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Air Traffic Control from Anywhere to Anywhere: The Case for ATC Facility Consolidation

Posted by Content Coordinator on Monday, April 8th, 2013



In developing the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), the most important element is transforming how the airspace is used. As a step in this direction, the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO) has begun deploying performance-based navigation (PBN), which allows planes to fly shorter, more-direct routes, saving fuel and time. By transforming navigation, the ATO is beginning to move away from the “highways in the sky” that have characterized the National Airspace System (NAS) for over 75 years. PBN has been widely accepted by the user community, and airlines and business jets are equipping for it now.

But the legacy airways built on signals from ground-based navigational aids still define the structure of the airspace, provide the aircraft routing to manage controller workload, and describe the sectors of airspace managed by controllers to sequence and separate aircraft. PBN can significantly enable increased safety, capacity and efficiency by using the airspace differently to accommodate growth and improve operations. Satellite navigation can deliver uniform navigation performance anywhere in the NAS, breaking the limitations on traffic volumes now defined by ground-based navigational aids. There is broad consensus that basic PBN (in the form of area navigation—RNAV) should become standard everywhere and more-advanced PBN (in the form of Required Navigation Performance—RNP) should be used wherever beneficial.

In addition to moving forward with PBN, the ATO has been deploying automated dependent surveillance–broadcast (ADS-B), the second element of satellite operations, allowing the Global Positioning System (GPS) and its augmentations to provide far more precise knowledge (than provided by radar) of where planes are in real time. After 2020, the date by which all aircraft in the system must be equipped with ADS-B, surveillance will no longer depend on radar and its limited coverage of the airspace (called service volume). ADS-B represents a significant game changer, eliminating the geographical limitations of radar that currently define facility airspace. With ADS- B, aircraft position is precisely reported, whether on the surface or at any altitude. This change shatters current limitations in airspace design. The distinction between terminal and en-route airspace—built on airways in the sky based on ground-based navigation aids and ATC sector boundaries governed by radar coverage—becomes obsolete.

The third key building block is the use of modern digital communications instead of traditional voice radio. Communications is the last barrier tying air traffic control facilities geographically to specific airspace. Thanks to networked digital communications, that last barrier can be removed, leading to control of air traffic from anywhere to anywhere. Voice switching has advanced to where a controller could physically be located in Miami and control Seattle airspace and talk to aircraft in Seattle airspace, receive surveillance through digital networks from Seattle, and support the full range of services provided today by the ATO.

In 2004, Aviation Management Associates (AMA) began examining how the physical infrastructure of some 20 air traffic control centers (Centers), 167 terminal radar control facilities (TRACONs), and over 124 stand-alone air traffic control towers could be consolidated to gain airspace operational improvements and reduce the future cost of manned facilities. By 2005, AMA identified critical technology enablers that would make it possible to consolidate facilities:

  • A surveillance data network to move surveillance information from its source to everywhere in the NAS;
  • Fusion tracking to combine existing radar information with ADS-B data;
  • Voice switching to allow controllers to reach any ground radio station to send and receive voice messages to and from the aircraft;
  • Adaptation tools to reconfigure the airspace so that boundaries (workload) could be managed dynamically;
  • Conformance monitoring tools to reduce workload and detect performance issues before they become errors; and
  • Transitional information integration: creating a means to provide the controller with information about the airspace and its underlying network of airports, replacing the need for substantial local knowledge.

Each of these technology enablers is either well underway or planned by the ATO. It is now time to aggressively pursue consolidation of airspace and subsequent reduction in air traffic control facilities. For the first time, airspace can be designed around how it is used by the aircraft, rather than by the limits of radar and communications coverage.

The ATO has recognized the need to consolidate air traffic control facilities, many of which are outdated and deteriorating. The average age of the Centers is 49 years. They were originally built at a time when automation meant mainframe computers and required considerable space. All Centers need infrastructure upgrades, but not all Centers are needed. Likewise, attempts to consolidate smaller TRACONs have met with mixed results. In some cases, only minor airspace changes have been made. In other cases, the redesign of airspace has driven how the larger TRACONs operate.

