Aviation Policy News: FAA safety review reveals air traffic control dysfunction
Photo 296926870 © Boarding1now | Dreamstime.com

Aviation Policy Newsletter

Aviation Policy News: FAA safety review reveals air traffic control dysfunction

Plus: How to fix FAA problems, future of runway pricing, increased airline competition in Canada, and more.

In this issue:

FAA Safety Review Team: Inconvenient Truths About U.S. Air Traffic Control  

Last month saw the release of the much-anticipated report of a high-level Safety Review Team, charged by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with assessing the adequacy of the agency’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO) and FAA’s safety regulation. Unlike many such reports, this one was carried out by highly-qualified aviation practitioners: former FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, former ATO chief David Grizzle, former National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Robert Sumwalt, former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, former Air Line Pilots Association Chief Executive Officer Tim Canoll, and former National Air Traffic Controllers Association Vice President Trish Gilbert. Being well-established in their careers, they had far less reason to soft-pedal their findings or refrain from making large-scale recommendations than other teams might have. Everyone concerned about the future of U.S. aviation should read this report.

One theme comes up again and again in the report: Due to serious funding limitations, the Air Traffic Organization all too often makes penny-wise/pound-foolish decisions, whether about a fully adequate air traffic controller workforce, implementing new technologies before they are obsolete, or failing to replace very old facilities with fewer modern ones.

Controller staffing gets considerable attention, and rightly so. As the Department of Transportation (DOT) Inspector General’s June 2023 report made clear, the ATO has far too few fully-certified air traffic controllers, especially in several critically important facilities dealing with congested airspace in New York and Florida. Besides being hard on controllers, the shortages lead to reduced airspace capacity in places where more, not less, capacity is imperative. Figure 3 in the report shows how the ratio of airspace operations to controllers decreased significantly between 2001 and 2019. The report dings FAA for not having a viable controller staffing model after all these years. The good news is that the ATO and NATCA have developed a better model, the “Collaborative Resource Workgroup” staffing model, but it has not yet been adopted by FAA. Current FAA requests to Congress are still based on the flawed model, which the report points out would generate a net increase of fewer than 200 controllers by 2032.

The report devotes several pages to explaining how FAA ended up with today’s understaffed facilities. Among the factors were the 2013 budget sequestration and the 16-day government shutdown, and the 35-day partial government shutdown in 2018-19, both of which led to the closure of the FAA Training Academy. The COVID-19 pandemic led to another four-month academy shutdown in 2020 and eight months of suspended training at ATO facilities. The report rightly identifies the FAA academy as “a bottleneck that limits the ATO’s ability to supply a sufficient pool of candidates,” as well as a 30% failure rate of academy students. Among other recommendations, the report calls for using the Air Traffic Skills Assessment to better screen candidates, and for increased hiring of graduates of Collegiate Training Institute colleges.

Other major topics are facilities, equipment, and technology. The report states that “federal budget processes and constraints have led to inadequate, inconsistent reinvestment in legacy systems, and new systems have failed to deliver significant new capabilities/efficiencies or replace older systems.” Because of this, “FAA has not gained significant efficiencies from innovation and continues to utilize facilities and equipment far beyond their planned service life…which injects risk into the system.”

The report goes on to list case after case of aging technology, with many systems so old that spare parts are no longer available, including ASDE-X, several categories of radar, and instrument landing systems.

And “the obsolescence of FAA’s critical operational facilities…is even more extreme.” For example, en-route center buildings are 56-to-64 years old, “with no plan or budget to replace any of them.” TRACONs average 36 years old, with some as old as 60 years old —and no replacement plans. There is also a $5.3 billion backlog of facility components past their service lives at more than 12,500 equipment-only installations and 500 staffed air traffic control facilities.

