Aviation Policy News:  Superior Landing System, Supersonic Planes, and More
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Aviation Policy Newsletter

Aviation Policy News: Superior Landing System, Supersonic Planes, and More

Plus: Paying for air traffic control, progress on runway slots, and more.

In this issue:

SFO Is Implementing GBAS. Why Aren’t Other Airports?

After four years of study, San Francisco International Airport (SFO) has announced that it will implement Honeywell’s SmartPath ground-based augmentation system (GBAS) to manage approaches to its runways. GBAS adds ground-based GPS receivers at an airport to provide corrections to GPS signals, enabling very precise approaches and landings, far beyond what legacy instrument landing systems (ILS) provide. Whereas each ILS serves only a single runway end, a single GBAS can handle up to 48 separate approaches to all of an airport’s runways.

At SFO, GBAS will permit curved or offset approaches to keep approaching flights over water for a longer period of time, reducing noise in nearby communities. It also permits steeper glide slopes, also reducing community noise exposure. GBAS also has lower maintenance and inspection costs than ILS. With all these advantages, you would think GBAS would be an integral part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, program, to increase precision flying, reduce fuel consumption, and increase on-time performance. But you’d be wrong. San Francisco is only the third U.S. airport to install GBAS, after Houston Intercontinental (IAH) and Newark (EWR). 

What’s going on here?

First of all, unlike other elements of NextGen which are part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) budget, GBAS has been left out. Hence, any airport that wants to install it must cover the costs itself. That raises the obvious question of why. And thereby hangs a tale.

There are two different ways in which GPS signals can be augmented to be accurate enough to guide precision landings: ground-based and space-based. The original FAA programs for these were called LAAS (local area augmentation system) and WAAS (wide-area augmentation system). In the early days of LAAS, technical difficulties, highlighted by a 2003 Department of Transportation Inspector General report, led to the cancellation of that program in 2004. Honeywell’s people continued work on GBAS, and FAA eventually certified it in 2009.

By that point, however, FAA had already spent billions of dollars on WAAS, putting satellites in geostationary orbit to provide space-based correction signals that would be available to areas across the country—and particularly to smaller and general-aviation airports. Regional airlines, general aviation organizations, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), and avionics manufacturers all pushed hard for WAAS funding. A consultant friend of mine (ex-FAA and now retired from a major aerospace company) says that the WAAS people at FAA, in effect, “stacked the deck” against GBAS via over-specification, not properly assessing benefits, and not assessing true costs in their cost/benefit studies.

And that bias is still evident. Efforts are under way to get increased FAA funding (perhaps in a federal infrastructure bill) to pay for equipping regional airline jets with avionics needed to interface with WAAS (specifically for the vertical navigation [VNAV] capability). Full-size airliners mostly don’t use those smaller airports and have no need to be WAAS-equipped. And large airliners produced in recent years are equipped (or could easily be retrofitted) with GBAS-capable multimode receivers.

There is no good reason for FAA’s exclusion of GBAS from NextGen. It’s the logical successor to ILS at least for large and medium hub airports. It is used at a growing number of major airports around the world, due to its superior cost-effectiveness. Its exclusion by FAA is an ongoing blunder.

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Is There a Future for Commercial Supersonics?

On May 21, the largest and apparently most credible developer of a commercial supersonic aircraft—Aerion Supersonic—announced that it was ceasing operations (though it did not file for bankruptcy). The announcement led a number of aviation experts to opine that there is no plausible commercial future for this category of aircraft.

But two weeks later, United Airlines again stunned the aviation world by announcing a firm order for 15 supersonic airliners from competitor Boom Supersonic. Unlike Aerion, Boom actually has a prototype aircraft ready to begin flight trials toward the end of this year. Its production model has a planned 60-to-88 passengers, versus 10 for Aerion’s proposed business jet. And Boom’s Overture is to fly at Mach 1.7, compared with Aerion AS2’s Mach 1.4.

While Aerion had 10 firm orders and options for 20 more, Boom has United’s 15 firm orders, another 35 UA options, and options for 20 from Japan Airlines and 10 from Virgin Atlantic. Aerion had working arrangements, at one point or another, with Airbus, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing, but all came to naught. It also had a contract with GE Aviation to develop an engine model specifically for the AS2, but that agreement also fizzled out. Boom has an ongoing relationship with Rolls Royce for engine development.

