Aviation Policy News: FAA giving up on remote towers, troubling near-misses, and more
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Aviation Policy Newsletter

Aviation Policy News: FAA giving up on remote towers, troubling near-misses, and more

Plus: The JetBlue/Spirit merger, power outages shutdown airports, and more.

In this issue:

Is FAA Giving Up on Remote Towers?

Private pilots, Leesburg Airport officials, and members of Congress from Virginia are up in arms over the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Feb. 28 announcement that it will terminate the operations of the remote tower at Leesburg Airport as of June 14. The project, the first U.S. remote tower effort, began in 2014, nine years ago, with state and private-sector support from remote tower pioneer Saab. Last year FAA declared the remote tower “operationally viable,” following intensive operations using FAA controllers. But the real prize—FAA certification—has remained without a target date. And now this pioneering effort risks having the remote tower (RT) removed, leaving Leesburg without air traffic control tower service unless they can come up with the funds to have a conventional tower built.

Aviation sources tell me that Saab sent a letter to FAA saying it could not continue with the Leesburg remote tower project, which sounds bizarre after all the time and money the company put into what was planned as its first of many U.S. small-airport remote towers. But further investigation reveals a frustrating situation for any entrepreneurial company attempting to bring about a breakthrough in aviation productivity and safety under FAA’s slow-moving bureaucracy. That includes Searidge Technologies, which is pioneering a comparable remote project at the Northern Colorado Regional Airport in Loveland, CO, as well as Frequentis, which is having somewhat better luck with the U.S. military.

Before getting into that, here is what the Leesburg remote tower has been providing the formerly non-towered general aviation airport. The control room, on the ground, rather than in an expensive tower, has large-format wall screens providing a 360º view of the whole airfield (in a 225º format). Air traffic controllers do their work at individual workstations, as in a conventional air traffic control tower. The remote tower also has a radar feed with conventional STARS displays, but controllers are not allowed to provide radar separation of aircraft; the radar data is only for situational awareness. Controllers get much of their data from an array of cameras on a central mast, which feeds the video wall. Thanks to some of the cameras being infrared, controllers have better visibility in rain, fog, or nighttime than controllers in conventional towers.

The Loveland system, developed by Searidge, has several differences. It has cameras at both runway ends, in addition to cameras on a central mast. Its radar data are integrated into automated data tags on controller displays. Each controller has a video display that can display any portion of the video wall in close-up, using “stitched video” from the cameras. On the other hand, while Leesburg has infrared cameras, Loveland does not. This is a good example of the need for real-world testing of different approaches to remote/digital towers at this early stage of U.S. remote tower implementation.

The real question is why Saab has decided to pull the plug after nine years and considerable progress. I’ll try to piece together an emerging picture of what may be happening at FAA, which has not been at all forthcoming. Here are some potentially relevant factors.

  • Last July, at a Contract Tower Association conference, Jeffrey Vincent, then vice president of air traffic services at FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, was quoted saying, “Digital towers—that is the wave of the future. It’s an opportunity to address some of our difficulties around staffing.” Just a few months later, he was out of that job and shifted to FAA’s UAS (uncrewed aerial systems) Integration Office.
  • In the 2018 FAA reauthorization bill, Congress mandated FAA to create a six-airport Remote Tower Pilot Program. Small airports were invited to apply for a slot to either replace an obsolete conventional tower with an RT or add an RT to an un-towered airport. So far, despite interest from small airports, no new airports have been added to the already-existing Leesburg and Loveland projects.
  • Meanwhile, as I reported in the Jan. 2023 issue of this newsletter, instead of pursuing remote towers, FAA last year launched its “Sustainable Tower Design Initiative,” seeking designs for conventional towers to replace aging/obsolete towers at 30 smaller airports by 2030. This ignores the large savings in both construction costs and operating/maintenance costs of RTs.
  • There are also signs that FAA seems to want all RTs to use the same technologies, even though RTs are at an early stage of maturity, and trying some alternative approaches would expand the knowledge base. There are rumors that FAA wants to work with only one RT vendor, but the 2018 legislation mandated FAA to develop a list of qualified vendors.
  • I’ve heard scuttlebutt that some air traffic controllers are not happy about RTs, but when I interviewed former National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi for this article, he was enthusiastic about the safety, cost, and performance benefits of remote towers. “The newest generation of remote/digital towers will provide controllers with state-of-the-art tools such as infrared vision to detect obstructions on or near the runway in use,” Rinaldi wrote in an email to me. “The zoom feature on digital towers goes well beyond a pair of binoculars in a standard tower. Major international airports should look at digital towers as the best possible contingency to the legacy air traffic control tower. In the event the main tower is compromised, the controllers would still be able to keep the airport open and operating at normal levels.”

