Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #85
Photo 83390548 © Auremar -

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #85

FAA controller workforce problems, LightSquared GPS fiasco, Datalink for oceanic airspace, Scapegoating business jets (again)

In this issue:

  • FAA controller workforce problems
  • The LightSquared GPS fiasco
  • Datalink communications for oceanic airspace
  • Scapegoating business jets, again
  • An ATC history lesson
  • News Notes
  • Quotable Quotes

FAA Still Has Controller Workforce Problems, Says I.G.

“FAA has yet to fully identify and mitigate risks related to the management and operations of the controller workforce.” That was the key message delivered by DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel to the Senate Aviation Subcommittee on May 24th. (The testimony is CC-2011-09 at Scovel covered four key issues: the disturbing upward trend in operational errors, incomplete efforts on controller fatigue, controller training problems, and problems matching new controllers with the complexity of traffic at facilities.

Scovel noted that the 53% increase in reported operational errors (OEs) by controllers in FY2010, compared with the previous year, has not been explained. Administrator Randy Babbitt, at the same hearing, pointed out that the increase is not due to the new voluntary reporting program called ATSAP, since those errors are not counted in the official totals. Scovel identified another possible cause: the implementation of software called Traffic Analysis and Review Program (TARP), which automatically reports losses of separations in airspace controlled by TRACONs. He noted that previous OIG reports had identified intentional manipulation of OE reports at several TRACONs, in which controller OEs were reported as either pilot deviations or non-events. To the extent that TARP is now capturing all-instead of only some-OEs of this type, there may not be an increase in real OEs, but only (finally) more-accurate reporting. Scovel told the Subcommittee that his office has two audits of these issues under way.

On the subject of controller fatigue, Scovel again called attention to the notorious 2-2-1 shift rotation preferred by many controllers, which the National Transportation Safety Board in 2007 recommended be abolished. Alas, 2-2-1 is not explicitly addressed in the 12 recommendations that emerged recently from the NATCA/FAA workgroup on controller fatigue. He also reported that a previously adopted FAA policy that prohibited one controller on a two-person night shift from operating both radar and tower functions was not being consistently adhered to.

Scovel reported that the highly touted new approach to training, called ATCOTS, is running 35% over budget and has failed to change traditional training methods, as it was intended to do, and that the trainee attrition rate is significantly higher than FAA has reported. Even worse, he reminded the Subcommittee of OIG’s 2010 finding that FAA does not use the results of its aptitude test or FAA Academy performance to match trainee controllers to a facility where they will be most likely to become certified on all positions. Instead, the agency continues to assign trainees “based primarily on [trainee’s] facility choice and available vacancies.” This all too often puts trainees into the most complex and stressful facilities (which tend to be harder to staff), where they are more likely to wash out.

Not mentioned in the hearing was a promising experiment under way at TRACONs in Atlanta, Chicago, and Southern California. As Jon Hilkevitch reported July 12th in the Chicago Tribune, trainees tentatively assigned to such a facility are given a week in a simulation lab that simulates the TRACON in question. Prior to this new effort, reports Hilkevitch, during the past four years Chicago TRACON has not had a single trainee go all the way to full performance level. About 50% of experienced controllers transferring in from less-complex facilities wash out, as do 80% of new trainees. Let’s hope this new simulator effort does better at selecting those who can make it.

The LightSquared Fiasco

I have refrained until now from commenting on the serious threat posed to all GPS uses by the plan from a company called LightSquared to deploy 40,000 high-power transmitters nationwide for a planned 4G phone service. But now that the final report by a task force composed of LightSqared and the GPS industry has been submitted to the Federal Communications Commission, I’d like to add my two cents worth.

The task force report confirmed that LightSquared’s plan would cause massive interference with existing GPS receivers. Those receivers are designed to pick up the extremely low-power signals from GPS satellites, and high-power signals in a frequency band immediately adjacent to that used by GPS receivers would in many cases completely swamp the GPS signals. Based on extensive field testing, the task force found that LightSquared’s transmitters “would result in a complete loss of GPS operations below 2,000 feet above ground level over a large radius” from metropolitan areas. The company has revised its plan and proposes to “begin” service using only the lower-frequency band of the two 10 mhz spectrum blocks it has been authorized to use. The company is still hoping to use the other block of spectrum-right next to the GPS band-after 400 million GPS receivers are somehow modified to block interference. It’s now up to the FCC to decide what to do.

