- Remote towers: EU beats the US
- PFC increase gains bipartisan support
- New Haven airport seeks P3 lease
- Urban air mobility progress—and questions
- What is sustainable aviation fuel?
- News notes
- Quotable quotes
The big news in remote towers this month is the United Kingdom joining the global trend of replacing conventional airport control towers with digitized remote towers. As of April 30, London City Airport’s new remote digital tower was declared operational. Replacing the old tower at the real-estate-constrained international airport is a 164-foot mast housing 16 high-definition cameras and other sensors, providing a 360-degree view. The information is transmitted via independent, secure fiber lines to the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) control center at Swanwick, 100 miles to the north. The information is displayed using 15 high-definition screens, on which can be overlaid aircraft-specific information. Pan-tilt-zoom cameras can magnify images up to 30 times, as needed.
The Saab-designed system, drawing on its pioneering remote tower installations in Scandinavia, was completed in 2019 and has been through an extensive testing period since then, prior to being declared operational by NATS, the UK’s air navigation service provider (ANSP).
Remote digital towers are now in operation in Germany, Hungary, Norway, Sweden, and the U.K., and projects are under way in many other countries. The question readers of this newsletter may be wondering about is this: Whatever happened to the first two remote tower projects in this country—one at Leesburg, VA, and the other at Loveland, CO? The short answer is: the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Both projects began many years ago as state-sponsored initiatives with FAA oversight (but not funding). Leesburg is a busy general aviation airport without a control tower. The project began in 2014 as a joint effort by Saab and the Virginia SATSLab. There were presentations on its progress at the 2015 Air Traffic Control Association annual meeting and the January 2017 Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting.
The project at Loveland’s Northern Colorado Regional Airport (which is seeking to reclaim lost scheduled airline service) began with high hopes in 2016. It will have the advantage of a radar feed from an ASR-9 radar less than 14 miles from the airport. Loveland was an outgrowth of earlier state projects that brought multilateration to several ski-area airports where radar was not feasible. Project proponents selected Searidge as the technology provider.
In both cases, FAA made supportive noises and would eventually provide controllers for operational testing. But that began years ago, and here we are in 2021 with neither project having reached operational status. People familiar with the projects have provided chapter and verse about the obstacles stemming from FAA’s (necessary) involvement.
A now-retired consultant on the Leesburg project told me that, “It was one of the most frustrating projects I’ve ever worked on in my 50-year ATC [air traffic control] career. . . . FAA headquarters personnel kept moving the goalposts.”
He also noted that FAA “provided young controllers who had never worked in a VFR tower without a tower radar display. As a result, most of them didn’t like the system because they couldn’t ‘see’ small aircraft until about two miles from the airport.” His concluding comment, upon retiring, was, “The bureaucrats in FAA were afraid to sign off on this new technology.”
Other sources tell me that the Loveland project is essentially operational and has sent observational test data to FAA, based on Serco controllers’ operation of the system, but FAA “can’t use it.” FAA’s COVID-19 policies forbade sending anyone—headquarters people, controllers, FAA contractors, or subject-matter experts—to Loveland all last year and continuing so far this year, but have allowed some limited remote testing of the system via Zoom. However, they rejected the idea of using local FAA resources as trusted agents to observe testing using Serco controllers in real-time. (On the other hand, FAA people, including Administrator Steve Dickson, have actually visited Leesburg, despite the no-travel policy.) One source told me that FAA seems to have a problem certifying commercial, off-the-shelf equipment such as that provided by Saab and Searidge, whose systems use commercial off-the-shelf equipment (cameras, servers, displays) and are already in use in Saab and Searidge-developed remote towers in Europe.
There is a ray of hope regarding Leesburg. At a House Appropriations Committee hearing on May 12, Dickson, in responding to a question about that project, recounted his recent visit to observe the project and said it was “exciting” to see. He suggested that the operational validation process is nearing completion, but was not specific in projecting when the remote tower equipment would finally be certified by Tech Ops.