There are numerous challenges that any commercially viable supersonic aircraft must address successfully. These include avoiding sonic booms while flying over land, meeting emerging sustainability requirements, and gaining certification from FAA and other safety agencies which have no current category into which an SST fits. Even if these are all resolved, there in the major question of economics. As aviation writer Dan Reed pointed out in his recent Forbes column, “breaking the profit barrier in such a plane is much, much harder than breaking the sound barrier.” Ultimately, Reed says, the question boils down to how much are the travel time savings worth to potential customers?

Aviation consultant Bob Mann points out that an airline like United might “cannibalize” some of its existing premium cabin business on routes where it offers supersonic service, especially if—as Boom claims—Overture’s ticket prices could be comparable to current business class fares. Yet the per-passenger ownership and operating cost of the supersonic plane will almost certainly be much higher than that of a 787 or A350. Another potential problem is scheduling. Many U.S. to Europe flights go to slot-controlled airports, and slot pairs that work for 7-8 hour flights will not work for much faster trips, Mann told Aviation Daily.

As with urban air mobility via eVTOLs, I remain excited by the prospect of long-haul supersonic commercial air service and would like to see it succeed. But I’m not betting that any of the remaining three startups can go the distance. And just for speculation’s sake, if getting to successful Mach 1.7 airliners takes a couple of decades, they may be obsolete by that point if SpaceX, Blue Origin, or another company succeeds in developing long-distance cargo and passenger suborbital rockets.

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Paying for Airports and Air Traffic Control

The COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted serious damage on airlines, which in some countries (including the United States) have received significant taxpayer bailouts. Airports have suffered significant losses (and received federal bailouts), but since their finances are far more conservative, most have pulled through and some have even continued large construction projects during the lull in air travel. Most affected of all have been air navigation service providers (ANSPs), which for the most part have received little or no government aid. Worse, the ANSPs had far less scope to furlough staff or shut down whole sectors (as some airports did with some of their terminals) because air traffic control needed to be maintained more or less everywhere as long as flying continued.

As is the case with highways and transit, the “after-times” will be somewhat different from the business-as-usual days before the COVID-19 pandemic. As I have written here previously, most analysts think business travel will not recover to the same extent as personal/leisure travel, due to the rise of virtual conferences and meetings. That will affect some airports more than others, and will also affect ANSPs due to somewhat reduced flight activity.

In most of the world, ANSPs receive their revenue directly from the operators of aircraft that use their services. Nearly all ANSPs, whether they are parts of a government transport agency or operate as corporations (government-owned, nonprofit, or partly investor-owned) receive their revenue (directly or indirectly) from weight-distance fees, as spelled out by the International Civil Aviation Organization The ANSPs in corporate form charge and receive the user fees directly, and use the revenue to fund their operations. The larger ones are also able to issue revenue bonds to finance large capital investment in facilities and equipment.

The United States remains an outlier from this model, points out Steve Van Beek, North America Director for consulting firm Steer. In a white paper issued last summer, “The Public to the Rescue, But for How Long?”, he reminds us that “other nations over the last three decades have removed their aviation service providers from public operation and control. . . . [They] have created various forms of commercial entities including Air Navigation Service Providers, handling their nation’s commercial and private air traffic. . . . These ANSPs operate on the principle of cost recovery, charging users for their services and investing in the capital and operating resources required to provide these services.”

By contrast, FAA programs—both air traffic control and capital funding for airports—are supported by the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, getting about 80% of its funding from aviation excise taxes and the balance from federal taxpayers in general. But last year, via the CARES Act, Congress suspended those user taxes through the end of 2020. Thus, for most of the year, what had been a hefty Trust Fund balance was significantly depleted. With those taxes being collected again only since January 2021, FAA does not have enough money to fully support its $15 billion budget.

Looking to the future, Van Beek sees three possible courses. One is simply to continue the pre-pandemic status quo, which would take several years to rebuild the Trust Fund. A second option would be to reform the public system, “attempting to apportion the costs of funding the system to future users of the system,” based on “a thorough examination of the fairness, adequacy, and economic effects of the AATF taxes and fees,” something that has not occurred in decades. The third option is to “change how services are provided, including a commercial ANSP and deregulated airports.” There could still be federal support for remote and rural community air services, as well as lifesaving and safety services.

Van Beek is a veteran of U.S DOT, ACI North America, and the FAA Management Advisory Council, so he speaks from considerable aviation background and knowledge. I think his third option is worth serious discussion.

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Bits of Progress on Airport Slots

In both Europe and the United States, there have been small tweaks in restrictive airport slot systems, letting in a bit more competition.

