Modernising the U.S. ATC system

Posted: 6 February 2007 | Basil J. Barimo, Vice President Operations and Safety, Air Transport Association of America | No comments yet

If the U.S. air traffic control (ATC) system is not fundamentally reformed to handle the projected rapid growth in the number of aircraft using the services of the system, the U.S. aviation industry and all of its stakeholders, including our nation’s airports, will face an unparalleled confluence of challenges with serious negative consequences. There is clearly a lot at stake.

If the U.S. air traffic control (ATC) system is not fundamentally reformed to handle the projected rapid growth in the number of aircraft using the services of the system, the U.S. aviation industry and all of its stakeholders, including our nation’s airports, will face an unparalleled confluence of challenges with serious negative consequences. There is clearly a lot at stake.

The U.S. aviation industry is a vital piece of the American economy, driving $1.2 trillion dollars in domestic output and 11.4 million jobs. Reform must begin now.

Given the fact that hundreds of new Very Light Jets (VLJs) will soon be navigating our already constrained airspace, this dramatic increase in traffic could portend a calamitous gridlocked future. If we take smart steps, however, we can ensure that the air traffic control (ATC) system in the U.S. is prepared to handle the growth that keeps our planes, passengers and cargo moving smoothly around the world.

The need for ATC reform is all too real. Our air traffic management infrastructure is based on World War II-era technology, and many of our procedures have not changed significantly since the 1950s. Pilots still use analog radios to speak with controllers and controllers still use old-fashioned conventional radar facilities to determine the approximate location of airplanes. In today’s world of stealth fighters and composite airliners, aircraft are forced to inefficiently navigate across the country by zig-zagging from ground beacon to ground beacon in an indirect path that wastes time and fuel while generating excess emissions. These outdated methods – voice communication, radar surveillance and navigation over fixed points on the ground – essentially create “one-lane roads” in the sky.

\Without reform, unfortunately, to maintain our excellent safety record, we will need to further slow the existing system so that people can monitor increased traffic. The fact is, flight delays are already increasing, lack of capacity has forced flight caps at certain airports, and costs to operate and maintain antiquated technology are out of control. Today, we spend approximately $2 billion annually just to maintain the existing infrastructure. In addition, the airspace above our major metropolitan areas is congested and quickly nearing saturation. Today’s solution, which involves dividing airspace into smaller sectors, is no longer viable – controllers are unable to hand off aircraft from sector to sector in a timely manner.

To make matters worse, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predicts that demand for ATC services will rise 36 per cent, from 45,000 operations per day today to more than 61,400 by 2016. This will push the ATC system beyond its breaking point. Frighteningly, that prediction does not fully consider the potential for thousands of additional VLJ flights. Experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have concluded that half of these operations will begin or end in the top 16 major metropolitan markets in the U.S., further stressing the system.
So what does this mean to airports that handle the hundreds of millions of passengers that take off and depart each day?

If we do not increase capacity through modernisation, growth will be stymied. Reduced growth means fewer people passing through airports, fewer people using airport concessions and other services, and a general weakening of national and international economic vitality.

ATC system solution

In 2003, the U.S. Congress tasked FAA with defining precisely what could be done to deal with the impending crisis. In response, FAA developed an integrated plan called the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NGATS). NGATS is described as a “transformational” process, designed to transform the entire framework of aviation. NGATS is ambitious, as it should be, and seeks to look holistically at the aviation industry of the future.

At this point, recognising that it is impractical to fix the ATC system problem quickly, there are steps that can be taken now to ensure better operations in the future. First, aviation needs to take advantage of several existing technologies using a “building block” approach yielding benefits today, while establishing future capabilities. Second, FAA’s funding must be on stable ground to allow it to plan and pay for future ATC system improvements.

Build a system that enables growth

It is imperative to use a “building block” approach for airspace reform. A “big bang” approach might be conceptually appealing, but is impractical. Instead, we must develop and deploy modular technologies that yield immediate operational benefits while becoming the foundation for future advances. Demand cannot be constrained by capacity limitations. The system must expand ahead of projected growth to accommodate all users. By adopting some already available technologies, we will be able to stave off gridlock while also building the NGATS foundation.

If we can minimise reliance on ground-based equipment and switch to satellite and aircraft-to-aircraft technologies, the ATC system will offer dramatically more operational flexibility at a fraction of today’s cost. A key component of this new system is a technology called Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B). In addition to providing highly accurate position information, which will allow closer spacing, it enables real-time cockpit displays of weather and traffic, both on the ground and in the air. Air traffic controllers and others on the ground can access the same information, allowing them to manage traffic flows and optimise surface movements.