Even the much-vaunted NextGen program comes in for criticism. While most of its projects have been implemented, putting available facilities and equipment funding into NextGen projects instead of sustainment made the challenge of aging equipment even worse. Moreover, given that each new system, such as Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System, STARS, and En Route Automation Modernization, ERAM, had to be rolled out over a decade or more led to, for example, “ERAM contain[ing] 10-year-old technology when it was fully implemented, requiring re-baselining twice during rollout and necessitated a ‘tech refresh’ within five years of implementation.”

Yet another problem is political directives to keep older systems in operation:

“FAA has not been able to capitalize significantly on the potential of these technologies because politically powerful users have not obtained the equipment or modified their operations to enable them to stop relying on legacy navigation systems. FAA has consistently been prohibited from restricting the airspace, or even parts of it, to users equipped to utilize the FAA’s most efficient technologies.”
In other countries, the sensible policy is Best-Equipped/Best-Served.    

Summing up this section, the report cites four ongoing problems that explain the failure of new technology replacement and equipment obsolescence:

  • Inadequate and unpredictable funding;
  • User resistance to shutting off old technology and consolidating facilities;
  • Government processes that discourage iterative modernization; and,
  • Inflexible acquisition culture.

The report’s section on funding explains the components of the FAA budget and notes both the growing share devoted to operations (primarily personnel costs) and the 15-year stagnation in capital spending (Facilities and Equipment). It also mentions the current plan to replace 30 small airport air traffic control towers with new brick-and-mortar towers, not noting FAA’s failure to embrace remote/digital towers. This section also emphasizes that FAA currently has no plans to add user taxes for the growing array of new airspace operators, including UAS operators, very-high-altitude operators, and space launch and recovery.

The one section where I think the report falls short is what it calls, “Process Integrity,” specifically regarding the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) policy that calls for organizational separation between the government aviation safety regulator and the entity providing air traffic control. After the ATO’s creation early this century, FAA attempted to comply with this international policy by creating a new air traffic control regulator, the Air Traffic Safety Oversight Service (AOV). It reports to the associate administrator for aviation safety (AVS), who reports to the FAA administrator. But so does the chief operating officer of the ATO. That is not arm’s-length separation between regulator and operator, as exists today in most countries. Such separation exists between AVS and airlines, pilots and mechanics, airports, aircraft and powerplant producers, etc. It should also exist for the Air Traffic Organization.

» return to top

Fixing the Air Traffic Control System’s Problems

The FAA Safety Review Team report discussed above is path-breaking in explaining how dysfunctional America’s air navigation service provider really is. The team’s very experienced members did the best they could in making recommendations that do not question the fundamental flaws of the Air Traffic Organization as authorized and funded by Congress.

One built-in flaw is the lack of arm’s-length safety regulation, which builds in a conflict of interest in which the same entity both operates the air traffic system and serves as its regulator. Hardly any other countries do this anymore, with Ireland one of the most recent to shift to arm’s-length separation.

Many of the other recommendations amount to ‘appropriate more money,’ both for a larger air traffic controller workforce and to fund the replacement of aging facilities and equipment. There are only two sources for what would have to be a major, ongoing increase in the Air Traffic Organization’s budget: increase the array of aviation user taxes or significantly increase general-fund support. Neither appears to be very likely.

Much larger dependence on general fund support is not sustainable, given the federal budget having borrowed unprecedented amounts over the past decade, leading to downgrades of federal bond ratings and a huge projected increase in annual interest payments on the burgeoning peacetime national debt.

The problem with current aviation taxes is that they are taxes, not true user fees. Because they are taxes, Congress—not the Federal Aviation Administration—is in charge, and uses its oversight authority to micromanage aspects of aviation policy, such as forbidding the retirement of aging and obsolete equipment and the needed consolidation of aging ATO facilities. And aviation user taxes get suspended during government shutdowns, leading to revenue shortfalls that are not made up after the shutdown.

