Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #89
Photo 15312853 © Davidgn -

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #89

Data Comm moving forward, user fee proposal still with us, new ATC concept from Germany, Spain's ATC reform outsources control towers

In this issue:

Data Comm Finally Moving Forward

The FAA is finally moving forward on procuring data communications, a key building block for NextGen. The effort aims to shift something like 1.2 million voice messages per day (between controllers and pilots) to a digital, text-based system. It parallels a similar effort already under way in Europe, by the Single European Sky’s SESAR Joint Undertaking (SJU).

FAA has made several wise decisions for the Data Comm procurement. As it did with the ground station network for ADS-B, the contract calls not just for production and installation of the hardware but also for operating and maintaining it for 17 years. Bidders must also commit to using the existing air-ground communications networks of ARINC and SITA, which have long provided data communications used by pilots to communicate with their airline dispatchers. In many cases, this will eliminate the need for aircraft operators to buy and install new hardware for the controller-pilot messages. Equally wise is to start off using the existing communications protocol-FANS 1/A via VHF Digital Link Mode 2– which is also already in widespread use.

Three “dream teams” of companies have been assembled to bid on the Data Comm contract. The team headed by ITT, for example, includes three air carriers (JetBlue, United, and UPS) plus, among others, Airbus, Raytheon, Rockwell Collins, Saab Sensis, Nav Canada, and Nexa Capital Partners. The Harris team includes ARINC, GE Aviation, Thales, and a major airline partner (identity not yet disclosed). On the Lockheed Martin team are Boeing, Level 3, and Telcordia, plus un-named airline partners.

The biggest problem I see with the FAA plan is its very long, drawn-out implementation schedule. As the Government Accountability Office pointed out in a November report (GAO-12-48), Europe’s SJU is aiming for full implementation of data communications by 2018. By contrast, the FAA schedule calls for deploying only airport departure communications by 2018 (uplinking departure clearances to aircraft flight management system computers). This will involve equipping up to 73 airport towers (what about all the rest that serve airlines and business jets?). FAA’s second phase will add en-route centers, with full capability not reached until 2023. That will permit messages dealing with altitude and route changes, plus tailored arrivals. No schedule has yet been devised for data comm in terminal airspace.

As GAO reports, “SJU officials told us that moving forward on Data Comm is SESAR’s biggest challenge because the United States and Europe have differing time frames for implementation. SJU would like to see Data Comm implemented by 2018, while a senior FAA official responsible for communications believes it will take until 2023 at the earliest.” This does not have to be the case; FAA needs to plan for a far more aggressive schedule.

Administration $100/Flight User Fee Proposal Stirs Up General Aviation

Let me say at the outset that I oppose the Administration’s plan to impose a $100/flight fee on all IFR flights. It’s an ad-hoc approach to fixing a situation that cries out for a fundamental rethinking-and imposing an arbitrary new charge, while retaining all the rest of the ATC status quo, is not the answer.

But the general aviation (GA) groups like AOPA and NBAA that encouraged their members to sign a White House petition opposing the plan said nothing about the underlying problem, and offered merely a defense of the current “pay at the pump” system, under which GA aircraft pay a modest fuel tax that goes into the Aviation Trust Fund to pay for airport grants and air traffic control capital and operating costs. The problem is that this whole funding and governance system is broken.

For nearly four and a half years, Congress has been unable to pass an FAA reauthorization bill; we are currently on the 22nd short-term extension. The squabbles in Congress that have prevented agreement include a wide range of issues, none of which has anything to do with air traffic control. While some of these have been resolved, the major remaining sticking point concerns changed policy on votes about unionization at airlines, due to union-friendly appointees at the National Labor Relations Board. The stalemate got so bad last summer that much of FAA was shut down for two weeks.

A key problem here is that ATC modernization is being held hostage to Congress and its penchant for micromanaging anything and everything having to do with aviation. Last March some 33 amendments were proposed to the House reauthorization bill, including such items as banning passenger facility charges on inter-island flights in Hawaii (approved), ordering FAA to study alternatives to the NY/NJ airspace redesign (rejected), and prohibiting FAA employees from spending work hours on union activities (rejected). Without a long-term reauthorization, FAA must plan and implement NextGen in dribs and drabs, unable to plan, say, a five-year investment program.

But it’s far worse than that. What high-tech business would embark on a $20 billion modernization program paid for out of annual cash flow? Almost any such firm would finance the program, issuing long-term bonds to be paid for from future revenues as the benefits of the modernization occur. But Congress never has (and likely never will) give FAA such bonding authority, because that would undercut its ability to micromanage decisions on an annual basis.

