS signals enough to allow precision landings at airports without the need for costly instrument landing systems (ILSs). The program, LAAS (Local Area Augmentation System), was reduced to a back-burner research project, rather than something on the way to implementation. The reason seemed to be a combination of technical difficulties and insufficient funds to resolve them.

Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. As I reported here two years ago in Issue No. 34, commercialized air navigation service provider Airservices Australia was developing a system aimed at meeting the same need, called Ground Based Augmentation System (GBAS). I got some skeptical feedback from several knowledgeable aviation observers at the time, who pointed out that while Airservices might be capable of meeting the requirements for Category 1 ILS, it would be very difficult for it to meet the more technically demanding requirements for Cat 2 and Cat 3 (zero or near-zero visibility).

But it looks increasingly like Airservices, and its U.S. partner Honeywell, are on track to make GBAS a viable product. The current plan is to obtain FAA certification for Cat 1 operations by late this year, enabling GBAS to be put into operation at airports in 2009. They have also been discussing with FAA what it will take to achieve Cat 2 and Cat 3 certification by 2010. As Honeywell’s GBAS program manager Bill Corwin told Aviation Week, Cat 3 “is the Holy Grail the airlines are waiting for.”

Boeing, at least, agrees with that judgment. It plans to make GBAS avionics standard equipment on the 747-8, 787, and all future planes. Qantas has a couple years experience flying Boeing 737 GBAS approaches at Sydney, where last year an Airbus A-380 flew a trial GBAS approach. Airbus plans to offer the system as an option. Prototype systems are in operation at Sydney; Memphis, TN; Bremen, Germany; and Malaga, Spain. They are to be replaced with production hardware and software this year.

The value proposition offered by GBAS is compelling. One GBAS provides guidance for up to 48 approaches or departures, whereas an ILS provides guidance for just one end of one runway. While the acquisition and installation costs are comparable, an airport with multiple runways will find the cost advantages of GBAS very attractive. In addition, the regular flight inspection associated with precision approach is greatly simplified with GBAS. Sydney, with its three runways, has six ILSs, whose functions could be taken over by one GBAS (which includes four remote sensors and two pairs of signal processors). Airservices plans to install GBAS at all major Australian airports.

Kudos to the FAA and Honeywell for resisting the “not-invented-here” syndrome. Honeywell was the contractor developing LAAS, but when it could not get enough funding to resolve that system’s technical problems, it embraced a partnership with Airservices to develop Cat 1 GBAS. And the FAA, despite having pulled the plug on LAAS, is working cooperatively with Honeywell to get GBAS certificated. Its FY09 budget request includes funding for Cat 2/3 work on GBAS. Aviation Week (March 24, 2008) reports that U.S. airports planning to add GBAS include Chicago O’Hare and Midway, Jackson Hole, Minneapolis, and Seattle, as well as the FAA Tech Center at Atlantic City.

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New Book Challenges U.S. Aviation Policy

Every year one or two people write books claiming that the U.S. air travel system is unsafe, corrupt, or going to hell in a handbasket. So you’d be forgiven if you suspect that a book with the following title is more of the same. But Terminal Chaos: Why U.S. Air Travel Is Broken and How to Fix It is not that kind of book. For one thing, it’s being published this month by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a well-respected professional organization. Second, it is authored by two of the most knowledgeable people in aviation today. George Donohue’s career has included many years at RAND Corporation and DARPA, plus a stint as FAA’s Associate Administrator for Research and Acquisitions during the 1990s. Russell Shaver spent several decades at RAND as well as six years at the MITRE Center for Advanced Aviation Systems Development. Both are now at George Mason University’s Center for Air Transportation Systems Research. Third, I read the book in manuscript form and strongly recommend that you read it.

The book is written for two audiences. The first is the traveling public, whose air travel experience has been getting worse and worse this decade, but who are unlikely to understand why. The other audience is aviation professionals, who can presumably think in systems terms, understand quantitative relationships, read graphs, etc. So portions of the book may be over the heads of the former group-though sound aviation policy will depend on a critical mass of thinking people coming to understand what’s wrong and what it will take to fix the problems.

Donohue and Shaver show what a complex, interactive system air travel has become, and they have very good insights into what’s driving it into increasingly poor performance. Their candid discussions of how airlines, FAA officials, members of Congress, and the air traffic controllers union are all contributing to the problem will not be happy reading for any of them. Yet Donohue and Shaver’s decades of first-hand experience with aviation problems-and all the key players-means their assessments and prescriptions should be taken seriously.

I have my differences with them on a few points, but overall this is a very insightful assessment of what’s wrong with aviation along with dramatic, much-needed recommendations for major change-to air traffic control, to airport operations, and to aviation security.

The release date for Terminal Chaos is May 20th. You can get details at

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Getting NextGen Implemented

Last month I contrasted the progress on ATC reform being made in Europe under the industry/government collaboration called SESAR with what seems to be the far-less-focused-on-implementation effort of our Joint Planning & Development Office (JPDO) process. I’m not the only one who’s been raising such concerns. Neil Planzer, VP for ATM Strategy at Boeing, has been circulating a White Paper called “How to Move the Next Generation ATC System Forward.” Among other things, it cites the well-known problems of individual NextGen programs residing in organizational silos at FAA, no integrated R&D, and the lack of an empowered leader to carry out the transition to a new ATC system.

