Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #82
Photo 63490218 © Braniffman -

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #82

Insufficient controller fatigue decision, Equipage Fund makes progress, SESAR challenges in Europe

In this issue:

  • Controller fatigue decision not sufficient
  • Equipage Fund making progress
  • SESAR faces challenges in Europe
  • Steps toward more efficient flight
  • News Notes
  • Quotable Quotes

Belated Action on Controller Fatigue Highlights Underlying Problems

Finally, after a spate of well-publicized sleeping-controller incidents, the FAA has taken action to address one of the underlying problems: shift schedules the controllers prefer but that play havoc with circadian rhythms. But the new rules rolled out this week don’t address another key problem with midnight shifts. And the whole episode shines a welcome spotlight on the FAA’s unfortunate dual role as both the air-safety regulator and the ATC provider.

I’ve reported for years on the infamous 2-2-1 shift that is popular with controllers. On that schedule, controllers work two swing shifts, two day shifts, and one midnight shift. The second day shift ends at 2 PM and the subsequent midnight shift begins at 10 PM. That’s a recipe for fatigue on the midnight shift, and this problem is so well-known that 2-2-1 has long been called “the rattler,” since it can come back and bite the controller. But controllers have fought to keep 2-2-1, because it gives them a three-day weekend afterwards. The National Transportation Safety Board called for abolishing 2-2-1 in an April 2007 report, and the DOT Inspector General has called for a 10-hour minimum between shifts in general, and 16 hours after a midnight shift. It’s not clear if the new rules eliminate 2-2-1, and they only increase the minimum time between shifts to 9 hours.

The other cause of fatigue on midnight shifts is black backgrounds on controller display screens, which require dark rooms, which induce drowsiness. A former senior FAA official tells me that it is now common international practice to have light gray background screen displays that can be used in high-light environments. He was at FAA in the mid-1990s and tells me that controllers insisted on the black display screens and dark rooms, as well as the right to schedule their shifts to maximize days off and overtime. But FAA leadership was unwilling to take this on.

And this gets us to the heart of the issue. As the aviation safety regulator, the FAA would not tolerate such threats to air safety from airlines, or from mechanics, or from aircraft producers. It regulates all such entities at arm’s length. But it has tolerated 2-2-1 schedules and dark control rooms for decades, despite the findings of human-factors researchers about sleep deprivation and controller fatigue. Why? The only answer that makes sense is that the “all-in-the-family” culture within FAA leads to less-stringent safety oversight of its ATC people than of all the other players in aviation.

The answer is organizational separation of air safety regulation from the provision of ATC services, to bring about true arm’s-length safety regulation of air traffic control. Over the past decade, every developed country (except us) has made this change, consistent with policy set forth by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Last year, former FAA Administrator Langhorne Bond and I made a detailed case for separating the Air Traffic Organization from the FAA, in the Journal of Air Traffic Control.

There’s a much larger reason for making this change than simply resolving the problem of controller fatigue. NextGen is the most fundamental change in the nature of air traffic management since the introduction of radar in the 1950s. By using new technology and process automation, NextGen will permit planes to fly closer together safely, adding much-needed capacity to airports and airspace. But many of those decisions will require careful assessment of the trade-offs involved. The safety regulator making those assessments will have far more credibility with the public and policy-makers if it is independent of those seeking to implement the NextGen technologies and procedures.

The current controller-fatigue flap is actually a wake-up call. For NextGen to succeed, we need an independent aviation safety regulator. And that means we must separate the Air Traffic Organization from the FAA.

Equipage Fund Making Progress

On April 4, the NextGen Equipage Fund issued a news release, announcing the inclusion in the House FAA bill of provisions that will permit the Fund and the FAA to engage in a public-private partnership (PPP) approach to facilitating equipping the airlines and the high-end general aviation fleet with equipment for NextGen components such as ADS-B and DataComm. By encouraging what the Fund expects will be $1.5 billion in financing for such equipage, this PPP approach should help the FAA to stay on schedule in implementing key NextGen programs even as its budget gets squeezed by the ongoing fiscal crunch.

The Equipage Fund is a creative approach to solving what some have called the NextGen equipage paradox. For NextGen to deliver meaningful benefits to airspace users, a preponderance of planes need to be equipped. Early adopters will get only a small fraction of the benefits, while those who wait till the last minute will get the greatest benefit when most planes are finally equipped. This is illustrated on the Fund’s website ( with a detailed DataComm example. That case study uses data from a MITRE study based on American Airlines. AA’s yearly cost savings would be only 10% of its possible maximum if AA alone equips–$8.7 million per year versus $80.3 million per year in AA savings if all airlines equip.