Especially when it comes to replacing aging facilities (such as en-route centers and TRACONs), what the ATO needs is the ability to issue revenue bonds, backed by an ongoing stream of user-fee revenue. Imagine a federal electric utility such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, which, instead of sending out electric bills, was funded by electricity user taxes collected by the Internal Revenue Service and allocated by Congress. It’s hard to imagine how such an electric utility could function well. Nearly all government-owned utilities—electric, gas, water, etc.—charge customers directly for the services they receive. Assuming they are well-managed, they can issue long-term revenue bonds to pay for large-scale capital improvements. That would address the Air Traffic Organization’s need to replace and consolidate its aging facilities. Being able to long-term finance large capital projects like ERAM and STARS could mean rolling them out on a much shorter schedule, addressing the technology-obsolescence problem the Safety Review Team discussed.

Arm’s-length safety regulation, true user fees, and revenue-bonding authority are features of 21st-century air navigation service providers such as Airservices Australia, Germany’s DFS, NATS in the United Kingdom, and Nav Canada. This need not mean privatization, as the House bill in 2018 called for (albeit as a non-profit, stakeholder-governed corporation). It could be a government utility, analogous to the Tennessee Valley Authority. Those three features were key elements of the Clinton administration’s U.S. Air Traffic Services plan, conceived by Vice President Al Gore’s National Performance Review (inspired by Airways Corporation of New Zealand) and fleshed out in detail by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s two-volume Air Traffic Control Corporation Study (May 1994).              

No steps in this direction are evident in either the House or the Senate FAA reauthorization bills right now. But neither are any of the many recommendations made by the Safety Review Team. This subject is too important to leave aside for the likely five-year duration of the impending FAA reauthorization.

P.S. Kudos to new FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker who announced several immediate changes regarding air traffic controller recruitment and training. Putting new emphasis on the Collegiate Training Initiative program, he said CTI graduates would no longer have to attend the academy after they graduate from the CTI program; instead, they can begin on-the-job training at an ATO facility after passing their skills and medical exams. FAA will also keep a year-round hiring track open for experienced controllers from the military and private industry.

» return to top

Airport Slot Reform or Runway Pricing?

Back in June, the International Air Transport Association’s 152nd Slot Conference was held in Dublin, Ireland. IATA leadership worked to get airline trade associations from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean on board with the idea that IATA’s self-styled “Worldwide Airport Slot Guidelines” (WWASG) are the key to harmonized global air travel. By contrast, Airport Council International sees many anti-competitive aspects to those guidelines and seeks serious discussions about reforms (see Quotable Quotes in this issue).

With this as background, the U.K.’s Department for Transportation has announced a consultation on slot reforms, aiming to bring about more airline competition. Announced in early December, the consultation is to wrap up (far too soon) on Feb. 9. The Aviation Daily article on Dec. 5 suggested that the effort will consider possible reforms such as changing the use-it-or-lose-it rule from 80/20 to 90/10, ending slot leasing by airlines, and creating a public slot register with a mandatory trading platform. The U.K. can do this thanks to Brexit, which exempted it from the European Union’s version of IATA’s WWASG.

A far more sweeping reform would be to abolish airport slots and instead allocate scarce capacity via variable runway pricing (for both landings and takeoffs). Many economists favor runway pricing as a more market-driven approach to addressing scarce runway capacity, but few have worked out practical details. The model I like best was developed in an FAA-sponsored project in 2004-05 led by economists from George Mason University and the University of Maryland, with inputs from researchers at the University of California-Berkeley, Harvard, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with modeling assistance by GRA, Inc.

The team developed a “strategic game” approach to a pricing system. They recruited airline schedulers and airport management people to take part in the games, which used New York LaGuardia Airport (LGA) for the case study. The basic idea was that well in advance of a summer or winter season, the airport would announce a pricing schedule based on projected demand for each hour of the day, for both take-offs and landings (both of which, of course, are subject to congestion). In the first round, the airlines would announce their proposed schedules and the computer model would estimate the resulting congestion. This would lead to a revised set of prices, and the airlines would review and revise their proposed schedules. The game consisted of three rounds, by which point the revised prices and schedules led to a low-congestion outcome.