First, here in the United States, Spirit Airlines won 36 slots at United-dominated Newark Airport (EWR). The slots were given to Southwest Airlines as a condition of United’s merger with Continental back in 2010, with the aim of increasing competition at EWR. When Southwest left Newark for LaGuardia in 2019, Spirit asked for the slots but FAA decided to extinguish them. This was despite both the Port Authority and the Justice Department’s antitrust division supporting the transfer to Spirit. The airline appealed, and late last month the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, overruled the agency, saying “FAA’s decision was arbitrary and capricious” in ignoring competitive issues at EWR.

Second, in a somewhat comparable case in the United Kingdom, the Competition & Market Authority (CMA) reached a decision to open up slots at Heathrow (LHR) and/or Gatwick (LGW) to other airlines as a condition for approving a North Atlantic joint agreement among five Oneworld carriers. CMA decided that only limited competition would exist on routes between London and Boston, London and Dallas-Fort Worth, and London and Miami. Hence it requires Oneworld to give up enough slots for daily round-trip service on each of those routes for four IATA seasons (i.e., two calendar years) beginning in the summer 2022 season. Interested airlines have until July 1 to apply.

Third, there are two bits of good news about slots in the European Union. For the summer 2021 season, incumbent slot-holders can not use 50% of their slots without losing them, as long as the incumbents use their remaining slots at least 50% of the time. This opens up some summer service opportunities for low-cost carriers such as Ryanair and Wizz Air, but with no certainty about continuing any such services in the subsequent winter season. But beyond these minuscule openings, ACI Europe is now speaking out about the need to reform the slot system, to take into account changes in European aviation since the system’s beginning 30 years ago. Deregulation within the European Union and the rise of low-cost carriers have significantly changed aviation there, as has privatization of most of the state-owned airlines.

I can’t leave this subject without noting that the above tweaking of slots to allow a bit more competition is still an attempt at central planning, rather than leaving airport access to market forces. Even though incumbent airlines consider their current slots as owned assets, that is not true legally, either in Europe or the United States. But politically they might as well be assets, so any proposed system to buy and sell slots would be only an incremental reform, taking decades (and bankruptcies) before much real competition occurred at the most popular airports.

By contrast, ignoring slots and, instead, charging market prices for both take-offs and landings would affect all flights immediately. Simulation games with real airline schedulers and airport officials carried out by FAA and several universities in 2004-2005 showed that congestion pricing would work to reduce congestion at slot-controlled airports, in part by leading carriers to substitute larger aircraft for more frequent smaller aircraft. It did not lead to a legacy carrier dominating all service.

This is an approach that really needs to be tried.

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Single European Sky Still Far Off, But There Is Some Progress

The effort to create a unified air traffic management system across all of Europe has been under way for nearly two decades, but Europe still has twice as many control centers as the United States, despite serving a smaller amount of flight activity and a smaller geographic area. Since this ambitious effort began, not a single center has been shut down, and the unit costs of air traffic control remain well above those of the United States.

Various concepts for achieving greater efficiency without directly taking on national sovereignty have produced very limited results. Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs) among several adjoining countries have led to some streamlined routes, but very little cost saving. And European aviation groups are now vociferously protesting the idea that they—the fee-paying customers—after having air traffic control fees waived for a year or more—will now be asked to start making up the ANSPs’ accumulated losses starting in 2023.

The European Commission this spring proposed that Eurocontrol’s Network Manager be able to manage all the upper airspace in the sense of assigning flights to the most direct routes, rather than leaving airlines free to take longer zig-zag routes to avoid higher user fees. Current user fees are charged based on great-circle miles between origin and destination, regardless of airlines taking different routes in search of lower per-mile charges. Increased EU emphasis on reducing greenhouse gas emissions may become a reason to bring agreement on changing pricing policy and/or dynamically reconfiguring airspace to balance supply and demand. Either could be part of the Network Manager’s increased role.

Unfortunately, these proposals were significantly watered down by the European Council early this month. It rejected any changes in en-route charges as well as the EC’s enhanced role for the Eurocontrol Network Manager. Instead, it touted FABs as the best way forward. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced on June 8 that this watering down “will mean the inefficiencies in the air navigation network that result in 6-10% in avoidable carbon emissions will continue.” It also criticized the council’s “diminished role of the Network Manager.”

