Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #81
Photo 78337498 © Belish -

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #81

Lessons from sleeping controller incident, comparing ATC reform performance worldwide, contract towers, concerns over GPS vulnerability

In this issue:

  • Lessons from sleeping controller incident
  • Comparing ATC performance worldwide
  • Contract towers: no longer so controversial
  • Concerns grow over GPS vulnerability
  • News Notes

Lessons from the Sleeping Controller Incident

By now, everyone who did not sleepwalk through last week knows that the lone controller on the midnight shift in the tower at Reagan National fell asleep, allowing two airline flights to make uncontrolled landings there after midnight last week. FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt suspended the controller and DOT Secretary Ray LaHood ordered that the Reagan tower have at least two people on duty at all times. Members of Congress expressed concern, and at least a few reporters raised the important issue of controller fatigue as a likely factor in the incident.

I draw two lessons from this unfortunate incident. One is about governance of the ATC system and the other is about a technological fix. Let’s go to the governance issue first, because that’s something the Administration and Congress could fix rather quickly.

I have written several times in recent years lamenting the fact that the FAA tends to pay far more attention to pilot fatigue than controller fatigue. I’ve had current and retired controllers send me horror stories about shift schedules that seem to defy what medical science has learned about performance degradation from disrupted circadian rhythms. Both pilot fatigue and controller fatigue can and do lead to life-threatening accidents. Yet the FAA continues to crack down on the former and merely study the latter. Why?

My conclusion is that the FAA is uncomfortable, as an institution, in cracking down on its own people. As the nation’s aviation safety regulator, it is at arm’s length from the airlines, at arm’s length from business jets, private planes, pilots, mechanics, air taxi operators, airports, FBOs, airframe manufacturers, engine producers, and repair stations. All must comply with all applicable safety regulations or face penalties, including being forbidden from taking part in aviation activity. The ATC system is at least equally vital to aviation safety, but it does not get the arm’s-length regulatory scrutiny the FAA provides to all the other players.

This is not just my conclusion. It’s also the conclusion of noted aviation safety experts such as Prof. Clinton Oster of Indiana University, as discussed at length in Chapter 15 of his book (co-authored with John Strong of the College of William & Mary), Managing the Skies (Ashgate, 2007). Separation of air safety regulation from ATC operations is now global aviation policy, as set forth by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). It was endorsed back in 2001 by four former FAA Administrators (Allan McArtor, Langhorne Bond, David Hinson, and John McLucas) and a number of other retired senior FAA officials. And last week, this sensible position was also endorsed by former DOT Secretary Mary Peters.

Langhorne Bond and I co-authored an article on this subject for the Journal of Air Traffic Control last year, on which we received a lot of positive feedback. But the silence from official Washington has been deafening. Yet with just about every serious country having made this change in the past decade or two, it can no longer be considered a radical change. Indeed, the United States is now the outlier on this very sensible reform.

In the short term, FAA’s already squeezed budget will probably be squeezed further to add enough controllers to end one-person midnight shifts at key towers with very limited overnight traffic. But this situation cries out for a technology solution. One of the concepts under development for NextGen is the remote tower. The idea is to install a network of cameras at some airports and deliver their real-time inputs to a remotely located control center. Several regional centers could handle the midnight shift for a larger number of airports, ensuring enough controllers on duty to handle the sparse traffic at the whole set of airports. LFV, the Swedish air navigation service provider (ANSP), is well along in implementing its first such center, which will handle two airports as of 2012 and a third by 2013. Airservices Australia and Germany’s DFS are also exploring remote towers.

ANSPs everywhere face the problem of low-activity periods, especially at airports. Technology and facility consolidation offer a promising solution.

CANSO Data Allow ANSP Performance Comparison

I’ve been a fan of the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization since its creation by some of the earliest commercialized air navigation service providers back in 1998. As ANSPs have increasingly been commercialized, there was clearly a role for a membership organization to represent their interests alongside those of airports (ACI), airlines (IATA), and other players in aviation.

Last December CANSO broke new ground by publishing its first Global Air Navigation Services Performance Report 2010. The report, available on the CANSO website (, provides the first comparative performance data on not only European ANSPs (which Eurocontrol’s Performance Review Unit has been doing), but on a more global basis. Twenty-nine ANSPs provided data for the report, which covers 2005-2009. Most of them are from Europe, but also included are the FAA’s ATO, Nav Canada, SENEAM (Mexico), AAI (India), ATNS (South Africa), and Airways New Zealand. All cost figures are reported in US dollars, and services provided by only a few (meteorological, flight service stations) are omitted from cost and performance data.

Five “key performance indicators” are tracked, subject to data being available. They are: productivity, cost-effectiveness, price charged, revenue, and profitability (if applicable). The 80-page report has far more detail than most readers will want, but could be of great interest to policy researchers. I have space here for just some summary information.

Productivity is measured by IFR flight hours per controller (measured separately for continental and oceanic flight regions). The highest productivity score goes to the FAA ATO, followed rather closely by Nav Canada. Also scoring relatively high were AAI (India), SENEAM (Mexico), EANS (Estonia) and Nav Portugal.

