Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #40

Topics include: the urgency of ATC reform; ATC funding challenges; yet another "controller shortage;" progress on aviation weather; sequenced landings; and other news.

In this issue:

The Urgency of ATC Reform in 2007

In a series of speeches in the closing months of 2006, Air Traffic Organization chief Russ Chew and FAA Administrator Marion Blakey laid out the case for replacing the old model (of separating planes by hand) with a new, network-centric model (in which many routine functions are automated). Both Blakey and Chew stressed that the system needs major change by 2016, a decade ahead of the target date for full-up implementation of the NextGen system.

Based on current projections of air traffic growth, just seven years from now (2014) delays will be 62% greater than current levels. That would mean 29 days in 2014 would experience more delay than on the worst day in 2004. That level of delay would cost the airlines $2 billion in extra costs, and would cause passenger delays (due in part to missed connections) to double.

To illustrate the potential of automation tools, Chew has described experiments the ATO conducted with Mitre Corp. and a number of en-route controllers. They simulated gradual increases in traffic (and hence, workload) to 2016 levels and found that “controllers could not handle the increased volume of traffic without significantly degrading the level of service.” Then the simulation introduced an integrated display system with automated tools, enabling controllers to handle far more traffic.

Consequently, the ATO is planning for early implementation of some of the key NextGen capabilities, to be rolled into a revamped version of its 10-year Operational Evolution Plan to be called the Operational Evolution Partnership (OEP).

These recent speeches leave unstated what funding and governance reforms Blakey and Chew will be proposing as part of this year’s FAA reauthorization debate. The agency’s user-fee proposal has been undergoing Administration review and revision, and is expected to be unveiled sometime after the State of the Union Address. Let’s hope they continue to make the case for bondable user fees that would enable the ATO to finance the NextGen system the way a business would.

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ATC Funding Challenges Highlighted by Inspector General

Coming up with a new funding system for the ATC system is one of the U.S. DOT’s top-10 challenges for 2007, according to a Nov. 15, 2006 report by the DOT Office of Inspector General, “Top Management Challenges: Department of Transportation” (Report PT-2007-004).

The OIG report makes a number of provocative points. First, “It is extremely difficult, if not impossible,” to figure out whether the current funding system is adequate to meet the needs of future decades, especially with the likely $20 billion cost of implementing the NextGen system. As I pointed out in Issue No. 38, the current funding system has not been stable or reliable (contrary to claims by advocates of the status quo). Twice in the past 25 years, the revenue from aviation excise taxes has dropped to zero for extended periods, when Congress let the taxes lapse. And general fund support has bounced around from as much as 48% of FAA’s budget in some years to 0% in others (compared with around 20% the past few years). And the capital spending budget—in 2006 dollars—has ranged from $3.5 billion in 1992 to $2.4 billion in 1998. None of these funding amounts bears any relationship to the ATC workload — or to a businesslike multi-year capital spending plan.

A second key point is that the current excise taxes “are not linked to usage or cost of providing services.” Therefore, they “provide little incentive for the efficient use of [ATC] services or for the more cost-effective provision of services by the [ATO].” And even in years when the excise tax revenue increases, there is no guarantee that this will translate into an increase in ATC system spending.

Third, the OIG report stresses the importance of coming up with a new user-based funding system that a broad cross-section of users can accept. This will require “appropriate user oversight of the charges and their expenditure.” Besides providing positive incentives, user fees would likely fall on the mandatory side of the budget, “allowing them to be spent without congressional oversight”—a very important advantage, given the history of ups and downs in FAA funding. User fees could also provide a revenue stream that could be bonded, to pay for large-scale modernization efforts up front. This, too, would “require a powerful oversight mechanism to ensure that [ATO] invests wisely and controls costs.”

Lurking between the lines, in these paragraphs about strong oversight, but never explicitly mentioned, is a stakeholder board of directors for a user-funded, financially self-supporting ATO. Such a board—carefully balanced among all key aviation groups so that no aviation segment could ride roughshod over others—would hire and fire the CEO, set the annual budget, and determine the modernization/capital spending program, along with its financing. That’s how Nav Canada does it; that’s how DFS (Germany) does it; that’s how Airservices Australia does it. Why aren’t we talking explicitly about this improved form of governance in reports like this?

