Air Traffic Control Newsletter #135

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #135

Delta distortions in WSJ | Safety benefits of space-based surveillance

In this issue:

Delta Distortions in Wall Street Journal letter

In response to a recent Wall Street Journal editorial supporting ATC corporatization along the lines of the House bill, Delta’s Steve Dickson sent a letter that’s a model of distorting facts in order to make its case. The thrust of the letter was two-fold: asserting that FAA is leading the world in advanced ATC technology and dismissing the world-leading performance of Nav Canada, whose non-profit model is the basis for the corporation proposal in the House bill.

Dickson’s first claim was that, thanks to FAA progress, “more than 1.7 million aircraft are tracked daily using GPS.” An expert on FAA operations data emailed me to cast doubt on that number, having no idea where Dickson could have gotten it. If true, it would mean about 621 million aircraft handled per year—yet FAA data for en-route airspace in FY 2015 totals about 42 million annual transactions (based on each transit of a center counting for three transactions: an arrival, a transit, and a departure). Dickson’s fanciful total is aimed at grossly exaggerating the traffic volume in U.S. airspace—implicitly compared to 2nd-largest Nav Canada.

Second, he claims that “FAA already delivers better results than other providers around the world.” In my reply, which the WSJ published on June 30th, I cited objective data from CANSO on two critically important performance metrics. FAA’s cost per IFR flight hour, at $450, is much higher than Nav Canada’s $340 (both figures in U.S. dollars). And Nav Canada’s controller productivity is also higher, achieving 1,760 flight hours per controller per year, compared with FAA’s 1,725. Since it is well-known that there are economies of scale in air traffic control, other things equal, the FAA as the world’s largest provider should have significantly higher productivity and lower unit costs. Perhaps Nav Canada’s world-leading automation technology has something to do with the difference.

Dickson also touts Delta’s active participation in RTCA’s NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC) to advise FAA on which modernization projects should get near-term priority. However, he fails to mention that at the June 18th NAC meeting, Delta opposed a proposal to create a working group on space-based ADS-B, an area where FAA is lagging woefully behind other ANSPs. Fortunately, the measure passed with the support of American, FedEx, and NATCA, despite Delta’s opposition.

Finally, in the most egregious misrepresentation of all, Dickson wrote the following: “[U]nder the proposed House bill, travelers would continue paying taxes on airline tickets, in addition to paying new user fees,” which he goes on to say would increase ATC costs by 20% to 29%. This is a classic propaganda trick. The House draft as of now still has no revenue title (which must come from the Ways & Means Committee, not the authorizing committee that wrote the bill, Transportation & Infrastructure). The clear intent of everyone supporting corporatization is that ATC fees would replace nearly all current aviation excise taxes, leaving only enough to pay for the airport grants program (AIP). So Dickson’s statement, while technically true, is a gross distortion of reality.

The specter of increased ATC costs is a staple of anti-corporatization propaganda, including bizarre claims about Nav Canada rate increases during its 20-year history. The graph below, from the current issue of the company’s newsletter Direct Route, shows that several rate increases were imposed following the shrinkage of air travel after 9/11. But rates were subsequently reduced and are today far below the rate of consumer price inflation in Canada. Inflation has increased about 140% since 1999, when Nav Canada’s initial ATC fees replaced the Canadian ticket tax. But the company’s rates have increased just 5% over that same time period. And that is before the rate decrease announced recently for FY 2017 (indicated by the dashed lines on the graph). That would put the rates below the level they were at in 1999, in real terms. No evidence of cost increases there!

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New Report on Safety Benefits of Space-Based ADS-B

The Flight Safety Foundation last month released its report, “Benefits Analysis of Space-Based ADS-B Technology.” It provides a careful look at near-term, mid-term, and long-term benefits of this important improvement in global aviation surveillance.