On cost-effectiveness, measured by cost per IFR flight hour, the least costly were Mexico, Turkey, New Zealand, Estonia, and Nav Canada, followed by FAA ATO. On revenue per flight hour, the ATO did not report (since it does not charge per flight hour, like everybody else), and the lowest charges were levied by pretty much the same group as ranked best on cost-effectiveness, plus ATNS (South Africa).

The very high-cost and least cost-effective ANSPs were two: LVNL (The Netherlands) and AENA (Spain).

Factors that might explain performance variations include large territory that could lead to lower cost per operation (ATO and Nav Canada), commercialization that might lead to higher productivity (Airways New Zealand, Nav Canada, EANS, and ATNS), and complex airspace that would entail higher costs (LVNL), but that does not explain high-cost AENA. Nor is commercialization a guarantee of high productivity: high-cost AENA counts as commercialized, while low-cost India and Mexico are considered government agencies.

In future years, I hope a lot more ANSPs will take part in the CANSO survey, helping all ANSPs to compare their performance so as to work toward better scores, and helping ANSP customers understand which ones are providing good value for the money they spend on ATC charges.

Contract Towers No Longer So Controversial

With very little fanfare, the House bill to reauthorize the FAA includes a significant expansion of the contract tower program. According to the U.S. Contract Tower Association, as of last August there were 246 control towers in the program, generally at low-activity airports (though some have scheduled airline service). Among the names you might recognize are:

  • Phoenix-Mesa Gateway, AZ
  • Modesto and Palmdale, CA
  • Key West, FL
  • Gwinnett County, GA
  • Kona/Keahole and Lihue, HI
  • Martha’s Vineyard and Worcester, MA
  • Detroit City, MI
  • Branson, MO
  • Niagara Falls and Stewart, NY
  • Hilton Head, SC
  • Charlottesville and Lynchburg, VA
  • Bellingham and Olympia, WA
  • Cheyenne and Jackson Hole, WY

The program was begun in the Reagan Administration, as one of the means used to rebuild the ATC system after the PATCO strike. Three companies currently are under contract to serve the 246 airports: Midwest ATC, Robinson Aviation, and SERCO. Most of the controllers are former FAA or military controllers; all must meet FAA requirements. The cost and performance of the program have been studied a number of times by the Government Accountability Office and the DOT Office of Inspector General. The latter’s most recent report found that the contract towers perform at or above the level of comparable FAA-operated towers, but cost nearly $1 million per year less (each) to operate.

The House bill would expand the program by allowing as many as 90 additional towers to be operated by contractors, to help make the FAA’s limited resources go further, saving an estimated $100 million per year. Given the composition of the House this year, that measure is likely to remain in the bill when it reaches a floor vote. There is no corresponding provision in the FAA bill that has already passed the Senate. How the provision will fare in the conference committee is unclear. Sen. Jay Rockefeller told Bloomberg News that “Turning important government functions over to the highest [sic] bidder does not always deliver the best service or the best deal for the taxpayers,” demonstrating his misunderstanding of the contracting process (which seeks the lowest-cost bid from qualified providers).

Still, where once the contract tower program was vigorously opposed by the controllers union, that organization (NATCA) now represents controllers at 62 of the contract towers. NATCA spokesman Doug Church declined to comment on the bill, when asked by Bloomberg.

Concerns Over GPS Vulnerability Escalating

Two more recent events have increased people’s awareness of the vulnerability of GPS and other satellite based position-navigation-timing systems, generally referred to as GNSS (global navigation satellite systems). One was warnings from many scientists that upcoming solar storms could short-circuit electric power grids and disrupt GNSS signals. The other was the Federal Communications Commission’s premature approval of a plan by broadband communications company Lightsquare to install up to 40,000 terrestrial base stations operating on L-band frequencies adjacent to the L1 band used by GPS (both civil and military). Both the FAA and the Defense Department raised objections, and avionics firm Garmin presented test data showing “disastrous interference” with GPS receivers from a simulated Lightsquare base station. In response, the FCC has required the company to work with the GPS community to assess the interference problem. The working group submitted their test protocol to the FCC on Feb. 25, but both DOT and DOD expressed concerns in a letter to the FCC dated March 25.

As these concerns were being raised, the Royal Academy of Engineering in London released a report early this month called “Global Navigation Space Systems: Reliance and Vulnerabilities.” Like previous reports from various expert bodies in this country, it documented the growing worldwide use of GNSS, not only in transportation but in agriculture, finance (electronic time-stamping of documents), and numerous other fields. ( All GNSS applications are vulnerable not only to failure but to disruption and interference, both from nature (e.g., solar flares) and from human causes, both inadvertent interference and deliberate jamming.

This report underscores two points which are often not appreciated by the aviation community:

  1. GNSS vulnerability affects a vast portion of economic activity, not just aviation or transportation;
  2. GNSS vulnerability is a global, not just an American, problem.

Consequently, back-up system(s) must be across-the-board (not aviation-specific) and global in nature.