It’s ironic that the first serious research on what was then called a “staffed virtual tower” was carried out by FAA itself, with simulated operations carried out in 2006-2007 at the FAA research facilities in Atlantic City. As documented in “Feasibility Evaluation of a Staffed Virtual Tower” (The Journal of Air Traffic Control, Winter 2008), the study found that performance was similar to that of a conventional tower when visibility is good and was “superior” in other conditions. Also, “controllers learned to use the system quickly and found the display to be easier to use for decision-making.” Yet despite having first demonstrated the concept, today FAA is bringing up the rear.
In late April, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced the Rebuilding America’s Airport Infrastructure Act of 2021 (H.R. 2719). To date, he has been joined by cosponsors Reps. Mark Amodei (R-NV) and William Timmons (R-SC). The bill would increase the federal cap on airport passenger facility charges (PFCs), local airport user fees that airlines collect on behalf of airports for each enplaned passenger.
The current federal PFC cap of $4.50 was last increased in 2000, and this latest bill would increase the cap by $1 each year over four years beginning in 2023, after which the $8.50 cap reached in 2026 would be annually adjusted for inflation. Airlines are sure to oppose any increase in the PFC cap, but a modernized PFC could serve an important role in reinvigorating airport self-help during the recovery from COVID-19 following a year of unprecedented federal bailouts.
This is the first passenger facility charges bill to be introduced in the 117th Congress, but it may not be the last. In previous Congresses, various bipartisan proposals to increase the federal PFC cap have been floated, ranging from $2 increases to eliminating the cap altogether. Both Rep. Blumenauer and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Peter DeFazio (D-OR) have in the past cosponsored legislation to uncap the PFC with Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY). But whether modest or more ambitious, legislation to modernize the PFC cap has met steady airline opposition.
Airlines have generally opposed airport user fees for more than half a century. After being on the losing end of the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Evansville Airport v. Delta Airlines, Inc., airlines successfully lobbied Congress to outlaw nearly all local taxes and fees on air travelers under the Anti-Head Tax Act, which was included in the Airport Development Acceleration Act of 1973.
The effect of this prohibition on airport self-help was greater airport dependence on federal taxpayers. It also incentivized airports to enter into agreements with incumbent airlines that exchanged airline-financed airport improvements for long-term exclusive-use gate leases that reduced airline competition and increased airfares paid by passengers. The PFC was developed as a narrow exception to the Anti-Head Tax Act to address these concerns. It was enacted under the George H.W. Bush administration in 1990 and collections began in 1992. Initially, the PFC cap was set at $3, and airports charging the maximum PFC were required to forgo 50% of their Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grant apportionments. When the cap was raised to $4.50 in 2000, where it sits today, Congress required an AIP turn-back of 75%.
Airports in the U.S. have a variety of revenue sources for capital projects, but the largest sources are the passenger facility charges and AIP. These two sources combined typically account for half of total airport funding available for capital projects. PFCs are levied on each enplanement (for a maximum of two enplanements per trip), collected by airlines, and then remitted directly to airports, minus a small portion retained by airlines to cover administrative costs. In contrast, AIP is a federal grant program under the Airport and Airway Trust Fund supported by a variety of aviation taxes. PFC revenue is considerably more flexible than AIP grants, in part because PFC’s nature as a local user fee means that a variety of federal statutory and regulatory labor and procurement requirements do not apply. Importantly, unlike AIP grant funding, PFCs can be used to service debt, such as airport revenue bonds.
Research has found that increasing airport reliance on PFC revenue while decreasing airport reliance on AIP revenue enhances airport efficiency. The likely explanation is that the ability to use PFC revenue for a wider variety of projects allows airports to better prioritize projects that deliver greater returns on investment. Consumers also benefit from the fact that the PFC is insulated from airline control. This allows airports to invest in terminal facilities such as gates that don’t entail preferential-use provisions benefiting sponsoring incumbent airlines, which in turn enables airports to attract new carriers and enhance competition—putting downward pressure on airfares.