Taken together, these factors suggest that FAA is not keen on remote/digital towers, which Congress should be very concerned about as it develops this year’s FAA reauthorization bill. For their benefit, here are a few reminders of the benefits of remote towers.

It’s clear that remote/digital towers will increase air safety. For example, being able to see all of each runway in any kind of weather will help avoid situations like the recent near-collision at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, where the air traffic controllers could not see the departure end of the runway due to morning fog and did not know exactly where the about-to-depart Southwest 737 was.

This illustrates the point that remote towers are not just for small general aviation airports. The largest commercial airport with an operational RT today is London City, but London Heathrow actually has added remote/digital tower features (e.g., cameras at runway ends and exits). The next airport being considered for RT technology in Germany is Munich, the country’s second-largest hub. RT technology is now being implemented at Budapest, Hungary’s largest airport.

Safety will also be increased because the lower capital and operating costs of RTs mean that a given FAA budget for new and replacement towers will go farther, which means more needed towers can be in place sooner, rather than spending limited FAA dollars on costly 20th-century towers.

FAA used to claim, correctly, that it ran the world’s most advanced air traffic control system. There’s no question it’s still the largest, but its performance on remote/digital towers is pathetic. A global database assembled and regularly updated by Think ATM & Airports Consultancy lists 20 operational remote/digital towers (none are in the United States), 24 in development and testing, and another seven in research trials. That’s in addition to 23 remote towers in the feasibility study stage.

Finally, a good overview for those who have not been following the progress of remote/digital towers is “Remote Towers for General Aviation Airports,” by former Aviation Week reporter Dave Hughes, Avionics News, July 2022.

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Record Level of Runway Incursions Challenges FAA

Last month’s newsletter discussed near-miss incidents in which two airliners nearly collided, at John F. Kennedy International (involving American and Delta planes) and Austin–Bergstrom International (FedEx and Southwest planes). The article noted that contrary to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) policy, the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) information was not retrieved, since the airliners went on their way, with their CVRs recording over the two hours of information that included the near-miss incidents.

By the time of FAA’s “safety summit” on March 15, five more near-misses involving an airliner had been disclosed, at Santa Barbara Airport (SBA) on Jan. 9, Honolulu International (HNL) on Jan. 23, Hollywood Burbank Airport (BUR) on Feb. 22, Boston Logan International Airport (BOS) on Feb. 27, and Reagan National Airport (DCA) on March 7. And several days after the summit, another near-collision took place at Hollywood Burbank, involving Mesa and SkyWest planes. With considerable understatement, acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen told summit attendees, “These events are concerning. They’re not what we come to expect during the time of unprecedented safety in the U.S. air transportation system.”

No kidding.

The safety summit will lead to extended discussions over the next several months, including whether the ongoing Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST), which has a long track record of analyzing data to identify safety risks and develop new safety measures, can identify causes of this sudden increase in near-collisions involving airliners—and propose new mitigation measures.

As my article noted, a lack of cockpit voice recorder data on what pilots said during these near-collisions is one thing that needs to be fixed. Recordings from air traffic control towers are available, but only some cockpit talk is captured by control tower recordings. As quite a few reporters, such as Alan Levin of Bloomberg, pointed out on Feb. 22, the National Transportation Safety Board for years has called for cockpit voice recorders to capture 25 hours of cockpit voices. That would mean that a CVR on a plane involved in an incident could proceed to the end of its scheduled service that day, with what was said during the near-collision preserved for analysis. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chair Jennifer Homendy repeated her call for 25-hour CVRs at the summit.

