Aviation Policy News: Another U.S. remote tower project loses its provider
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Aviation Policy Newsletter

Aviation Policy News: Another U.S. remote tower project loses its provider

Plus: The problems with U.S. aviation user taxes, increasing runaway throughput, and more.

In this issue:

Another U.S. Remote Tower Project Loses Its Provider

The Federal Aviation Administration’s unprecedented 2023 certification requirements have led remote tower (RT) technology provider Searidge Technologies to pull the plug on continuing its five-year effort to help Colorado’s Department of Transportation (DOT) implement a remote/digital tower at Northern Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland. The same regulatory hurdles led Saab to discontinue its participation as the RT technology provider for the operational remote tower at Leesburg Airport in Virginia. Colorado sources say they intend to continue working on the project, which began in 2014; there are several other companies with certified remote towers operational in Europe, including Frequentis and Kongsburg.

The bizarre situation facing U.S. airports that are good candidates for a remote/digital tower is the new certification requirements imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in March of this year (as I detailed in “FAA and Remote Towers: What’s Really Going On” in the May issue of this newsletter). Despite the fact that all four companies hoping to enter the U.S. remote tower market plan to use technology already certified and in operation in a growing number of countries (including Germany, Norway, Sweden, and the U.K.), in March FAA announced its certification plans. Any company seeking to install an RT system at a U.S. airport must install it first at the Atlantic City, NJ, airport where the FAA Tech Center is located. And they must allow Tech Center staff to reverse engineer the system over a three-year period in order to decide if it meets FAA certification requirements.

While Leesburg has managed to keep in temporary operation a portable tower, the airport is unable to use the remote tower center that it had recently completed and which could have been used in future years to provide tower services to several other busy general aviation airports in Virginia. Instead, Leesburg officials plan to join the FAA contract tower program and hope to get federal funding to help build a brick-and-mortar tower. Loveland will continue to use a mobile control tower staffed by Serco controllers since the Searidge remote tower cannot be used.

But there is some good news out of Colorado. The Loveland project team has had serious discussions with Raytheon/Frequentis about taking over their RT project. Having a permanent tower will be important in securing scheduled airline service from interested parties such as Allegiant and Avelo. The airport is located near I-25 between Denver and Ft. Collins in one of the fastest-growing regions along the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains.

A person familiar with the Loveland situation tells me that Raytheon/Frequentis has successfully completed the SDA (system design approval) intake process at FAA and will begin passive testing at the Tech Center in early 2024. Contrary to what was stated in FAA briefings back in March, after passive testing at the Tech Center, a vendor will not do active testing there because (it turns out) active testing is not allowed at Atlantic City International Airport, where the Tech Center is located. So, in order to become fully certified, active testing will take place at the airport where the project is located, in this case, Loveland.

This is welcome news because, as originally briefed to the industry, the process would require three years at the Tech Center with the remote tower system installed there. Apparently, wiser heads prevailed, although this is too late for Saab and Searidge, whose years of effort at Leesburg and Loveland are down the drain.

New FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker should review FAA policy on remote towers. FAA has failed to implement Congress’s mandate in the 2018 reauthorization bill for FAA to have in place, by now, a five-airport remote tower pilot program; no such program exists. Congress might also eliminate the budget for FAA’s planned 31-airport “sustainable tower” program to build yet more architectural wonders at a time when the rest of the world is converting to ground-level remote towers.

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U.S. Aviation User Taxes Create Disparate Impact on Airlines

A new policy study analyzed the congressionally mandated way in which historic aviation user taxes no longer treat all airlines fairly. In fact, the study finds that the airline trend towards greater use of ancillary revenue policies has decreased revenues to the Airport and Airway Trust Fund by 4.0% to 4.6% due to untaxed baggage and seat reservation fees alone. The study is “Highly Debated but Still Unbundled: The Evolution of U.S. Airline Ancillary Products and Pricing Structures,” by Stacey Mumbower, Susan Hotle, and Laurie A. Garrow in the Journal of Revenue and Pricing Management, Vol. 22, 2023.

Steve Van Beek of Steer Group sent me a link to the study and enclosed his Jan. 25 commentary from a Steer Group newsletter. I’m reproducing his table from that newsletter, which is based on material in the study.