The report identifies a number of aviation problems that space-based ADS-B will address, including the following:

  • Oceanic and remote airspace currently lacks surveillance. Space-based ADS-B will provide near-real-time surveillance of all this airspace, functionally equivalent to radar, and will facilitate reducing separation minima in such airspace, thereby increasing capacity.
  • Aircraft position errors, on or near boundaries of two different flight information regions (FIRs), are still common. Space-based ADS-B will “introduce significant safety benefits” by avoiding positional errors that now occur in such situations, and handovers from one FIR to the next should be more precise, reducing controller and pilot workload, while increasing safety.
  • Current flight trajectory monitoring is generally once per 30 minutes in oceanic and remote airspace, leading to significant off-track errors. Space-based ADS-B will change this to once every 8 seconds, permitting nearly real-time detection of aircraft not on predicted flight paths.
  • ATC and pilot workloads are hampered by inefficient traffic management in oceanic and remote airspace. Near-real-time surveillance will facilitate more efficient flight planning and better ATC tools, resulting in fewer errors.
  • There is insufficient surveillance over designated conflict zones and volcanic ash clouds. In such airspace, space-based ADS-B will permit better pre-planning and more accurate diversion routes, improving the global safety net.
  • Locating black boxes after a crash can involve huge areas, leading to costly and time-consuming searches. Space-based ADS-B will provide time-critical flight data to narrow the search area considerably.

Progress toward implementing global space-based ADS-B continues. CANSO (the international association of ANSPs) released “Guidelines for Implementing ATS Surveillance Services Using Space-Based ADS-B” in March. ANSPs continue to sign Memoranda of Agreement with leading provider Aireon, to explore whether and how to implement space-based ADS-B within their airspace. Aireon announced on June 1st that Harris Corporation has completed production of all 81 ADS-B payloads to be launched on the Iridium Next satellite constellation beginning this year and continuing in 2017.

And benefits will begin soon thereafter. Nav Canada and NATS have announced that Aireon services will be implemented in the Gander Oceanic Control Area and the Shanwick OCA in 2018, which will enable longitudinal separation standard on their North Atlantic Tracks to be reduced from 40 nm to just 15 nm. That means many more planes will be able to use preferred altitudes that minimize fuel burn and GHG emissions.

Flight Safety Foundation vice president for global programs, Greg Marshall summed up the benefits of space-based ADS-B as follows: “The ability to provide near-real-time global surveillance is a game-changer for the aviation industry. This type of innovative capability comes along once in a generation. I think we can agree, it is always safer when the controller knows exactly where the plane is, 100 percent of the time.”

I agree. Let’s hope the FAA finally gets with the program.

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FAA’s Sole-Source Problem and STARS

The DOT Inspector General issued a report on May 9th dinging the FAA for over-use of sole-source contracts (ZA-2016-065). In July 2009, the Office of Management & Budget directed all federal agencies to reduce the use of non-competitive contracts, including sole-source ones. Of all DOT agencies, FAA awards far more such contracts than any other, amounting to 65% of all DOT sole-source awards. The IG’s report finds that FAA fails to adhere to the standardized process for assessing potential follow-on contracts required by its Acquisition Management System (AMS). Between 2008 and 2014 FAA issued sole-source contracts totaling $2.4 billion. And the IG found that it did not even report to DOT 81 sole-source contracts during fiscal years 2012 through 2014.

But I searched in vain in this report for what is perhaps the most consequential sole-source decision FAA has made in recent years: Phase 3 of its Terminal Automation Modernization/Replacement program (TAMR). This is the over-budget and much-delayed procurement that is replacing the CARTS system with STARS at 11 of the country’s largest TRACON facilities.

A highly knowledgeable informant sent me a detailed email about this. He noted that “FAA spent billions of dollars to build a STARS/TAMR system to meet the requirements that CARTS already met.” He also pointed out that FAA started down the path of a competitive procurement, but got diverted, as noted in a 2013 I.G. report that is eerily prescient about forthcoming problems: “FAA’s Acquisition Strategy for Terminal Modernization Is at Risk for Cost Increases, Schedule Delays, and Performance Shortfalls” (AV-2013-097, May 29, 2013).

That report explains (p. 11) that FAA considered two alternatives for Phase 3. One was to replace CARTS with STARS at the 11 large TRACONs, at an estimated cost of $462 million. The other was to retain CARTS at the large TRACONs and to replace STARS at 52 Phase 1 sites with CARTS (estimated to cost $731 million). But the I.G. notes that this cost comparison omitted $270 million in costs needed to support computer and software upgrades to STARS in the first alternative—which would have made the costs equal. And the I.G. also notes that FAA did not even attempt to estimate the benefits of the two alternatives.

