In this issue:
- FAA funding fix leaves major problems unsolved
- Federal Air Marshals and secondary cockpit barriers
- Airport parking and rental car revenue at risk
- Heathrow and Gatwick seek more runway capacity
- The “Green New Deal” and aviation
- Nav Canada innovates again
- News Notes
- Quotable Quotes
Editor’s note: If you receive two copies of this newsletter, please let us know. As noted in the previous issue, we’ve merged two aviation newsletters and you should only receive one copy going forward.
In the wake of the longest federal government shutdown in history, the top leaders of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee have introduced a bill to keep FAA fully funded and in operation during any future government shutdowns. H.R. 1108 was introduced in early February by T&I chairman Rep. Peter DeFazio (D, OR) and Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Rick Larsen (D, WA), with strong support from aviation stakeholders. It provides that, in the event of a lapse in appropriations, any unobligated funds in the Airport & Airway Trust Fund “shall be available” for all ongoing FAA programs and activities at the same annualized rates that were in effect prior to the shutdown. (Note: there is a large unobligated balance in the Trust Fund at this time.) And this could extend into the next fiscal year, if the shutdown occurred shortly before the end of a fiscal year.
Given the negative impacts of the shutdown on FAA, air traffic controllers, airlines, and general aviation, it’s no surprise that all these stakeholders have endorsed the measure. And I’m pleased to do likewise, since there is no excuse for a budget system that permits such disruption to aviation operations and air safety. But by simply providing “a stable, predictable funding stream,” which NATCA president Paul Rinaldi has long called for, the bill leaves unresolved a long list of funding, governance, and structural problems with our air traffic control system.
Over the past several decades, I’ve written a lot about that array of problems. For this brief article, here are six problems that still need fixing.
FAA’s built-in conflict of interest: This agency is both the aviation safety regulator and the operator of a major portion of the aviation system. Self-regulation is widely recognized as bad policy—by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and by numerous aviation safety experts. Fixing this issue calls for separating air traffic control from the FAA, and putting it organizationally at arm’s length—as nearly all developed countries have done.
FAA’s broken procurement system: Chairman DeFazio himself has termed FAA’s procurement of new technologies as performing worse than Department of Defense procurement. I don’t know if it’s worse, but decades of audits by the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Transportation (DOT) Office of Inspector General continue to document FAA’s serious shortcomings, which lead to far too many projects going way over budget and being delivered years late.
Micromanagement: Talk with former FAA Administrators and Air Traffic Organization chief operating officers off the record, and you will learn that it’s not possible to manage well when getting ongoing (and sometimes conflicting) oversight from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Office of the Inspector General (OIG), Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Secretary of Transportation, and numerous congressional leaders.
Risk-averse organizational culture: Embedding a high-tech service business within a safety regulatory agency is a recipe for status-quo thinking. Think about how innovative new airliners would be if Boeing or Honeywell were part of FAA and subject to arms-length oversight by their safety regulator rather than being entities free to think outside the box.
Loss of technical expertise: While there are heroic engineers and other professionals who stick it out with FAA despite the low pay and bureaucracy, there is an ongoing brain drain of talented people to the private sector.
Lack of bonding capability: Practically all providers of capital-intensive infrastructure finance their large capital improvements via long-term revenue bonds. The air traffic control (ATC) provider needs to be able to do likewise, for major needs like replacing and consolidating aging facilities.
So kudos to Reps. DeFazio and Larsen for taking action to address one of FAA’s problems. U.S. aviation is still waiting for solutions to the other six.
On Feb. 12, the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General’s office released a short summary of a largely classified report. The headline finding (per CNN) was that half the money spent on Federal Air Marshals (FAMs) is wasted. The very brief summary (five sentences) said the IG review dealt with “the extent to which FAMs can interdict an improvised explosive device during flight,” and that, “We identified vulnerabilities with FAMs’ contribution to international flight security.” It stated that $394 million a year [of the $803 million FAM budget] “could be put to better use.”
At about the same time, a bipartisan group of House members announced a bill to mandate the installation of lightweight, wire-mesh gates between the cabin and the cockpit door, to secure that portion of the cabin when cockpit crew must exit to use the forward lavatory. The logical connection between the two reports is that secondary barriers such as this are a highly cost-effective alternative to FAMs, as I have previously reported in this newsletter.