And last week, FAA announced a forthcoming rulemaking to require 25-hour CVRs. Incidentally, 25-hour CVRs have long been standard in Europe, according to the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which means they already exist and have been accepted by many of the world’s airlines. Here again, FAA is far behind the state-of-the-art in aviation safety.

At the summit, Homendy also said that FAA has not acted on seven NTSB runway safety recommendations, including expanding the use of ASDE-X to more than the current 35 airports that have it. Three of the eight airports involved in the above near-collisions—AUS, BUR, and SBA—do not have ASDE-X.

Summit participants also made the usual calls for more FAA funding, to hire more controllers, and invest in better air traffic control infrastructure. But as Nolen pointed out, “None of these occurrences [the near misses] are related to immediate funding.”

Following up on the safety summit, yesterday, the FAA issued safety alerts to airlines and pilots about the “need for continued vigilance and attention to mitigation of safety risks.”

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Would the JetBlue/Spirit Merger Increase or Decrease Airline Competition?

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed suit to prevent the planned merger of JetBlue and Spirit airlines, on the grounds that it would harm consumers by removing one of the pioneer ultra-low-cost carriers (ULCCs) from the U.S. aviation market. “If the acquisition [of Spirit] is approved, JetBlue plans to abandon Spirit’s business model, remove seats from Spirit’s planes, and charge Spirit’s customers higher prices,” the Justice Department states in its lawsuit filed on March 7.

JetBlue does not object to this characterization. Based on historical U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) data on airline domestic passenger market share, JetBlue is counted along with Alaska and Hawaiian as carriers that charge lower fares than the big three (American, Delta, and United). That JetBlue/Alaska/Hawaiian niche grew from 4% in 2000 to 12% of all passengers by 2022. So it appears that what JetBlue is aiming for is to expand its role in this lower-fare market segment, aiming to gain passengers from the big three and also from Southwest, which grew from 18% in 2000 to 22% in 202). Interestingly, JetBlue’s flight attendants’ union supports the merger.  

But what about DOJ’s argument that removing Spirit’s capacity from the ULCC market will be bad for passengers seeking low-fare/no-frills flights offered by ULCCs?

The Department of Justice seems to be operating on a static view of the domestic airline market. To be sure, ultra-low-cost carriers’ combined passenger market share has soared from 2% in 2000 to 13% in 2022. That total reflects mostly Allegiant, Frontier, and Spirit. Removing Spirit from the ULCC category will reduce that share in the near term. But DOJ’s implicit premise is that the ULCC share will remain depressed.

That’s not the view of Frontier Chief Executive Officer Barry Biffle. Speaking at a JP Morgan conference on March 14, Biffle first noted that the merger will make JetBlue more competitive with the Big Four (including Southwest), as I pointed out above. He also said that Frontier and a few other carriers “probably have the cost structure that can replace [Spirit’s] capacity pretty quick.”

Frontier announced robust expansion plans well before the JetBlue/Spirit merger and appears to have the finances to carry out those plans.

In addition, DOJ’s static view of the domestic airline market ignores the recent advent of two new LCC or ULCC airlines: Avelo and Breeze. While both are still only a few years old and not yet operating in the black, Avelo, as of this writing, serves 40 U.S. airports and Breeze serves 35. The loss of Spirit will open up additional markets for those two newcomers, as well as for Allegiant and Frontier.

In addition, DOJ’s focus has been on the domestic passenger market. JetBlue’s plans include significant expansion of its still very new transatlantic service. Frontier and Breeze also plan increased international service, thanks in part to new, longer-range single-aisle aircraft.

In short, DOJ’s case is based on a static, zero-sum view of the airline passenger market. Airline deregulation, enacted in 1978, changed a static de-facto airline cartel into a dynamic competitive market. The changes in market share over the past 20 years demonstrate that this market is still dynamic and competitive. Hence, the Justice Department’s case against the merger is seriously flawed.

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Airports and Electric Power Outages

February was a cruel month for U.S. airports. Not only were there a half dozen near-collisions on airport runways, but three large airports suffered electric power outages: Los Angeles International, John F. Kennedy International, and Oakland International. In two cases, the power problem stemmed from the local electric utility.