Under the pricing model, the airlines chose schedules that led to a larger average aircraft size (up-gauging). Some historically heavy users of LaGuardia reduced their operations somewhat, while others with smaller historical use increased their use to some degree. Among the results was a nine percent increase in daily passengers, achieved with significantly less congestion. In a real-world implementation of this approach, the exercise could be carried out semiannually or quarterly, depending on airline needs. A Reason Foundation policy brief describing this project in more detail, and with citations to more detailed reports is here.

Were the U.K. Department for Transport to consider this pricing approach for congested airports such as London Heathrow Airport and London Gatwick Airport, what would the advantages be over reformed slot auctions?

  • Reduced congestion as soon as implemented, rather than in small amounts due to incremental slot changes.
  • Decisions would be made by market participants, rather than via central planning.
  • Potentially increased passenger throughput via airline up-gauging.
  • It would give new-entrant airlines an opportunity to serve an airport they are now excluded from.
  • It would be consistent with relevant ICAO airport charging principles, as long as the revenues are used to support airport costs.
  • Also consistent with the 2007 US-EU open skies agreement.

This is a much larger change than anything that could come out of a two-month consultation, but perhaps the consultation will recommend a serious research project on runway pricing as a longer-term approach for congested United Kingdom airports.

» return to top

More Airline Competition in Canada

With all the hand-wringing by the U.S. Department of Justice over the proposed Alaska-Hawaiian joint venture, complaints that the big four U.S. airlines own 75% of the market can be contrasted with Canada, where only two major carriers compete. Air Canada and WestJet, together have 59% of the Canadian market. But more competition is on the way up north, thanks to ambitious expansion plans by Porter Airlines.

Porter began by connecting Toronto with nearby Canadian and U.S. destinations, operating from the Billy Bishop lakefront airport in downtown Toronto and flying Dash-8 turboprop airliners. But with the advent of much longer-range Embraer E195-E2 jets, Porter embarked on a significant route expansion in 2021. Due to the E195’s larger size, it will serve Toronto via the major Toronto Pearson Airport. And thanks to the plane’s transcontinental range, it will allow Porter to develop a “continental” route network, including western Canada, U.S. destinations, and points in the Caribbean and Mexico.

Late in 2023, Porter announced a 10-year joint venture with Air Transat, which has 5% of Canada’s market, about the same as Porter. Air Transat has larger planes, including Airbus A321s and wide-body A330-200s. This will give Porter, via Transat, access to trans-Atlantic routes. As this article was being written, Porter also announced an interline agreement with Alaska Airlines, allowing customers of both airlines to book combined Alaska-Porter itineraries.

In yet another expansion move, Porter has embarked on a project to develop passenger service at Montreal Saint-Hubert Airport (YHU), which is currently general aviation only. The project will add a nine-gate passenger terminal, which began construction in Aug. 2023, with completion scheduled for the second quarter of 2025. The terminal is a joint venture of Porter and Macquarie Asset Management, which has projects at airports in the United Kingdom, South America, and Australia. Montréal Saint-Hubert Airport CEO Yanic Roy told Airport Business (Sept./Oct. 2023) that the local community supports the new terminal and the prospect of significant airline service. Montréal Saint-Hubert has three runways and is less than 10 kilometers from downtown Montreal.

Like the United States, Canada has no economic regulation of airline service. So competition is building up for incumbents Air Canada and WestJet.

» return to top

Managing Advanced Air Mobility Infrastructure Risks
By Marc Scribner

Last month’s issue of this newsletter discussed a market survey that shed light on the substantial amount of uncertainty facing the advanced air mobility (AAM) industry. One area of concern is infrastructure. AAM electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) air taxi service will require a network of vertiports to deliver promised passenger and cargo transportation benefits.