The best work on this subject has been done by researchers Mark G. Stewart and John Mueller, who are, respectively, a civil engineering professor (University of Newcastle) and a political scientist (Ohio State University). In peer-reviewed journal articles, and in their excellent book, Are We Safe Enough: Measuring and Assessing Aviation Security (Elsevier, 2018), they provide a cost-effectiveness comparison of alternative means of cockpit protection. Their methodology computes a benefit-cost ratio for (existing) hardened cockpit doors, secondary barriers, and FAMs. The benefit/cost ratio for these three is as follows:
|Hardened cockpit doors||82|
Those are pretty dramatic differences. Here is why the FAM program scores so poorly. Both the existing cockpit doors and the secondary barriers are one-time capital expenditures, with the latter being less-expensive than the former. There are no ongoing operating costs, and they are available on all commercial flights. By contrast, FAMs are an ongoing operating cost to the TSA budget, and also a cost burden to the airlines since TSA policy demands that the pair of them occupy seats in the front section of the cabin, which on most airlines is the first-class or business-class cabin and means the airlines are giving up a lot of revenue. Moreover, although the exact number of FAMs on duty on a typical day is classified, it is very small in comparison to the number of daily flights: Stewart and Mueller cite an estimate that fewer than 5 percent of flights have FAMs on board. By contrast, the two hardware investments are available on 100 percent of flights.
Airlines have objected to the new bill’s requirement that secondary barriers be retrofitted on all in-service aircraft, as opposed to an existing (2018) law that mandates them only on new planes. But if the new House bill were amended to include the FAMs cutback, airlines would be trading the modest one-time retrofit cost for annual savings both in the TSA budget and their own losses from giving up premium seats to FAMs.
Two disruptive transportation trends are the subject of numerous research reports, as well as much media hype. These are autonomous vehicles (AVs) and the growth of what is called Mobility as a Service (MaaS). While only partial aspects of automation are on the market thus far (e.g., adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping), what many expect to occur within the next 20 years is fully autonomous operation, at least in urban areas and on major highways. Meanwhile, the rise of ride-hailing companies, such as Uber and Lyft, is already leading small numbers of people to reduce or eliminate personally owned vehicles, in favor of arranging trips via an app from Uber or Lyft. And if fully automated vehicles lead to lower per-mile costs for ride-hailing companies (by eliminating the cost of a driver) the impacts could be much larger.
Fitch Ratings (one of the three main entities that rate bond offerings) released a research report last fall called “The Effect of Autonomous Vehicles on Parking Assets” (Nov. 26, 2018). One of the report’s main conclusions is that “Parking assets appear vulnerable” to the rise in AVs, though the time horizon for major impacts is unknown. Therefore, Fitch explains that it has not taken any rating actions regarding bonds for parking facilities or rental car facilities at this point, since “widespread use of fully AVs . . . is not expected for more than a decade”—and I think that is a generous view.
The report finds urban parking facilities to be the most vulnerable to impacts from AVs, primarily because most studies expect AVs to be most popular and most used in urban areas. But in its section on airport parking, Fitch notes that “Some airports already experienced significant disruption to revenue streams and demand for parking from the new transportation network companies (TNCs).” This is showing up as some passengers shift to Uber or Lyft rather than driving to the airport and parking (at the beginning of a trip) and using such a service at their destination rather than renting a car. Airports are beginning to cope, via adding more-attractive parking options and charging access fees for TNCs that serve the airport.
Fitch’s report includes a table of six parking facilities whose bonds it rates, including two at airports (BWI and MIA). Both of those are rated A with a stable outlook. Both currently have ample coverage ratios (the ratio of annual revenue to annual debt service payment). But the report’s last sentence offers a word of warning, in discussing recent adoption of airport charges to TNCs: “There is some uncertainty whether airports will have the political will to apply TNC fees at a commensurate level to remain revenue neutral.”