In Los Angeles on Feb. 1, electricity supplied by the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (DWP) went off for about an hour. The entire terminal complex was affected: TSA security checkpoints could not operate, retail concessions went dark, jet-bridges could not move (leaving some passengers trapped on arriving aircraft), and escalators and elevators stopped working, leaving some people trapped in elevators for nearly an hour. The airfield (and presumably the control tower) was unaffected, so planes already away from gates could depart, and those that landed could taxi to terminal areas but not unload.

The second power outage took place in Oakland, CA, on Feb. 20. A transformer at a Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) facility near the airport caught fire, leaving Oakland International without most electricity for nearly two hours. A few TSA security lanes remained in operation, according to KNTV.

But the big outage, which made international news, was the power outage at JFK’s Terminal 1, which handles a whole raft of international airlines, including Air France, Japan Airlines, Lufthansa, and Air New Zealand. This outage lasted from Feb. 16 through Feb. 19 and prevented Terminal 1 from handling any flights. Some incoming flights were able to be served by other JFK terminals, while many diverted to other east coast airports. In at least three reported cases, flights from overseas turned around during flight and returned to where they began—most notably Air New Zealand ANZ2 from Auckland to JFK, which turned around in mid-Pacific to return home, giving its passengers a 16-hour trip to nowhere. In the JFK case, the power failure was apparently not due to a local electric utility but to an electrical panel failure in Terminal 1 itself, leaving the rest of the airport operating as usual.

The question airports and aviation officials need to ask is: How could these failures happen? For the past decade, we’ve been inundated with talk about “resilience” and “sustainability.” Airports are critically important infrastructure, but are apparently vulnerable to single-point failures and without emergency backup electric supply.

In the case of airports served by the local electric utility, wouldn’t it make sense to have electricity supplied by more than one substation? That way, if one suffered an outage in the lines that feed the airport, another source would still be available.

And in the case of JFK’s Terminal 1, we again see a single-point failure that knocked out electricity to the entire terminal. Certainly, standby generators could be installed to prevent people from being trapped in elevators and to permit jetways to operate during outages.

Perhaps the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General or the Government Accountability Office could look into the issue of airport electricity vulnerability. Airports are vital infrastructure and should be far more resilient to electric power failures.

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The High Cost of Vertical Mobility

Last month’s issue carried a discussion of the likely shake-out among startup electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) companies. It included an Aviation Week assessment of the 10 largest companies, ranked in order of likely success by aviation consultant Sergio Cecutta of SMG Consulting. Fifth-ranked was Beta Technologies, which had previously announced a shift to focusing on cargo rather than passengers. But a recent announcement by Beta puts a new light on its strategy.

In Aviation Daily’s March 20 issue, Graham Warwick reports that Beta now plans to first certify a conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) version of its planned Alia-250 electric aircraft before introducing its eVTOL twin. This is feasible because, unlike most other eVTOL designs, Beta’s includes a conventional wing. In the eVTOL mode, the wing structure supports four lifting rotors. The new CX300 is the same aircraft minus the lifting rotors. It is propelled by an electric motor-driven pusher prop. Beta aims to certify the CX300 (for which it already has some airline orders) in 2025, with the eVTOL version (Alia 250) certified 12 to 18 months later, it hopes.

These essentially twin aircraft models enable us to estimate the very high cost of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL). While Beta has not announced the range of the CX300, its prototype SN1 in eCTOL configuration achieved a range of 386 miles on a single charge. Most eVTOL models have estimated ranges on a single charge of less than 100 miles (and some even less). For the five-passenger CX300, the target market includes passengers, as well as regional cargo, medical, and defense applications.

Some additional perspective on the high cost of eVTOL capability was provided by an Aviation Week interview with Rob Wiesenthal, CEO of Blade Air Mobility. Blade operates helicopters serving networks of heliports in urban areas of various countries. He’s observing the progress of eVTOL developers, in hopes that if some get certified and have realistic business models, his networks would be well-positioned to serve them. But since he has many years of experience with the economics of helicopter services, his thoughts on the likely costs of eVTOL air taxis are sobering.

