The problem with US air traffic control isn’t technology, it’s money

Plans to privatize US air traffic control ATC have excited some and upset others. Is the US ATC system really broken and can privatizing fix it?

In this series, Tnooz delves into the questions surrounding US ATC privatization to learn why anyone would take a stand against a proposal to make the airspace better.

The current proposal would be to take control over air traffic management away from the Federal Aviation Administration and hand it to a private non-profit company to manage.

On the surface, it may sound like a good plan to take something as massive as controlling the thousands of planes overflying the United States and hand-over their burden to a private organization which will not have the same bureaucratic constraints.

We tend to associate bureaucracy with inflated costs and slow progress, so the argument that ATC would run more efficiently if it were “run as a business” sounds good on the surface.

But that view reflects a superficial understanding of how the airline industry works. It ignores the technology that is already in place but not being used, and it is blind to complications of current and future demand for the airspace over the next twenty years.

There are many, who understand these details, who believe that privatizing US ATC is a mistake. In effect, they argue, it is turning over control of vital infrastructure to a private company which would not have any legal obligation to control the skies with the same due diligence as a federal agency.

What is more, without completing the basic requirements still lagging in modernization of ATC, any changes made to administration are merely passing on the “hot potato” to a new set of players who would face greater challenges in getting things done?

As Phil Derner Jr., airline flight dispatcher and founder of airline operations insights publication, NYC Aviation, explains:

“I don’t see privatizing ATC as fixing anything. It would delay a lot. A lot of NextGen ATC is already implemented. The FAA has implemented a large portion.

“The slow down is that the airlines need to put the ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast) equipment on their planes.

“That’s the equipment they have to have installed to allow them to utilize NextGen ATC technology. JetBlue has the largest percentage of their fleet equipped with ADS-B—about 30 percent—and they are the leaders in the US.”

Air traffic control is a three part play of technological coordination. First, the airspace must be managed and tracked using upgraded NextGen technology. The FAA began the NextGen program  in 2003 in compliance with the National Airspace System (NAS) modernization act.

The FAA’s role was to identify the technology upgrades required, and implement them in collaboration with the airline industry.

It set up a system for better communications between flights and ATC control towers, including automated interfaces to optimize flight routes, set up new technology for traffic flow decision making, upgraded technology for improved weather visualization and for improved capacity management.

But the FAA is only one of three stakeholders in the process.

Airports and airlines have to upgrade their systems so that the system as a whole works. One critical driver of better flight coordination is the ADS-B Derner refers to.

It moves beyond airplane to tower radio communications and radar and incorporates GPS satellite for more accurate flight tracking.

More accurate flight tracking would allow the ATC infrastructure to manage more aircraft over a narrower corridor, allowing for more frequent departures and landings, and optimized flight paths to reduce fuel burn. Under the NextGen program, airlines are required to have upgraded their planes to support ADS-B communications by January 1, 2020.

With less than three years to go, airlines are, as Derner points out, nowhere near done.

Airline industry analyst, Robert Mann, who hasworked in executive roles at American Airlines, Pan Am, TWA and Tower Air in his career, advised the Airline Pilots Association Board of Directors, and holds Bachelors and Masters degrees from MIT in Transportation/Management and Aeronautics, also points to airline ADS-B adoption as a critical hurdle for US ATC reform.

He tells us:

“They are lagging behind. In that respect, the 20% of airplanes that are long-haul wide-bodies have good ADS-B. The 80% that are narrow body aircraft don’t. It’s not really altogether an FAA problem.”

There is an additional wrinkle, and that is the method airlines use for flight coordination.

While there is “off the shelf” software available for flight schedule optimization, which would help them give the FAA’s ATC system more predictable demand for airspace in each hub at any one time. Instead, they rely on the ATC to adjust in real time for the variables in the “moving parts’.

“[Airlines’] role is both to time and sequence their flights to best meet their own airline business rules. That might mean accelerating and international flight that has tight connections.

“It might be landing a plane that’s going to arrive to no gate available. It might be accelerating a flight hat tis on the chronic delay list, which they want to get off that list.

“There may be a whole bunch of other airline based rules that they are trying to satisfy by mathematical optimization. That kind of service has been commercially available off-the-shelf for 20 years.”

Mann believes that airlines have made a conscious decision to leave the burden on the FAA to sort that out, and the FAA does try.

“Whatever the FAA does [in managing the airspace], is driven by airline demand. The FAA has to do whatever any other service provider would do . They have to put some of that demand into a buffer, as they handle whatever they can.

“Airlines deliver random rates of demand. When you try to arrive planes in a five minute band, you know that some of those are not going to be on time.

“The FAA can always be more comfortable with a higher rate (of air traffic) but only if airlines stop delivering random demand and make it more deterministic. They can do that with..readily available tools, but they don’t.”

Derner suggests that even ATC optimization under NextGen wouldn’t restrict airlines push to add traffic, in keeping with passenger demand.

While optimal flight coordination, supported also by NextGen flight tracking, might help support greater demand, it won’t necessarily eliminate delays for passengers.

   “New York City for example presents a very unique challenge. NextGen has been in New York for quite some time, but as you increase capacity it wont relieve pressure. It only makes more room for more flights. If JFK can receive 48 planes an hour, then it might increase to 56 planes per hour. All that means is that you add capacity. These airports are always going to operate at capacity. The demand is there.”

Furthermore, even if a private non-profit could pick up the works and somehow manage to persuade airlines to meet the ADS-B adoption deadline and implement more efficient flight coordination technology, leaving the functions of an optimized, semi-automated airspace in the hands of a private company may have negative knock-on effects on the public, Derner suggests.

That’s because optimized flight paths, left to computers to calculate with no human intervention to rationalize, might put more planes flying over areas which currently experience limited air traffic. Derner says:

“While NextGen ATC may be more optimal for more airports, it could become very noisy for residents.

“If we move to privatization, they wont need to listen to noise complaints and operate the departure at will. The accountability would change, with privatization.”

For those who might say that the FAA could have done a speedier job of implementing its part of NextGen, or could do a better job of pushing initiatives forward, Mann points to one last critical factor which negatively impacts how well the FAA can do its job.

“Congress needs to stop holding the FAA hostage to annual reauthorization bills. They don’t know whether, from month to month, they’ll have the budget to solve problems.”

There are other objections to ATC privatization, from the General Aviation and Business Aviation Communities and pilots associations. We’ll look at those complaints next.

Related reading:

Weathering the storm – how the FAA keeps US airspace on track in a crisis

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