Despite the hard-won decision by Parliament to allow London Heathrow to add a third runway (after decades of debate), while denying London Gatwick similar permission, anti-airport groups continue to oppose runway additions. Four local councils in West London, along with London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Greenpeace, are challenging the Heathrow decision on grounds of air quality, noise, climate change, and surface transportation shortcomings.
While those deliberations continue, completely-full Heathrow Airport in January launched an eight-week consultation on using new technology and airspace changes to increase its effective runway capacity prior to the construction of its third runway. The plan calls for creating some new arrival tracks for aircraft certified for performance-based navigation (PBN). The strategy is called an interim independent parallel approach (IPA) capability. Heathrow plans to submit the needed airspace changes to the UK Civil Aviation Authority in 2021, aiming to implement IPA the next year. It estimates that IPA would permit up to 25,000 more flights per year, using the two existing runways.
Meanwhile, Gatwick Airport has proposed using its “standby” runway—parallel to the existing main runway—only for takeoffs by single-aisle airliners (such as Boeing 737s and Airbus A 320s). Currently, the 8,400-foot standby runway is used mostly as a taxiway or as the main runway in emergencies. Allowing the shorter runway to be used for smaller-aircraft takeoffs could permit up to 80,000 more flights per year at Gatwick. The airport has grown much faster than projected. In 2012 the company projected that it would reach 45 million passengers a year by 2030—but it has already exceeded that figure. Using the standby runway as proposed could permit LGW to handle 70 million annual passengers by 2032.
But what happens then? Its draft master plan calls for retaining the land on which a proposed second main runway would have been built because, even with the new runway at Heathrow, additional airport capacity in southeastern England will be needed beyond 2030.
We are in very strange times when dozens of members of Congress endorse a proposal that calls for phasing out most air travel within 10 years—or ever. The idea that a nationwide network of high-speed rail could ever be a cost-effective alternative to air travel is bizarre—especially being proposed at the same time that California’s new governor announced a drastic cutback in what has become a massive boondoggle high-speed rail (HSR) project, the country’s only under-construction HSR project.
Long-time aviation reporter and commentator Dan Reed produced a think piece for Forbes (Feb.13) titled, “Here’s How Much a Green New Deal Could Cost U.S. Aviation, Travel, and Aerospace Industries.” It’s worth reading, though I’m sure Green New Deal advocates would argue that the same companies now producing and operating airliners would shift to producing and operating high-speed trains and presto—problem solved.
The very next day veteran Wall Street Journal air travel columnist Scott McCartney offered a sobering view of what commercial aviation is up against as it seeks to limit its emissions. He points out that although aircraft fuel efficiency is slowly increasing, air travel is growing at a faster rate, meaning that aviation emissions are rising rather than falling. And since other sectors of the economy—power generation, surface transportation, etc.—are on paths toward reduced emissions in coming decades, aviation’s relative share is likely to increase.
One of the most important points in McCartney’s piece is this sentence: “Unlike ground activities like electricity generation or road transport, long-haul flying doesn’t have alternatives and will depend on liquid fuels for decades to come.” To be sure, like most people in aviation, I’m following various start-up and established companies that are experimenting with electric and hybrid propulsion for aircraft. There are very serious physical limitations with current battery technology. Batteries are improving, with an energy density now about 200 watt-hours per kilogram, with a projected increase to as much as 500 Wh/kg by 2035. But ordinary jet fuel—basically kerosene—has an energy density of 12,000 Wh/kg. That’s 60 times greater than current batteries and 24 times the potential 2035 battery capacity. That means a large passenger aircraft powered by pure battery electricity would be far too heavy to even take off, much less travel 8,000 miles. (There is some potential for hybrid propulsion for small, light planes.)
To meet future aircraft emission reduction targets, at this point the most promising approach appears to be biofuels. Combustion of these fuels derived from plant material would still produce emissions. But the key is the entire fuel cycle, since growing the plants used to make the fuel takes carbon dioxide out of the air. The goal with biofuels would be carbon neutrality, not zero engine emissions.
Electric surface transportation vehicles are a lot better bet than electric aircraft since weight is nowhere near the same problem for vehicles that don’t have to fly. But short of massive breakthroughs in aircraft design and electric energy storage, airliners will have no choice but to continue relying on liquid fuels.
