May. 21, 2001. 01:01 AM
Air traffic up, up, away
Nav Canada making a name for itself around the world
DAVID COOPER/TORONTO STAR
In the upper right-hand corner of a computer screen that's tracking dozens of airplanes as they converge on Pearson International Airport, there's a new icon that will soon access a cutting-edge navigational program.
Click on it and it will turn all of those planes into ghosts.
Far from being frightening apparitions, however, these spectral airliners will help passengers land more quickly and safely than ever before at several Canadian airports.
The computer program, which is being deployed at Pearson this month, will calculate the speed, size, location and runway requirements of incoming airplanes.
It will then create ``ghost'' images of each approaching plane and place the on-screen phantom into a specific air position - one its corresponding airliner should ideally take up to achieve the safest and most efficient landing sequence.
``So the ghost serves as a target for the controller,'' says Roland Reimer, a veteran air traffic controller and operations specialist who helped create the new program.
``If you get this all set up properly and you're putting your planes in the ghost boxes, you're getting your maximum runway acceptance rate. It's a very good tool.''
The tool was developed almost exclusively by Nav Canada, the private, not-for-profit company that took over the country's air navigational system almost five years ago.
It's just one flicker in a blaze of new technologies that have been coming on stream since then as part of an air traffic control transformation that's received almost universal praise from aviation experts across the country and around the world.
``If you compare them to anybody else in the world, they're doing things that nobody else is even thinking of doing,'' Air Transport Association of Canada president Cliff Mackay, whose group represents the country's commercial airlines, says of Nav Canada.
``I give them 100 per cent marks here, the company is working at trying to do what they can to improve the efficiency of their operations, which have a direct impact on the efficiency of the operations of our members.''
Mackay, whose member airlines pay user fees to support the system, tempers his praise with a caution that Nav Canada is still in a fledgling state and has growing pains to overcome.
Most notably, controller staffing levels - especially in smaller centres - have often lagged behind growing air traffic volumes. As well, the company is in the midst of some tricky labour negotiations with its 5,600 unionized employees, who could conceivably disrupt flights across the country.
But there's little doubt that Nav Canada has turned on the jets in the country's air traffic control system since taking it over from Transport Canada.
Faced with growing flight delays, especially at Pearson, and a towering federal debt that limited its ability to fix the faltering navigation system, Ottawa agreed to sell off air traffic control to the company in 1996.
Backed largely by the country's airlines themselves - who had been lobbying more than a decade for such a transfer - Nav Canada paid $1.5 billion for the system's assets, including radar screens, control towers and navigational beacons.
In short order, it set plans in motion to modernize them all.
``We're light years ahead since privatization. When we became unfettered by the government, we just boomed,'' says Stan Roy, head of the Toronto Area Control Centre, situated on the western fringe of Pearson's vast infield.
``In the last few years we've jumped ahead 20 years, as far as productivity and safety from our technology goes. We've become leaders in the industry.''
Roy, who has been involved in the system for 20 years, says air navigation officials from around the world are now beating a path to his cavernous centre, which handles some 900,000 flights a year travelling to, from and over southern Ontario.
The facility is the largest of seven such centres across the country. Together, they have seen their flight loads grow by 20 per cent over the past five years.
Unlike its government-controlled cousin in the United States, however, Nav Canada has been able to keep up with the rising demand - largely through the deployment of new technology.
Where navigational overloads can cause one in five flights to be delayed at U.S. airports, the rate in Canada is fewer than one in 12.
What's more, at the same time Nav Canada has welcomed new technologies, it has been able to cut its capital costs significantly.
``We've reduced capital spending from what it was in the government by about 40 per cent,'' says company president John Crichton.
``But we're producing probably about five times the (navigational) product we did when it was a government agency.''
Under federal stewardship, which was paid for by an airline tax on passengers, the system routinely ran deficits of $200 million a year.
Nav Canada shifted the system's costs to the airlines, which pay fees according to a formula based on the distance travelled and the weight of the planes.
Those fees range from about $3,600 for a Boeing 747 traveling 900 nautical miles, to about $1,000 for an Airbus 320 flying the same distance.
A Boeing 737 travelling from Calgary to Vancouver would incur about $1,134 in navigational expenses - about $890 less than an airline would have paid under the old passenger tax system.
These user fees gained the company revenues of $345 million last year for planes landing or taking off in Canada, and $500 million for airlines flying over the country or crossing Nav Canada-controlled segments of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans.
As a not-for profit company, Nav Canada plows surplus revenues - about $1.75 million in fiscal 2000 - back into the organization.
In shifting its revenue base, Nav Canada also cleared a ``user-pay, user-say'' operation for takeoff, with the major stakeholders in Canadian aviation gaining direct access to the running of the system.
The company's board of directors is made up of 15 people representing - but not currently employed by - the airlines, government and the navigational unions.