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Yet Another “Controller Shortage” Brouhaha

Some air traffic controllers are having trouble adjusting to the new contract with the FAA, so their union, NATCA, has cranked up its PR machine. USA Today devoted two long stories to the union’s take on the staffing issue on December 18th, just as millions were getting set for their holiday travels. The impression created by these articles (which the reporters noted were based on data supplied to them by NATCA) is that many ATC facilities are seriously understaffed, because the FAA isn’t hiring enough trainees to offset the bulge in controller retirements that began a couple of years ago.

Here’s the semantic trick involved. The alleged shortages are all based on a comparison of a facility’s actual controller staffing with “authorized” levels. And while those may sound like scientifically arrived-at numbers, based on traffic levels, they are nothing of the sort. These were staffing levels negotiated by NATCA with former Administrator Jane Garvey in 1998 and annually adjusted through 2003. They have little to do with actual workload.

Air traffic actually peaked in 2000, and by 2003 (the last year of negotiated staffing levels), it was still 9% below that peak. Despite falling workload, controller staffing increased by 500 between 2001 and 2003 (about a 3% increase). Since 2003, the ATO has been attempting to better match staffing levels with actual workload, though this process is not perfect. FAA Deputy Administrator Bobby Sturgell told USA Today that the Atlanta tower, one singled out by NATCA, does have a shortfall but that St. Louis and Pittsburgh, where airlines have cut service, still have too many controllers. Overall, he said, “We are not understaffed today.”

As for ramping up hiring and training to cope with looming retirements, the agency admits to underestimating last year’s controller retirements, which were 583 versus the projected 467. But overall, thanks to a beefed-up hiring program, there was a net addition of 78 controllers for the year.

Incidentally, plans to continue that aggressive hiring pace are now threatened by . . . the federal budget process. Because Democratic leaders plan to fund the remainder of FY2007 by means of continuing resolutions, current (FY2006) funding levels are likely to remain in place through September 30th. The ATO has already instituted a hiring freeze for administrative positions, and is considering freezing controller and technician hiring, as well (Aviation Daily, Dec. 18th).

What was that we keep hearing about the FAA’s funding problems being a figment of someone’s imagination? This problem would not be happening if the ATO were self-supporting from fees paid by its users (like NATS, Nav Canada, DFS, Airservices Australia, etc.).

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Doing Something About the Weather

The network-centric concept for the NextGen ATC system is based on everyone in the system having real-time access to detailed information. In aviation, one of the most important things to have detailed, finely grained, up-to-the-minute information about is the weather. I’m pleased to report that good progress is being made on this front.

Two of the main sources of aviation weather are old-fashioned weather balloons and data collected from large passenger jets. Weather balloons are launched twice a day from 92 U.S. locations. They provide a lot of data, but the 12-hour interval allows plenty of time for conditions to change drastically. Another main source is a set of sensors on several hundred U.S. jetliners, in a system called MDCRS. They collect over 100,000 observations per day of winds, temperature, pressure and turbulence. ARINC collects the data from the airlines and sends it to the FAA and National Weather Service for aviation forecasting purposes.

But MDCRS has two important limitations. First, it does not collect humidity data, which is critically important. Second, nearly all its data are from high altitudes, mostly “above the weather.” But for the past two years a small company named AirDat has been collecting continuous data, including humidity and icing, from what will soon be hundreds of regional airline planes, generally flying at much lower altitudes than the big jetliners. Those data are transmitted by satellite to the company’s data center in North Carolina, which produces hourly regional forecasts. Now AirDat and ARINC are competing for a contract from the Weather Service’s parent agency, NOAA.

In a speech at the Aero Club of Washington (Nov. 28th), FAA Administrator Marion Blakey addressed progress in aviation weather forecasting. In addition to the above, she noted that a longer-term approach to use weather data in a more pro-active way is under development as part of NextGen, with FAA working on it jointly with Defense, Commerce, and NASA. Called Network Enabled Weather, its initial capabilities are targeted at 2012. One of its goals is to get everyone in aviation using the same, comprehensive picture of near-real-time weather. While the new system will still rely on many sources, “one of the real science challenges is how you then fuse all that data into a single picture and continuously distribute it to everybody.”

Even though Network Enabled Weather is a ways off, the systems for collecting detailed weather information on a continuous basis, centrally processing it, and being able to deliver near-real-time forecasts to all who need them are coming into being. That’s the NextGen paradigm. By contrast, the old paradigm is reflected in the tradition of stationing FAA weather specialists on-site at all 21 en-route centers. The FAA is studying alternatives and, needless to say, NATCA is objecting, insisting that having on-site local weather experts is invaluable. At this point, I don’t know enough to judge whether enough pieces of the new paradigm are (or soon will be) in place to make the on-site specialists obsolete. But this looks like another instance of NATCA resisting the new paradigm in favor of a costly status quo.