RNP (Required Navigation Performance) is the high-end version of performance-based navigation (PBN) under which very precise flight tracks can be flown by aircraft that are properly equipped, and by pilots adequately trained. Nav Canada, the nonprofit, self-supporting air navigation service provider for Canada, is the world’s first ANSP to implement a promising new RNP procedure.
ICAO has established the standard for the procedure, called “Established on RNP-AR,” or EoR for short. The concept was first described by Boeing researcher Sheila Conway, as a way to provide more-precise flight tracks in mountainous regions with little or no radar surveillance. It combines GPS data with aircraft Flight Management System capabilities to permit aircraft to fly a precise 3-D approach path to an airport.
As implemented by Nav Canada, initially at the Calgary airport, EoR allows for simultaneous arrivals on parallel runways without the normal separation requirements of at least 1,000 feet vertically and 3 nautical miles laterally until the plane is lined up with the runway on final approach. Instead, equipped aircraft make continuous descent approaches and curved “radius to fix” legs to a very short final approach. This saves the airline time and fuel—and increases overall runway throughput.
EoR is now operational, for equipped aircraft, at Calgary. Nav Canada reports that more than 40 percent of arrivals at Calgary are already equipped to use RNP-AR procedures; WestJet’s entire fleet is already equipped. Nav Canada plans to roll out EoR to other complex, high-traffic airports in Canada. Air Traffic Management (ATM) reports that Australia’s Brisbane airport and London Heathrow are both considering EoR, as is Denver.
Nav Canada’s Blake Cushnie told ATM that communities near airports will also benefit from EoR. “Everyone wins from this, if you build your procedures and operations correctly. By flying shorter final approaches, the previous requirement for vertical separation before an aircraft was ‘established’ meant that it actually had to fly quite a long final. That also brings altitude-level segments into play, which is not good for the local community, either. If you put these approaches in the right place, you can actually reduce the population overflown and increase continuous descent, which was not possible with the old separation standards.” Moreover, Nav Canada estimates that EoR will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2,500 metric tons in its first year.
Atlanta Airport Authority Bill Introduced
Senate Bill 131 was introduced in the Georgia legislature on Feb. 21. It would create a state airport authority to take over Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and could also be a vehicle to add a secondary airport to this major metro area. The bill faces stiff opposition from Delta Airlines, as well as from the Atlanta city government, whose airport corruption problems last year sparked renewed interest in the airport authority idea. Last year, in an effort to stave off a takeover of the airport, Delta and the city amended their lease agreement to make it more costly to change the airport’s ownership.
Bipartisan Bill Would End Diversion of Passenger Security Fees
Legislation introduced in Congress earlier this month would repeal a current funding provision that diverts a portion of the Passenger Security Fee revenue to the government’s general fund. Last year, $1.3 billion—about one-third of the total collected—was diverted from TSA’s budget. A counterpart bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Ed Markey (D, MA). Airlines and other aviation stakeholders are supporting the bill, known as the FASTER Act (Funding for Aviation Screeners and Threat Elimination Enforcement Act).
GBAS Trials Under Way in Hong Kong
Hong Kong International Airport has begun flight trials of a GPS landing system developed by Indra Navia, and in use at several Norwegian airports since 2007. The system, NORMARC 8100, is capable of Cat. III landings, and Indra and Hong Kong hope to have the system certified for that level of precision.
FAA and DOD Agree on ADS-B Plan
The Defense Department and FAA have worked out a plan for phasing in ADS-B/Out for military aircraft, covering the years 2020 through 2029. Although civilian aircraft using controlled airspace must all be equipped by January 2020, the 13,000 military aircraft have been given nearly a decade longer to equip. Military aircraft not equipped during this period can obtain an “ATC-authorized deviation” to operate in airspace where ADS-B is required. Also, “some limited number of [DOD] aircraft will never be equipped due to operational security risks or due to imminent retirement.”