Listed Fare$106.89$205.90$232.99
Seat Assignment$21.00No chargeNo charge
Carry On Fee$58.00No chargeNo charge
One Checked Bag$48.00$30.00No charge
Total Pax Cost$233.89$235.90$232.99
Pax Ticket Tax$8.02$15.44$17.47
Flight Segment Tax$4.80$4.80$4.80
Total Tax$12.82$20.24$22.27
Tax as % of Ticket5.5%8.6%9.6%

The study and Van Beek’s work based on it note that this large disparity could be addressed in either of two ways. One would be to tax all passenger revenue rather than 7.5% of the nominal ticket price plus the flight segment tax. That would certainly be the path of least resistance for Congress.

But the other way would be for the United States to finally cease being the last holdout among serious countries to charge airlines directly for the air traffic services they receive. The charging principles are spelled out by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and consist of two components: en-route user fees based on aircraft gross weight and miles flown, and terminal fees based on gross weight. The United States is the only country that ignores the ICAO charging principles by taxing airline passenger tickets instead. Canada used to have a similar passenger ticket tax, but when it separated air traffic control from Transport Canada, the new nonprofit air traffic control provider, Nav Canada, adopted the ICAO charging principles.

Besides being a more fair and transparent way to pay for aviation infrastructure, the ICAO charging principles may impact airline incentives. It’s long puzzled me that U.S airlines are not more focused on the bang for the buck that they get from FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO). One reason may be that the airlines are not paying for those taxes—their passengers are. If airlines were themselves the fee-paying customers of the ATO, I suspect they would be a lot more focused on its performance. That’s another reason for rethinking the antiquated way we pay for air traffic control in this country.

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Increasing Runway Throughput Via Technology

Many years ago, a popular mantra among aviation geeks was that, since runway capacity is fixed, the only way to increase an airport’s capacity was to add runways. That struck me as short-sighted even then, when I could easily imagine runway pricing leading to up-gauging of aircraft, leading to more passenger throughput from the unchanged amount of runway pavement. But it also seemed plausible that better technology could increase runway throughput.

One of the first successes of technology-based capacity increase was the introduction of RECAT, meaning recategorization of the mandated spacing between landing or taking off aircraft on the same runway to take more accurate account of the different amount of wake turbulence various aircraft generate behind them. Gradually implemented in the United States and Europe, RECAT next led to time-based separation.

British air navigation service provider NATS introduced time-based separation in 2015 as one of the first features of its new Intelligent Approach program at London Heathrow (LHR), developed jointly by NATS and Leidos, part of Lockheed Martin. A key innovation was using real-time winds data at and near London Heathrow instead of generic meteorological wind data. In 2018 Intelligent Approach at Heathrow was upgraded again by applying RECAT EU spacing all the way to the runway threshold. Another improvement was to take into account runway occupancy time following touchdown. The system was tailored to each runway since their configurations (e.g., exits to taxiways) differ. A further improvement is planned for 2024: new aircraft weight tables that will provide more precise pairwise separation. Prior to this planned addition, the system had already increased landing capacity per runway by two to three per hour. The 2024 changes are expected to add one or two more landings per hour.

The improvements already achieved at Heathrow have a payback period of a few months, according to Danny O’Hare, Intelligent Approach program manager at Leidos UK (International Airport Review, Aug. 2023, p.36). With that kind of cost-effectiveness, I was not surprised to learn that Toronto Pearson and Amsterdam Schiphol have implemented Intelligent Approach, with the latter deploying it in Jan. 2023.

What about here in the U.S.?

Well, a recent article in Managing the Skies, published by the FAA Managers Association, describes a current study effort by MITRE Corporation dealing with ways to increase runway capacity and the research that would be needed if any of them look feasible. It discussed the potential of reducing separation requirements for approaches and for departures, and suggested that these were worth looking into. But there was no mention of Intelligent Approach and it being operational at three of the world’s largest airports. My guess is that it will be many years, and many more study contracts, before anything like Intelligent Approach is put into operation at U.S. airports.

