(Page 2 of 4)
In some cases the airports involved did not yet meet the FAA’s arbitrary criterion for the minimum amount of traffic needed to justify an ILS installation. In other cases, the criteria had been met, but FAA budget priorities meant the agency had not yet gotten around to installing an ILS. As of 1971 only 20 percent of the runways of this country's 530 airline airports had complete ILS systems, and only two-thirds of them even had control towers. An ILS costs several hundred thousand dollars. Until the airport/airways trust fund was set up in 1971, the FAA continually cried poor-mouth as its excuse for not installing more landing aids. Yet in 1968 Rep. Fletcher Thompson of Georgia pointed out that the FAA in a three-year period had spent $3 million on renting airplanes, over and above its own 100-plane fleet. That would have bought many an ILS. In 1971 the FAA’s plan to modernize and enlarge its private fleet called for spending $123.5 million—a sum that would have financed ILS installations at over half the remaining unprotected airports.
SKIMPING ON life saving landing aids while enlarging it’s private fleet is all too typical of the FAA’s priorities. The agency justifies its fleet primarily on the grounds that it is needed for continually checking the performance of the of the thousands of navigation aids (primarily VOR stations) across the country. Yet aviation experts point out that most such devices either work or don’t work—their performance characteristics change very little over time (unless some new terrain obstruction were to appear suddenly and and block the VOR signal pattern). Hence, their on-off status can be monitored remotely on the ground. The FAA’s monitoring flights consume huge amounts of fuel ($5.6 million worth in 1974), and in many cases interfere with traffic patterns, causing increased increased risk of collisions. But what bureaucracy could resist the prestige of having it’s own air force?
Today the FAA is installing a new generation of automation at its en route ATC centers. Called radar data processing (RDA), the new system utilizes narrow band radars interfaced with a sophisticated computer system. The computer generates a comprehensive set of symbols to represent each aircraft on the controller’s scope—flight number, altitude, transponder code, etc. The system concept is a good one. Unfortunately, RDP has been put into operation at many centers without adequate testing and debugging—and without backup computers. Controllers’ scopes go blank without warning. Symbol generators quit working. “I wish I had a dollar for every time the radar has quit,” says controller Mike Rock. “I have seen radar fail in two or three sectors at one time. This means that approximately 100 planes are in danger of colliding.”During a one-month study period in 1974, 11 near-misses that resulted directly from problems with RDP were reported to the Aviation Safety Institute. “The problem for a mid air accident of major magnitude will increase unless the FAA takes positive action to correct problems and decelerate implementation of of...RDP,” stated ASI’s John Galipault in 1975. His view remains the same four years later.
Yet the system the PM is trying to perfect lags years behind what today’s technology permits. Much of the problem of congested airways is created by the old-style navigation system still in use. It consists of thousands of VHF omnidirectional radio transmitters (VOR stations) at known locations. Instruments on board the plane permit a pilot to fly on a “radial” from one VOR to another, thereby getting from City A to City B by Zigzagging from one VOR to the next. Mathematically, knowing the distance and angle from more than one VOR makes it possible to pick any course to fly—not just a radial path from one VOR to the next. What’s needed is an on-board computer to make the necessary calculations. This technique, known as area navigation (R-NAV), vastly expands the amount of airspace available to plans on a non interfering basis. Prototypes of R-NAV equipment have existed for more than 20 years, and operational systems have been available for over a decade. Yet the FAA’s ATC system—despite billions spent on automation—is still not equipped to handle large numbers of pilots setting their own courses, off the time-honoured VOR radials.
What have industry observers said of the FAA’s performance as manager of the ATC system? In 1970 Robert Hotz, respected editor of Aviation Week, summed up the FAA’s progress over the decade of the of the 1960s, finding that an automated ATC system “appears to be as far away as ever from its 1961 goals.”Why? For one thing, there is the “technical incompetence and slothful leadership of the FAA and its predecessor agencies” and “the swarms of veteran airways employees who came into the agency in the era of of lighted beacons and low-frequency ranges and have added little technical knowledgeability since then.” The FAA bureaucracy, said Hotz, “has frustrated the airlines, exasperated the Congress to the point where funding has been reluctant, virtually driven the avionics industry out of the market, and concentrated primarily on its self-serving preservation.”