Progress on Civil/Military ATC Integration
A late-November announcement in Europe revealed that three ATC providers will manage Belgian airspace via a single system. This year, Belgian Defense will replace its ATM system with Shared Air Traffic Management System 2 (SAS2), the same system used by Eurocontrol’s Maastricht Upper Area Control Center (MUAC). Skeyes, the Belgian air navigation service provider, will use the same system for lower-altitude air traffic management, beginning in 2024. The three parties will collaborate to develop a next-generation SAS3, aimed at 2030 operations. And in Australia, the OneSky program to unify civil and military air traffic management announced two milestones in December. Airservices Australia’s facilities in Melbourne, Perth, and Sydney have switched over to the Civil Military ATM (CMATS) voice communications system, to be followed by Brisbane in the first half of 2019. In addition, Airservices and contractor Thales have completed system definition for CMATS, and are now moving into detailed design.
DFW Airport Planning Multi-Billion Dollar Expansion
Bloomberg reports that over the next 5 to 7 years, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport will issue between $10 billion and $11 billion worth of bonds. Half of the bonds will go for airfield and terminal improvements, including a sixth terminal; the other half will be used to replace existing debt at lower interest rates.
Paine Field Passenger Service to Begin
Thanks to final FAA approval granted on Feb. 21, Alaska and United will begin passenger service at the airport in Everett, WA, on March 4 and March 21, respectively. Thanks to the new terminal financed, built, and to be operated by Propeller Airports, residents of the Seattle metro area will now have a second passenger-service airport, at least for short/medium-haul flights. Propeller’s privately financed project is the recipient of an innovation award from the National Council for Public-Private Partnerships, to be presented at NCPPP’s annual P3Connect conference in May.
Legislature Considering Airport Authority in Hawaii
On Jan. 30, a bill introduced by State Sen. Lorraine Inouye to create a Hawaii airports authority was discussed by the Senate Transportation Committee. The Hawaii Tribune-Herald notes, “Lawmakers have repeatedly tried to pass such legislation, and came close last year.” Airlines and the business community have expressed concerns about politicized decision-making and slow progress on modernization by the Hawaii DOT, which operates all the state’s airports.
Airlines Agree on $1.5 Billion Kansas City Terminal
February finally brought agreement from the airlines serving Kansas City International on a plan to finance a slightly scaled-back plan for the replacement terminal at the airport (MCI). The price tag had grown from the original winning-developer proposal of $1.3 billion to $1.64 billion by last fall, which the airlines balked at paying. After negotiations led to a revised price of $1.5 billion, Southwest (the largest carrier at MCI) announced an airline agreement to this plan.
Space-Based ADS-B Surveillance Nears Full Operation
On Feb. 7, Aireon announced that it has received control over the final six ADS-B payloads from satellite operator Iridium. During the remainder of February, Aireon conducted testing and validation of the full constellation. Global ADS-B surveillance service is expected to go live by the end of March, ushering in a new era for polar, oceanic, and mountainous airspace where there is no radar surveillance.
St. Louis Privatization May Require a Public Vote
On Jan. 17, the City Council rejected a move to require a public referendum on whether to proceed with a long-term public-private partnership (P3) lease agreement of St. Louis Lambert International Airport. But opponents persuaded Rep. Bruce Franks (D, St. Louis) to introduce a bill in the Missouri legislature to require the city to hold such a vote. In addition, a local groups called “STL Not for Sale” is gathering signatures in hopes of putting the issue on the ballot.
Federal Shutdown Sparks Interest in Contract Screening
The most prominent of the recent op-eds and news articles about the benefits of private contract security screening was a long article in the Washington Post (Feb.10) by Lori Aratani. Among other points, she noted that contract screeners at San Francisco International Airport were still getting paid, unlike TSA screeners, during the shut-down, since the companies involved were willing to advance the money prior to getting reimbursed by TSA. The article noted that Atlantic City recently shifted to contract screening due to “growing frustration with TSA staffing that didn’t take into account flight delays.” She also reported that Sen. Mike Lee (R, UT) plans to re-introduce his 2018 bill to streamline TSA’s Screening Partnership Program (SPP).
Metron Wins Contract for Long-Range Traffic Flow Management
In what appears to be the longest-distance effort to implement traffic flow management, Airservices Australia has contracted with Metron Aviation for software to implement the ATC company’s Long Range Air Traffic Flow Management concept of operations. The plan is for international flights to Australia to be assigned arrival times well in advance, to allow the most efficient speed and fuel burn when a delay in arrival is needed at the airport of arrival.