And when it comes to the real productivity gains promised by NextGen-using automation and more precise information to change air traffic controllers into air traffic managers-good luck with that, as long as Congress remains in charge. One of the keys to major productivity gains is large-scale facility consolidation, once technology permits controlling flights anywhere in the country from anywhere in the country. In principle, that means today’s 171 TRACONs and 21 Centers could be replaced with a handful of super-centers managing all but approaches and departures at airports, with flexible airspace boundaries. But Congress has never seen a facility consolidation that it likes, any more than it views military base closings and realignments favorably. Their concern is nearly always to “protect jobs in my district.”

The only way to solve these underlying problems is to remove the ATC portion of the FAA from the direct control of Congress-to de-politicize it. And that means removing its revenue and spending from the federal budget process. Nearly 50 countries have done this over the past 25 years. Their self-supporting air navigation service providers operate like public utilities, charging their customers for the services they provide, issuing long-term revenue bonds for large capital investments in facilities and equipment, and being regulated at arm’s length by the national government’s aviation safety regulator.

The only way this can happen in the United States is if ATC customers-airlines, cargo carriers, fractionals, business aviation, and general aviation-decide that the problem is serious enough to warrant such a major change and work together to bring it about. If they were willing to do this, they could easily win the support of much of the U.S. business community, and very possibly the support of the major media.

In that kind of situation, figuring out what kinds of “utility charges” make sense would have to be worked out among the aviation stakeholders, not imposed either by Congress or the Administration. It might be that GA could still “pay at the pump,” but if those revenues went to the Treasury and had to be appropriated each year by Congress, the camel’s nose would be right back into the tent. The alternative would be for the stakeholders to all be represented on the ATC utility’s board of directors, where they could thrash out a system of utility charges that provided the needed annual revenue while being fair and reasonable to all categories of user. That would not be easy, but I think it’s do-able. A system of that sort has worked quite well in Canada for more than a decade.

New ATC Concept from Germany

From the earliest days of air traffic control, the airspace was divided up into sectors, with controllers handling traffic only within their assigned sector. For long-distance flights, this means numerous hand-offs are required as the plane moves from one sector to another. This was all that could be done with early 20th-century technology, but this is a new century. What if, instead, the airspace was considered as a whole, and each flight was managed, from start to finish, by a single controller?

That concept has been explored by researchers at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), and their findings were presented last fall in the article “Seamless Approach” in the 3rd-quarter issue of Air Traffic Management. One problem with the legacy approach of dividing the airspace into sectors is that as traffic density increases, sectors get sub- divided, resulting in more controllers and more handoffs (each with the potential for errors). DLR’s initial studies suggest that their new approach would reduce the labor-intensity of the process, meaning “the same number of air traffic controllers can handle substantially higher volumes of traffic.” This approach also fits better with direct routing of flights.

DLR’s initial study took place in 2009, with support from DFS (the German ANSP). Under the title “Airspace Management 2020,” controllers from DFS participated in exercises to test the concept’s feasibility. A follow-on study, involving eight DFS controllers, tested the concept for managing Germany’s upper airspace as a single sector. By the end of the project, each controller was able to handle up to six aircraft, using a separate display screen for each. Bernd Korn, head of DLR’s Pilot Assistance Department, told ATM that using this 1:6 ratio, “it would be possible to double air traffic volume” in German airspace.

DLR found that the controllers in the simulations adapted to the new procedures after just a short adjustment period. They provided the researchers with direct feedback, including suggested improvements. DLR’s Institute of Flight Guidance is now actively pursuing the concept, aiming for its eventual implementation.

Spain’s Control Tower Outsourcing Is Under Way

Last year Spain’s combined airports and ATC provider, AENA, began the process of opening up the nation’s control towers to competition (as is the case in the U.K.). The first competition, for 13 airport towers, was won by the team of Ferrovial and NATS (for 10 towers) and SERCO (for three towers). The history of how AENA got to this point is worth recounting as an object lesson in management failure and out-of-control unions.

Ever since Eurocontrol began annual benchmarking of the cost and performance of European ANSPs, AENA topped the lists as most costly and least productive. When I first published AENA’s controller compensation numbers several years ago, a number of readers assumed they must be in error, but they were not. In 2008, the average AENA controller took home €330,000 a year (about $429,000). The union contract limited “basic” controller working time to 1,200 hours a year, and let the controllers themselves draw up the shift schedules. Accordingly, the average controller then worked an additional 600 hours a year as overtime, at 2.67 times the regular pay. Not only that, the contract allowed a controller to retire at 52 after 30 years of service, or at 55 with no years required, at their basic salary of €170,000 a year until reaching the country’s statutory retirement age (after which the national old-age system kicked in).