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DOT Takes on Amsterdam Schiphol Flight Reductions

If you came in late, the interim Dutch government several months ago announced that due to its concerns about aircraft noise affecting neighbors of Amsterdam Schiphol Airport (AMS), it will mandate a three percent cut in flight operations for 2024. Long-standing users of the airport—especially KLM Royal Dutch Airlines—filed suit in Dutch courts claiming the decision was illegal. After a court sided with the airlines, an appeals court overturned that decision. With an appeal of that decision still pending, the airport’s slot coordinator announced earlier this month the slot reductions imposed on airlines. Aviation Daily (Nov. 3) reported that 84 airlines will lose slots, including KLM (losing 4,847 for 2024), KLM partner Delta will lose 252 slots, United 53, and American 22. But newcomer JetBlue, which began service to Schiphol only this year, will get no slots next year.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) argues that the planned reductions violate the International Civil Aviation Organization emission-reduction plan (CORSIA), which requires a “Balanced Approach” to noise-reduction efforts, which Schiphol has not followed. Airlines for America argues that the policy violates the International Air Transportation Fair Competitive Practices Act and the U.S./EU Open Skies Agreement. On Nov. 6, the U.S. Department of Transportation officially declared the flight cuts at Schiphol to be anticompetitive and in violation of the U.S.-EU Open Skies Agreement. It also cited the airport’s failure to follow the ICAO Balanced Approach to dealing with noise problems.

Thus far, besides making this declaration, the only action the U.S. DOT has taken is to require Dutch carriers to file schedules for next year’s flights to the United States within seven days. JetBlue is calling for stronger countermeasures.

In a commentary at JDA Journal, former FAA official Sandy Murdock noted that the Dutch government’s real motivation is to reduce CO2 emissions but pointed out that if Schiphol continues to reduce capacity, airlines could shift to other European hubs, resulting in little or no reduction in European aviation emissions. What matters for CO2 is not local emissions but global emissions. And with many European airports planning capacity additions, the Schiphol reductions may amount to virtue signaling rather than serious CO2 reductions.

As this newsletter was about to be published, the Dutch Cabinet put the flight reduction plan on hold in the face of strong opposition from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Canadian government, and the European Commission. “The Dutch government has reversed course on a controversial plan to cut flights at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, a decision that allows airlines to maintain their planned schedules at the airport during the 2024 summer season,” Aviation Week reported. The announcement said the government would continue toward the same goal but follow the Balanced Approach noted above.

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Industry Survey Offers AAM Reality Check
By Marc Scribner

Advanced air mobility services involving novel electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) aircraft have generated a great deal of excitement, but can they deliver the goods (and passengers)? A recent survey of industry stakeholders conducted by the consultancy Orbit Management Services suggests near-term commercial operations face numerous challenges that will be difficult to overcome quickly, especially those related to public policy. While the severity of these risks is anticipated to decline over time, respondents indicated public policy risks are expected to persist over the long term.

Orbit’s Advanced Air Mobility Risk Report 2023 asked 159 industry executives and experts questions about short-term (2025) and long-term (2033) risks facing the advanced air mobility (AAM) industry. Respondents were disproportionately C-suite executives (37%) at companies with fewer than 25 full-time employees (45%). They were asked to assess the likelihood and impact of 30 risks across six categories—environment, economy, politics, regulation, society, and technology—as well as the perceived effectiveness of risk management and mitigation approaches.

For both the short- and long-term outlooks, respondents were most pessimistic about passenger applications and most optimistic about logistics and enterprise applications. When rated on a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being strongly pessimistic and 5 being strongly optimistic, passenger applications scored 2.3 (pessimistic) for 2025 and 3.5 (halfway between neutral and optimistic) for 2033. In contrast, logistics and enterprise applications scored 3.6 and 3.7 for 2025 and 4.4 and 4.5 for 2033. Every industry subgroup expressed pessimistic near-term outlooks for passenger applications, except for respondents from passenger AAM businesses, who offered neutral (3) attitudes.

Regulatory risks were judged as the most serious and likely risks in both 2025 and 2033, with airspace integration challenges taking the top spot for both short- and long-term risks. Certification and airworthiness standard concerns, regulatory delays, and regulatory fragmentation and ambiguity were among the top-five perceived risks for both the short- and long-term outlooks. “These persistent regulatory risks indicate a pressing need for transparent, efficient, and harmonized regulations to facilitate AAM’s growth,” write the authors of the Orbit survey report.