NextGen has created a new opportunity to consider consolidation, breaking away from the geographically bound ATC facility to a new airspace structure that is tailored to aircraft performance, gaining capacity and efficiency. New, consolidated facilities can be designed to support how the airspace will be used under NextGen with performance-based navigation and satellite-based surveillance operations. The facility’s form can fit its function. Under NextGen, the artificial boundaries of today’s airspace can be transformed to recognize the benefits of PBN, and many of the current operational restrictions can be eliminated. The distinction between en-route and terminal airspace can be challenged, creating a hybrid facility to serve major metropolitan airspace volumes.

The FAA and its ATO have begun to move in this direction. The ATO’s Future Facilities Program received approval from the FAA’s Joint Resource Committee to move to initial investment analysis for Segment 1 on September 15, 2010. The Initial Investment Decision for Segment 1 was made on November 16, 2011.3 The program is currently developing a business case for its first project, the Liberty Integrated Control Facility (ICF), and Final Investment Decision is expected early in FY 2013. Liberty ICF covers the greater New York/New Jersey and Philadelphia airspace and would lead to the consolidation of nine existing TRACONs. Liberty ICF is justified based on savings to users through improved efficiency in use of the airspace. The ATO is promoting delay reductions in congested metropolitan airspace while also enabling reduced fuel consumption and noise. ATO employees working in this facility will benefit from an improved work environment and likely higher compensation.

While there appears to be energy around the New York/New Jersey airspace, little action is taking place to consider a national consolidation strategy to match the number and purpose of ATC facilities to the airspace under NextGen.

The concept of ICFs is to combine large and small TRACONs and pull airspace away from selected Centers near major airports, so as to redefine that airspace and how it is used. For the Northeast alone, this would involve combining 45 TRACONs and altering airspace controlled by four Centers. The agency has estimated the cost of just the initial Liberty ICF at $2.3 billion.4 The overall Northeast plan spans the airspace from New York to Chicago and is estimated to cost over $5 billion. The expected completion date for this first round of changes is 2023. Between now and 2023, opportunities for other consolidations will be lost if the ATO proceeds with its current focus solely on the Northeast and especially on Liberty ICF.

The FAA has been down this path before, taking on large consolidations only to have the project die due to citizen objections over airspace redesign, objections from the workforce on relocation, local opposition to job losses with the transfer of personnel to a consolidated facility, and resistance from Congress tied to job losses from proposed facilities closures. The FAA’s history on changing the airspace is also mixed. The East Coast Plan and the Expanded East Coast Plan went on for years with considerable local community opposition to flight tracks the FAA wanted to use.5

In February 2012, the president signed the “FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012” (P.L. 112-95), whose Section 804 requires the FAA to produce a plan recommending future realignments and consolidations of services and facilities. In the legislation, the FAA is to propose an overall national plan for realignment and consolidations accompanied by justification for each action, projected costs and savings, and the timing of the consolidation. The FAA is to seek input from labor organizations and industry stakeholders, and provide an opportunity for Congress to review. If Congress does not object within 30 days of receiving the plan, the FAA can implement the plan. Because the Act requires specifics on consolidation, the FAA must now look at a strategy that not only deals with ICFs and metroplex airspace, but the balance of the facilities as well.

The legislation had the effect of halting smaller TRACON consolidations while the ATO figures out a strategy for realignment of airspace and facility consolidation beyond the initial planning for the New York area ICF.

The rest of this report proceeds as follows. In Part 2 we explore the wide variation in controller workload across the numerous Centers and TRACONs nationwide, ranking their productivity to identify low-productivity candidates for consolidation. Part 3 discusses the problem of aging and obsolete facilities, and the prospect of the ATO investing large sums for refurbishing facilities that should instead be shut down, unless a serious consolidation program—which is not what FAA is proceeding with—can be implemented in the near future. (Our research was limited to publicly available documents. Having access to actual Air Route Traffic Control Center and Tower/Terminal sector-by-sector staffing and current unit costs for terminal and Center operation and maintenance costs with individual condition reports would have permitted a more detailed consolidation scheme.) In Part 4, we outline what such a large-scale consolidation plan could consist of, illustrated by a number of examples. Next, in Part 5 we estimate the savings in annual operating costs that this plan would bring about thanks to economies of scale, and also the capital cost savings that should be realizable by selling off the real estate and buildings that house facilities to be closed down. Part 6 discusses the political obstacles to this kind of consolidation effort, and suggests alternatives for Congress in addressing them. Finally, Part 7 concludes with specific recommendations.


Read full report (PDF) here: Air Traffic Control from Anywhere to Anywhere

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