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Tailored Arrivals Save Fuel, Increase Runway Capacity

As I noted under the heading of “green landings” back in Issue No. 33, one of the key NextGen concepts is 4D trajectories—each flight gets a precisely defined trajectory spelling out its latitude, longitude, altitude, and time from wheels up to wheels down. Progress continues on using the 4D approach to precisely space landings at busy airports. I’ve previously reported on successful trials at Sydney and Melbourne, and more recently at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport. Now, the second of two trial runs is under way at San Francisco International, involving trans-Pacific flights.

This technique is sometimes called a “continuous descent approach.” That’s because instead of involving a succession of controller clearances to descend and hold at a lower altitude, the flight is cleared for a single long, continuous descent. Why is that important? With the traditional approach, the engine power has to alternate between high-power settings (to maintain altitude) and idle power (for each step of the descent). Under CDA, virtually the whole approach can be made at or near idle power. That saves buckets of fuel—60 to 120 gallons per flight, according to Boeing ATM (which is involved in many of these tests). Savings can be in the vicinity of $100K per plane per year, depending on fuel costs. That’s why the nickname “green approach” has been applied to CDAs.

The SFO trials make use of the capabilities of FAA’s new ATOP oceanic automation system, in service at Oakland Center. It involves Boeing, United Airlines, and NASA-Ames (whose En-route Descent Advisor software is being used). If all goes well, Boeing hopes the system can become permanent at SFO and be extended to New York Center, which is also equipped with ATOP for trans-Atlantic flights. Other users of the tailored-arrivals/CDA concept include Delta at Atlanta (using ATH Group’s Attila system) and UPS at Louisville (using ACSS’s SafeRoute system).

Environmental benefits of CDA include fuel savings and less noise (due to the planes staying higher longer, and operating mostly at idle power during descent). The capacity benefits can be large, with Stockholm expecting a 33% increase in peak-hour runway operations. All of these benefits are in direct proportion to the number of flights that are equipped to use the 4D system. Thus, they can produce large benefits quickly at an airline’s major hubs.

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News Notes

Facility Consolidation Continues Overseas. The commercialized German ATC provider DFS is consolidating more facilities. It announced last month that its Berlin center was closing, with its airspace taken over by the Bremen center. That combined facility now has 540 employees, 366 of whom are controllers. All traffic in eastern Germany is now controlled from just three centers: Bremen, Karlsruhe, and Munich. Previously, DFS in 2002 closed its Dusseldorf center, shifting its operations to the Langen center, near Frankfurt. And CANSO’s ATM News reported in November that Russia plans to consolidate 104 facilities into 12 area control centers. Two such consolidated ACCs have already opened, one in Moscow and the other in Rostov-on-Don.

Stakeholder Board in Europe. As it gears up to play its role in the forthcoming Single European Sky, Eurocontrol is establishing an Air Navigation Services Board, to provide a “single platform” for ATC stakeholders and Eurocontrol to discuss key issues. The Air Navigation Services Board will include the CEOs of air navigation service providers (ANSPs), airlines, and airports. The chair will be chosen from the ANSPs, and the vice chair from airline customers.

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Quotable Quote

“The current [ATC funding] system has run out of steam. . . . None of the taxes has much, if anything, to do with the cost of providing ATC services. . . . Cost-based ATC fee won’t settle all of next year’s FAA funding questions. The agency will need more money than it is accustomed to receiving–$1 billion per year by one estimate, surely no less—to develop and acquire a next-generation space- and aircraft-based ATC system that can handle traffic volumes projected for 2020 and beyond. This financial problem promises to be so big that bonding authority or capital leasing is under consideration.”

–“Get Off the Dime, Washington, and Avoid FAA Funding Crisis,” editorial, Aviation Week, Nov. 6, 2006.

“Look at oceanic traffic. Our current goal is to try to get aircraft as close as 30/30 separation. That’s 900 square miles per airplane. Now a GPS-equipped airplane knows where it is within 1/10,000th of a square mile. That’s over six orders of magnitude difference. Six orders of magnitude are equivalent to the difference between the speed of sound and the speed of light. There’s plenty of room for traffic growth.”

–Mike Lewis, Boeing ATM, “Remarks for ATCA Budget Briefing Conference,” March 29, 2006 (published in The Journal of Air Traffic Control, April-June 2006)

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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.