Orlando Sanford Tops 3 Million Passengers in 2018
On Dec. 21, Orlando Sanford—the secondary airport serving the Orlando metro area—surpassed three million passengers for 2018, putting its annual passenger number above three million for the first time. The previous record of two million was set in 2013. That track record demonstrates the viability of a second airport in this fast-growing urban area, despite ongoing expansion at Orlando International (47 million annual passengers). The Sanford airport, 30 miles from its big brother, has thrived based on international charter carriers and fast-growing ultra-low-cost carriers such as Allegiant, which serves 78 destinations from there.
Mexico Stiffs Airport Bondholders; Plans Privately Financed Railroad
After cancelling the $13 billion project to replace the constrained Mexico City Airport (and leaving bondholders with uncertain prospects of recovering their $6 billion in bonds), President Manuel Lopez Obrador has announced a $7.7 billion rail project, Tren Maya. It would serve 15 stations along 1,525 km across the Yucatan Peninsula. It is being proposed as a 30-year P3 concession, to be 90 percent financed by the winning bidder. It will be interesting to see whether anyone steps up to the plate, following the airport debacle.
“Twenty years from now, how many aircraft will human controllers still talk to, one at a time, as they do today? While there has been some talk of controllers turning into ‘airspace managers,’ that job title doesn’t currently have many specific functions behind it. The last 20 years of research into situational awareness has clearly shown that expecting controllers to merely monitor aircraft movements keeps them too far out of the loop to intervene effectively. . . . Instead, one vision might involve human controllers sending commands digitally. This happens over large swaths of oceanic and arctic airspace today, using controller-pilot datalink communications (CPDLC). But CPDLC has design limitations and very slow response times that make it impractical for sending things like taxi instructions, vector and descent commands, or takeoff clearances. A future digital communications link, built to meet those needs, could streamline the lengthy (but often extremely similar) phraseology required to issue an approach clearance, or a standard taxi route across an airport . . . . That would free up time for controllers to monitor the efficiency of the operation, or to prioritize aircraft that need extra attention.”
—Peter Sachs (Altiscope), “Still in Control?” The Journal of Air Traffic Control, Fall 2018
“Underwritten by massive European government subsidies, the [A-380] was an engineering sensation. Passengers loved the roomy jet. Yet now it’s kaput. What went wrong? . . . The list is not a short one . . . . In the end, enough socialism could be mobilized to get the plane built, but not enough to make it commercially viable. Europe’s governments would have needed to extend their dominion beyond their own taxpayers who financed it. They would have needed to dictate to the world’s airlines and travelers and even the aerospace industry’s global supplier base, which proved unwilling to develop a new fuel-efficient engine for a plane with a doubtful future.”
—Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., “Airbus’s Lesson for Young Socialists,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 20, 2019
“Nicole Adler of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has looked at airport ownership structures. She found that publicly owned airports are the cheapest, all other variables considered, but that privately owned ones are more efficient. The worst of all worlds is the partially privatized airport, which is the least cheap and the least efficient. It is also the middle of the road choice that politicians are most likely to opt for.”
—Andrew Charlton, “The Plural of ‘Anecdote’ Is Not Data,” Aviation Intelligence Reporter, December/January 2019
“From a purely good-government perspective, the TSA has an inherent conflict of interest. It is the regulator and the regulated entity. The TSA sets the security screening rules, and the TSA also employs thousands of agents to carry out the screening. The natural tendency of any organization is to protect itself. But Americans want the government to protect them, not the TSA’s budget and personnel levels. . . . The TSA should remain as the setter of security rules and conduct strict oversight. But instead of government employees doing the screening, private companies would provide the staff to do so. . . . In other countries and at [U.S.] opt-out airports, contractors better manage their personnel, make a profit, and still do so for less than the TSA model. And if a private contractor screws up, the TSA can hold it accountable and replace it with another contractor.”
—David Inserra (Heritage Foundation), “Use Private Screeners for Aviation Security,” USA Today, Jan. 16, 2019