When asked about advanced air mobility’s risk management effectiveness and responsibility, respondents viewed current risk management strategies aimed at mitigating regulatory risks as ineffective and suggested that government is best positioned to effectively manage these risks. “Consistency, harmonization and reduced complexity in regulations on an international scale will be fundamental for smooth operations and overall growth of the AAM industry,” say the Orbit report’s authors. “As the private sector is highly dependent on regulatory advancements, the need for harmonized and less complex regulatory frameworks is a critical bottleneck for developing the entire AAM industry.”

These expert perceptions of the persistent, unmitigated regulatory risks facing AAM should not be surprising, given recent FAA actions. As was discussed in the August and October issues of this newsletter, FAA has chosen to diverge from international best practices on eVTOL energy reserve requirements, as well as on pilot training and certification. Congress is poised to address this regulatory fragmentation in its next FAA reauthorization, but a statutory mandate for FAA to reverse itself on these matters will necessarily entail additional regulatory delays. Additionally, FAA’s approach to AAM airspace integration is murky at best, with vague suggestions about dedicated corridors at some future date in which air traffic would be managed by third parties. It’s no wonder that “airspace integration challenges” top Orbit’s charts for both short- and long-term risks.

While regulatory risks were identified as most impactful and likely to occur for both 2025 and 2033, respondents placed battery technology shortcomings and underdeveloped digital infrastructure in the top 10 risks for both short- and long-term time periods. Concerns about “inadequate flight durations” and “slow recharge rates” due to battery limitations were most severe for AAM passenger applications, while uncertainty about air traffic management’s ability to support dense, high-tempo operations dampened enthusiasm for logistics and enterprise applications.

Orbit’s industry survey offers an important reality check on the short- and long-term risks to AAM deployment, many of which cannot be mitigated by the industry itself. To be sure, the technologies involved are impressive and offer many potential benefits over conventional aircraft and aviation services. But it is good to keep in mind the large amount of uncertainty in this environment, especially due to public policy risks that are tied up in the politics of our day, for which there are rarely straightforward engineering solutions.

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FAA Endorses Automated Runway Safety Technology

In the Jan. 2022 issue of this newsletter, I wrote about new technology that can help prevent runway overruns. This kind of accident typically occurs on wet or icy runways that the pilot in charge of landing may not be fully aware of, in order to brake accordingly. The traditional way of warning the next plane approaching the same runway is called a Pilot Braking Action Report (PBAR), which the pilot is supposed to report to the control tower, which is then supposed to warn subsequent pilots on approach.

That 2022 article described a new technology approach called Aircraft Braking Action Report (ABAR). It uses sensors already available in the landing gear of commercial aircraft. Software added to the aircraft’s flight management system automatically calculates the friction conditions at all points on the runway during the braking process. This information can be transmitted automatically within minutes to air traffic controllers in the tower and aircraft in the landing queue behind the plane generating the automated ABAR. The version I wrote about in the 2022 article is called SafeLand, developed by Aviation Safety Technologies. Its system complies with ASTM International Standard (E3266) for Friction-Limited Braking Measurements, released in Nov. 2020. It has been prototyped over the past few years on around 2,000 aircraft belonging to six U.S. airlines.

Transport Canada issued Advisory Circular AC 700-0060 in 2021, defining PBARs and ABARs and making clear the higher precision and accuracy of the latter. But in 2022, there was no sign that FAA would do likewise.

The good news is that FAA has now done so. On Aug. 28, 2023, FAA released AC 91-79B, “Aircraft Landing Performance and Runway Excursion Mitigation.” Section 4.10 of the AC provides a comparison of PBARs and ABARs and explains the greater precision and accuracy of ABARs, as well as noting that “ABAR systems most effectively serve as the basis for continuous improvement in the safety assurance process.”