An investigation that same year by the House Government Activities Subcommittee noted that the “FAA as an organization has more independent empires than medieval Europe. ... [it] lacks any feeling of urgency. The FAA simply does not move forward. All too often in the past, progress has been the result of tragedy.” And as a political entity, the FAA can avoid accountability for its failures by blaming prior administrations. Between 1961, when the automation program began, and 1970 there were four FAA administrators, “none of whom can be held responsible for the failures of his predecessors,” noted Hotz.
THE FAA WOULD HAVE us believe that things have changed in the 1970s. Certainly the agency’s PR efforts have improved. But in 1975, in the wake of the crash of TWA 514, a 10-man task force appointed by Transportation Secretary Brinegar reached many of the same conclusions Hotz did, albeit phrased in bureaucratese.The FAA’s headquarters operation is “large and unwieldy and may serve as a detriment to FAA’s performance of its safety mission,’’ they concluded. The agency‘s rule-making process is “cumbersome and burdened with delays,” and there is a “scarcity of top flight technical talent.” Its advanced technology program is “relatively immediate and short-term in outlook”—that is, it fails to come to grips with fundamental long-range changes such as implementing R-NAV. And the Brinegar report pointed out that the FAA’s dual role—as both operator of the ATC system and safety regulator—requires “completely different technical skills,” implicitly raising the question of whether the FAA should continue with air traffic control. Considering that the executive secretary of the task force was, the acting FAA administrator, and that its members were all from the federal government, the mild tone of its criticisms is understandable. Similar phraseology characterized a 1976 report by the General Accounting Office, which faulted the FAA for serious planning and management difficulties (for example, for not knowing whether planned improvements in the ATC system were actually worth what they would cost).
No such restraint marked the report of another group appointed by the FAA in 1975—the Special Air Safety Advisory Group (SASAG), consisting of six retired airline pilots. Its purpose was to determine what could be done to prevent further crashes like that of Flight 514, especially during the approach and landing phase. After observing 600 flights on 27 airlines and talking to controllers, pilots, and support personnel, SASAG submitted its findings in July 1975. “New hazards have developed which are a product of the very systems designed to make flying safer,” they reported. “Attempts to compensate for natural deficiencies sometimes have brought on additional unrealistic rules or procedures, rather than technological improvements.” Commenting on FAA approach procedures, SASAG termed them “hopelessly complicated, impractical, and contradictory,” quoting one pilot to the effect that terminal area maneuvering “is a sophisticated game of blind man’s bluff, and the only real protection the crew has is common sense.” Nonstandard terminology was frequently observed, as in the case of Flight 514. It was found that up-to-date information on hazardous weather was often not provided to flight crews. But it was the ATC system itself that SASAG found most at fault. The ATC system “has created hazards, slowed traffic. restricted productive flight by all segments of the aviation industry, and used energy in frightening amounts,” they found. More specifically: “The ATC system has loaded the cockpit with extra work to the extent that, during critical phases of flight, the air traffic function uses most of one crew member’s time, removing him as a useful navigational and systems management assistant.” “The atmosphere in an IPR room is a jumble of confusion,with demands on the human of the highest order.” “The system is a jumble of people, radar screens, communications lines and stacks of paper strips, people communicating by voice, by radio to impersonal aircraft...while in the control room people are milling about, talking and creating distractions.” Controllers often show disdain for pilots and evidence “lack of understand- ing of the pilot’s job,” creating a “conflict between ground and air that promotes an emotional response in an environment where it cannot be tolerated.” Summing up, SASAG concluded: “The list of Air Traffic System problems is long and detailed, but basically they reduce to these: a system too dependent on the human element; a system that has grown from old concepts with complex fixes applied to it in an attempt to accommodate its inadequacies. This, in turn, has created a monster of procedures, rules, methods, and confusing interplay between people who are separated by distance, technical knowledge, and understanding of each other’s problems.”
