Air Traffic Control Newsletter #142

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Newsletter #142

The many reasons ATC should be corporatized

In this issue:

The Many Reasons to Corporatize Air Traffic Control

Recent weeks have seen new criticisms of ATC corporatization proposals. This new line of argument maintains that the airlines support this change because it would solve the problem of airline delays. Michel Baiada had a long technical piece on Forbes.com headlined “Air Traffic Control Is Not the Real Cause of Airline Delays,” including a pie chart showing that air carrier delays and late arrivals accounted for twice as many delayed flights as delays attributed to the ATC system, as measured in DOT delay reports. And on a similar theme, Robert W. Mann had a Viewpoint in Aviation Week headlined “Airlines Can Fix ATC Problems.”

Yes, airlines could do more to focus their own operations on increased on-time performance. My assessment is that airlines have emphasized reduced delays as a benefit of corporatization because that is something their customers can understand. Air traffic control is inherently complex, and the reasons for corporatization and its likely benefits cannot be summed up on a bumper strip or a sound bite. Here are some of the reasons why airlines, controllers, former FAA and DOT officials, and transportation researchers favor corporatization.

First, to increase productivity. As I wrote in the February issue of this newsletter, figures from the 2016 CANSO Global Air Navigation Services Report show that Nav Canada’s cost per IFR flight hour, at $335, is 26% lower than that of the FAA Air Traffic Organization. Given our ATO’s much larger size, economies of scale should produce the opposite result—i.e., the ATO should be the world’s most productive air navigation service provide, but it’s not. When ATC customers pay the provider directly, they have every right to demand value for their dollars. But under the FAA status quo, it is mostly passengers who pay taxes to the U.S. Treasury, and Congress every year doles out what FAA is allowed to spend.  And in the process, Congress micromanages which programs to increase and decrease, and often prevents sensible business decisions such as consolidating ATC facilities. So there is no real focus on increasing ATC productivity.

A second aim is to improve aviation safety, in several ways. Separating the safety regulator (FAA) from the ATC provider (the ATO) has been ICAO policy since 2001, and the United States is one of the few developed countries not in compliance with arm’s-length safety regulation. De-politicizing the controller selection process to ensure that the best-qualified candidates are hired would be another safety benefit, as would insulating the corporatized ATO from budget cutbacks, such as the 2013 sequester that led to closure of the FAA Academy for nearly a year, from which controller staffing levels are still recovering.

A third goal is to ensure an adequate operating and capital budget for air traffic control, by shifting from annual appropriations to bondable ATC user charges. What the rest of the developed world has recognized over the last 30 years is that ATC is essentially a utility, like electricity, water supply, and telecommunications. Whether investor-owned, government-owned, or set up as a user co-op, a utility charges its customers for the services they receive, and uses that revenue stream both for annual operating costs and for debt service on revenue bonds. This means that large-scale modernization, such as NextGen and facility replacement and consolidation, can be financed rather than being paid for in dribs and drabs via annual appropriations from a political body.

A fourth goal is to replace a hugely complicated and time-consuming procurement process with a high-tech corporate approach that fosters innovation and continual improvement. As I documented at some length in my report for the Hudson Institute (“Organization and Innovation in Air Traffic Control”), the FAA’s conservative, status-quo-oriented culture results from it being embedded in a safety regulatory agency, rather than being regulated at arm’s length by that agency. Innovations and out-of-the-box thinking are produced by agile, innovative companies—constrained, of course, by arm’s-length safety regulation. They are not produced in a large bureaucracy answerable to 535 members of Congress, the Office of Management & Budget, the FAA Administrator, the DOT Secretary, the Government Accountability Office, and the DOT Inspector General. Most of these people are well-meaning most of the time, but you simply cannot run a 24/7 high-tech service business in that kind of structure.

In his Aviation Week piece, Mann demands that an ATC “privatization” proposal “must state and quantify the cost, performance, and logistics improvements it expects to achieve.” That kind of central-planning mindset is very premature. The ATC corporation does not yet exist; there is no CEO and no stakeholder board. It will be their responsibility to turn overall goals such as those I’ve summarized above into action plans with quantitative metrics and time schedules. The last thing we need is for Congress to pre-micromanage something that is intended to free air traffic control from micromanagement.