It’s unfortunate that FAA has given this document very little publicity. FAA’s Sept. 1 fact sheet on what it’s doing to increase runway safety focused only on runway incursions, ignoring runway excursions (such as runway overruns). Perhaps FAA thought this was too technical for most audiences, including reporters and Congress, but it’s an important and positive safety development. Kudos to FAA for this important change.

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News Notes

Poland Selects IFM and Vinci for €1.8 Billion Airport
On Oct. 25, the Polish government announced that a joint venture of IFM Investors and Vinci will be the private-sector partner in the long-term public-private partnership to finance, develop, and operate the new CPK Lotnisko Airport. The government will own 51% and the private partners 49%. The approval came shortly before the ruling party lost a national election, and the expected new government, likely to be led by Donald Tusk of Civic Platform, has not endorsed the new airport plan. The airport is envisioned as part of an overall transportation expansion, including high-speed rail and a major transport hub linking highway, rail, and air travel.

Hybrid Remote Tower for UK‘s Farnborough Airport
Air Traffic Management reported (Oct. 4) that Searidge will install an advanced remote/digital tower at Farnborough Airport. It will provide controllers with customizable views of the entire airfield based on ADS-B surveillance and head-up labeling of objects in view. In particular, the new facility will allow controllers to monitor all ground vehicles (in addition to aircraft) thanks to ADS-B tags. These features will be especially important during low-visibility conditions such as fog.

NASA Inspector General Suggests Alternative to SLS
Although NASA has acknowledged that at $2.2 billion per launch, its Senate-mandated Space Launch System heavy-lift launch vehicle is a kludge, the NASA Inspector General has now suggested that the agency consider buying heavy-lift launches from commercial providers. A cost breakdown for the potential next procurement of the non-reusable SLS estimates the cost of the next set of SLS vehicles as $2.5 billion each. As an illustration, the Ars Technica article on the Inspector General audit noted that the cost of each of the four main SLS engines—$146 million—is close to the cost of an entire launch on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy ($178 million).

Mexican Government Squeezing Airport P3 Companies
Infralogic reported (Oct. 14) that the Mexican government was negotiating with the three airport companies that manage 34 of the country’s large and medium airports to reduce the airport use charge (TUA) that passengers pay (analogous to the U.S. Passenger Facility Charge—PFC). The article cited concerns from rating agency Fitch that this and other measures “have stakeholders questioning the country’s commitment to the rule of law, the robustness of its legal framework, and its willingness to protect private investments.” One week later, the government announced that it had increased the annual amount each public-private partnership (P3) company pays the government from 5% of gross revenues to 9%. The Transport Minister told El Economista that he expected the changes to lead to an “immediate” decrease in the TUA rate paid by passengers at the airport. How is that supposed to work?

Test Flights of eVTOLs in Three U.S. Cities
On Oct. 4, Wisk Aero conducted test flights of its Cora eVTOL at Long Beach Airport in California. The four-seat aircraft flew autonomously in a real-world airport environment. In early November, Volocopter flew crewed flights of its 2X eVTOL prototype at Tampa International Airport in Florida. Volocopter is aiming for European certification for the two-seat craft in 2024 in hopes of offering air taxi services during the Paris Olympics. And on Nov. 13, Joby Aviation flew its eVTOL prototype around Manhattan, departing from and returning to the Downtown Manhattan Heliport.

On-Demand Startup Flyv Announces 2025 Service Launch
Startup regional air mobility company Flyv has announced plans to launch its on-demand regional service in 2025, with ticket sales beginning next year. Initially, it will operate nine-seat conventionally fueled Tecnam P2012 Traveler aircraft. But it has ordered up to 25 Eviation Alicen nine-seat all-electric aircraft to begin service in 2030. It expects most flights to be in the 40-minute to 60-minute range. Its target market is regional airports that lack airline service.

Denver Considering Private Finance for Consolidated Rental Car Center
Infralogic reported (Oct. 31) that Denver International Airport is considering some element of private financing for its planned consolidated rental car center (ConRAC). The airport plans to hold an industry forum on the idea early next year, and it will issue a request for proposals or a similar process later next year.