My informant believes that the situation the FAA faced at that juncture clearly merited a competitive procurement, in which the STARS and CARTS contractors could have each bid their system. The CARTS baseline, he wrote, “already met the requirements, based on all the software changes needed to upgrade STARS to the same functionality as CARTS.” And he maintains that since open competition is a fundamental principle of FAA’s Acquisition Management System, the agency appears to have violated this principle by, in effect, cooking the books in favor of sole-source procurement of STARS for Phase 3. He also noted another difference: FAA owned unlimited data rights to CARTS, but the STARS contractor owns all data rights to STARS. That would certainly amount to a difference in benefits between the two alternatives.

This is yet another example, I’m afraid, that the FAA’s organizational culture does not reflect the best interests of its customers.

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Controller Staffing Reforms Urged at Hearing

The House Aviation Subcommittee held a hearing on ATC staffing on June 6th. There was bipartisan agreement that (1) the controller staffing situation is dire, and (2) hiring procedures need to be changed, including the ludicrous Biographical Assessment that FAA introduced in 2013.

Controllers’ union NATCA President Paul Rinaldi told Members that the number of fully certified controllers is at a 27-year low, with a 10% decrease since 2011, as hiring and training failed to keep pace with retirements. Chairman Frank LoBiondo (R, NJ) pointed out that FAA has missed its controller hiring goals for the past six years (though may achieve it this year, according to Air Traffic Organization COO Teri Bristol). Ranking Member Rick Larsen (D, WA) stressed that some of the worst shortfalls of fully certified controllers are at high-traffic facilities.

There was considerable agreement among Democratic and Republican Members at the hearing that FAA’s controller hiring and training system needs a lot of work. Matt Hampton, of the DOT Office of the Inspector General, cited the following shortcomings, based on recent OIG audits:

  • FAA’s model that estimates staffing requirements is not accurate;
  • Its system to optimize controller schedules is not fully utilized;
  • The agency lacks accurate data on likely upcoming controller retirements; and.
  • There is poor communication about controller staffing needs between headquarters and ATC facilities around the country.

There was considerable bipartisan criticism of FAA’s introduction into the hiring process of a Biographical Assessment, beginning in 2013. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D, OR) was among many who urged much greater emphasis on recruiting former military and contract tower controllers, as well as graduates of Collegiate Training Initiative colleges, and exempting such candidates from having to pass any form of Biographical Assessment. He asked FAA Deputy Assistant Administrator for Human Resource Management Rickie Cannon what kind of sense it makes to reject an experienced military controller simply because he or she did not receive a passing score on the BA. Cannon gave a non-answer, saying only that (a) FAA does not want to screen anyone out and (b) the BA process is “producing results.”

Rinaldi and former FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt expressed support for pending legislation (HR 5292) that would require FAA to give preference in hiring to former controllers and Collegiate Training Initiative graduates, who would be exempted from any Biographical Assessment; it would also require FAA to invite re-applications from CTI graduates previously excluded by not passing the BA. The bill appeared set for approval by the full Transportation & Infrastructure Committee late in June, but consideration was deferred due to the gun-control sit-in that led to a shut-down of House business.

Several other interesting statements were made at the hearing. Former Administrator Babbitt, now with Southwest Airlines, supported corporatization of the Air Traffic Organization, as proposed in the pending AIRR Act. Babbitt joins all three former ATO chief operating officers in supporting corporatization (Russ Chew, Hank Krakowski, and David Grizzle), as well as former Administrator Langhorne Bond. And in response to a question about whether a corporatized ATC system would do better at recruiting and training controllers, OIG’s Matt Hampton said it would take an ATC corporation time to get up to speed, but that such an entity, focused solely on ATC, would have a better chance of addressing such problems (per the account in Eno Transportation Weekly, June 23, 2016).

Rep. John Mica (R, FL), a former chairman of the subcommittee, proposed that FAA exit the controller training business (except for on-the-job training). Instead, it would shift more training to the CTI schools and then rely on hiring trained CTI graduates and former controllers, who would go straight to on-the-job training. This idea was raised in an OIG report in 2005 (AV-2006-021) and again in a GAO preliminary report in 2012 (GAO-12-996R). But as I reported in the February 2014 issue of this newsletter, GAO never completed the planned cost-effectiveness analysis, due to being told of FAA’s plan to do a pilot-test of the idea—a test that was never carried out, due to the change in policy to introduce the Biographical Assessment.