Stanford professor Bradford Parkinson, widely considered the father of GPS, is not impressed. In a March 2011 presentation, he raised a number of issues that have received little attention from the aviation community. He pointed out that in granting LightSquared a waiver to proceed with its plan, FCC skipped its usual rule-making. Moreover, it was given these blocks of spectrum despite normal federal policy, ever since the Clinton administration, of auctioning off spectrum (and Parkinson estimates it would have gone for about a billion dollars). The FCC acted without itself considering the likely interference with GPS. The question is why all these actions were taken.

It turns out that in its March 2010 plan, “Connecting America: the National Broadband Plan,” the FCC called for accelerated deployment of spectrum for broadband mobile uses. White House memoranda in June 2010 and February 2011 directed the executive branch of government to work with the FCC to make such spectrum available. LightSquared was created in March 2010 to go after a piece of this business, and was granted a “conditional waiver” by the FCC in January 2011 to move forward with its 4G mobile phone plans, conditional on it “addressing” any GPS concerns by June 15 (later extended to June 30), 2011.

So the answer to the question of how this ill-conceived plan got as far as it did is that this is a politically favored company implementing a kind of industrial policy, with little consideration of likely unintended consequences.

This is the second time this administration has given GPS short shrift. The first, as I’ve written previously, was its unexplained 2009 dismissal of the previously agreed inter-agency plan to develop eLORAN as the best overall backup system for GPS-not just for aviation but for all GPS’s economy-wide position, navigation, and timing functions. Consequently, two years later there is still no known plan for GPS backup. And now we have a cavalier disregard for potentially massive interference with GPS, not merely in aviation but in car navigation, emergency-response, agriculture, and financial transactions (which routinely rely on GPS for time-stamping).

The administration claims to be committed to implementing NextGen. But its lack of attention to GPS-one of NextGen’s foundations-calls that commitment into question.

Datalink Expands in Oceanic Airspace

A key building block for NextGen and comparable ATC modernization efforts is replacing voice radio with digital datalink messages for most ATC communications. Controller-pilot datalink is being introduced this year in Europe’s upper airspace, and all aircraft in core EU airspace must be equipped for it by 2015. No firm schedule has yet been set for the United States, and datalink is one of the NextGen elements apparently being pushed further into the future by FAA due to funding limitations.

Except, that is, for oceanic airspace. Back in the 1990s the world’s major ANSPs got together to develop a FANS (Future Air Navigation System) controller-pilot datalink to replace unreliable high-frequency (HF) radio communications in oceanic airspace. FANS uses satellites to transmit messages between planes over the oceans and the ATC centers on shore that oversee specific oceanic flight information regions. Initially, intercontinental flights kept track of their positions, and reported them via HF radio, using their inertial navigation systems (since there is no radar over the oceans). But in recent years, ADS-C has enabled GPS navigation as well. With more accurate location information reported via datalink, it is feasible to reduce in-trail spacing on oceanic routes from the traditional 50 miles to 30 miles. That opens up more airspace, and makes it easier to let planes change altitudes en-route for optimum fuel consumption.

The newest development, announced last month, is truly global coverage for satellite transmission of datalink messages. Iridium, which operates a constellation of 66 low-earth-orbit communications satellites, received FAA certification to use that system for ATC datalink purposes (rather than just for pilot-dispatcher communications). That is a major development, for two reasons. First, it extends controller-pilot datalink to the polar regions, where the current Inmarsat communications satellites do not provide coverage. Second, the Iridium equipment needed on aircraft costs about one-fourth as much as an Inmarsat box.

FAA certification was granted after year-long field trials involving Cargolux 747 freighters, Continental Micronesia 737s, and Delta 737s and 757s. The Wall Street Journal reports that Australia, Japan, and the U.K. are close to certifying the Iridium system as well. New long-haul planes will soon come with such equipment built in, and one supplier of Iridium boxes foresees a retrofit market of as many as 10,000 aircraft.

Datalink is a critically important component of the new paradigm for air traffic management. It’s unfortunate that oceanic and European airspace will be making routine use of it long before domestic U.S. airspace.

Scapegoating Business Jets, Again

Once again, President Obama has gone after business jets as tools of the rich-pitting “kids’ safety” against tax breaks for fat cats. This is of a piece with the previous criticism of auto company CEOs traveling to DC to testify, via business jets, and more recently the administration’s plan to prevent aircraft owners from blocking dissemination of real-time information about which planes are flying where.