Dominican Republic and Vinci Negotiating New Airport Terminal
Vinci Airports is discussing with the Dominican Republic government the possibility of building a new terminal at Las Americas International Airport, serving Santo Domingo. Vinci subsidiary Aerodom has a P3 concession to manage six of the country’s airports (which expires in 2030). The new terminal is part of Aerodom’s plan to upgrade the airports of Santo Domingo, Samana, Barahona, and La Isabela.
Wellington, NZ Considers Selling Airport Shares
The Wellington City Council on Nov. 3 discussed the possibility of selling some or all of its 34% holding of shares in the Wellington Airport, New Zealand’s second-largest after Auckland. The balance of the shares are owned by infrastructure investor Infratil. The City Council is facing budget problems that might lead to cuts in capital spending, so selling some or all of its airport shares would be a form of asset recycling. In September, Auckland sold 7% of its 18% stake in Auckland Airport to help reduce its municipal debt.

Portugal Adds ADS-B Surveillance of Its Oceanic Airspace
NAV Portugal, the country’s air navigation service provider, has implemented oceanic ADS-B surveillance, by contracting with space-based ADS-B provider Aireon. The new surveillance is provided to Nav Portugal’s Santa Maria FIR, which manages more than 5.1 million square kilometers, including the Santa Maria Oceanic Control Center and the control towers in the Azores archipelago. It handles overflight traffic between Europe and North Africa, North America, Central America, and South America. With this addition, over 75% of the ICAO Northern Atlantic airspace now has real-time ADS-B surveillance.

Bimini Airport to Get Upgraded Terminal via P3
The Bahamas government has awarded a P3 concession to Bimini Airport Development Partners, a joint venture of Phoenix Infrastructure and Plenary Group, along with airport operating company Avports. Plenary Group is owned by the Canadian pension fund CDPQ.

Avon Park Executive Airport Enters FAA Airport Investment Partnership Program
A general aviation airport in Avon Park, FL, has applied to the FAA’s Airport Investment Partnership Program (AIPP), which enables long-term public-private partnership leases of U.S. airports. The city plans to lease the airport for 30 years to Florida Airport Management. It signed a management contract with the city government in late 2020.

TAV Airports Looking to Expand into Asia and Africa
Aviation Daily (Oct. 6) reported that Turkish airport operator TAV Airports is considering the core regions of the Middle East, Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and Central Asia. TAV currently manages 15 airports in eight countries. In 2022 it was selected to develop and operate the international passenger and cargo terminals at Lagos Airport in Nigeria via a 20-year concession. It took over operations at Almaty Airport in Kazakhstan in 2021 and has implemented a $210 million plan to double its capacity to 14 million annual passengers.

Federal “Winter Weather” Funding for 47 U.S. Airports
Some 47 airports in 23 states are recipients of FAA grants totaling $57.6 million for snowplows, de-icing equipment, and related facilities, thanks to Congress putting funding for this purpose in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The question that must be asked is, why? Dealing with winter weather is a normal part of airport operations in much of North America.

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Quotable Quotes

“The efficacy of JSX’s exhaustive safety and security protocols, which greatly exceed TSA requirements, is reflected by our flawless record—one that meets or exceeds that of large commercial airlines. We conduct explosive trace and weapons detection on every bag and customer using state-of-the-art technology. A secondary positive ID match is conducted at boarding. Our flight deck doors are armored. JSX was a voluntary participant in the TSA Secure Flight vetting program for seven years; this has just recently become a requirement for similar public charter carriers.”
—Alex Wilcox (CEO of JSX), “JSX’s Response: Our Safety Record is Second to None,” Travel Weekly, Nov. 2, 2023

“These are exciting times for new jetliner concepts. JetZero’s blended wing body, Ron Epstein’s high-wing/propfan jetliner, and others offer hope to airlines struggling with high fuel prices. The prospect of a new jetliner also offers hope to Boeing, which is losing market share to Airbus . . . . Some regard hydrogen and other alternative propulsion as promising, but many experts point to serious technical challenges. These enormous challenges may or may not be surmountable, but to regard a hydrogen-powered jetliner as a disruptive possibility for another 20-30 years completely ignores the history of technology maturation.”
—Richard Aboulafia (Aerodynamic Advisory), “Opinion: Why A New Jetliner Is a Great Idea,” Aviation Daily, Oct. 23, 2023

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