The Fund’s general partners, Mike Dyment and Russ Chew, have figured out a way to align the incentives of the three key players-airlines, the FAA, and the Fund’s investors. Under their proposed Best-Equipped/Best-Served contractual model, an airline that finances, for example, DataComm equipage via the Fund does not have to make lease payments until the FAA delivers usable DataComm services.

Financially, the investors in the Equipage Fund (so far, ITT is the lead investor, with discussions under way with others) will put in equity and take on commercial debt to pay for large orders of the necessary gear to be installed in planes, taking advantages of economies of scale from large purchases. They will expect to make a return on those investments over time in the form of lease payments from the aircraft operators. To reduce, the PPP aspect of the program would permit the FAA to make loan guarantees available to the Fund (as opposed to individual aircraft operators). In contrast with federal grants, federal budget scoring rules would score a loan guarantee for $1 billion worth of equipment as having a credit risk premium of only about $125 million. Yet this very modest budgetary impact could leverage a total equipage investment of up to $2.3 billion.

This kind of leverage is already hard at work in surface transportation. Under the DOT’s successful TIFIA program, federal subordinated loans (instead of grants) are made available for large highway and transit projects that have a dedicated funding source (e.g., tolls or dedicated local tax revenue) and can get an investment-grade rating on their senior debt. TIFIA is limited to 33% of the total project budget, and the credit risk is scored at 10% of the loan amount. Thus, for a $1 billion toll road project, the federal budget exposure is $33 million (10% of a maximum $330 million loan). That compares very favorably to traditional 80% to 90% federal grant for such projects.

Equipage Fund partner Russ Chew (former head of the FAA Air Traffic Organization) tells me they are in discussions with a number of leading airlines as potential customers, as well as various aerospace companies and Wall Street firms. My guess is that we will see a number of commitments announced once the FAA reauthorization bill is finally enacted, assuming it includes the House PPP equipage provision.

How Is SESAR Progressing in Europe?

One of the ATC questions I get most often from journalists is whether Europe’s counterpart to NextGen, called SESAR, is ahead or behind the U.S. program. It’s hard to give a simple answer to that, because the contexts are so different. On the one hand, with 40-odd countries in Europe, the political complexities of creating a “Single European Sky” are enormous. On the other hand, Europe has created the SESAR Joint Undertaking (JU) as a public-private partnership to develop the technology and procedures in a manner that appears far more coordinated than the U.S. FAA-led effort (with the private sector in a mostly advisory role). That said, there are tangible signs of progress in Europe, along with some significant obstacles.

One of SESAR’s building blocks is the creation of Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs), to be formed by voluntary arrangements among two or more adjoining air navigation service providers (ANSPs). This bottoms-up approach is intended to lead to the simplified airspace that ignores country borders and dramatically reduces the number of control centers. Progress in creating FABs has been slower than planned, though some important steps have been taken recently in northern Europe. In early March, an agreement on joint efforts was announced between two adjoining FABs: one representing the Irish and UK ANSPs and the other comprising the Danish and Swedish ANSPs. (Those, incidentally, are the only two FABs to be formally established thus far, though many others are in the planning process.) And several weeks later, an adjacent group of ANSPs (Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, and Norway) announced they were seeking formal FAB status and said they will ally with the Irish/UK/Danish/Swedish group by June.

In addition, the European Commission in March allocated about $27 million to assist in the creation of FABs. But there is still a very long way to go toward what many consider the goal of ending up with four to six control centers, total, for all 40 countries in Europe. All but one of Europe’s ANSPs is owned by the governments of their respective countries (the exception being the part-privatized NATS in the UK). As an article in Flight Global pointed out recently, “Air traffic control officers are highly paid, highly skilled people, and ATM [air traffic management] is a high-tech business even today, supporting other skilled jobs such as engineering and maintenance. Not only will the officers fight for their jobs and way of life, politicians will not want to see skilled jobs disappear from their constituencies.” Yet without dramatic consolidation of ATC facilities in Europe, airspace users have no hope of doubling ATC productivity, to get it up to current U.S. levels.