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Airways New Zealand and its ATC Reform Legacy

This month marks the 30th anniversary of Airways New Zealand. The company was created in 1987 by the reformist Labor government that corporatized many state-owned enterprises in the late 1980s. Airways is generally considered the first corporatized ANSP, separated from the government’s transport department, depoliticized, and made self-supporting from ATC fees in accordance with ICAO charging principles. Its transformation helped to inspire many of the subsequent corporatizations, as Aviation Week noted in a May 16, 1994 article, “Airways Corp. Leads the Way in ATC Commercialization.”

But the impact also affected the United States. Early in the Clinton Administration, Vice President Al Gore created an internal think tank called the National Performance Review, as part of an effort to “reinvent government.” One of its largest proposals was to corporatize the ATC portion of the FAA, as a self-supporting government corporation modeled after Airways New Zealand. After initial research within NPR, FAA Administrator David Hinson and DOT Secretary Federico Pena created an interagency Executive Oversight Committee, reporting directly to Pena and charged with developing a fleshed-out version of the NPR’s concept, including detailed financial analysis.

The result was the May 1994 Air Traffic Control Corporation Study and its companion volume, Air Traffic Control: Analysis of Illustrative Corporate Financial Scenarios. The reports laid out the case for corporatization—basically all the problems that are still with us—and called for creation of a U.S. Air Traffic Services (USATS) corporation. It was to be a government corporation with a governing board of aviation stakeholders, and funded entirely by ICAO-compliant ATC user charges (with general aviation exempt). It would also have the authority to issue bonds, backed by its user-charge revenue stream.

The legislation was introduced in Congress, and airlines of all categories favored it. NBAA, of course, was opposed, as were congressional appropriators and—in that Congress—powerful authorizers such as Aviation Subcommittee Chair James Oberstar (D, MN). His opposition prevented the bill from getting out of that committee.

Although Oberstar killed USATS, what I find encouraging is that a number of Democrats supported the bill. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D, NJ) was quoted in the Washington Post (Feb. 24, 1994) saying, “The administration’s proposal to privatize [sic] the air traffic control system is consistent with the desire to bring more efficiency and reform to government, and should be reviewed seriously.” FAA Administrator David Hinson and Deputy Administrator Linda Daschle gave speeches in support of corporatization, and Vice President Gore spoke out strongly in favor of the reform.

My point is that ATC corporatization has a long non-conservative pedigree, from the reformist Labor government in New Zealand to the reinventing government people leading the Clinton/Gore Administration. Those who seek to marginalize current proposals as a conservative idea, beloved only by airlines, are either ignorant of this history or deliberately refusing to acknowledge it.

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Could an ATC Corporation Go Bankrupt?

Recently Reps. Peter DeFazio (D, OR) and Rick Larsen (D, WA) raised the question of whether taxpayers would have to bail out a federally chartered ATC corporation if the economy went into a serious recession. This question has been raised by other opponents, and was addressed in GAO’s recent report, “Air Traffic Control: Experts’ and Stakeholders’ Views on Key Issues to Consider in a Potential Restructuring” (GAO-17-131).

Over the 30-year history of ATC corporatization, now encompassing some 60 countries, there is no known case of bankruptcy. The only major downturn cited by critics is the significant decrease in aviation activity in the year following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. And the cases cited are Nav Canada and the UK’s NATS. Both were hard-hit by reduced ATC user fee revenue—as was FAA by reduced aviation excise tax revenue. FAA’s 2002 FY budget was already set by the time of those attacks, but its FY 2003 budget showed the impact: general fund support that year increased from 8% of the FAA budget to 24%, in what could be called a taxpayer “bailout.”

But self-supporting ANSPs don’t have a cushion from taxpayers to help them get through unexpected downturns in flight activity. How did they cope? Nav Canada, though begun in 1996, did not begin charging ATC fees until 1998. It therefore had only three years of operations in which to amass a reserve fund to get it through periods of reduced user-fee revenues. So it reluctantly increased its rates in 2002-2004. That enabled it to build up a large balance in what it calls its “Rate Stabilization Fund,” for future use during economic downturns. In the years since then, it has not had to draw on that fund, and continued aviation growth has enabled three rate reductions between 2006 and 2016. Today, in inflation-adjusted terms, Nav Canada’s rates are 30% lower than they were at the outset in 1998.