The latest attack came during the president’s June 29th news conference, when he bad-mouthed corporate jets six times and called the current accelerated depreciation schedule for such planes-signed into law by this very same president as a stimulus measure last September-as a “tax loophole.” Yet the provision did not single out business aircraft: it applied to “2 million businesses, large and small,” for all kinds of tangible assets, according to the White House press release of Sept. 27, 2010. My Reason Foundation colleague Jacob Sullum, noted in his syndicated column July 13th that President Obama has previously championed accelerated depreciation for business aircraft on three separate occasions.

Business aircraft are not toys, nor are they yachts (though a similarly inspired luxury tax on yachts in the 1990s devastated that industry, causing major job losses in Florida). They are vitally important tools for businesses of all sizes, enabling air travel to places either not served at all by airlines or direct routings to places served only via convoluted airline routings.

I’m all in favor of ending genuine tax loopholes. And if accelerated depreciation counts as a “loophole,” I’m fine with eliminating it-but for everyone. As Sullum suggested, if the President were serious about tax reform, “he would renounce the use of the tax code for economic and social engineering, which creates the ‘egregious loopholes’ that suddenly bother him.”

Air Traffic Control History Lesson

“This month, we’re celebrating the 75th anniversary of air traffic control in the United States,” said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt during a press conference at the Seattle TRACON on July 11th. What he meant to say was the 75th anniversary of the federal government taking over air traffic control from the private sector.

More than 30 years ago, I researched the history of ATC in this country. At one of my earliest jobs after engineering school, several of my co-workers were veterans of ARINC, and they told me that ARINC had set up and operated the first ATC system, pre-dating the federal government’s role. In 1977, I did research on ATC history in the archives of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum and then at ARINC headquarters in Annapolis, MD. The fledgling airlines created Aeronautical Radio, Inc. (ARINC) as a not-for-profit service corporation in 1929. ARINC’s efforts stimulated the development of airborne VHF radio, VOR beacons, and instrument landing systems. It proceeded to set up the first ATC centers in 1935 and 1936, serving routes linking Newark, Cleveland, and Chicago. These events were described in some detail in a paper in the ARINC archives, “A History of Aeronautical Radio, Inc. from 1929 to 1942,” by Paul Goldsborough, dated July 2, 1951.

The revered “father of air traffic control,” Glen A. Gilbert, then an American Airlines dispatcher, established the first of the original ATC centers, in Chicago. He headed the initial ARINC effort when that began. Two years into this private-sector effort, the federal Bureau of Air Commerce (a predecessor of FAA) took over the ARINC centers, relieving the struggling airlines (this was the height of the Depression) of the cost of operating them. Gilbert headed that, as well. It is that 1936 takeover that the FAA is celebrating this month.

ARINC, of course, did not go away. It developed into a thriving business developing standards for avionics and providing airline communications systems to keep pilots in touch with airline dispatchers. It also set up several user-funded ATC systems in other countries, including Cuba and Mexico. I learned of the latter from a USC law professor who was also a private pilot, who told me of using the system when he flew to and from Mexico. (That professor, Michael Levine, went on to work at the Civil Aeronautics Board, helping the late Alfred Kahn to deregulate the airline industry.)

I offer this little history lesson as a reminder that a nonprofit corporation approach to air traffic control is not a recent idea. It has a long history, even in the United States.

News Notes

Reason Foundation Job Opening
Reason is seeking to hire a full-time communications specialist to implement public relations and outreach efforts targeted at news media, trade publications, websites, and other customer groups. Excellent writing and editing skills are required, and at least several years of directly relevant experience. Send a cover letter and resume no later than July 29, 2011 to:

Break-Time Naps Now Allowed, Says NATCA
The agreement on fatigue mitigation measures between the FAA and controllers union NATCA “does not preclude napping during break time,” NATCA executive vice president Trish Gilbert told Aviation Daily (July 6, 2011). That’s welcome news, suggesting that sound science is being applied to this aspect of the fatigue problem despite political posturing by officials who should know better. Gilbert said breaks typically are 20 to 40 minutes in length, and controllers may use them as they choose, as long as they return from breaks fit for duty.

Europe’s Galileo to Expand
BBC News reported last month that the European Commission announced during the Paris Air Show that it had allocated an additional €500 million to add six more satellites to the Galileo constellation, bringing it up to 24 within the next few years. The previous total was to be 18 in orbit by 2014, with the first two scheduled for launch this October. The additional six are projected to be in orbit by 2015-16. Galileo will supplement the U.S. GPS system and the Russian Glonass system.