New management, beginning in 2009, enacted reforms within the framework of the union contract, leading to modest reductions in total hours worked and in payroll cost. But AENA still finished the year with a loss of €196 million. AENA asked for and the government issued a Royal Decree law in early 2010 restoring to AENA management the right to set schedules, permit control towers to be out-sourced, liberalize controller training, and revising basic work hours to 1,670 per year, plus up to 80 hours of overtime. The union engaged in a wildcat strike in December 2010, to no avail. AENA saved over €300 million in staff costs in 2010 compared with 2008 and, for the first time ever, made a profit. The en-route ATC rate was reduced by 7.5% in 2011 and is set for another 7.5% decrease this year.

The initial outsourcing of 13 towers will save nearly 50% of the former cost of €33.9 million. AENA controllers at the towers were given the choice of transferring to the new provider (on its terms and conditions), transferring to another AENA facility, or accepting redundancy payments. FerroNATS has proceeded on the assumption that it must recruit essentially all staff needed for the 10 towers it will manage. Its assessment of staffing requirements found that, overall, it will need 20-25% fewer controllers than AENA employed, thanks to using staff more flexibly. They have advertised across Europe for experienced controllers, as well as committing to hire and train a number of people without previous experience. The mix of experienced and trainee controllers will vary, depending on the activity level of each tower.

Over the next several years, another 47 towers will be contracted out, via further competitions.

More on Out-of-Date Separation Standards

Last issue’s Quotable Quote about the history of FAA separation standards brought a lot of responses. Former FAA manager Tom Bonacki recounted looking into the same question (where did these standards come from and on what were they based?) several years ago during a consulting project, and talking with the same FAA historian. The historian sent him documents about the tests at Midway and Newark with DC-3s. Against the murky skies, they decided that a DC-3 could be seen and identified from about three miles away. So that became the separation standard for terminal areas.

He also recounted stories from more recent times about actual separations on approach to LaGuardia, on VFR days, of 2 to 2.5 miles: “They land safely, taxi off the runway so the next one can land. The pilots know very well that this is NYC, so no messing around: land, reverse-thrust, apply brakes, and turn off at about 40-50 mph.” Another story, this one from DFW. “We were visited by several high-ranking FAAers from HQ who were delighted to announce that our airport was selected to reduce the 3-mile separation on final approach to 2.5 miles, because we had long runways with 3 high-speed exit taxiways. Unfortunately, to [their] surprise, we, too, had been using 2 and 2.5 mile separation for a long time-very safely.”

As for the five-mile en-route separation, Bonacki described ancient huge radar displays with targets from ¼” to 1″ long, depending on distance from the radar. “They also overlapped and ballooned. Here, it was thought, if they were 5 miles apart, they may not overlap too much and can be discerned from one another. . . Today’s radar returns are smaller and crisper. The 5 mile spacing is no longer needed. But try to get anyone from FAA HQ to really look at reducing these separations.”

I also received a detailed report from FAA’s Research, Engineering, and Development Advisory Committee (REDAC), dated Sept. 20, 2006, from REDAC’s “Separation Standards Working Group.” In anticipation of NextGen, it took a detailed look at what is and is not known about separation standards, and about the need for serious analysis to determine the extent to which they can be reduced safely as NextGen is implemented. The report made nine key findings, many of which were followed by recommendations for immediate and longer-term research and development of revised standards. It also noted that as NextGen is implemented, the limiting factor for separation requirements will probably be the need to accommodate system failures in non-catastrophic ways.

I sent a query to the FAA officials in charge of this area, seeing to find out to what extent the recommendations have been implemented and what has been accomplished. By my deadline, I’d received no response. I will let you know next month if they respond and what they tell me.

News Notes

Possible ANSP Merger in Europe
Mid-December brought news of a new potential investor in the UK air navigation service provider NATS. Germany’s ANSP-DFS-announced that it will consider bidding for the UK government’s 49% shareholding in NATS (whose value has been estimated at £500 million). Mergers of ANSPs in Europe would ease the way for creating meaningful functional airspace blocks (FABs), in which the location of ATC centers and the boundaries of airspace sectors could be defined without regard to country borders. That would facilitate the goal of achieving a Single European Sky.

WAM Brings Multiple Benefits to Sydney Airport
For the first time, a wide-area multilateration system is being used for both surface surveillance and precision runway monitoring (PRM). The system was installed last year at Sydney and in late December achieved operational certification from Australia’s air safety regulator, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. The system provides controllers with surveillance in terminal airspace and PRM monitoring to enable flights to make independent approaches on the airport’s closely spaced parallel runways. The sensors are the same ones in use for the airport’s Advanced Surface Movement Guidance & Control System (A-SMGCS). The WAM system was developed and installed by Saab Sensis.

No Practical Solution to GPS Interference from LightSquared
The National Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) Executive Committee has concluded that both the original and modified plans for broadband wireless services put forward by LightSquared “would cause harmful interference to many GPS receivers,” and should therefore not be pursued. In light of this, the Executive Committee sees no benefit in any additional testing.