Another positive, I suppose, is the continuing progress toward a European version of GPS, called Galileo. The European Commission has committed to funding the full deployment of the satellites and ground equipment, which will have an initial 18 satellites in orbit and operating by 2014-15 and the full 30-satellite constellation in operation by 2019-20. Already operational is Egnos, the GNSS augmentation system.

The six largest and most influential ANSPs (from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and the UK) are working together to agree on technology and operational objectives, but there is great uncertainty among ANSPs, airlines, and others over how and when these ideas will be turned into reality. Richard Deakin of NATS told FlightGlobal that the SESAR JU “is providing the bricks to build the new house, but nobody has spoken to the architect,” emphasizing the need for commonly agreed-upon principles approved by public officials.

The JU plans 29 “validation exercises” this year, focusing on integrating airlines flight planning and operations with SESAR, using new flight-management system software for 4-D trajectory demonstrations, and further demonstrations of virtual towers (called remote towers in Europe).

One looming problem may be integration of military operations into the Single European Sky. Aviation Intelligence Reporter has been tracking this issue. At last year’s Budapest Aviation Summit, the deputy assistant secretary general of NATO, Istvan Talla, pointedly stated that SES and SESAR do not apply to military operations, and expressed dismay that repeated NATO offers of assistance to SESAR had been spurned. That does not bode well for attaining a “single” European sky.

Steps Toward More Efficient Flights

Several programs are under way involving U.S. airlines, each offering ways of using existing (pre-NextGen) technology to permit flights to deviate from established flight tracks. One involves trans-Atlantic flights, another domestic flights, and the third involves re-routing domestic flights due to bad weather or airspace saturation.

The first, called iFlex, is being coordinated by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), working with Delta and Emirates, along with a number of ANSPs, ICAO, and CANSO. The project allows each airline, prior to a flight plan being finalized, to work with the ANSPs involved to optimize the route of flight based on expected weather en-route. For very long routes, such as Delta’s Atlanta to Johannesburg and Emirates’ Dubai to Sao Paulo, a several percent reduction in flight time and fuel burn produces meaningful dollar savings. These “optimized” flight plans do not use real-time weather data, but data from 6 to 10 hours prior to departure still permits meaningful savings, compared with flying traditional fixed tracks. IATA hopes to expand iFlex to more long-haul routes after it is proven out on these two initial routes.

The second program was developed by Boeing and is aimed (thus far) at domestic routes. Direct Route uses real-time data on flight activity and weather to support pilot requests to deviate from the flight plan in order to optimize fuel use or other objectives. Boeing Inflight Optimization Services uses FAA data to monitor flights and alerts airline flight operations centers of opportunities to make “ATC-approvable” changes. The airline communicates the proposed change to the pilot digitally (via an existing system called ACARS). The pilot then requests permission from ATC to make the change, either by voice or digitally (via FANS, if the plane is so equipped).

The third program is an FAA project called CTOP (Collaborative Trajectories Options Program). When airspace constraints arise, due to bad weather or excess traffic in a sector, FAA’s central flow control will inform airlines of the problem and allow them to submit re-routing preferences to the CTOP program. An algorithm determines the “optimum” re-route for each flight, given all the available factors. The airlines can swap flights to better match the allowed re-routes to their own objectives. All such negotiations will be handled electronically. One FAA insider tells me “It is one of the clearer and more intelligent products I have seen since I started working here.” An industry briefing on CTOP was held last October, and it is supposed to go live sometime this year.

It’s good to see these incremental steps taking place, preparing the way for far more extensive capabilities with NextGen.

News Notes

Nationwide WAM in Sweden?
What could become the first use of Wide-Area Multilateration (WAM) for ATC surveillance nationwide has begun in Sweden. Sensis Corporation has begun deploying WAM in two regions: the Stockholm area and a northern region. The other five airspace regions are listed as options in the contract. The WAM network will provide surveillance for en-route, terminal, and approach phases of flight, using a network of ground stations to provide accurate aircraft positions by triangulation from transponder readings. Sweden’s ANSP-LNV-selected the Stockholm region because its radars are old and the northern region because its radars do not provide full coverage. The ground units can ultimately be upgraded to provide ADS-B coverage, once aircraft are equipped with ADS-B/Out.

EU Goes After Russian Overflight Fees
In a bizarre hangover from the Soviet era, all aircraft traversing Siberia must pay overflight fees not to a Russian ANSP but rather to partially state-owned airline Aeroflot. This violates both international and EU aviation law, so the European Commission is taking action to halt the practice (which cost EU airlines an estimated $420 million in 2008). The Commission is demanding that individual countries (such as Bulgaria) withdraw from their bilateral agreements with Russia and instead designate the EU as the relevant party for such agreements. Once all EU members have agreed to that, the Commission plans to send Russia a notice of termination.