While the changes proposed in HR 5292 would be a step in the right direction, implementing the OIG/GAO/Mica approach would be a more effective way to bypass FAA’s social-engineering human resources staff. As would, of course, removing the Air Traffic Organization from the FAA.

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Crowd-Sourced Weather for Aviation

Six years ago in this newsletter I reported on then-new company AirDat, which had developed a disruptive innovation for aviation weather. Instead of relying on 20th-century weather balloons and ground-based radar for bits and pieces of weather data that would often be many hours old by the time aircraft were in flight, equip existing fleets with weather sensors and crowd-source weather data. AirDat sent the observations, in real-time via the Iridium satellite network, to its data center in Orlando, where it fed a suite of aviation weather models. By 2013 its TAMDAR system had proved itself, following a detailed evaluation using NOAA’s NCEP 3-D weather model, finding that it improved forecast accuracy by 30-50% (and a 4-D model’s accuracy was nearly doubled).

In the three years since then, the idea has spread widely. First Panasonic bought AirDat and created subscription-based Panasonic Weather, enabling subscribing airlines and other aircraft operators to uplink detailed forecasts to their cockpits, via the system which is part of the company’s Flight-Link offering. Since then, at least four other providers have moved into this market, offering (or planning to offer) subscription real-time weather information to airlines and other customers.

One of those is Weather Services International (WSI), whose largest customer is American Airlines. It has installed its Turbulence Auto Pirep System (TAPS) in close to a thousand aircraft, including those of American, Alaska, Dragonair, and several others. TAPS requires no new onboard equipment, but relies on software that is part of an aircraft condition-monitoring system. Data on ride quality are reported to WSI every 20 minutes over the plane’s existing ACARS communication system. It is available on Boeing 737, 757, and 777 and the Airbus A319 and A321. Information on expected turbulence is then provided to all subscribers.

Honeywell is taking a different approach than Panasonic and WSI. It is relying on new software for its RDR-4000 aircraft weather radar that will downlink weather “snapshots” to the ground via broadband. Data from large numbers of equipped planes will be used to create detailed near-real-time pictures of airborne weather to be uplinked to aircraft via broadband. Honeywell plans a subscription weather product called Weather Information Service, starting next year. Rockwell Collins has developed similar software called ThreatTrack for its Multiscan weather radar, and is researching a broader system that would offer more comprehensive weather information to subscribing customers. It already provides non-radar crowd-sourced weather data via its Information Management Services division, the former ARINC. Also in the business is the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), with a software system called In Situ that also uses turbulence data. It is installed on portions of the fleet at Delta, Southwest, and United.

As I’ve followed these developments over the past six years, I often wonder where this leaves FAA’s plans for things like a centralized NextGen Weather Processor (NWP) to generate better airborne weather data for airspace users. After years with no word about this proposed component of NextGen, last year I received a news release from Raytheon, headlined “Raytheon to Transform U.S. Aviation Weather.” The company had just received a $77 million contract “to build weather processing and display infrastructure for use throughout the National Airspace System”—the NextGen Weather Processor. The news release referred to this as a very big deal, since “weather is the most disruptive factor in the NAS.” Yet it seems to me that while FAA has dithered, the private sector—without need of FAA contracts—has been very busy with disruptive innovations in aviation weather.

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News Notes

Remote Tower in Amsterdam. Aviation Daily reported (June 30th) that LVNL, the ANSP for the Netherlands, has installed remote tower capability at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to monitor its westernmost runway, rather than building an additional 20th century tower as done by FAA at O’Hare and DFW Airports. The tower at Schiphol is also now handling ATC duties at Groningen Airport Eelde, 200 km. away.

FAA Offering ADS-B Rebates for General Aviation Planes. Early last month the FAA announced that owners of small private planes will be able to get $500 rebates on the cost of installing ADS-B/Out equipment on their aircraft. The agency will make these rebates available to 20,000 owners on a first-come/first-served basis. All aircraft operated in controlled airspace must be ADS-B equipped by 2020, but so far only about 18,000 such planes have been equipped.

New CANSO Chairman from Airways New Zealand. At the 20th Annual General Meeting of the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization, the CEO of Airways New Zealand, Ed Sims, was elected to a five-year term as Chairman. The meeting, attended by over 220 delegates from ANSPs worldwide, took place in Vancouver, BC.