Wiesenthal told Aviation Week reporter Ben Goldstein that he expects eVTOL operating costs to be very close to those of helicopters. For example, at an airport, 40% of the helicopter operating cost is landing fees, which will certainly be there for eVTOLs, as well. Insurance will probably be “much more expensive for [electric vertical aircraft] than for helicopters,” since eVTOLs have no proven track record. “Pilots are another big expense” because “autonomous is so far out that I don’t even want to talk about it.” And the electricity should be viewed as “electric fuel”—certainly not for free. The infrastructure costs will have to be amortized over the lives of the vehicles. While Blade would be well-positioned to serve eVTOL air taxis, he opted not to expand greatly, due to uncertainty over how large the eVTOL market would turn out to be. “There were people out there saying it would be a half-trillion-dollar market. We wanted to make sure that if it turned out to be a $20 billion market, we still had a huge business there.”

Both of these new stories reinforce my view that the very high cost of vertical mobility has not been fully appreciated by those in the emerging eVTOL industry.

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News Notes

Budapest Getting a Remote Tower
HungaroControl has begun the implementation of a remote tower at the country’s largest airport, Budapest’s Ferenc Liszt International (BUD). The system, developed by Indra, is planned to be operational by 2024. It will feature multiple camera installations around the airport, with zooming functionality and enhanced night vision mode. It will also have the ability to track moving objects. BUD is the largest airport to begin implementing a remote/digital tower solution, though discussions are under way in Germany regarding Munich, that country’s second-busiest airport.

Aecon Sells Stake in Bermuda Airport Concession
Inframation reports that Aecon group has reached an agreement to sell 49.9% of its long-term concession to improve and operate Bermuda International Airport. The buyer of the minority stake is Connor, Clark & Lunn Infrastructure (CC&L), an asset management company; Aecon Group is a Canadian engineering company. The price of the minority stake is $128.5 million.

Air Force Testing Remote/Digital Tower at Moody Air Force Base
Frequentis has begun its second remote tower test program under a contract with the Naval Warfare Center Atlantic and the Air Force Flight Standards Agency. The first test took place last year at Homestead Air Force Base (AFB) in Florida. The second test, now under way at Moody AFB in Georgia, is its first test at a multi-runway military base. The third test, after Moody, will take place at a naval air station.

Federal Court Rejects FAA Seat Size and Spacing
The federal court of appeals for the DC Circuit rejected a petition from FlyersRights.org that would have mandated FAA to set rules for the size and spacing of airline seats. The three-judge panel found there was no evidence that current seats and spacing interfere with the ability to evacuate an airliner within 90 seconds. FAA is responsible for safety regulation, not regulating passenger comfort.

Romania Unveils First Remote Tower
The relatively new airport serving the city of Brasov has begun receiving control tower services from a remote tower center 450 kilometers away in the city of Arad. Besides being the first remote in Romania, Brasov is also the world’s second airport to begin its tower services with a remote tower; the first occurrence was several years ago in Sweden, which pioneered remote towers.

Brazilian Airport Company Discussing Offers
CCR operates 19 airports in Brazil and is interested in acquiring more airport concessions in Latin America. Inframation reports that two U.S. infrastructure funds, a Middle Eastern fund, and a French investor have approached CCR about either co-investing or acquiring some of its airport concessions. CCR also operates highway concessions in the region.

Hong Kong Selects AireonFLOW
Space-based air traffic surveillance company Aireon will be implementing its FLOW system to provide increased visibility of both arriving/departing traffic and overflights. Using both flight plan information and space-based ADS-B surveillance, the system will enable improved flight management in the airspace that Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department is responsible for. The Hong Kong airspace is one of the world’s busiest.

Spanish Controllers Protest Tower Contracts
The union representing air traffic controllers in Spain is protesting the plans of airport management company Aena to contract out tower services at seven smaller airports. Large airport towers are operated by Spain’s air navigation service provider (ANSP), Enaire. But since 2010, two control tower companies, Saerco and Skyway, have managed 12 smaller airport towers. Both the European Commission and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) support the contract services, as well as the planned expansion to seven more small airports.