NATS was in a somewhat different position when the 9/11 attacks occurred. Its corporatization had taken place only a few months before, in summer 2001. Because of it being a nominally for-profit public-private partnership, it had been required to purchase the UK ATC assets, and had raised a £1.46 billion debt facility from four UK banks. The near-collapse in North Atlantic traffic put debt service to those banks in question, since nobody knew how long the air traffic downturn would last. To deal with the problem, the two principal shareholders—the Airline Group and the UK government—each made a £30 million capital contribution to NATS to tide it over until air traffic growth resumed. The Financial Times (Feb. 20, 2002) explained that this was not a “taxpayer bailout,” since the government, as 49% shareholder, needed to do its part in getting fledgling NATS over the hump. NATS also reduced head-count to the level needed by reduced flight activity and postponed capital spending on a planned new ATC center in Prestwick.

That’s the sum total experience of corporatized ANSPs dealing with unexpected downturns. I have long recommended that any US. ATC corporation create and maintain a healthy reserve fund along the lines of Nav Canada’s Rate Stabilization Fund. Incidentally, the capital markets consider self-supporting ANSPs as a good credit risk. Nav Canada, NATS, and a number of others have investment-grade bond ratings.

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Why Business Jet People Oppose ATC Corporatization

Unless you are living in a cocoon, you know that the leading opponent of corporatization is the National Business Aviation Association, the trade association for mostly turbine-powered aircraft owned by wealthy individuals and many corporations. NBAA President Ed Bolen, with whom I’ve appeared on many panels and engaged in private conversations over dinners, has spread widely a depiction of a stakeholder-governed nonprofit ATC corporation as “turning over control of the ATC system to the major airlines.” This message, amplified by the Bolen-chaired Alliance for Aviation Across America, has frightened numerous small-city mayors, directors of rural airports, and Members of Congress from rural states. They fear that a corporation “run by the big airlines” might close down low-volume control towers, or refuse to add new ones, cutting off much of their access to the National Airspace System. Bolen also depicts the idea as giving a private-sector interest group the power to “tax,” ignoring the legal and functional distinction between a tax and a payment for services (like a utility bill from government-owned electric utility TVA).

We all know that the underlying concern of Bolen and NBAA is that U.S. business jets might have to start paying ICAO-type weight-distance charges to use U.S. domestic and oceanic airspace, as they already do everywhere else in the world. For years Bolen argued that business aviation is only a “marginal” user of ATC, and that all the same facilities and controllers would still be needed even if there were no business jets. (On the other hand, NBAA brags that they are important enough to have one of their people on duty in the FAA Command Center to deal with various real-time ATC problems such as a massive line of thunderstorms disrupting air traffic.)

Nine years ago, the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee asked the DOT Office of Inspector General (OIG) to look into how much use general and business aviation operators make of various ATC services. OIG’s report (“Use of the National Airspace System,” Report No. CR-2008-028, March 3, 2008) still makes for eye-opening reading. First, OIG researchers found that non-air-carriers (mostly general and business aviation) accounted for 59% of tower operations, 49% of TRACON operations, and 17% of en-route miles flown.

Next the OIG researchers zeroed in on business jets as a subset of the above. Since FAA statistics do not separately identify this set of airspace users, the researchers derived their data by taking total jet operations and subtracting out airline jets. The results showed that business jets alone accounted for 12% of tower services, 13% of TRACON services, and 11% of en-route miles flown.

Another part of the study looked at the impact of non-air carrier planes on congestion. It’s true, as NBAA has long maintained, that business jets don’t make much use of major hub airports. But it’s a different story for TRACONs, which handle traffic between high-altitude en-route airspace and final approaches, landings, and takeoffs (which are handled by airport control towers). At New York TRACON, non-air carriers accounted for 20 to 30% of instrument approaches in that very congested airspace. Moreover, non-air carrier operations peak at the same time as airline operations, so they definitely contribute to congestion. And in very busy en-route airspace, such as handled by Cleveland Center, non-air carriers averaged 17% of operations, but 18 to 23% during peak periods. At Atlanta Center, the corresponding figures were 21% overall, but as much as 28% during peaks.

Thus, non-air carrier aircraft—and business jets and turboprops in particular—are hardly marginal players in the NAS. I can see no reason to exempt business jets from normal weight-distance ATC fees, which they pay in Canada and all the rest of the world. And I think last year’s House ATC Corporation bill was misguided in exempting business jets, by statute, from having to pay ATC fees. This concession to NBAA got the bill’s supporters absolutely nothing from NBAA, which continues as the idea’s most dogged opponent.