Given that startups proposing short-hop AAM air taxi services are aiming to charge passengers roughly $3 per seat mile, containing costs will be paramount to the sustainability of their business models. Over-sized, over-engineered vertiports are incompatible with the success of AAM, and several companies are working to minimize this risk. However, vertiport laws proliferating at the state level may limit cost containment strategies and threaten the viability of the AAM industry.

In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to formally establish AAM vertiport design standards through an advisory circular (AC). FAA does not expect to release a performance-based vertiport AC until late 2024 or early 2025. In the interim, vertiport developers are encouraged to follow the guidelines contained in Engineering Brief No. 105, which allow for a significant amount of flexibility in design.

While some industry players have proposed large vertiports to support multiple simultaneous eVTOL operations, these can easily cost more than $10 million and thus are too expensive to support an AAM industry that aims to charge passengers $3 per seat mile at the anticipated initial low operating tempos. The good news is FAA’s Engineering Brief No. 105 is straightforward on recommended vertiport geometry: the diameter of the touch down and liftoff area (TLOF) should be the smallest circle fully enclosing the eVTOL aircraft, the final approach and takeoff area (FATO) should be double the TLOF diameter, with the TLOF centered in the FATO, and the surrounding safety area should be three times the TLOF diameter.

With these basic geometric relationships in mind, several vertiport designers are pursuing modular platforms that can be mass produced cheaply and combined to create various shapes and configurations. Aviation Week’s Ben Goldstein highlighted three modular vertiport companies in a recent issue (“A Practical Option,” Oct. 16-29).

Sweden’s Kookiejar has developed 4 sq m modules that allow for a wide range of customization; its “underlying philosophy is to build out a large, distributed network of small and affordable droneports and vertiports rather than concentrate operations at large, complex facilities that require a good deal of upfront investment.” Australia’s Skyportz is taking a similar approach, according to Goldstein, with its “vertiport-in-a-box” concept. It involves modules 3 to 10 meters long which the company estimates will cost between $105,000 and $262,000, not including charging infrastructure and ancillary structures.

Likewise, Wisconsin-based Volatus Infrastructure & Energy Solutions has developed 500, 1,000, and 2,000 sq ft modular vertiport designs that can be built “in a matter of days,” company co-founder Grant Fisk told Aviation Week. The company says it is in full compliance with the Engineering Brief No. 105 vertiport design recommendations and the Americans with Disabilities Act. At the moment, Volatus appears to be focused on developing vertiports at general aviation airports. In October, the company became the first developer to receive conditional approval for a public-use vertiport on Allen C. Perkinson Blackstone Army Airfield, a dual-use military airport in southeastern Virginia.

Volatus’ Blackstone vertiport is being funded by the nonprofit arm of the Commonwealth of Virginia Innovation Partnership Authority as a research project, so insights into commercial AAM operations are likely to be limited. Beyond initial construction, gaining an understanding of commercial vertiport best practices will require financing and sustained operations experience. And like modular approaches to construction, vertiport financing and operations will require maximum flexibility to contain costs. Unfortunately, legislation being shopped in state legislatures across the country would unduly limit the private sector’s vertiport construction, financing, and operating options.

The bill, known as the Open Access to Vertiports Act, was first enacted by West Virginia in March 2022. As we explained in the June 2022 edition of this newsletter, the bill could “foreclose promising procurement methods and business models for vertiports before AAM vehicles take flight.” This legislation is being advanced by a single AAM developer, Hyundai Motor Group subsidiary Supernal, and appears designed to create legal ambiguity to delay its more advanced competitors from moving forward with vertiport projects. Since West Virginia, Supernal has succeeded in convincing lawmakers in Oregon and Utah to pass versions of its bill.

The legislation claims to be designed to “avoid any vertiport monopolization or discrimination,” but it uses vague language that would appear to prohibit public-private partnerships (P3) between local government landowners and public-use vertiport developers. P3s are the most promising procurement method for public-use vertiports due to their ability to manage construction, financing, and operating risks.

