Guest Author: Robert Poole on FAA ATC Productivity

Dulles ATC tower
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Air Traffic Control Newsletter #155

CANSO’s Global Air Navigation Services Report 2017: The ANSP View

Key Performance Indicator

Nav Canada v. FAA


FAA’s Air Traffic Organization Still Lags in Productivity







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by Robert Poole

Director of Transportation Policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow

In an April 10th speech at the Aviation Week Network’s MRO Americas conference, former FAA Administrator Michael Huerta lamented the lack of a “facts-based discussion” in recent efforts on ATC reform.

FAA Administrator Huerta ATC

I share that concern and would have welcomed a serious debate (or series of debates) with opponents of corporatization, for example on claims that the governing board would be “airline-dominated”, that small airports were at risk of losing (or not getting) control towers, and that FAA’s Air Traffic Organization is the world’s most-efficient CANSO atc organization(rather than just the largest) air navigation service provider (ANSP).

The latter claim, for example, could easily have been settled by reference to data, and for the past seven years, the global trade association for ANSPs—the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO)—has assembled data, from those members willing to provide it, on a host of key performance indicators. Participants include some (but by no means all) of the world’s large and small ANSPs, including both the FAA ATO (largest) and Nav Canada (2nd-largest). Since we know there are economies of scale in air traffic control (yes, size does matter), the larger the ANSP, the lower its unit costs could be. So what do the numbers tell us about this comparison?

The data source is CANSO’s Global Air Navigation Services Report 2017: The ANSP View. This online document provides the raw data, explains the methodology to construct each key performance indicator (KPI), and notes that all cost numbers have been converted to U.S. dollars, for apples vs. apples comparison. Reviewing the data from all 32 participants in the 2017 report, it is clear that there is some degree of economies of scale, but since costs such as payroll are so much lower in developing countries, metrics involving costs are best compared among ANSPs in countries at the same level of economic development.

For purposes of the debate over U.S. corporatization, the key question is whether the ATO, with about nine times as many annual IFR movements as 2nd-largest Nav Canada, has significantly ATC Nav Canadahigher productivity than its smaller neighbor. Two KPIs are most relevant for this comparison. The first is the cost per IFR flight hour, measured separately for domestic flights and oceanic flights.

Cost/IFR flight hour FAA ATO Nav Canada Difference
Domestic $453 $316 30% lower
Oceanic $96 $54 44% lower

Those are pretty large differences. What this means is that even though the ATO should benefit from significant scale economies, the smaller Nav Canada is significantly more productive (and without in any way impairing safety).

The second KPI is IFR flight hours per controller hour, another productivity metric. Here are the numbers:

IFR flight-hrs/controller hour  ATO Nav Canada Difference
Domestic 1.08 1.19 9.2% more
Oceanic 6.18 6.79 9.0% more

You can see that domestic ATC is far more labor-intensive than oceanic ATC, but here, again, smaller Nav Canada attains higher productivity.


What these comparisons suggest is that were the ATO freed from politicization, enabled to make business decisions (such as consolidation of its aging Centers and TRACONs), and had the means to efficiently finance productivity-increasing technology, it might begin taking advantage of the economies of scale that its size could provide.

Maybe next time we can have a real debate on the merits of corporatization.

Mr. Poole is the leading advocate for ATC privatization. The above article is an excellent analysis of ATC productivity.


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