India Separating ATC from Airports Authority
As recommended in a study by KPMG, the government of India has decided to spin off the ATC functions from Airports Authority of India, “unlocking the potential to upgrade air traffic control systems in a fast-growing aviation market where safety standards lag behind global benchmarks,” according to The Economic Times of India (June 27, 2011).

NATS Enters Second Decade, in the Black
After a rocky start 10 years ago (due to the collapse of North Atlantic air traffic following the 9/11 attacks), NATS-the British ANSP-has completed its 10th year solidly in the black. The UK government, which owns 48.9% of NATS, has completed a month-long study of how much of its holding it will offer for sale via a public share offering, but no decision has been announced. NATS is expanding into overseas ventures, such as bidding to operate Spanish airport control towers, and preparing for the development of the Single European Sky.

Saab Acquiring Sensis Corp.
Sweden’s Saab AB last month announced an agreement to purchase Sensis Corporation, a leading provider of ATC and surveillance technologies, based in New York State. The move will strengthen Saab’s growing position in air traffic control, where it has recently been a pioneer in remote towers. Sensis has developed and installed ASDE-X ground surveillance systems at major U.S. airports, and more recently is winning business for its Aerobahn airport surface management system.

Quotable Quotes

“The [FCC’s] LightSquared waiver is like a re-zoning law. Effectively, the FCC is directing that a quiet-spectrum neighborhood be re-zoned for concert rock bands at the threshold of pain. And LightSquared is suggesting that its current neighbors should simply add more insulation to their houses.”
–Bradford Parkinson, quoted in “Vulnerable Utility” by Graham Warwick, Aviation Week, April 11, 2011

“I think the next big innovation-hopefully, hopefully-is going to be next-generation air traffic control system. I think it can make a tremendous amount of difference in saving the airlines money . . . [and] time that they would otherwise lose in delays, to cancellations, air traffic control holds.”
–Herb Kelleher, “Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher Tells Story of His Success,” interview by David Koenig, Associated Press, June 27, 2011.

“The Bangkok CANSO meeting was interesting. . . . Aviation in Asia and the Mid-East is booming. Europe is tied up in sovereignty knots, and the U.S. is broke. One major contractor got up and actually said what everyone would not, that NextGen as envisioned is basically stillborn. He said the legacy infrastructure will not be turned off any time soon (part of the NG cost justification) and NextGen technologies will just be bolted on to the old infrastructure to assist TFM and some RNAV/RNP schemes where needed such as the NYC area. ADS-B also has some limited application in certain high-impact areas. He said the NG sales job has been in denial of aviation physics, such as high-altitude wake turbulence which will not allow five-mile spacing at altitude.”
–Former FAA official (name withheld), email communication, June 28, 2011.

“If you want governments to facilitate change, you [ANSPs] have got to be clear with them about what that change is, and you have to be very clear with them-and with your workforces, who have very different issues and concerns-that you are ready for the consequences. . . . [A]re you willing to agree to stiff economic regulation that bears down, year after year, on your costs and charges? Are you willing to argue for real separation between service provision and regulators, thus demonstrating the independence and effectiveness of the regulator? Are you willing to get involved with the military-accepting that they have their job to do, understanding their constraints and working in partnership to share the sky and make the whole system work more efficiently? And are you also willing to declare that you agree to merge with your neighboring [ATC] providers so as to reap economies of scale? And agreeing to the establishment of regional centers to manage high-level traffic flows, perhaps operated by someone other than you? And finally, are you also willing to agree that parts of your business-for example, airport towers-really don’t need to be inside the monopoly envelope?”
–David McMillan, Director General, Eurocontrol, CANSO 2011 Global ATM Summit Speech, June 12, 2011.

“As McMillan pointed out, ANSPs only get any focus at all when things go wrong, or when national pride-read sovereignty-rears its ugly head. ANSPs need to engage before then. But, McMillan warned, ANSPs need to be clear what they want, demonstrate a willingness to change, and prepare to face the consequences should they succeed. This may sound radical, but let’s be frank: the current test bed for other sorts of cooperation and regional development, Europe’s Functional Airspace Block system, could not be in more trouble. Never in the history of ATM has so much been spent on so much window dressing. Perhaps, as one observer noted privately, all FAB meetings should be held in a theater, with airlines and other interested observers in the audience.”
–Andrew Charlton, “The CANSO AGM: Anything You Can Do, We Can Do Better . . .” Aviation Intelligence Reporter, July 2011.