I’m happy to report that there are signs of progress. On May 9th, the FAA announced the promotion of ATO VP of Operations and Planning Vicki Cox to the newly created position of Senior VP for NextGen Operations and Planning. Some may criticize the decision to have Cox report to ATO Chief Operating Officer Hank Krakowski (rather than the FAA Administrator), but in my view this only strengthens the case for Krakowski’s job to be redefined as CEO and for the ATO to be given control of its resources, accountable directly to its aviation customers.

Meanwhile, there is also action on near-term implementation of more NextGen capabilities, both to demonstrate their functionality and to lay the basis for serious implementation planning by the ATO and its aviation customers. More airports will be equipped for continuous descent approaches (CDAs) and precision arrivals (PAs). Already the one CDA approach to LAX accounts for about 25% of all arrivals there, and the opening of two more this summer should boost the total to 50%. MIA will become a testbed for trans-Atlantic CDAs and TAs this year, as part of what is shaping up as a larger Florida testbed for NextGen capabilities. Under its ADS-B ground station contract, ITT is installing 11 ground stations for the Miami en-route airspace, to be operational late this year. Gulf of Mexico ADS-B will be operational in late 2009.

The new Personal Air Transportation Alliance (PATA) of air-taxi and very light jet companies has proposed Florida as a testbed for routine use of RNP and ADS-B by properly equipped VLJs, enabling them to avoid congested airspace while still flying optimal routes. PATA made a presentation on its plan to a JPDO “all-hands” meeting on Feb. 28th. The group has subsequently worked out a draft memorandum of understanding with the FAA for the NextGen trial, which PATA hopes will be approved by mid-year.

Several major airlines and Netjets are pushing to expand the Florida testbed to include routes from the congested New York area airports-such as LaGuardia to Miami, Newark to Orlando, and Teterboro to Boca Raton. One proposal is for an “east coast highway”-an area navigation (RNAV) route that would require ADS-B equipage.

Whatever pieces end up being included in the Florida “integrated testbed” are to be submitted by FAA and JPDO to the Office of Management and Budget in June, for review.

These are some of the kinds of things Planzer’s White Paper recommended. And they do represent progress. But in my view, they still don’t address the larger governance and implementation issues raised by Planzer and others. I will return to that subject in a future issue of this newsletter.

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News Notes

More Veterans as Controllers? Starting this spring, the G.I. Bill will provide funding for military veterans and their dependents for training to be air traffic controllers. The FAA spent nearly two years to get approval for this from the Department of Veterans Affairs. FAA hopes the change will encourage more veterans to seek careers as controllers.

TRACON Operational Errors. In the wake of the Dallas TRACON cover-up of operational errors, FAA says it will accelerate deployment of the Traffic Analysis Review Program (TARP), the software that automatically detects losses of aircraft separation in terminal-area airspace. It is supposed to be in place at the Dallas TRACON by the end of FY 2008 (Sept. 30th). For years now, similar software has automatically tracked losses of separation in en-route airspace; the lack of such capability at the TRACON level has opened the door to fiddling with the numbers and bending the rules.

Important ICAO Conference. The International Civil Aviation Organization is holding a “Worldwide Symposium on Enabling the Net-Centric Information Environment” for air traffic management. It will take place at ICAO headquarters in Montreal June 2-4. Its purpose is to focus the attention of aviation policymakers and regulators, as well as air navigation service providers (ANSPs) and airspace users, on institutional and legal issues involved in the transition from 20th-century air traffic control to 21st-century air traffic management. Details are at

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Quotable Quotes

“A Eurocontrol ATC simulation performed several years ago illustrates the issue well. There, traffic levels were gradually increased over a quite large test area, including high and low density air space, to what was considered the maximum capacity controllable by conventional tactical/manual methods. The aircraft in the simulation were then slowly switched over from flying traditional flight plans through the en-route reporting structure to flying 4-D (lat./long./altitude/time) trajectories, until all were flying 4-D paths. As the transition progressed, controllers had less and less tactical work, and by the time the transition was complete, they had become strategic managers, intervening only rarely.”
–An aviation journalist (name withheld), in an online forum, May 23, 2007

“It’s not just the technology, it’s really how [NextGen] is used. That’s why you can’t just throw money at the problem and get a result, because if you just throw money, all you end up with is using everything you have . . . . You actually have to do things differently, and that’s where the cultural change comes in. You’re going to have to go down one stream to make the most out of the system we have today, and that’s hard enough. You’re going to have to go down another stream, at the same time, that reinvents what we have today. And unless we actually change the incentives that make people behave the way they do–whether they’re air traffic controllers, pilots, ground handlers, airlines, manufacturers-I don’t actually think we can get there.”
–Russ Chew, President and COO, JetBlue, and former COO of FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, Wings Club, March 20, 2008

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