Given that U.S. air passenger volumes are concentrated in a small number of very large hubs, passenger facility charges are most popular with the largest commercial airports. According to FAA Form 127 data, the largest 31 airports collected 73% of total PFCs in 2019.
The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on aviation industry finances. The $20 billion in federal assistance received by airports kept facilities open and employees on the payroll, but also helped airports retire debt, much of which was normally serviced by user revenue that dried up during the pandemic. To avoid more severe creditworthiness downgrades or even worse outcomes, preliminary FAA data indicate the 31 largest hubs reduced total debt at year end from $88.9 billion in 2019 to $68.2 billion in 2020.
As civil aviation recovers from the pandemic, policymakers should seek to put consumers first, avoiding policies that confer benefits on specific industry players. Reinvigorating airport self-help should be a top priority and modernizing the PFC cap is needed to advance this goal. Unfortunately, all but one of the large hub airports have maxed out their PFCs at $4.50 (the exception is Charlotte Douglas International Airport, which charges $3). Additional federal assistance may not be forthcoming, and if the PFC cap is not raised or eliminated, airports will likely be forced into unfavorable financing agreements with large incumbent airlines that will use their leverage to benefit themselves at the expense of low-cost carriers and consumers.
The usual course followed when an airport owner seeks a long-term public-private partnership (P3) agreement is to request expressions of interest from potential companies (RFI), then ask potential teams to submit their qualifications (RFQ), and after further assessment, send a request for proposals (RFP) to the shortlisted teams.
As a much smaller airport, Tweed New Haven Airport (HVN) is following a different course. It has attracted a well-funded startup carrier, Avelo Airlines, but the airport’s main runway is too short (5,600 ft.) for Avelo’s 737s to use it fully loaded. With very low air service pre-Avelo, HVN would have trouble financing the runway expansion and a terminal upgrade suitable for expanded passenger service.
Airport management company AvPORTS has managed HVN for more than two decades and has come up with a P3 lease approach. HVN and the company have signed a letter of intent under which the company would finance most of these improvements in exchange for a 43-year P3 lease. All U.S. air carrier airports are eligible to engage in such leases under the FAA Airport Investment Partnership Program (AIPP) approved by Congress in the 2018 FAA reauthorization legislation. Under the lease, AvPORTS would cover all costs of operating HVN, eliminating about $1.8 million per year in state and local subsidies. The plan requires various state and local approvals, followed by FAA approval consistent
with the AIPP legislation.
AvPORTS told Aviation Daily (May 7, 2021) how it sees the process unfolding.
“It will take several years to receive approvals and to develop the runway extension and new terminal. During that time, AvPORTS will upgrade, finance, operate, and maintain the existing terminal to better accommodate improved commercial airline service. Work on the improvements will begin immediately under AvPORTS’ current operating agreement with [HVN] and prior to the execution of the proposed lease.”
Avelo’s service at HVN will begin this fall, using 737-700s or 737-800s, on routes that have not yet been announced. HVN is Avelo’s first east coast base; its initial base on the west coast, from which flight operations began in April, is Hollywood/Burbank Airport (BUR). Its business plan is to operate flights between secondary airports, avoiding large hubs. HVN is definitely a “secondary” airport, with only 49,000 emplaned passengers in 2019, ranking it in 286th place among U.S. commercial airports.
The money keeps rolling in for startup companies planning to build and/or operate electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. A recent Deloitte Insights report estimates that over 200 companies worldwide are seeking a piece of this action. Their report suggests that cargo applications will be the first to succeed, with a revenue of $13 billion by 2025 versus passenger revenues of just $4 billion. By 2035, Deloitte thinks passenger applications will catch up, generating $56 billion compared with $57 billion for cargo.
Both strike me as wildly optimistic at this point, for two reasons. First, FAA certification of new types of aircraft is likely to take a lot longer than start-up entrepreneurs and their investors imagine. A number of these concerns are cited by SAE International’s Mark DeAngelo in a recent SmartBrief post. And SmartBrief’s Mike Driehorst points out that thus far only one company (Joby) has received even the first step toward FAA certification—“essentially an agreement that lays out how Joby’s eVTOL aircraft requirements will be commercially certified.”