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FAA 2017 Aerospace Forecast Projects ATC Traffic Increases Only for Centers

The FAA Aerospace Forecast, Fiscal Years 2017-2037 came out last month, and it provides interesting reading. It makes projections for numerous aviation data elements, especially for airlines and their aircraft, but also for air taxis, general and business aviation, and the military. Needless to say, because this is a government agency funded by Congress, it is constrained in the kinds of projections it can make. For example, there is no “projection” of the number of control towers, either FAA-operated or contract. The 2017 number is simply repeated verbatim for each of the 20 years in the forecast; to do otherwise (as a private forecaster would do) would require making assumptions about future budgets, and as an agency funded year-to-year by Congress, it has no idea what its budget in 2027 might be. The same reasoning holds for its non-projections of military flight activity.

My main interest in this annual document is to see what it says about the level of flight activity for the various ATC facilities—towers, TRACONs, and centers. The source for this is Tables 32, 33, and 34 in the document. Last year I critiqued the Forecast for changing the baseline year from 2000 (a year of all-time high flight activity) to 2001 (a year in which flight activity plunged). Neither of these was a representative year for comparison purposed. This year’s forecast is baselined on 2010, with historical data listed only since then.

Since NextGen was premised, in part, on pre-9/11 expectations of air traffic tripling by 2025, in the table below I am still using record-high 2000 figures as a point of comparison, so that we can see whether the ATC transaction levels now projected for 2037 are significantly higher than that previous high benchmark.

Projected vs. Historical ATC Activity Levels, per 2017 FAA Forecast (Using 2000 as the Base Year)
Airlines Air Taxi/Commuter General Aviation Military Total All Sectors
Towers, 2000 15,159 10,760 39,878 2,888 68,686
Towers, 2037 23,272   6,257 27,262 2,462 59,255
% change Towers +54% -42% -32% -15% -14%
TRACONs, 2000 16,395 11,198 20,799 3,467 51,859
TRACONs, 2037 23,516   6,109 14,251 2,311 46,186
% change, TRACONs +43% -45% -31% -33% -11%
Centers, 2000 24,987   8,101   8,744 4,192 46,025
Centers, 2037 40,784   6,484   8,640 1,826 57,734
% change, Centers +63% -20% -1% -56% +25%

As was true last year, the only sector showing significant growth compared to the base year on which NextGen was premised is airlines, with growth rate in ATC transactions increasing by 43 to 63% by 2037. The air taxi/commuter sector continues its long downward path, with figures little changed from last year’s Forecast, despite the change in this year’s FAA baseline year. General and business aviation, which except for business jets mostly uses towers and TRACONs, also continues to show declines when 2000 is used as the baseline year, while the Forecast using 2010 as a base shows modest growth.

Even in the airline sector, this is not the tripling of ATC activity in 20 years on which early NextGen planning was premised. And the overall change in activity is a hefty 25% for Centers, but modest declines overall for Towers and TRACONs. Using either these numbers or the FAA’s 2010-baselined numbers, it’s clear that the real growth in ATC activity will be at those facilities that are mainly used by airlines. Air taxis will apparently keep shrinking, and general and business aviation will have modest growth compared with 2010, but not back to the levels reached in 2000.

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Control Tower Competition Increases in the UK and Germany

Contract control towers are a familiar U.S. phenomenon, under the Federal Contract Tower program. It began during the Reagan Administration, to help rebuild the system following the PATCO strike, and was expanded greatly during the Clinton Administration, thanks to large cost savings documented by the DOT Office of the Inspector General. But that program applies only to VFR control towers at mostly small airports.

The situation in the UK is quite different. At all 128 licensed UK airports, the provision of tower services is “contestable”—meaning, each airport operator has the option of either self-providing (using certified controllers, of course) or contracting with any licensed provider of tower services. Actually, all but the five largest airports can contract for terminal and approach control services (TANS), which are provided together rather than having a separate TRACON as in the United States. As of last year, there were 64 licensed providers of such services. At the five largest airports, only the tower service is contestable, with approach control the obligation of a division of the national ANSP, NATS Services Ltd. (NSL).

With that as background, in the last several years, competition has shaken things up in the UK. In 2015 two UK airports whose TANS had been provided by NSL decided not to renew their contracts: London Gatwick and Birmingham (both privatized airports, like most UK air carrier airports). Birmingham Airport Ltd. decided to self-supply, hiring the controllers and others from NSL and making them airport employees doing the same job. Gatwick Airport Ltd. requested competitive bids, and ended up selecting a division of German ANSP DFS as its new TANS provider. BAL found that as employees of a smaller company, the controllers were happier and more productive than they had been as part of NSL, according to an article in Air Traffic Management (Quarter 4, 2016). And GAL was pleased with the lower cost of its new contract with the DFS subsidiary.

