Congress Should not Specify Advanced Technology for Aviation Safety and Efficiency | Citizens Against Government Waste

Congress Should not Specify Advanced Technology for Aviation Safety and Efficiency

The WasteWatcher

As Congress continues to kick the appropriations process down the road with continuing appropriations bills for fiscal year 2020 rather than passing individual bills, there are many provisions in the individual spending bills that need to be watched carefully.  One such provision, contained in the Senate (but not the House) version of the fiscal year 2020 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies bill, provides $32.3 million for a single technology that can be used for air traffic control over the oceans, and speeds up the deadline for the use of such technology by four years. 

The Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW) has consistently argued against choosing one technology over another and for technology-neutral spending provisions in legislation, regulations, and procurement across the entire federal government.  The Senate provision clearly violates those principles.  And, of course, everyone knows what happens when the government picks winners over losers and tries to do something more quickly.  The taxpayers always lose. 

The Senate language is troublesome for other reasons related to how aircraft travel from one country to another.  Passengers and airlines are assured that there will be a smooth transition of air traffic control (ATC) across international boundaries under the 1944 Convention on International Civil Aviation, also known as the Chicago Convention.  Nations around the world follow the uniform standards and recommended practices (SARPs) developed at the convention and updated over the past seven decades.

Under the convention, the U.S. has responsibility over the domestic U.S. and for certain areas within the North Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and western North Atlantic Ocean.  This accounts for roughly 24 million miles of oceanic airspace.

The surveillance technology used to track aircraft movements differs depending on whether the aircraft is operated over land or across an ocean.  Controlling the airspace above oceans has always been complicated, but international aviation standards have recently changed to allow aircraft to fly closer to one another.

In April 2019, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) performed a cost-benefit analysis of two technologies that meet the new minimum separation standards, Space-Based Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) and Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Contract (ADS-C).

Space-Based ADS-B allows planes to use GPS signals from satellites to determine and broadcast their position.  When combined with ground-based radar, Space-Based ADS-B can be used to determine in almost real time where all aircraft are located.  Obviously, there are no ground-based radar stations in the ocean.  Using Space-Based ADS-B for oceanic airspace would result in a reduction of surveillance capability and require a radio operator to continuously relay a plane’s information.

ADS-C uses satellites to convey an aircraft’s position and can relay a position update every three minutes.  ADS-C works efficiently over oceanic airspace and allows controllers to communicate directly with pilots in the air.  There is no two-way communication for broadcasting with Space-Based ADS-B, because Space-Based ADS-B relies on receivers installed on satellites to transmit a one-way signal to ATC. 

The FAA found that ADS-C was far more effective and cost efficient.  FAA controllers currently use workstations that interact with ADS-C position reports for determining any potential conflicts in an aircraft’s path, but they are not compatible with ADS-B.  The FAA also determined that Space-Based ADS-B is not suitable for surveillance use in oceanic airspace.

Due to its more limited capability and the high costs associated with completely replacing all ATC workstations., the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a July 2019 report that reinforced the FAA’s decision “to proceed with enhanced ADS-C in the near term because efficiency benefits to airspace users exceeded the cost of more frequent location reporting and air traffic control system upgrades by 2-to-1. In contrast, FAA determined that the costs of using Space-Based ADS-B in U.S. oceanic airspace outweigh efficiency benefits by a factor of 6-to-1.” 

Using Space-Based ADS-B would require the FAA to purchase a yearly subscription from the company which owns the satellites performing the tracking.  An official amount for how much a subscription would cost annually is unknown, so the FAA estimated the costs it would incur from using Space-Based ADS-B.  It is entirely probable that the FAA underestimated the final costs of such a subscription making the use of Space-Based ADS-B even more expensive than previously thought.

There is fierce competition among aircraft for access to the most fuel-efficient altitudes at peak travel times.  The GAO report emphasized that the FAA is contending with a growth in air traffic.  Implementing the new minimum separation standards will improve the FAA’s accommodation of altitude requests.  This will make air travel over oceans safer and more efficient for consumers.  

In the interest of the taxpayers, Congress should respect the cost-benefit analysis performed by the FAA and therefore not prioritize funds for one technology over another in oceanic operations.  Congress should make its appropriations language technology neutral and let the FAA pick which technology is best for efficiency and keeping consumers safe.