Medford Drops Tower Ads
Despite having received city council approval in November, Medford (OR) airport director Bern Case decided in mid-December to drop the idea, after all, given that council members voted to reconsider their previous decision. The airport had expected to receive $3,000 a month from an aviation company that wanted to use space on the city-owned contract tower for advertising.

1,000-Mile GPS Jammers for Sale
NextGov reported in late November that C.T.S. Technology, a Chinese company, is advertising GPS jammers with a range of 500 to 1,000 miles. The 100-watt device can be hooked up to a car’s electric socket for power. Reporter Bob Brewin said that his Google search for GPS jammers returned just under 1.6 million results. And yet we still have no back-up plan in place for any of GPS’s myriad uses.

“NextGen’s Receding Prospects”
That’s the title of my article in the January issue of Professional Pilot. After summarizing the intended benefits of rethinking how to use new technology and procedures to revamp air traffic management, the article zeros in on the institutional obstacles, including constraints due to Congress and the FAA. If you aren’t a paid subscriber to this magazine, you can’t download it, but I’ll be happy to email you a copy of the text, on request.

BARR Being Reinstated by FAA
In November Congress over-ruled DOT Secretary Ray LaHood’s restriction of the Block Aircraft Registration Request (BARR) program. LaHood’s action last June limited BARR to those operators that could show a valid security concern over having real-time flight-tracking programs report a plane’s every move. So the FAA in December announced that it will again take requests under BARR without the requirement to demonstrate a security concern.

New Winglet Design Offers Greater Drag Reduction
Aviation Partners, the leading provider of winglets for jet aircraft, unveiled a new design offering a 40% improvement in drag reduction. The new design is called a “blended split-tip scimitar,” and it will be introduced first on the Hawker 800 business jet. The new design offers 7% drag reduction, compared with conventional winglet’s 5%. The company’s even-more-advanced spiroid winglet produced 11% drag reduction in recent tests, but is considered “very difficult to make,” and at this point will not be put into production.

More ADS-B Coverage for the North Atlantic
Iceland’s ANSP, Isavia, last month announced a contract with Comsoft to install a network of ADS-B ground stations throughout the country. With a 300-nm range, ADS-B coverage will extend to nearly all of the Reykjavik flight information region. With ADS-B from Nav Canada on the west and NATS on the east, the only gap will occur in the Faroe Islands and Greenland, where Denmark’s Naviair had been planning a similar installation jointly with Isavia.

CAA Highlights London Runway Capacity Shortfall
The U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority, in a new report, calls attention to the future reductions in air travel choices that will result if the country fails to add runway capacity in the greater London region (which, unfortunately, is current government policy). And it points out that “Limited supply means the price of air travel is likely to rise.” The U.K. government is working on a new aviation policy to be unveiled this spring.

Quotable Quotes

“No one would think of sending a postcard to an aircraft, but as the passengers sit in the cabin working on their emails, tweeting and using their smart phones, air traffic control operates like it is 1951. Almost all communications between pilots and air traffic control is still using old-fashioned analog radio to transmit voice on VHF technology. . . . The advantages are pretty clear. Data link is more accurate than voice-data link doesn’t have a funny accent, after all; it is spectrum efficient; and, it has worked millions of times. FANS 1/A on the Pacific and Atlantic means that pilots and controllers for the most part no longer struggle with HF voice radio for position reporting and surveillance. Everyone agrees that data link is a fundamental building block for a new generation air traffic management system. Eurocontrol’s Redeborn noted . . . that 25 of the next 100 operational improvements in SESAR depend on data link. Not only is it the difference between digital and analog; it is the difference between digital and voice. Imagine breaking out of our addiction to VHF radio. What is next: getting rid of telex?”
–Andrew Charlton, “Do You Read Me? – Over!” Aviation Intelligence Reporter, October 2011

“It is difficult for a group that has been operating for years under self-deception to suddenly see the light and recognize the truth. They need large doses of painful reflection and humility to recognize the abuses and see that what they gained was at the expense of others (AENA and airlines’ bottom line, and passengers’ pocketbooks and lost time). It’s time to stop taking advantage of others and causing grave damage. It’s time to serve competently and efficiently. It’s time for transparency, no more smoke and mirrors. It’s time to openly show the nature of the work: sometimes stressful, but more often routine, automated, and boring. It is time to audit and quantify, not only safety but also efficiency and quality of service. It’s time to adjust wages to results. It’s time to open up to competition-no gimmicks.”
–Francisco Capella, AENA controller, “The Harmful Unity of Controllers,” El Mundo, Dec. 5, 2010 (translated by Harris Kenny)