Like most previous assessments that meet the above criteria, the Royal Academy identifies eLORAN as the best available option as the back-up system. That was also the conclusion of those taking part in the Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) Interference, Detection, and Monitoring Conference in London earlier this month. As the researchers pointed out, eLORAN is a modernized version of the long-range navigation system put in place in the 1950s, primarily for oceanic navigation. It operates in a completely different frequency band (100 kilohertz), compared with GPS at 1.5 gigahertz. Jamming eLORAN is possible, but requires a huge and conspicuous source of power. And while eLORAN is not as effective for GPS, it can serve as an adequate backup. In addition, its cost is quite modest.

As I have reported here several times before, eLORAN was selected two years ago by an interagency study team as the U.S. backup for GPS. But that decision was overturned by the Obama Administration early in its term, for reasons that have never been explained. If the Administration knows of some heretofore unknown defect in eLORAN that makes it unsuitable as the GPS backup, it should make that information public, before Europe and the rest of the world move forward. And it has an obligation to propose an alternative that is both suitable for all applications (not just aviation or transportation) and usable worldwide.

News Notes

Iridium to Offer In-Flight Monitoring
Satellite operator Iridium has announced a plan to offer real-time flight tracking and data reporting of aircraft flying in oceanic airspace. Equipment mounted on the company’s forthcoming constellation of Iridium Next satellites will monitor ADS-B transmissions from such flights, reporting it in real-time to air navigation service providers (ANSPs). That will permit reduced separation between flights in oceanic airspace. It would also permit flight tracking over land in large countries such as China and Russia where full radar coverage does not exist. Aviation Week‘s March 7 article notes that a similar service already exists in the ship-tracking market, in which satellites track data from AIS transponders required on most vessels.

Sensis Designing Procedures for High Density Airspace
NASA last month announced a contract with Sensis Corp. to develop designs and procedures for Super Density Operations Airspace. Under this contract, Sensis will use the airspace serving six Southern California airports as its test case: LAX, BUR, ONT, LGB, SNA, and SAN. The project is part of NASA’s involvement in NextGen.

Steps Toward Single African Sky
African ANSPs held their third joint meeting at the end of 2010, in Benin, with the aim of making further progress toward a single African sky, featuring seamless airspace over the entire continent. The event was coordinated by the Agency for the Safety of Air Navigation in Africa (ASECNA). And last month, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), with 19 member states, agreed that Rwanda would be the site for a joint ATC center serving the entire COMESA region.

ATC Facility Consolidation in Russia
Russia’s State ATM Corporation has announced a six-year modernization program, reports CANSO’s Airspace magazine (Quarter 1, 2011). Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (RVSM) will be introduced in Russia’s western regions bordering Europe in November. A major aspect of the program is facility consolidation. Since State ATM Corporation was created in 1996, the number of area control centers has been reduced from 118 to 69. By 2015 there will be just 13. Two of the all-new regional centers went live in 2010, and a third will open this year.

GBAS at Rio de Janeiro Airport
Honeywell’s SmartPath ground-based augmentation system (GBAS) has been installed at Galeao-Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport in Rio. The system augments signals from the GPS satellite complex to provide precision landing guidance for up to four runways simultaneously, at much lower cost than traditional instrument landing systems (ILSs). It also permits curved approaches.

Airbus Emulates Boeing in ATM Efforts
Airbus has created a new air traffic management (ATM) unit, to speed the progress of next-generation ATC systems such as SESAR and NextGen. The new unit begins with about 150 employees, and has offices in Paris, Toulouse, and Washington, DC.

Metron Lands SESAR R&D Contract
Metron Aviation has been selected by Thales to do advanced research and development on aspects of Europe’s counterpart to NextGen, called SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research). Metron will be working on the development phase of the effort, carried out by the public-private team called the SESAR Joint Undertaking. Metron last year was selected as the prime contractor for the FAA’s SE-2020 research and mission analysis program.

EGNOS Approved for Vertical Guidance
The EU’s counterpart of WAAS, called EGNOS, received authorization from the European Commission to begin providing vertical guidance for precision approaches to airports. The European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service is being offered by a newly created entity called ESSP. In order for an ANSP to use the service, it must publish procedures, and aircraft operators must equip their planes and complete the required training.

Aerobahn Selected for Denver International
The airport surface management system called Aerobahn will be deployed at Denver International Airport, joining New York’s Kennedy International and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International in making use of this system from Sensis Corp. Aerobahn will give airlines and various service provides a common view of all surface operations in real time, to facilitate airport collaborative decision-making.

Ten Groups Compete for Spanish Control Towers
Spain’s state-owned airport operator AENA has pre-qualified 10 potential providers to bid on five-year contracts to operate groups of control towers at 13 airports. The airports are being divided into three groups. Potential operators can bid for one, two, or all three groups of towers. Some of the bidders are joint ventures of overseas and domestic firms, at least one (SERCO) is a stand-alone global company, and others are purely domestic. Providers will be selected within five months, AENA reported in mid-March.