Supernal’s central claim—that its bill is necessary to “avoid any vertiport monopolization or discrimination”—makes little sense in the context of federal aviation law. The operative legislative text requires that a local government “shall not exercise its zoning and land use authority to grant or permit an exclusive right to one or more vertiport owners or operators and shall use such authority to promote reasonable access to advanced air mobility operators at public-use vertiports within the jurisdiction of the subdivision.”

While the bill fails to define “public use,” by definition, a public-use aviation facility “means available for use by the general public without a requirement for prior approval of the owner or operator” (14 C.F.R. § 157.2). This is in contrast to private use, or “prior permission required,” aviation facilities. So, if the concern is that first-moving vertiport developers would exclude future competing AAM providers, a “public use” designation already precludes them from doing so.

Likewise, “exclusive right” is not defined, and it would appear to severely limit P3 procurements. For instance, it would presumably prohibit a municipal government with an underutilized parking facility from entering into a concession agreement with a private developer to build, finance, and operate a public-use vertiport on top. In other words, even if the P3 vertiport is expressly open for any AAM operator and is fully built, financed, and operated by the private sector, leasing public real estate for vertiport development purposes would appear to be forbidden.

Rather than promoting vertiport competition, Supernal’s legislation would prevent the transfer of risk from the public sector and thereby force state and local governments to build, fund, and operate public-use vertiports or face litigation risk. The likely result in many cases would be government bodies choosing not to approve any public-use vertiports. The bill is not only harmful to the nascent AAM industry, but it also puts taxpayers at risk of funding projects that would otherwise have been financed by the private sector.

For these reasons, Supernal’s bill has been strongly opposed by more than a dozen of its competitors. Instead, they have coalesced around pro-competitive and pro-innovation state vertirport legislation under the auspices of AAM Prepared, a new national education campaign from the Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). The Advanced Air Mobility Infrastructure Act would preempt local government on AAM regulation more broadly, rather than denying them a particular vertiport procurement method. State lawmakers would be wise to consider it.

» return to top

News Notes

Ferrovial Selling Its 25% Stake in London Heathrow Airport
Infrastructure Investor Ardian and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund have announced a $3 billion deal for Ferrovial’s 25% ownership of London Heathrow (LHR), subject to regulatory approval. Several other Heathrow Aiport shareholders (including Qatar Investment Authority, CDPQ, GIC, Australian Retirement Trust, China Investment Corporation, and Universities Superannuation Scheme) have “tag-along” rights that could be exercised in connection with the 25% divestiture. Infralogic reported (Nov. 29) that at least CDPQ and GIC are interested in selling their stakes.

Congress Members Protest Housing Immigrants at Airports
House Republican leaders last month sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, signed by more than 65 of their colleagues, objecting to a proposal from the Department of Homeland Security to house 60,000 migrants at four public airports in New York and New Jersey, as has already been done at Chicago O’Hare. The Associated Press reports most of the immigrants in Chicago were sent there by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. Former FAA Chief Counsel Sandy Murdock, in the Nov. 14 issue of JDA Journal, argued that any such plan must be assessed under FAA’s existing Safety Risk Management (SRM) Order 8040.4B, which FAA apparently has not done.

London City Airport Remote Tower to Use 5.5º Descent Angle
The Embraer E-195-E2, recently certified by EASA, will be the largest aircraft using London City Airport. Due to the high buildings to the west of the airport, it must use a higher descent slope at London City Airport. The airport’s remote tower, located 80 miles away at the NATS Swanwick control center, provides for such approaches, and the E-195-E2 is certified for them. As a bonus for the airport, the new aircraft has a 60% smaller noise footprint on takeoff than current jets using the airport.