WHAT TO DO? Obviously not just continue to patch up the present system. “The direction our government is taking toward future air traffic control is not commensurate with available technology. A program of top priority by an independent body is required to create a system that will reduce human error to a minimum.” The question is how to go about doing that. SASAG suggested that a study be conducted “to determine whether the air traffic system would be operated more efficiently with advanced technology as an independent public company.” Could air traffic control be provided by a corporation? There is no reason why not, in principle. Air traffic control is a valuable service, as is communications or transportation. It requires the careful and efficient organization of people, equipment, and procedures to carry out the business of keeping aircraft safely separated from one another and assisting them in making safe takeoffs and landings. Removed from political control freed of the civil service mentality, adequately financed, and staffed by competent technical and managerial talent, an ATC corporation could take full advantage of today’s (and tomorrow’s) technology. It isn’t only pilots, such as the members of SASAG, who have suggested that ATC be transferred from the FAA to an independent corporation. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO ) has been advocating just such a change since 1969. If the controllers themselves no longer wish to work for the FAA bureaucracy, with all its civil service job security, that must tell us something!
The plan PATCO endorses was first suggested in 1968 by Glen A. Gilbert, a long-time aviation consultant. Gilbert, who was the Bureau of Air Commerce’s very first controller back in 1936, proposes a COMSAT type corporation, funded 50 percent by taxes and 50 percent by user charges. It would be an “independent government corporation,” operating out and responsible directly to Congress. As set forth in Gilbert’s 1975 study, the U.S Air Traffic Services Corporation would: operate the ATC system and perform various safety functions independent of the executive branch of the federal government; manage its own finances, derived from general taxes and user charges, subject only to congressional overview; function in a manner comparable to the best private-enterprise management and organizational concepts; establish its own allocations of costs to users, to meet one-half of its operating expenses; establish its own safety regulations and internal rules, regulations, and procedures Gilbert considers establishment of such a corporation essential if the ATC system is to meet the growing needs of aviation in a safe and cost-effective manner.
It would also, he believes, establish and maintain a high level of morale, initiative, and productivity on the part of its personnel, be rapidly responsive to constantly changing requirements of airspace users, and provide for direct and continuing decision making participation by the users. The idea of a COMSAT-like corporation taking over ATC functions most recently surfaced in, of all places, an official FAA document. The study, Aviation Futures to the Year 2000, was prepared for the FAA document. The study, Aviation Futures to the year 2000, was prepared for the FAA by The Futures Group, a think tank in Glastonbury, Connecticut. One of the study’s five alternative scenarios features a highly automated ATC system,operated by a “COMSAT-lie quasi-governmental authority” rather than by the FAA.
ASAG, PATCO, Gilbert and The Futures Group have all correctly identified the problem, and the general thrust of their proposal— put ATC on a businesslike basis cannot be faulted. But why the government involvement? It’s true that Gilbert stresses the model of relatively successful COMSAT rather than the more typical quasi-government corporations—Amtrak, Conrail, and, needless to say, the US Postal Service. All three of these are responsible to Congress, and all are far from models of good management and cost-effectiveness. To involve the government in any way is to seriously risk defeating the basic purpose of the change which is to transfer ATC from a politically controlled bureaucracy to an efficient business. One possible argument for government involvement is that government aircraft, notably those of the military, use the the ATC system too. Another is that there is some kind of “public benefit” involved in the ATC system apart from benefits to specific users and that general taxpayer funding is therefore appropriate for at least part of the costs. These questions were addressed in depth by Department of Transportation studies during during 1972 and 1973. Economists made a detailed cost-allocation study of the ATC system and of FAA operations generally, as part of an unsuccessful administration campaign to move 100 percent user-charge funding of the existing FAA/ATC system. In brief, the studies concluded that about 50 percent of the costs of the system are occasioned by air carriers, 30 percent by general aviation, and 20 percent by military use. No general benefits for nonusers could be identified. The DOT studies established quite clearly which users contribute which costs of the system, and a variety of methods of charging them is possible. Military and other governmental users could be charged just like any others and could participate, as customers, in the long term ATC planning process as they do now-perhaps more effectively, since they would be dealing with a far more responsive and competent organization. The biggest obstacle to setting up a 100 percent user-financed ATC corporation would be political opposition. Whereas commercial aviation is approximately paying its share of ATC costs today (in the form of existing user charges), general aviation is paying only one-seventh of its share. Consequently, its lobby groups—the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association, the National Business Aircraft Association, and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association-have conducted an extensive, and so far successful,campaign against efforts to increase user charges to full-cost levels. These organizations can be expected to lobby strenuously against a private ATC corporation. Apart from such political obstacles, could it really work? Could a private corporation actually be trusted with the responsibility for thousands of planes and millions of lives? The fact is, such operations have already been demonstrated—they have worked and they are working, right now.