Amidst all this furor, there were a few modest signs pointing toward future change. First, Estonia and Finland announced plans this month to develop a joint air traffic service for the Gulf of Finland, which would operate from two existing centers, one in each country, but under a single management. This goes beyond what FABs have been able to accomplish. Second, Finland, Ireland, Malta, and Spain released a joint statement that implied going farther than the council’s plans, garnering praise from IATA.

Finally, I’m remiss in not previously reporting progress on simulated virtual air traffic management. An article in Aviation Today (March 31, 2021) reported on simulations carried out by the ANSPs of Germany, Poland, and the UK to validate the feasibility of using a virtual center to manage flights beyond country borders. Assisting the three ANSPs (DFS, PANSA, and NATS) were technology firms Frequentis and Indra. One simulation involved transferring control at night between centers and the other simulated transfer of control from a center experiencing a failure to a center in another country. The researchers acknowledged two real-world constraints on implementing virtual centers: sovereignty (and hence legal questions) and the lack of international licensing of controllers. Nevertheless, it’s good to see work going on to develop this promising concept.

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News Notes

Competitor for Space-Based ADS-B Announced
Spanish ANSP Enaire has teamed with Indra in creating a new company called Startical, whose aim is to develop a space-based system to provide both ADS-B surveillance and VHF communications between pilots and controllers. The plan would make use of a 200-satellite constellation in low-Earth orbit (LEO). Between now and 2023, the company will focus on technology development and regulatory and market aspects. Phase 2, from 2024 to 2027, envisions the launch of the satellites and the start of commercial services. Aviation Daily (June 2, 2021) reports that Startical has selected GomSpace to develop and launch three prototype nanosatellites for the project.

North Atlantic Tracks Nil?
Nav Canada and NATS have been experimenting with managing traffic across the North Atlantic without the usual Organized Track System (OTS) routes. Thanks to Aireon’s space-based ADS-B surveillance, airlines can now fly more-optimized routes each way, saving time and fuel. Aviation Week reported (May 17-30, 2021) that “in recent weeks, the two ANSPs have undertaken so-called nil-OTS days, on which airlines can submit their preferred flight tracks for approval. The two ANSPs next plan to work with 15 airlines to develop “table-top exercises” on removal of the OTS on a permanent basis.

Pentagon Looking into Suborbital Cargo Delivery
The Wall Street Journal reported that the Pentagon is considering the potential of quickly delivering military cargo to anywhere in the world via suborbital flights. The article was accompanied by a photo of a SpaceX Starship blasting off. That vehicle is currently the only rocket that can handle a payload of up to 100 tons, the same as a C-17 cargo plane. The project is called the Air Force Rocket Cargo Initiative and has $48 million in the agency’s latest budget request.

Joby Aviation Strikes Deal for Parking Garages
If urban air taxis achieve FAA certification, where will they land and take off in urban areas? One possibility is the roofs or top floors of urban parking structures. Hence the June 11 announcement of a partnership of urban air mobility startup Joby Aviation with parking technology company REEF Technology and its affiliated Neighborhood Property Group. Joby’s initial goal is to acquire rooftop vertiport sites in target metro areas Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and San Francisco.

Garmin Wins Collier Trophy
The National Aeronautic Association early this month announced that the winner of the coveted 2020 Robert J. Collier Trophy is avionics company Garmin. Specifically, the award honors the Garmin Autoland system, which enables a general aviation aircraft whose pilot is incapacitated to automatically locate the nearest available airport and guide the plane to a safe landing. Thus far, Autoland has been FAA-certified for the Piper M600, Daher TBM 940, and the Cirrus SF50 Vision Jet.

Clear Planning $100 Million IPO
Having survived the worst U.S. airline recession in history, airport security company Clear has filed paperwork for an initial public offering (IPO) aiming to raise $100 million to expand its services. It provides airport services at 38 locations and serves 26 sports and entertainment venues. It has enrolled the biometrics of 5.6 million people. Its latest offering is Clear Health Pass, a way to provide proof of health and vaccination status.

Space Data Integrator Goes Live This Month
At long last, FAA’s technology that tracks space launches and re-entries in real-time and provides that data to air traffic control facilities is scheduled to go live in June. An important goal is to minimize the size and duration of airspace that must be closed during such space operations. Those disruptions are occurring more frequently, as commercial space traffic increases. In the 2020 calendar year, FAA’s commercial space office (AST) licensed a record 39 launches, and in just the most recent six months there have been 37, reported Aviation Daily (June 2, 2021). Unfortunately, the related system—the aircraft hazard area (AHA) generator—is still in the prototype stage and has so far been used only for testing.

