Front & Centre

Bob Poole argues that US facilities need consolidation too, not just fragmented Europe
Americans are fond of comparing the efficiency of their large, unified air traffic control system with the fragmented and costly system serving Europe. Data from CANSO’s ATM Performance Report show the average cost per IFR flight hour within the European Union airspace is $708, compared with just $429 in the United States and an even lower $297 in Canada. Americans also note that Europe’s airspace is managed out of 68 en-route centres, compared with only 20 in the continental United States.
Thus, the easy conclusion to draw is that facility consolidation is Europe’s problem, not America’s. Yet that is far too hasty a conclusion. The basic concept underlying the paradigm shift under way via NextGen in the United States and SESAR in Europe is that new technologies and procedures enable air traffic to be managed ‘anywhere from anywhere’.
Remote towers are an obvious example, but the principle has far wider application. Under this new paradigm, there is no longer any need to have ATC facilities located beneath any specific portion of the airspace. With system-wide, real-time information about weather and traffic available to everyone, an entire continent’s air traffic could, in principle, be managed from a single facility, located wherever was convenient.
This means facility consolidation, driven by airspace redesign, is just as relevant for the United States as it is for Europe. And in fact, facility consolidation has been on FAA drawing boards dating back to the never-fully-implemented ‘NAS Plan’ of the 1980s. In addition to replacing first-generation software, the NAS Plan was intended to yield significant productivity gains by consolidating facilities—but that never happened.
Facility consolidation all too often became a battleground, as controllers’ unions fought to preserve jobs in their existing locations, supported by members of Congress not wishing to lose facilities and jobs in their districts, and sometimes also private pilots who wanted to deal with known local facilities and controllers.
In a handful of cases, several of the approach control facilities known as TRACONs in large urban areas were eventually replaced with an all-new consolidated facility – Potomac TRACON in the Washington, DC metro area, and comparable consolidated TRACONs for Southern California and Northern California. But other efforts to consolidate some of the other 167 TRACONs met with failure due to repeated political intervention.
One breakthrough occurred in 2005, when the FAA managed to consolidate 58 run-down and technically obsolete Flight Service Stations into, ultimately, just a handful of high-tech facilities networked together. The key political enabler was that the large private pilots’ organisation – AOPA – supported the consolidation, both to modernise the service and to slash its no-longer tenable $600 million a year cost. AOPA had enough clout with Congress to counter employee opposition, and this consolidation is generally considered a big success.
The potential of large-scale consolidation of centres and TRACONs is greater than many people realise. A recently released Reason Foundation study by Michael Harrison, Ira Gershkoff, and Gary Church used FAA data to calculate the productivity of each of its centres and TRACONs. New York Centre is the most productive, averaging over 9,400 annual operations per controller; Denver Centre is least productive, at just over 5,400 operations per controller. A similarly large variation in productivity was found among TRACONs.
The research team used these data to estimate the potential savings from facility consolidation. For centre staffing they created a regression equation which posits that the number of controllers at a centre equals a constant plus a variable term based on the number of air carrier operations, air taxi operations, general aviation operations, and military operations.
Using FAA data for those variables from each of the 20 centres, the regression equation found that the constant term is 84.6. That means if you have a centre at all, it needs a minimum of 85 people, with the rest determined by the various amounts of traffic handled. A similar equation for TRACONs had a constant term of 8.56, with the rest being variable based on types and amounts of traffic.
What this exercise demonstrates is that economies of scale are at work in air traffic control. When two facilities are combined, the workloads measured by the variable terms (based on traffic) are added together, but you now have only the one constant of 85 baseline people. The authors developed a large-scale consolidation plan to even out workloads among facilities, aiming for higher overall productivity.The plan they came up with replaces the 20 existing centres with five high-altitude en-route facilities and eight ‘Integrated Control Facilities’ that combine en-route and terminal airspace in the largest metro areas. Smaller TRACONs are consolidated regionally, ending up with 38 such facilities. Overall then, the plan reduces 187 existing en-route and terminal facilities to 51 – just over one-quarter as many.
Because compensation practices call for higher pay in higher-activity facilities, the savings in operating costs are not as great as might be expected. The authors estimate that consolidation alone would save $314 million a year due to the lower staffing made possible just by consolidation. Productivity gains due to NextGen technology and procedures add another $680 million.
And with another $109 million in maintenance savings due to fewer buildings to maintain, and total annual savings are in the $1 billion range -this analysis does not address possible productivity gains with control towers, such as expanding the use of contract services and/or implementing remote towers.
But the savings don’t stop there. Since a large fraction of the existing 187 centres and TRACONs are nearing the end of their useful lives, the FAA is rapidly approaching the point at which it must either engage in large-scale rehabilitation of these facilities where they are today or replace them with a smaller number of consolidated facilities. Selling the land, buildings, and equipment associated with facilities recommended for closure would yield $1.7 billion toward the cost of the new facilities.
The centre consolidation approach outlined here is similar to the initial concept the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO) developed several years ago, when it began facing up to the need to replace aging facilities and the potential changes NextGen would make possible.
Unfortunately, last year the agency changed focus. Instead of developing an overall consolidation plan, with a schedule and cost estimates, it will proceed one project at a time. For now it is focusing all its efforts on an initial Integrated Control Facility for the airspace in the Northeast.
That approach is high-risk since state and national elected officials in the affected areas are already mobilising to fight the loss of jobs in their jurisdictions. In the view of the Reason study’s authors, a far wiser approach would be to follow the kind of comprehensive approach that has been used several times for large-scale military base closures and consolidations. An overall nationwide plan is drawn up, and Congress has a choice of either accepting it as a whole or rejecting it. This makes the battle one between winners (those gaining new or expanded facilities) and losers, rather than just between potential losers and everyone else who is not affected.
And if that approach seems too difficult for Congress to work out, the report suggests an alternative: separate the ATO from the FAA and from the federal budget process, by making it a self-supporting ANSP. That way, as shown in facility consolidations carried out successfully by such ANSPs in Australia, Canada, Germany, and the UK, these decisions can be made as business decisions, rather than political decisions.
And while freeing Congress of a decade or more of fighting over facility consolidations might not be reason enough for them to divest the ATO, federal budget problems might be.  With most of the $20 billion NextGen investment still to be made, and the FAA budget under increasing pressure, converting the ATO into a self-supporting ANSP might turn out to be the best hope for actually getting NextGen implemented.
Robert Poole is Director of Transportation Policy at the Reason Foundation, a think tank based in Los Angeles.
Read more: Facility consolidation could save billions: Reason Foundation
This Comment by Air Traffic Management columnist Bob Poole appeared in Issue 1, 2013. Subscribe to Air Traffic Management today. Details can be found at: Key Shop