In Berne, Switzerland, stands the headquarters of Radio- Schweiz, A/G, the nonprofit corporation that provides air traffic control services in Switzerland. Radio-Schweiz, though its start-up costs were underwritten by the Swiss government, is fully private and is 100 percent user-charge funded, for both capital and operating expenses. In Mexico in the 1940s a private, nonprofitcorporation known as Radio Aeronautica de Mexico,S.A.(RAMSA) was set up jointly by the various Mexican airlines, which became its stockholders. Although the airlines were later nationalized, RAMSA continued as the ATC services company, funded entirely by user charges, until last October when it was nationalized by the Mexican government (the controllers went on strike for three weeks, in protest, but to no avail). A similar company, RACSA,was set up in Cuba after World War II and is still in operation, though Cuban airlines are also nationalized. The British firm of International Aeradio, Ltd. for many years has operated ATC services in parts of the former British empire, paid for by user charges. It currently provides most ATC services inthe booming Persian Gulf area. Its I.A.R. Caribbean, Ltd. subsidiary operates in Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean.
THE UNITED STATES itself came close to having an ATC company and even now has a firm in a logical position to provide such services. The company is Aeronautical. Radio, Inc.-mc. It is a not-for-profit firm owned jointly by the airlines to provide communications services between planes in flight and ground stations and between various airline ground stations. In 1977 ARINC did $85million worth of business, up six percent over 1976. Its air-to-ground operations include some 2,100 installations, providing voice radio communications. ARINC also provides electronic switching connecting 28 computer systems. This is the system that allows a United Airlines agent, for example,to make a reservation for you on Piedmont as easily as on United. The switching system transmits some 40 million messages per month. The world’s largest private-line intercity communications network, serving 135 airline users at over 1,300 locations, is also operated by ARINC. It uses 17,717 leased circuits comprising nearly 5 million voice channel miles. ARINC actually predates the existence of air traffic control by seven years. In 1929 several airlines held experimental licenses from the Federal Radio Commission (predecessor of the FCC) to carry out air-to-ground radio communications. The licenses permitted experimental operations but granted no rights use the frequencies on a regular basis. Late in 1929 representatives of these airlines met with the FRC in Washington to ask for permanent radio frequency assignments. Unfortunately for them, the military had gotten there ahead of them. A year earlier the FRC had assigned to the military a large portion of the frequency spectrum designated for aviation purposes.
As a result, the requests of the individual airlines far exceeded what was then available. At this point the airlines’ legal counsel, Louis Caldwell (himself a former secretary of of the FRC) suggested a cooperative approach. Since FRC rules would not permit licensing of frequencies by an informal association, it became necessary to form a corporation. As a result, in December 1929 Aeronautical Radio, Inc. came into existence as a Delaware corporation. The original stockholders were Pacific Air Transport, Western Air Express, and Universal Airlines. The charter provided that the corporation could conduct business in all phases of aeronautical communications and navigational activities.