Needless to say, the loss of two high-profile contracts led to some rethinking and refocusing at NSL. As reported by the magazine, the losses have “caused NSL to reshape its engagement with airport operators and its service offerings,” adopting “a commercial model where they share [with airports] the performance risk and provide greater transparency over costs of service delivery.” The new approach has apparently saved its largest TANS contract, with Heathrow Airport Ltd., now renewed on more of a “strategic partnership” basis. Recently, the magazine reports, Belfast City Airport ended its self-supply and has contracted with NSL, and Cardiff Airport extended its NSL contract.

DFS, meanwhile, is not resting on its laurels. It has reorganized its TANS functions into a new subsidiary called DFS Aviation Services and plans to offer tower services at eight of Germany’s regional airports. And its British subsidiary, Air Navigation Solutions, in addition to its Gatwick contract has won another at Edinburgh, due to begin in 2018. It’s amazing what competition can do.

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News Notes

Major Newspapers Endorse ATC Corporation Transition. In the last several weeks, both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post have endorsed corporatization of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization. The WSJ editorial, “Major Trump to Ground Control,” cited the recent report from the Eno Center for Transportation and also referred to Nav Canada’s track record of technology modernization, and reduced user fees. The Post‘s “A Bright Idea for Modernization in Mr. Trump’s Skinny Budget,” noted political and other questions that need to be addressed, but pointed out that ATC reform experience of numerous other countries shows that such problems can be overcome.

Remote Tower Progress in Europe. The Irish Aviation Authority recently reported the completion of the world’s first trial of controlling air traffic at multiple airports from a single remote tower center. The trial included remote-tower equipment at Cork and Shannon airports and a remote tower control room at Dublin Airport. The ANSPs of Latvia (LGS) and Estonia (EANS) announced plans for a jointly operated remote tower center to serve smaller airports in both countries. And Denmark’s ANSP Naviair is studying a project to create a remote tower center to serve all the country’s regional airports.

ENAIRE Signs MOA for Space-Based ADS-B. Spanish ANSP ENAIRE last month signed a Memorandum of Agreement with Aireon under which they will review the safety, efficiency, and benefits of subscribing to the company’s space-based ADS-B services. ENAIRE is responsible for 2.2 million sq. km. of airspace, including portions of the North Atlantic, Western Mediterranean and the Canary Islands. In this oceanic airspace, space-based ADS-B will provide radar-like surveillance and permit reduced separation of aircraft.

First Policy Paper from the ATM Policy Institute. The new Europe-based think tank on ATC policy issues has released its first policy study, “The Case for Liberalizing Air Traffic Control.” Among the key features of liberalization are corporatization of ANSPs so that they operate independent of government (except for safety regulation) and competition for selected ATC services. Examples of competition include control towers (as already happening in Germany, Spain, Sweden, UK, and US), unbundled training and data services, franchised en-route services, and oceanic services. The paper is online at: www.atmpolicy.aero/2017/01/27/the-case-for-liberalizing-air-traffic-control.

Bahamas Gains Control of Its ATC. In a ceremony in Nassau on March 22nd, the Bahamas government and the U.S. FAA signed an agreement under which The Bahamas will obtain control of its Flight Information Region, which has been operated by the FAA since before Bahamian independence in 1973. Under the agreement, the Bahamas will take over charging overflight fees, but they will no longer be charged to domestic flights, wholly within the Bahamas. During a 10-year transition period, the Bahamas will use revenue from the overflight fees to pay for FAA to continue managing the FIR while the Bahamas builds its own ATC capacity.

Consumer Advocate Backs ATC Corporation. Long-time travel consumer advocate Ed Perkins has released a new “Travel Consumer Issues Status Report.” One of his six issues is air traffic control “privatization” (his quotation marks, suggesting he’s aware how this term is being used by opponents). He notes that most airlines support the proposal but the main opposition comes from general and business aviation interests, which fear they will wind up paying more than they do today. He concludes, “For what it’s worth, I’m parting company from several consumer organizations to support the idea.”