Idaho Airport Seeks a Remote Tower
Ever since 2018, board members of Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey, Idaho, have been following the progress of digital remote towers. In April 2021, they moved this item to the top of their agenda. The airport has a conventional tower but FAA in 2013 mandated that it be replaced for safety reasons at an estimated cost of $7.5 million. The board now plans to develop an RFP for a digital remote tower, hoping for FAA approval under a little-used congressional plan for FAA to foster such projects.

Eurocontrol Testing Reduced Contrails Plan
A known way to reduce or eliminate contrails produced by high-flying aircraft is to change their altitudes to ones where ice crystals are less likely to form. Eurocontrol’s MUAC manages airspace from 24,500 to 60,000 feet and in normal times handles over 5,000 flights a day. Using forecasted atmospheric data, MUAC is trying out small altitude adjustments (e.g., 2,000 ft. up or down) that aim to reduce or eliminate contrails. The project, with support from German aerospace research lab DLR, will continue through December.

U.S. Airport Drone Intrusion Projects Moving Forward
Both the Transportation Security Administration and FAA have efforts under way to deal with drones illegally intruding into restricted airport airspace. On May 6, TSA’s Acting Director appeared at Miami International Airport to announce the start of its project to detect, monitor, and track such drones, using radar, thermal imaging, and artificial intelligence. It will extend through December. FAA is getting ready to test drone detection and mitigation technologies at Atlantic City, Huntsville (AL), Rickenbacker (Columbus, OH), Seattle, and Syracuse airports. Overall, at least 10 technologies will be tested at one or more of these airports.

What Are the Main Challenges for Electric Airliner Propulsion?
Aviation Week’s Graham Warwick and Thierry Dubois devoted a full page in the magazine’s May 17-30, 2021, issue going over the many technological obstacles to affordable and effective electric (whether battery or hydrogen fuel cell) propulsion system for medium and large commercial airliners. It’s a formidable set of challenges, and the piece is well worth reading.

Error Regarding NATS Swanwick Center
In last month’s article about the new remote tower for London City Airport, I wrote that Swanwick is 100 miles north of that airport. Martin Rolfe of NATS quickly emailed to note that it is actually 100 miles to the south. I’m happy to set the record straight.

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Quotable Quotes

“The question in the case of UAM [urban air mobility] makers is whether the market can afford—and actually will pay more—for the time savings provided by low-flying and relatively slow UAM vehicles that skip over traffic-clogged highways. Will enough of highly paid executives’ time be saved by UAM vehicles to make low-level urban flying a significant cost saver and efficiency enhancer? And will that be true in a future that is likely to feature a lot more work-from-home arrangements than anyone foresaw 18 months ago before Covid-19 made tens of millions of people home-based workers? . . . If the answer to that is yes, then great; we’re headed toward an amazing future of affordable low-level intra-city transportation. But if the answer is no, or even just maybe, then most or even all of the nascent UAM developers could be headed for the same kind of stillbirth as Aerion’s Mach 1.4 AS2 supersonic passenger plane.”
—Dan Reed, “The Collapse of Aerion Supersonic Shows That Aviation Advances Must Be As Affordable As They Are Amazing,” Forbes.com, June 2, 2021

“We support a rethink of the [EU] slot rules and a revision of the regulation. Its 30th birthday is coming up, and when you see the amazing changes in the aviation market in that time, it’s clear that it is not designed for today’s market or tomorrow’s. That needs to be done in a methodical manner. First, let’s come out of these temporary measures and return to the status quo, while taking the time and effort to reform the regulation in a way which is prepared for the future.”
—Aidan Flanagan, ACI Europe, in Helen Massy-Beresford and Ben Goldstein, “Slot Shifts,” Aviation Week, May 3-16, 2021

“Delivery of ATM [air traffic management] is increasingly disconnected from the location of the service. That is not fantasy; it is real. Sydney Airport’s tower services are to be provided from Melbourne, a mere 900 kilometers away. Why this should stop at national borders in a world of satellites and data is impossible to justify, except by reference to a 1944 treaty, long before satellites. Once the digitization starts to move into the area of controlling flights and movements around airports, it could also work outwards and backwards into distribution and back-office functions, and further and deeper integration between the airport and airline on customer service and customer handling as well.”
—Andrew Charlton, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being an Airport,” Aviation Intelligence Reporter, June 2021

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