Barry Mansfield: US skies seem more congested than ever before. When did it become obvious that there was a problem?

James Burnley: Actually there have been several years of stunted air traffic growth in the US because of 9/11 and its impact on our carriers.

“Every region with significant air traffic will have to convert to GPS at some point.”

The carriers that weren’t around before the attack have been careful not to buy lots of new aircraft just because business was good again. But we have seen the arrival of a number of new airlines and some of the older carriers have shifted their patterns fairly dramatically. Delta, for example, has put a lot of traffic into JFK International in
the last year and a half and that’s relevant to the national situation.

We are seeing some growth. We are seeing some new carriers building up their fleets quite rapidly; JetBlue is a notable example. The points in our ATC system that were already congested before 9/11 are reaching a point at which the effect is dramatic. So far, in 2007 we’ve had record-breaking delays; and the records being broken are the ones that were set in 2006, so the trend line is not heading in the right direction.

BM: Why is the US struggling with heavy air traffic? What’s wrong with your air traffic control management?

JB: We’ve got this problem because the US has not followed the example of the rest of the western world – to completely restructure how we manage air traffic so it can work, as it should – as a 24/7 business. Just about every other western country has already figured this out; we are the last on board.

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BM: So is safety in the skies a worry?

JB: Safety is not the primary issue, because the managers of the ATC system at the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and the controllers will not let safety be the primary issue. That means, as the traffic has grown and we’ve developed a lot of serious choke points, we are simply swallowing everything down.

Gain holds are a lot longer and much more frequent; planes are diverted to spread traffic out. Quite simply, because they have to manage more traffic than the systems are equipped to handle, they are finding that things are inevitably slowed down.

BM: You’re a keen advocate of turning the current government-controlled system into a non-profit corporation that’s run like a business. How would this help?

JB: I think a non-profit corporation, something along the lines of the US Postal Service or the Tennessee Valley Authority, is a desirable model and one I believe we should aspire to.

“Automatic dependent surveillance broadcast is widely regarded as the future of the aviation industry.”

There is a great system in the UK, and the Canadians have an excellent model that was implemented 11 years ago called Nav Canada. There are around 40 countries that have made this kind of change, including Germany, Australia and New Zealand.

There is no perfect model in my judgement, but I think the Canadian model, which I am most familiar with, works exceedingly well. Of course, many US carriers fly into Canada and so they feel a certain level of comfort working with that system.

BM: Are there any cost advantages?

JB: Yes, back in October yet another round of fee reductions was announced in Canada. There have been several rounds to date. But, and this would be a surprise to some, the Canadian setup is organised as a non-profit corporation, with user groups represented on the board of directors. They set the user fees to spread the cost, based largely on the level of demand that each sector of aviation puts on the system.

The US, on the other hand, has a system that is mostly paid for by the ticket tax forked out by passengers. It bears no rational relationship to the varying demands placed on air traffic control services.

On top of that, we try to do procurements through a government procurement system, which slows everything down – and all this just at a time when we need to be speeding up for the transition from radar to the GPS system. We try to manage personnel within the rules of the US government, we just don’t have the flexibility a non-profit company would enjoy. Everything about the US approach seems to run contrary to common sense at this point.

BM: The switch to GPS is the cornerstone of this project. What would you say are the main advantages of adopting the new GPS-based technology? Where will they be felt?

JB: GPS allows you to safely fly aircraft much closer together. In the US, somewhere between 40% and 50% of the aircraft population is in the north-east of the country every day.

If you can safely fly the planes closer together, then you can increase the capacity of what is otherwise a highly congested airspace. So it’s not a question of whether satellite guidance is favourable – we already know it is. It’s a question of how we get to that stage. But, the good news is we’ve started the journey. The first major contract awarded by the FAA was announced a few months back. The FAA and the airlines are expected to spend in excess of $20bn over the next 15

BM: Will GPS help to bring about the new era of green flight?

JB: The enabling of green flight is a great advantage of the GPS-based system. The US has experimented with these flying techniques, particularly at Louisville, Kentucky airport, which is a giant hub for UPS air cargo.

“Drops in on-time performance spotlight the crisis in the US air traffic control system.”

UPS, for the last couple of years, has had planes equipped to use GPS-based technology.

The result has been that they’ve been able to make much greener landings, saving fuel by using more efficient landing methods.

If you save fuel with a continuous descent approach, it means you can also save money, so there’s a strong business case for these changes.

BM: So does this all mean that radar will soon be history? Does it have any role to play in the future?

JB: Every region with substantial air traffic will have to convert to GPS at some point, no question. As air traffic grows, a radar system is very limited in its capacity.

But it’s worth pointing out that radar is still vital as a backup system because of the fragility of GPS, and its vulnerability to disruption at the hands of people with malicious intent. You really don’t want radar to be your primary method of air traffic management with today’s traffic, though.