Australia Plans UAS Airspace Management System
Regulatory agency Airspace Australia announced on Feb. 27 that a new Flight Information Management System (FIMS) for uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS) will begin implementation in 2025. FIMS will represent the “centralized backbone” for a UAS management system to be operated by Airservices Australia, the country’s ANSP. The ultimate goal is to fully integrate FIMS into the existing air traffic management system.

Bahamas Seeking P3 Partners for 14 Airports
On March 1, the Bahamas government issued a tender for a company or companies to upgrade 14 “out-island” airports, such as Treasure Cay on Abaco and Rock Sound International on Eleuthera. Winning bidders will design, build, finance, operate, and maintain improved airports on those islands. Public-private partnership (P3) concessions will be for 30 years, and short-listed companies are to receive formal requests for proposals in May.

LAX Cargo P3 Preferred Bidder to Be Selected
Los Angeles World Airports is in the bidding process for a long-term P3 to redevelop and expand the air cargo facilities at Los Angeles International. Several teams are still in the running, with the target date for selecting the preferred bidder now set for the end of March.

Dubai Plans 2026 UAMs and Vertiports
The government of Dubai announced last month the planned location of its first four vertiports.in cooperation with developer Skyports Infrastructure. The government is hoping to have eVTOL air taxis in service by 2026. Making presentations ahead of a February UAM summit were Joby Aviation and Skyports.

Northrop Grumman Researching Uncrewed Cargo Aircraft
Under a NASA contract, Northrop Grumman is studying the potential integration of autonomous cargo aircraft into the national airspace system (NAS). The project is part of NASA’s Air Traffic Management-eXploration (ATM-X) project. Northrop will draw on prior work for the Navy’s X-47B uncrewed UAV, controlled remotely by a human controller.

Corrections to Last Month’s Issue
In the Dallas Love Field news note, the aircraft Delta will be using is an Airbus 319, not an A-310, as incorrectly stated in the newsletter. Also, in the story about runway incursions, several readers emailed that the Southwest 737 completed its original take-off while the FedEx plane flew a missed approach.

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Quotable Quotes

“Oftentimes, when you look at the lag time between when you were informed [about a delay or cancellation] and when ATC actually knew that was going to happen, there’s a significant gap there. Not only do I think we have an opportunity to improve the efficiency of the whole experience, but I think we have the opportunity to actually improve safety at the same time. Once again, what happened in Austin airport was an ATC issue. What happened with the NOTAM system going down was an ATC issue. So I think we have an opportunity to improve safety by adopting new technologies by expediting or streamlining the procurement process for FAA. I’ll quote former chairman DeFazio; he calls NetGen ‘NeverGen’ because they never could get it implemented and the implementation schedule has gone wildly over expectations or estimates.”
—Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA), in Alex Daugherty, “Politico Pro Q&A: Rep. Garret Graves, Chair of the House Aviation Subcommittee,” Politico Pro, Feb. 14, 2023

“Why am I so opinionated? I have 36 years doing nothing but distributed electric propulsion and eVTOL, and if somebody has that level of experience, I listen to them. I have resisted making a list. But I do feel that there is value in the experience I’ve had at NASA and Uber and the understanding of the technology and especially the revenue side. . . . More than anyone else, I’ve probably hyped eVTOL aircraft, and it’s only fair that I am giving a dose of reality to the difficult challenges these companies are facing. I hate my own list, but the score is kinda the score.”
—Mark Moore, in Graham Warwick, “Ranking the Taxis,” Aviation Week, Feb. 27-March 12, 2023

“Last month CANSO, the ANSP trade association, announced a new working group to look at charges and charging. ANSP charges are famously public and famously inflexible. They are undisturbed by such normal commercial practices as peak pricing and volume discounts—despite Eurocontrol’s Route Charges Organization acknowledging that its system could accommodate them. So what on earth can the CANSO working group be discussing? Again, maybe the simple test is to ask whether the airlines are happy that the ANSPs have convened a forum to discuss charges. At the same time, the CANSO working group would be well-advised to remember that competition law applies to them too.”
—Andrew Charlton, “Airport Competition: UK Regulators Say Yes,” Aviation Intelligence Reporter, Feb. 2023

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