ERAM Declared Operational
The FAA this month announced that the En-Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) software to be fully operational and ready for nationwide roll-out. ERAM, which has suffered from numerous software glitches, is late and over-budget, but has apparently passed muster at the Salt Lake City and Seattle centers where it has been in operational testing for the past two years. It can now be phased in at the other 18 centers. ERAM, which replaces the obsolete HOST software, is a key building block for NextGen.

Higher Controller Trainee Washout Rate
The DOT Inspector General’s office released a report April 1 on the extent to which air traffic controller trainees fail to complete their training. For 2008, 2009, and 2010, the washout rates were 31%, 21%, and 22%. The FAA had previously estimated the 2009 washout rate as only 9%. While those relatively high attrition rates make the agency’s job of replacing about 11,000 retiring controllers more difficult, it makes sense to have tough standards to prevent marginally qualified trainees from being accepted and becoming mediocre controllers.

Nav Canada Offering Broad Array of ATC Systems
At the ATC Global conference in Amsterdam last month, commercialized ANSP Nav Canada announced an expanded offering of products, under the brand name NAVCANatm. The seven products are being offered individually and as an integrated package. They comprise: electronic flight strips, situational displays, real-time data, control of airport lighting and navaids, cockpit weather information, weather updates for international flights, and a scheduling and sequencing tool. Some of these products have been available to other ANSPs for the past decade, and a number have been deployed by European ANSPs.

Papua New Guinea ANSP Joins CANSO
PNGASL (Papua New Guinea Air Services Limited), an independent commercial entity that provides ATC services for that Pacific Island nation, has joined the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO) as a full member. That brings the total number of full members of CANSO to 60.

ICAO Aeronautical Charges Now Online
The complete listing of airport and ATC charges for 187 countries and territories is now available online from the International Civil Aviation Organization. Perusal of the database makes it very clear that the United States stands virtually alone (except for a few tiny and underdeveloped countries) in not charging directly for ATC services. The database is described at In keeping with the user-charge principle, it is available online only by annual subscription ($600/year).

Correction re FBOs
In last month’s story about arm’s-length safety regulation by the FAA, I stated that the agency regulates the safety of a long list of aviation entities. A reader quickly responded that I was incorrect in including Fixed Base Operators (FBOs) in that list. He pointed out that although OSHA and TSA rules apply to FBOs, there is no FAA oversight.

Quotable Quotes

“[T]he parable of the blind man and the elephant . . . echoes the current relationship between the aviation community and NextGen. . . . Depending on who you speak with, NextGen is many different things: it could be ADS-B, DataCom, SWIM, RNP, reduced separation, TBO, CDA, SMS, modeling, and more. While these are all pieces of NextGen, they do not define NextGen as a whole. Until we can establish a program that takes all of the NextGen technological and procedural parts and puts them under one authority that has accountability, we will always have vastly differing views of the whole. And without a common, clear understanding of NextGen as a system of systems, we can never expect to realize the benefits of global harmonization.”
–Peter F. Dumont, “The Elephant in the Room,” Aviation Week, March 7/14, 2011

“There is no basis for [the Russian overflight fee paid to Aeroflot] in the Chicago Convention. It is merely an example of the liberty the rich man takes of the poor-and in this case Russia, and thus Aeroflot, is rich by owning the land beneath the shortest great circle route over the polar region. It is cheaper for airlines to pay the fee than fly around. . . . Europe’s position is clear-drop this requirement or we close our airspace to your aircraft. Not all that subtle, but the time for subtlety is past. . . . Russia is not playing divide and conquer; it is just playing conquer, but the outcome may be the same.”
–Andrew Charlton, “All Clear on the Eastern Front,” Aviation Intelligence Reporter, July 2010.

“The 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. . . . GPS comes in different flavors. Some receivers, such as those in cellphones, do not require a great deal of accuracy and are narrowly filtered. But receivers used in aviation, or to measure crustal motion with millimeter accuracy, have wideband receivers looking at adjacent bands, which were relatively quiet.”
–Bradford Parkinson, Stanford University, quoted in “Vulnerable Utility” by GrahamWarwick, Aviation Week, April 11, 2011.