It's this corporate structure, coupled with the expulsion of cumbersome government processes, that experts say is key to Nav Canada's clear advancement over its U.S. counterpart.
``I think user-say is crucial and I think there being users on the board is what recommended it to us more than any other single factor,'' says transportation analyst Robert Poole, whose Los Angeles-based Reason Public Policy Institute rated Nav Canada as the air navigational model the U.S. would do best to adopt.
``A stakeholder board that is appointed by the stakeholders rather than some political appointees is, I think, a tremendously positive feature.''
Poole presented his study of Nav Canada and other international systems to the U.S. Congress earlier this year.
He says the American air navigation system, run by the Federal Aviation Administration and overseen by Congress, has traditionally been unresponsive to the needs of its customers.
``Look at the procurement of technology, for example. The real problem with the FAA and with any other government departments that try to run air traffic control is that they loose sight of their customers' best interest,'' Poole says.
While shifting the focus to the system's customers helped Nav Canada, shedding government protocol and procedures was also critical in advancing its technology base.
``As you get into big organizations - and unfortunately governments tend to be especially this way - it's process that matters,'' says Stan Koslow, vice-president of engineering at Nav Canada.
``People spend a lot of time on process, and usually process is a defence'' when something goes wrong.
By abandoning this cumbersome government approach, Koslow says, Nav Canada has been able to shift responsibility to company managers.
Under Transport Canada, he says, needed technological advancements were most often the offspring of a ``big project'' mentality that usually led to years of study and frustration.
Meanwhile, Koslow says, the people who are actually going to use the new system are most often left out of the process until the very end.
``So after a lot of trouble, usually a system is built and then the user looks at it and says, `What's this,' and then you start modifying it again,'' he says. ``And sometimes it never gets built at all.''
Nav Canada, Koslow says, has reversed this procedure, slotting the end users of any needed technology into the beginning of the development process.
``And then we have the software people and engineering people produce a very skimpy prototype - something they turn around in a reasonable length of time.''
The ability to put something new in the field is also predicated on abandoning a traditional government insistence on doing everything from scratch, says Poole, the transportation analyst.
``There may be cost-effective ways of using some degree of off-the-shelf technology, which is exactly the route Nav Canada has used to very good effect.''
At its 300-employee technology centre on the outskirts of Ottawa, Nav Canada has modified a huge array of off-the-shelf hardware and software to its own specific needs.
The resulting products, most aviation experts agree, have raised the company to the top of the world's air traffic control class.
The products include:
A new safety alert system that warns ground controllers if planes come too close on the runways. Especially useful during bad weather, the system was commissioned at Pearson's new control tower in February.
The Canadian Automated Air Traffic System or CAATS, which will be the world's most sophisticated air traffic processing tool when it comes on board in Moncton next year. CAATS, which will be deployed across the country soon after, will allow country-wide integration of automated flight data, weather updates and radar positions. This information, some of which is currently communicated by mouth or paper strips throughout much of the world, will be available to controllers on a single computer display.
A new oceanic flight control system for planes out of radar reach over the North Atlantic. Based in Gander, Nfld., the Gander Automated Air Traffic System (GAATS) will replace the burdensome practice of reporting position via high frequency voice communications with a satellite-based data transfer system.
GAATS will also be equipped with a conflict warning system that signals controllers when planes come too close to each other.
In addition, the company has built new control towers in Vancouver, Saskatoon, Toronto, Quebec city and Halifax, and is currently working with the Russians to open up polar routes to airlines travelling from parts of North America to Asia.
The 65-metre Toronto tower is the first in the world to replace paper strips with touch-screen computer displays as the main means of communication between controllers.
Traditional towers can resemble a shift-long poker deal, with hurly-burly operators noisily handing thin cardboard tickets back and forth detailing flight information at various stages of takeoff and landing.
In the $17.2 million Toronto tower, which opened in 1999, you can hear a pin drop.
Federal Transport Minister David Collenette calls the transfer of the country's air navigation to Nav Canada an unmitigated success.
``The skills set we have is second to none and the equipment is second to none,'' says Collenette, whose department still oversees air safety regulations.
But not everyone in Canadian aviation is as smitten.
Kevin Psutka, president of the 17,000-member Canadian Owners and Pilots Association, says the jury is still out on Nav Canada as far as recreational and business aircraft are concerned.
Psutka says his group is waiting for the unveiling of a new network of small airport computer kiosks, which will allow private pilots to access weather and flight restriction information and file a flight plan in one simple program.
Until this system is unveiled later this year, however, most private pilots have experienced little change under Nav Canada - unless a much-resented $50 fee most must now pay to use the system each year is counted.
Yet Psutka does give Nav Canada credit for its ability to listen and react.
``On the kiosk plan, for example, we sat down and talked and very quickly between us we came up with a plan. They actually committed money to have a prototype made and here we are, two years later, with a finished product,'' he says.
``If that was Transport Canada, we'd still be having coffee.''