CLEAR Begins Enrolling TSA PreCheck Applicants
After lobbyist objections and a lengthy soft-launch trial period, CLEAR expects to get the Transportation Security Administration’s go-ahead to start processing applicants for TSA PreCheck by year-end. Legislation more than three years ago expanded the market for applicant processing to three companies: CLEAR, IDEMIA, and Telos. CLEAR will set up dedicated “pods” near checkpoints at the airports it serves.

Brazil Completes Seventh Round of Airport P3s
On Nov. 30, with AENA launching its management of the Altamira Airport in Para state, Brazil’s seventh round of airport concessions was concluded. The most recent round competitively awarded concessions for 15 airports to AENA Brasil, Noa Airports, and Pax Airports. During the 30-year terms of these public-private partnership concessions, the companies have agreed to invest $1.48 billion in improving them. As a result of the seven rounds of airport concessions, there are now 11 operators managing 59 airports in Brazil, handling 93% of all passenger traffic and 99% of air cargo traffic.

City to Sell Its Stake in Auckland International Airport
Backed by the support of 61% of city residents, the Auckland, NZ city council has decided to sell all its shares in Auckland International (AIAL), valued at $801 million. The proceeds, along with an expected several billion dollars from a 35-year P3 lease of the city’s port, will capitalize a new Auckland Future Fund to improve the city’s infrastructure.

Good News for eVTOL Startup Lilium
This has been a good quarter for German eVTOL pioneer Lilium. In November it received Design Organization Approval from the European Aviation Safety Agency. This means it can design and operate its electric VTOL aircraft globally. Unlike most such startups, Lilium is focused not on local air-taxi service but on relatively short-haul regional air service. In December, Lilium signed a memorandum of understanding with Lufthansa to explore the airline adding the Lilium Jet to its fleet, for routes up to about 95 miles. Lilium expects to get type certification for the Lilium Jet in 2026.

Putin Nationalizes St. Petersburg Airport
On Nov. 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin seized and moved the shares of foreign investors, including Fraport AG, into a new Russian company to manage Pulkovo Airport in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest airport. The Bloomberg report made no mention of compensation for the shares transferred, whose owners included Fraport, Qatar Investment Authority, and Russia’s VTN Bank. Each of the three held about 25% of the now-defunct concession.

FAA Proposes Rule for 25 Hours of Cockpit Voice Recording
In a policy change long called for by the National Transportation Safety Board, FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker proposed a rule requiring that new cockpit voice recorders have the capacity to record for 25 hours, rather than the current two hours. The revised rule is consistent with global (ICAO) and EU (EASA) regulations. National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy pointed out in March that all six of this year’s near-miss incidents had recorded-over voice recorders, hence providing no usable information on those serious incidents. Unfortunately, the order will apply only to voice recorders on new aircraft.

Incheon Airport Joins the Bidding for Manila Airport
South Korea’s Incheon International Airport Corporation has purchased bid documents for the long-term P3 modernization of Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, Philippines. Potential bidders now include Asia Airport Consortium, Cengiz, GMR Airports, Manila International Airport Consortium, San Miguel, and Spark 888. The deadline for submitting proposals is Dec. 27.
Proposed eVTOL for First Responders
Startup Jump Aero has unveiled the concept and business model for an eVTOL aimed at flying a paramedic to the scene of a rural emergency. The aircraft is aimed at rural areas that lack paramedic service. It is designed to transport a single paramedic up to 30 miles at a speed of 250 knots, one way. The company has a $1.8 million Air Force contract to partly fund a proof-of-concept prototype. Denmark’s Falck emergency services provider has an option to purchase the first JA1 aircraft. Jump Aero market research suggests that a large fraction of rural Americans would subscribe to the service at $2 per day. The planned payload of 325 pounds includes the paramedic and life-saving equipment, but does not have the capacity to evacuate the patient.