Brazil Testing GBAS at Rio de Janeiro Airport. A new project was announced last month in which a GPS-based landing system will be tested at Rio’s Galeao International Airport. The research will evaluate technology added to cope with the ionospheric interference which occurs at low latitudes. Taking part in the project will be Honeywell (the GBAS supplier), Boeing, Brazilian ANSP DECEA, the FAA, Boston College, and several airlines.

Lightweight ADS-B Transponders for Drones. A system to provide surveillance of small UASs has been unveiled by Kongsberg Geospatial and uAvionix. The latter is producing a “tiny, lightweight, and inexpensive” ADS-B transponder, and Kongsberg has developed the IRIS UAS Airspace Situational Awareness Display. The two companies announced an agreement to integrate uAvionix’s PingStation ADS-B receiver into its IRIS UAS display. PingStation can track the position of ADS-B-equipped aircraft within 150 miles.

Reasons to Separate ATC Operations from Safety Regulation. The March 6, 2017 issue of Eno Transportation Weekly included an informative article by Eno’s Rui Neiva, “ATC Reform: Should FAA Be the Safety Regulator of Its Own Operations?” The article cites FAA as an anomaly within U.S. DOT as the only modal agency that operates rather than simply funding and/or regulating a transportation mode; includes history of the separation idea dating back to the 1930s; cites ICAO policy calling for such separation; and reviews the practice over the last 30 years of governments separating their ANSPs from their transport agencies.

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Quotable Quotes

“[A]n agency subject even partly to budgetary politics is an agency at risk of instability, up to and including government shutdowns. As most of the airline industry and even the air-traffic controllers’ union now realizes, this vital function is too important to be left to such political and bureaucratic vagaries. It should be transferred to a separate entity, perhaps a government-chartered corporation, with a separate board of directors and the autonomy to deal with technological issues more nimbly, according to the needs of the vast majority of the flying public—not congressional committees and the various interest groups that exercise disproportionate interest there. The FAA would remain as the safety regulator, a service it performs well and could perform even better if that were the agency’s sole focus.”
—Editorial Board, “A Bright Idea for Modernization in Mr. Trump’s Skinny Budget,” The Washington Post, April 9, 2017

“Many of the news pieces that have come out about this subject talk about the ‘privatization’ of ATC. Technically that is true—air traffic control would indeed be turned over to a private entity. But no one—not even the White House—is proposing to turn ATC into a for-profit company. It would be a nonprofit entity, much like the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts, or the U.S. Olympic Committee. A range of stakeholders, from airlines to air traffic controllers, private pilots, and the federal government would be deeply involved in running the system. Make no mistake: this would be a transformative departure from the way the United States has directed air traffic for the past eight decades and the most significant government reform in a generation. Unlike almost every other industrialized nation, our federal government directly operates ATC and funds it through a portion of our paychecks as well as the taxes we all pay each time we fly. This is inefficient and expensive and needs to change.”
Rui Neiva and Robert Puentes, “Editorial: Independent Air Traffic Control is Good Public Policy,” Eno Transportation Weekly, March 20, 2017

“Regarding Nav Canada as a governance and financing model, the fact that Canada’s aviation system is smaller in size and different in its makeup—and hence, different in its financial and operating structure—does not make it a poor model. Rather, the underlying principles that the users should pay for what they use, that the stakeholders should be among the members of the policy board, that the organization makes its own projections—short and longer term—of investment needs and the means to pay for them, and sets its own rates ought to be obvious elements on which to model a new ATM structure for the U.S.”
—David Z. Plavin, dzpConsult, Inc., Commentary on Mifnet.com, March 21, 2017, used by permission

“Remote towers—or ‘digital towers’ as we call them—are an incredibly exciting technological development for our industry. Delivering airport air traffic services remotely from centralized locations will be transformational for our business and our customers, we are actively exploring a number of potential opportunities in the UK, and we will have a demonstrator to showcase our capability in early 2017. For the customer, the offer is all about a better, cheaper service that can free up valuable real estate on the airfield. The benefits are obvious. However, for us ANSPs, it’s more of a mindset shift. None of us think twice about moving huge amounts of data around a secure network in order to provide an en-route service remotely. But for some reason there is a preconception that digital towers are only suitable for airfields of low complexity and low ATM volume. That’s just lazy thinking. There is no reason why the improvement to safety, enhanced controller tools, and flexibility can’t be delivered regardless of traffic volumes, something that I expect us to be able to prove in the coming years.”
—Martin Rolfe, NATS, “Remote Towers Symposium,” Air Traffic Management, Quarter 1 2017

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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.