My other caution is that we still have no idea (a) what the demand for urban air taxis, etc. will be, which depends a lot on (b) what any eVTOL air taxi company will have to charge to cover both its capital and operating costs, including what it must pay for mostly newly developed vertiports.
Another unknown is what kind of airspace management will be required for urban and regional air mobility. Both NASA and FAA have been working on this, and so have airports and ANSPs in Europe, where an array of different approaches are being proposed and tested.
Despite all these unknowns, startups continue to raise venture capital, and bold would-be operators continue to place orders.
- Beta Technologies this month raised $368 million toward its Alia eVTOL, aiming for FAA certification by 2024. It has announced orders for the first 10 of a potential 150 from UPS Flight Forward for cargo and up to 20 from Blade Urban Air Mobility for on-demand passenger service.
- Lilium has announced agreements with the Munich and Nuremburg airports to locate hubs for its regional eVTOL service.
- Existing helicopter and amphibian operator Blade Urban Air Mobility has reached an agreement under which eVTOL developer Wisk will operate up to 30 autonomous air taxis on its network (and which will encounter a more difficult path to certification).
- Another startup eVTOL developer—XTI Aircraft—has announced that a “major U.S operator” has agreed to purchase 40 of its TriFan 600 hybrid eVTOL. This vehicle has a 650 nm range, so it is aimed for regional rather than urban travel.
As an engineer, I’m intrigued by the numerous design and operational concepts the myriad startups have come up with. And I hope some of them succeed. But given all the complexities that are still to be worked through, I worry that we may be seeing a 2021 equivalent of the dot-com bubble, with too much money chasing ideas whose business models are still large question marks.
A consensus seems to be emerging in both Europe and the United States that for aviation to come anywhere close to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the most feasible path forward is the development and use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) over the next 30 years.
While there is eventual potential for hydrogen fuel cells and radically different aircraft configurations (e.g., blended wing-body), the time needed to develop and test those propulsion and aircraft configurations leaves too little time to replace the current and near-term aircraft and engine fleet. If SAF can be developed on an increasingly large scale, and aircraft engines and fuel systems adapted to use SAF, there is a reasonable chance of achieving the 2050 goal, which has been embraced by both U.S. and European aviation stakeholders.
So what, exactly, is SAF? It is fuel made from something other than hydrocarbons. For example, furans are compounds made of carbon and oxygen (rather than hydrogen and carbon). Furanics can be made from agricultural waste (woody biomass, including forestry waste products, sugarcane bagasse, wheat and rice straw, etc.). The $4.8 million HIGFLY pilot project, funded by the European Union, is under way at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, with Boeing among its partner organizations.
Another source of SAF is “wet” food waste. The U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) points out that rotting food waste in landfills generates methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas. A new process can convert food waste to volatile fatty acids (VFA) that can then be upgraded to SAF. Since this form of SAF would also eliminate the methane production were the waste disposed of in landfills, NREL estimates the net carbon emissions from this form of SAF would be 165%.
A far more detailed assessment of SAFs appeared in Aviation Week’s March 8-21, 2021 issue (“Moving the Needle,” Guy Norris and Thierry Dubois). They discuss some of the problems with aircraft fuel systems that need to be addressed before 70 to 100% SAFs would be safe to use; these include the integrity of seals and hoses. The authors point out that both Airbus and Boeing, along with the major engine producers, are all researching the use of SAFs in existing or modified aircraft and engines. Boeing, for example, has announced that it plans to certify all its (new) commercial aircraft to operate on 100% SAF by 2030.
Boeing’s Sean Newsum points out that, “With an aircraft lifespan measured between 20 and 25 years, to meet the 2050 time frame, all aircraft will have to be capable [of using 100% SAF] by 2030.”