Saab Proposes Digital Contingency Towers
A few airports have invested in contingency towers that can take over at least a portion of the air traffic control workload if the actual tower is unable to function; London Heathrow is one, but like the others, it can handle only a fraction of the tower’s maximum workload. Remote/digital tower pioneer Saab is now offering an Integrated Digital Tower Suite to major airports, aiming to provide full backup capability in the event of a tower outage. The product was previewed at the recent Dubai Airshow.

Air New Zealand Considers Alia eCTOL
Beta Technologies announced an order from Air New Zealand for the conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) version of its Alia electric aircraft. The initial purchase is for one Alia, with an option for two more and purchase rights for 20 more. It will initially be used for cargo flights, to build experience operating the aircraft. The initial aircraft will serve NZ Post on selected routes to be announced next year. UPS has already placed orders, and the U.S. military is using a version of the aircraft.

United Joins German Rail Partnership
United Airlines has joined the Star Alliance partnership with German passenger rail operator Deutsche Bahn to offer rail connections between Frankfurt Airport and 25 German cities, plus Basel, Switzerland. Passengers from United’s U.S. hubs can purchase a combined air/rail ticket to those cities.

NPR Unveils ATC Details of Austin Near-Collision
Last month National Public Radio devoted 45 minutes to a very informative discussion of what went wrong last February when a FedEx cargo plane came very close to landing on top of a departing Southwest 737 beginning its takeoff roll. Explaining the air traffic control details in everyday language was Paul Rinaldi, retired head of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, ably assisted by Dorothy Robyn, a former infrastructure advisor in the Clinton Administration. You can listen to the WBUR On Point episode here. The last 15 minutes of the episode discuss policy changes that would help.

Excellent Assessment of U.S. Airline Competition
I highly recommend a new commentary by Dorothy Robyn, “US Airline Consolidation Has Not Harmed Competition or Consumers,” posted on the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation’s website.

» return to top

Quotable Quotes

“The concept of U-space is well under way in its deployment in Europe. This envisions a close link between the UTM [UAS Traffic Management] and ATM [Air Traffic Management] systems. Many air navigation service providers (ANSPs) are already establishing programs to support U-space, alongside or integrated with ATM systems. One reason for the difference [between Europe and the U.S.] is due to the type of funding models. Most European ANSPs get their funding by charging vehicle operators for the use of the airspace and, as a result, they have an interest in operating the UTM system to be able to charge vehicle operators. Think of the difference as a revenue opportunity (the European model) as opposed to a cost center (the U.S. model) given that FAA is funded through government taxes and fees.”
—Nazzareno “Kip” Spurio and Dr. Waseem Naqvi, “Advanced Air Mobility,” Air Traffic Management, Issue 2, 2022

“Portraying the [World Airport Slot Guidelines] as they currently stand as the unsung hero of the air transport system, as IATA currently does, is largely about protecting a status quo that benefits some but does little to ensure the integrity and competitiveness of our single European aviation market. Key issues for reform are rules and practices that end up preventing consumer choice and connectivity. These include the hoarding of airport slots, overbidding, slot leasing, secondary trading, abuse of new-entrant status, and double-dipping.”
——Olivier Jankovec, ACI Europe, in David Casey, “IATA, ACI Clash Over Airport Slot Rules,” Aviation Daily, June 19, 2023

“Our biggest concern is the Energy Taxation Directive, which taxes aviation fuels in the EU (not only fossil derivatives but also SAFs) leading to significant cost increases for EU airlines. . . . These costs will naturally be shifted to passengers and consequently decrease European connectivity, economic performance, and social inclusiveness. What is more, the revenues from these taxes are not earmarked for greening EU aviation but instead will simply dissolve in the national budgets of the member states. We think the EU funding and financing stream should go towards innovation and R&D in aviation to help us fund new breakthrough technologies to decarbonize aviation.”
—Mikolaj Wild, CEO of Solidarity Transport Hub Poland, “Interview Spotlight,” International Airport Review, Nov. 2023

» return to top