In addition to deploying ADS-B, an airborne information-sharing network must be created. The next generation of onboard communication, navigation and surveillance technologies will enable all aircraft to have total situational awareness, appreciably increasing safety. All aircraft could effectively be linked – think of an airborne Internet – to achieve this important enhancement. In order to spur the adoption of new technologies, an incentive system should be developed that rewards performance and efficiency. These incentives (operational, financial or otherwise) will encourage users to embrace new technologies.

Finally, we must learn from previous system design and implementation efforts. The transformation of the ATC system will establish capabilities that affect its users for decades. There are many lessons learned in design, construction and implementation from previous work in ATC system development. We need to learn from experience in order to develop a system that will be agile enough to adapt to passenger and shipper needs well into the 21st century.

Funding a new ATC

Ultimately, the ideas and initiatives designed to fix the ATC system are dependent on FAA’s ability to fund the needed changes. The Air Transport Association (ATA) of America supports a cost-based funding mechanism for the Airport and Airway Trust Fund (AATF). By linking costs and revenue, thereby providing a more stable source of revenue, FAA can plan a long-term effort, such as reforming the ATC system. Currently, the revenue from the 7.5 per cent ticket tax paid by passengers who fly on commercial airlines is not related to FAA costs in any way. By correlating revenue to costs, we can ensure that the funds exist to overhaul the U.S. ATC system and ensure continued investment in critical airport infrastructure projects. In addition, user fees will allocate costs fairly among those who drive the costs. Under the current system, airlines use approximately two-thirds of ATC system services, yet pay more than 90 per cent of the costs of the ATC system. In essence, commercial airlines are required to subsidise other users of the system.

Interestingly, the U.S. Congress originally intended for the AATF to be funded by a user-based financing system. When the funding system was designed, the airline industry was regulated with airfares set by the government in a way that related to FAA costs. Today, the airline industry is deregulated. Ticket prices have nothing to do with FAA costs, meaning that there is no link between use and costs, and no reason to link Trust Fund financing to the price of tickets.

The gap between revenue raised by the ticket tax and FAA costs has been greatly exacerbated by the explosive growth of the business aviation industry. When the current financing system was established in 1970, commercial airlines were the predominant users of the ATC system and the financing system relied almost exclusively on commercial airlines for funding. Since then, the number of business aircraft, which pay about 5.9 per cent of system costs, has increased from 26 per cent of the jet aircraft flying in 1970, to 68 per cent of the number of jets flying today. This added traffic is straining the system. By switching to a user-fee system, revenue will once again match FAA’s costs and provide the means to modernise the ATC system and fund airport improvement projects.

Immediate steps are possible

In addition, it is important to take advantage of existing means to ease the ATC system capacity issue and to place FAA funding on solid ground.

The first step toward increasing ATC capacity and efficiency is to leverage the navigation equipment already onboard aircraft. Many aircraft are equipped with advanced flight guidance and management systems, giving them the capability to fly very precise flight paths that are not dependent upon fixed airways. This shortens aircraft routings while increasing system capacity. We need to aggressively expand the use of this capability.

The ATC system must transition to a performance-based system and utilise a coordinate-based navigation system. Transitioning to Area Navigation (RNAV) and Required Navigation Performance (RNP) procedures for en route, terminal area and approach airspace will allow reduced separation standards and direct routings, increasing capacity and permitting shorter, more fuel-efficient flight paths. Advanced navigation systems can execute precision flight paths, allowing more airplanes to occupy a given volume of airspace.

We must embrace technologies that reduce the impact of weather. Today’s system works well during fair weather, but delays increase significantly during low visibility conditions. Airspace design and airplane/airport equipage should strive toward keeping arrival and departure rates constant, regardless of visibility.

Other important steps toward increasing capacity and efficiency require no technological upgrades. First, by segregating different types of aircraft, FAA can optimise traffic flow. Different aircraft types operate at different altitudes and speeds. Combining various types means that they must travel at the slower speed, reducing flows into an airport or on a route. Segregation could recapture capacity that is lost by restricting speeds. Second, capacity must be managed at the national level. Today’s system is a patchwork of individually managed sectors of airspace. Flow restrictions that make sense for a particular area may have a negative affect on overall system performance. Decision-makers must adopt a broader view.

Congress has until Sept. 30, 2007, to reauthorize the AATF, an opportunity that occurs only once every 10 years. This is an historic opportunity to lay the groundwork for lasting improvements to the U.S. ATC system and to strengthen our economy. The right decisions must be made and made soon. The stakes are high and failing to transform our ATC system will force users to fight for limited access to airspace and airports. As difficult as transformation will be, it is far easier than allocating a scarce public resource – like airspace – among users.

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