Finally, a coalition of two dozen U.S. aviation organizations (including Airlines for America, the Regional Airlines Association, Aerospace Industries Association, and Global Business Travel Association) has called for the federal government to assist in the SAF transition as part of a proposed infrastructure bill. The group wants SAF providers to get a $2/gallon tax credit and for DOT and FAA to launch new grant programs in this area. And as I anticipated in the previous issue of this newsletter, they are also calling for a $1.5 billion Aircraft Modernization Equipage Fund to pay laggard airlines (mostly regionals) to equip their planes with NextGen avionics. When all commercial planes are fully equipped, more direct routes and fuel savings will result.
U.S. Aviation Outlook Improving—Moody’s
Bond rating agency Moody’s released a report earlier this month predicting that U.S. 2021 domestic airline capacity will reach at least 80% of 2019 levels this summer. Moreover, some low-cost and ultra-low-cost carriers will operate at more than 100% of 2019 levels. However, given the pandemic restrictions still in force in numerous other countries, Moody’s does not expect international air travel to increase significantly until at least 2022.
Breeze Airways Gets FAA Operating Certificate
David Neeleman’s startup airline, Breeze Airways, received its FAA air operator’s certificate (AOC) on May 14, and now needs only its certificate of public convenience & necessity from US DOT to begin scheduled service. Neeleman has announced that Breeze’s first route will link Charleston, SC (CHS) with Tampa (TPA). Breeze plans to operate point-to-point primarily from smaller airports, bypassing major hubs. Other points it is expected to serve include Nashville (BNA), New Orleans (MSY), and Pittsburgh (PIT).
Australian Controllers Resist Moving
Airservices Australia has announced plans to shift up to 65 controllers from Sydney to Melbourne. The controllers handle terminal services for Sydney Airport, and with today’s technology, those functions can be performed elsewhere. Airservices notes that the leased terminal control building at Sydney Airport is nearing the end of its useful life, and there is no guarantee of a new long-term lease or a replacement building. The plan is to integrate terminal services for Sydney with those of Melbourne, moving the Sydney controllers into the terminal control unit in Melbourne Center. That unit already handles approaches for Adelaide and Canberra, while the comparable unit at Brisbane Center handles approaches for Cairns and Gold Coast in addition to Brisbane.
Eurocontrol Integrating Space-Based ADS-B Data
Real-time air traffic surveillance data from Aireon’s space-based ADS-B system has been integrated into the Eurocontrol Network Manager’s enhanced traffic flow management system (ETFMS). The real-time data will monitor flights approaching Europe from the Middle East and North America. This will make trajectory prediction more accurate, for example giving Network Manager information about incoming flights from North America up to six hours before they reach European airspace. Eurocontrol is the first air traffic management system to incorporate space-based ADS-B data into its traffic flow management process.
Russia Claims Ability to Neutralize GPS, Galileo, and BeiDou Systems
The Resilient Navigation & Timing Foundation has reprinted a Feb. 1, 2021 article from Sputnik International News which claims that an electronic warfare system called Pole-21 has the capability of jamming global navigation and timing systems over a major portion of Russian territory. The system is to be expanded to the Ural Mountains and Siberia later this year. In addition to jamming GPS and comparable systems, Pole-21 is claimed to be capable of spoofing—making ships or aircraft appear to be elsewhere from their actual locations.
European Project Examining Noise and Emissions of Supersonic Aircraft
A four-year, $6 million research project to model the noise, emissions and global environmental impact of supersonic aircraft was begun in January 2021. Led by Germany’s DLR aerospace center, it involves 11 academic and industry participants, reports Graham Warwick in Aviation Daily. The “Noise and Emissions of Supersonic Aircraft” project will develop models of four possible aircraft types, with cruise speeds from Mach 1.4 to Mach 2.2. The results will be provided to the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection, which has been charged with developing SST certification standards.
Flight Service Stations Now Optional, Says FAA
FAA has issued an advisory circular (AC) to general aviation pilots suggesting that they should do their own preflight briefings online, rather than calling a briefer at one of the remaining FAA Flight Service Stations. “By self-briefing, pilots can often improve their knowledge of weather and aeronautical information. Flight Service personnel are available should a pilot need assistance.”
House Passes Minor Reforms of Trusted Traveler Programs
Rep. John Katko (R-NY) was the primary sponsor of the Trusted Traveler Reconsideration and Restoration Act, which had two Democratic Party co-sponsors and passed by voice vote on April 21. It calls on the Government Accountability Office to review DHS’s several trusted traveler programs, including their redress procedures for those denied membership. It also would provide relief to members whose trusted traveler status was mistakenly revoked. The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.
Port Authority Issues RFP for Newark AirTrain
As manager of Newark Liberty Airport (EWR), the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey has issued a request for proposals for the replacement Newark Liberty AirTrain. The RFP was sent to the four short-listed teams for this design-build-operate-maintain (DBOM) public-private partnership. The teams are headed by Skanska, Dragados and Halmar, Kiewit and Tully Construction, and Tutor-Perini and Parsons. The new AirTrain will include a 2.5-mile elevated guideway connecting the new Terminal One and rental car facility (now under construction) to the Northeast Corridor Rail Link station. The estimated cost is $2.05 billion.
San Jose Airport Seeks Consultant for Airport Connector
The city of San Jose (CA), owner of San Jose International (SJC), has issued an RFP for a consultant for its planned Airport Connector P3 Project. The task is to prepare the RFP for the actual project. The planned connector will link the San Jose Diridon Station (downtown) with the airport. The selected team for the connector will work with city officials under a pre-development agreement for the DBFOM project.
UK Enacts New Aviation Law
The Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Act became law in the UK on April 29, 2021. It gives the Transport Secretary additional powers to adjust aircraft flight paths to reduce carbon emissions and aircraft noise. It also formalizes the temporary waiving of the use-it-or-lose-it policy for airport slots. In addition, it gives police officers new power to deal with misuse of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), including on-spot fines, orders to land a UAV, and stop-and-search powers regarding operators who have committed offenses involving a UAV.
Dan Elwell Joins Advisory Board of Juby Aviation
FAA’s former Acting Administrator Dan Elwell has joined the Advisory Board of Joby Aviation, one of the better-funded startups seeking to develop commercial eVTOLs. Elwell is a former military and airline pilot and served as deputy administrator prior to taking the acting administrator slot at FAA following the end of Michael Huerta’s term as administrator.
Back to Front Boarding Increases Infection Risk, Simulation Shows
Researchers at the University of West Florida developed a simulation model to test the impact of various methods of boarding commercial aircraft, seeking to find which one(s) minimized the risk of COVID-19 infection. The modeling showed that boarding passengers starting at the rear of the cabin led to more passenger interactions, due to passengers forming clusters to put their bags in a small set of overhead bins at the same time. Random boarding was much less bad.
Urban Air Mobility Hub Developed in UK
UK start-up company Urban-Air Port is developing the country’s first urban air mobility hub, in Coventry, with operations planned to commence before the end of 2021. The company is contracting with Altitude Angel and Safeguard Vertiports to develop an airspace architecture that will create “air roads” for air taxis and cargo drones. The project is funded by the government’s Future Flight Challenge program.
“[T]he fuel cells currently being tested won’t be of use to Airbus or Boeing, because they would need to be prohibitively heavy to move bigger planes. The A320 replacement pitched by Airbus last year would mostly rely on a traditional engine to burn hydrogen directly. This basic technology has been around since the 1950s, but has many drawbacks, such as the emission of nitrogen oxide—also a greenhouse gas. There are also reasons to doubt Airbus’s conviction in its own timetable for the rollout of hydrogen technology. It presented two other concepts at the same time: a regional aircraft that would be an unambitious goal for 2035 and a “blended wing” futuristic plane that would be far too ambitious. Hydrogen seems like a useful power source to eventually decarbonize aviation. Thinking it can be deployed in time to meet the industry’s
2050 emissions targets, however, requires a lot of optimism.”
—Jon Sindreu, “The Lofty Promise of Hydrogen Power,” The Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2021