Florida Chamber Backs ATC Corporation. On July 1st the Florida Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to Congress, via Rep. Jeff Miller (R, FL), supporting the House FAA reauthorization bill, the AIRR Act, that includes converting the Air Traffic Organization into a self-supporting ATC Corporation. The letter said that “Reforms to our antiquated Air Traffic Control System are both overdue and necessary.”

Aireon Signs MOA with Russia for Space-Based ADS-B. Space-based ADS-B provider Aireon LLC has signed Memoranda of Agreement with two Russian organizations—JSC AZIMUT and JSC INFOCOM-Avia to evaluate the benefits of deploying space-based ADS-B in Russian airspace. AZMUT is a leading equipment supplier to the Russian ANSP, the State ATM Corporation. And INFOCOM is the designated provider of aviation information services in Russia. Russian airspace includes 26 million square kilometers, accounting for over 12.5% of the earth’s surface.

Three More ANSPs Plan to Join iTEC Alliance. Norway’s Avinor, Lithuania’s Oro Navigacija, and Poland’s PANSA have applied to join the iTEC Alliance. iTEC is a collaboration of aerospace company Indra with the ANSPs of Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and the UK to create and use a joint flight data processing system to enable advanced operations such as 4-D trajectory-based operations.

Fraport Offering Incentives to Use GLS. Fraport Group, which operates Frankfurt Airport (among others) was one of the world’s first major airports to install a GPS-based landing system (GLS). Its Honeywell SmartPath system augments GPS signals from space to permit precision landings. Because only 8% of landings at Frankfurt currently use GLS, even though the capability is installed or latent on several thousand Airbus and Boeing aircraft, the airport will offer a $110 incentive (reduction of landing noise fees) for each such approach using a glide slope of 3.2% or greater. Steeper approaches reduce noise impacts on airport neighbors.

Saab Researching Augmented Reality for Remote Towers. Remote tower pioneer Saab is considering a virtual reality overlay system by which hazards such as birds or drones could be spotted and highlighted on display screens at remote tower centers.  The system Saab is testing can identify potential problems the size of four pixels from 3,000 meters away. Other information overlays are also being considered for remote tower displays.

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Quotable Quotes

“The Shuster proposal isn’t perfect, but it’s the best opportunity in years to bring air travel into modern times. Passengers burn $17 billion a year from delays, cancellations, and missed connections, adding up to $30 billion in losses to the economy. Republicans have an opening, if they’ll seize it, to allow private expertise to handle 24-hour airspace the government has proved inept at managing.”
—Editorial, “U.S. Air-Traffic Liberation, The Wall Street Journal, June 10, 2016

“It’s the greatest system money can buy—during World War II—so it is vastly outdated. No one disagrees with that. I think where there is disagreement is how to move forward. . . . Our country has been working for decades to try to modernize the system; it’s not going to happen at the current pace. Our colleagues in the FAA are clearly to be applauded for the efforts they put forth—they’re clearly making some progress—but we have a very, very long way to go, and as they admit, it’s against very significant obstacles and odds toward making progress. . . . It’s a multi-billion-dollar effort confronting us and we need it now—not in 25 years.”
—Gary Kelly, quoted in Rebecca Lee, “Southwest CEO: U.S. Air Traffic Control System Needs Revamping,” CBS News, June 22, 2016

“The point is the [ATC] system is an old concept. The idea of providing a heading, altitude, and speed is old-fashioned. Our industry is going to be disrupted, and we need to break with the old concept. The fact is that the rate of traffic growth is too high for human beings to be the solution. The goal certainly must not be to get rid of air traffic controllers, but rather to help them cope with the growth in traffic and ensure that their workload is manageable.”
—Paul Riemens, CANSO Chair, “A Fresh Perspective,” Airspace, Quarter 2 2016

Aireon embodies the early promise of Nav Canada—an organization with the flexibility to make strategic decisions in the interests of our customers. In this case, the investment in satellite-based surveillance promises to revolutionize the provision of air navigation services over the world’s oceans and remote areas, with billions in fuel savings and equivalent GHG emission reductions.”
—Neil Wilson, CEO of Nav Canada, “President’s Point of View,” Direct Route, Spring 2016

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Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the Ronald Reagan, the George H.W. Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations.