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Air traffic control in the United States is a big business.
The country’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO)–a branch of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that is separate from that agency’s safety, regulatory and enforcement function–controls more than 75 million square kilometres of airspace.
To understand how massive the ATO is, consider that Nav Canada operates the world’s second-largest air navigation service (ANS) by traffic volume–but in 2014, there were 9.6 million airline departures south of the border, while Canada recorded 1.3 million.
According to a 2016 report from the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation, the ATO controlled close to 23.5 million continental flight hours under instrument flight rules (IFR) in 2015. By contrast, Nav Canada logged 2.8 million continental IFR flight hours in the same year.
This massive size disparity is one of the reasons why those opposed to the privatization of air traffic control in the U.S. say it just won’t work. The ATO, they say, is simply too big to be transferred effectively to private control. Others argue that the Nav Canada model will “scale up” while delivering additional economies additional economies along the way.
While there are certainly some thought-provoking arguments on both sides of the coin, there is no denying that the Nav Canada model has been a success here at home, a fact that is borne out by both stakeholders and hard data.
The way it was
Prior to Nov. 1, 1996–that’s when Nav Canada’s $1.5 billion purchase of the national air navigation system from the federal government was finalized–the situation was becoming serious. While the government-run air navigation service provider (ANSP) had many strengths, among them an excellent safety record and highly experienced people, its equipment and facilities were on a downward slide.
Operators using the system complained about delays and poor service. Costs were skyrocketing faster than revenues from the ticket tax, while the ANS and its priorities were lost within a huge Transport Canada monolith that also included a national railway, airports, ports, and the establishment of transportation policy–not to mention regulatory responsibility for all of the above, and the inherent conflict of interest presented by self-regulation.
Led by the country’s commercial airlines, stakeholders set out to identify the problems and propose solutions to reinvent the government service. With the ANS being a critical component of a competitive Canadian aviation industry, the group decided to take a fresh approach.
It was decided that the air navigation system was in fact a commercial service which should be guided by commercial principles. Three initial groups–the airlines, airline pilots and air traffic controllers–began to discuss the new vision for air navigation in Canada.
Their combined efforts to reach a consensus about the future direction of the Canadian ANS resulted–after extensive deliberation–in the creation of Nav Canada, a non-share capital corporation that is independent from government and run by a board of directors that includes representatives from key stakeholder communities.
These include the airlines (four reps); the federal government (three); ANS unions (two); the Canadian Business Aviation Association (one); and four additional directors who are unrelated to any ANS stakeholder. Nav Canada’s president and CEO is the last director.
An evolutionary path
Although the vision that created Nav Canada was clear, the corporation was and continues to be a work in progress.
The early years were challenging in many respects, according to Nav Canada president and CEO, Neil Wilson.
“We were no longer a service operated by the government, but now a service operated by a private company,” he told Skies. “And so, governments do certain things very well, companies do other things very well, but they don’t do things the same way. We had to have a shift in thinking . . . We had to develop a mindset of service to the customers.”
Wilson, who has been with Nav Canada since 2002, previously worked at an Ottawa law firm and had extensive involvement in the launch of the new ANSP in 1996.
In addition to organizational challenges, global events conspired to deal the industry several tough blows in recent years. The first of those was the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent shutdown of U.S. airspace.
Wilson also singled out the economic crisis that hit the aviation industry in 2008, when a lot of Nav Canada customers “were in very, very bad straights.”
But perhaps one of the biggest hurdles faced by the new Canadian ANSP was rolling out the user fee schedule in 1999, when customers began paying for the services provided by Nav Canada.
“We essentially phased them in over the first two years of the organization, and that was a challenge as well,” remembered Wilson. “It was a cultural change for a lot of people, reflecting the fact that the system was now run by a private company as a business, and having the customers come around and come on [board] with funding the system directly.”
Today, he is proud of the fact that Nav Canada has not increased its service charges in the last 13 years. In fact, as of Sept. 1, 2017, charges were three per cent lower than when they were first introduced in 1999.
Efficient and effective
Despite reducing customer fees, Nav Canada has continued on a path of steady development in support of its vision to deliver an ANS that is safe above all, while also aiming for service efficiency and cost effectiveness.
The corporation has invested heavily in technology and capital projects to bring air navigation in Canada to the next level. Historically, it spends about $130 million a year on improvements to the country’s air navigation systems.
“But last year, this year and next year, we’re spending $170 million on our technology, on our capital projects, on our facilities, in order to allow us to be more efficient and provide a better service across the system,” said Wilson.
One of Nav Canada’s most exciting ventures is Aireon, a joint venture with global satellite provider Iridium and air navigation authorities from Ireland, Denmark and Italy. The Canadian ANSP holds a majority stake in the program, which will see satellite aircraft tracking extended to regions where it has previously been impossible to follow a flight.
“Aireon will be a game-changer in terms of air traffic control worldwide, and it will be a game-changer for air traffic control here in Canada, in the airspace that we manage,” said Wilson.
“We will have it over the North Atlantic; we will have it in mountainous areas and we will have it in remote areas. That allows us to know where equipped aircraft are at any time, any second of any day, of any year. That provides us with significant benefits when it comes to safety, and will deliver significant benefits to our customers as it will allow us to provide better and more efficient flight paths.”
Currently, 20 satellites equipped with the Aireon payload have been launched into orbit, with another 10 set to go in October of this year. Wilson said the system should be operational domestically by late 2018 and functional in other airspace in late 2019 or early 2020. It is expected to dramatically increase surveillance in Canada’s last frontier, the far north. Aircraft that are properly equipped will benefit from a heightened level of safety and more complete flight following.
Elsewhere in the world, Aireon will sell its satellite data to ANSPs, including those in the U.K. and hopefully in the U.S.
Besides Aireon, Nav Canada also has a 50 per cent stake in Searidge Technologies, a digital and remote tower business that has applicability to on-airport services such as apron and ramp control.
At its heart, however, Nav Canada is a single-purpose business. As the operator of Canada’s air navigation system, it is examining a number of new technologies that will permit increased capacity and aircraft handling in its most complex airspace.
Wilson said the corporation continues to look at ways it can provide good, reliable weather information from coast to coast to coast.
Its increased capital spending will be divided into “three large buckets,” he said.
The largest bucket is operational systems, followed by improvements to facilities.
“And we are looking at the north or more remote areas of the country, and we’re looking at a significant spend there somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million. And the rest will go on our business systems, our back office systems and those sorts of systems that we need to run the business.”
For their part, operators across Canada are glad to see Nav Canada investing in a modern, progressive air navigation service. There’s also a collective realization out there that it hasn’t happened overnight.
Glenn Priestley is the executive director of the Northern Air Transport Association (NATA) and a former Transport Canada inspector until 1995.
He remembers the way things used to be.
“It was a huge bureaucracy,” he said of the government-run ANS system. “As a government entity, of course it was very politicized. [The creation of Nav Canada] was a very large, bold move. We were the first to privatize a national air navigation system. Nobody’s done that in the world before and hardly done it since.”
Priestley’s association represents the majority of northern air operators. Needless to say, better weather information and improved flight tracking in Canada’s remote northern reaches are attractive prospects.
“They’ve done an excellent job of putting in the various AWOSs (automated weather observation systems) and those weather cameras are brilliant. You can go online at just about any airport in the north and see what the conditions are at that airport. I mean, that’s terrific.”
Priestley most appreciates the fact that Nav Canada takes the time to solicit feedback from industry to help determine its priorities, and that its employees respond quickly to any concerns.
“What I’ve heard from my operators is about their rapid response. Nav Canada works at a better pace than a regulator because they’re not a regulator, they’re a service provider. They no longer have the old government culture. They’re very customer focused and that means a very rapid response.”
As far as service charges, Priestley said he hears few complaints from his members.
It’s a view shared by Fred Jones, president and CEO of the Helicopter Association of Canada (HAC).
“My view is that Nav Canada has been a resounding success in so many ways,” he told Skies.
“Have there been some changes to the level of service for the helicopter community? Absolutely. In some ways they are getting an enhanced level of service. The ANS provider is willing to change with the times, is prepared to adapt and implement new technology, is prepared to listen actively to the user community when there are problems.”
Jones said that although there is certainly less face-to-face interaction for weather briefings and flight planning than in the past, Nav Canada has compensated by ensuring that anyone calling the toll-free number is routed to the closest Flight Information Centre for an area-specific briefing.
“At the end of the day, I can still get the info I need to conduct my flight safely.”
Meanwhile, he appreciates Nav Canada’s desire to develop and implement the latest cutting edge technology.
“I would say the movement away from ground-based nav aids and the willingness to adapt to new technology, including GPS approaches, online services and online flight plan filing, has been very open. Now we have Aireon–an evolution of the way services are delivered. I don’t believe that could ever have happened if the ANS was being operated by government.”
Aaron Speer, vice-president of flight operations at Ottawa-based First Air, also believes Nav Canada is investing appropriately on an ongoing basis.
With 17 aircraft flying across the north, Speer appreciates many of the improvements implemented by Canada’s ANSP, including additional GPS approaches on Baffin Island, fewer communication gaps when it comes to accessing weather and air traffic control; and the establishment of more and better AWOS stations.
“The biggest issue up there is long distances and unsettled weather,” said Speer. “They are putting in more auto stations; many of the stations up there are not manned 24 hours a day, so the auto station allows us to get weather data around the clock. That makes my life easier.”
As far as fees go, Speer said he doesn’t like paying them, but nor does he feel “gouged” by Nav Canada.
Most importantly, he appreciates the fact that northern operators are not being ignored.
“They recognize that the north and the south are different, and they seek our input and act on it,” he said. “Sometime in the last year they conducted a survey of the big operators to find out how they were doing.”
In terms of future priorities, Speer said he’d like to see work continue to modernize the “very archaic” approaches in the North.
But overall, he gives Nav Canada a good report card.
“I seem to be able to get the good things I would get from a government organization in terms of quality service and reliability, but they still seem to run the day-to-day as if we were their customers,” he said.
“My biggest comment is that they need to understand what I need in order to do my job; and there seems to be a genuine effort to understand that.”
Whether the Nav Canada model would work in the U.S. remains to be seen.
Nav Canada’s Neil Wilson said there are many similarities between the two ANSPs, including a common border, geography and areas of complex airspace. However, he declined to speculate further about what system might be best for the U.S.
“It’s a different country, it’s a different way of doing things, and we leave it to them as to how they decide they can best organize themselves,” he commented.
“We think our system has benefited from a very unique consensus around what was necessary to address issues here. We don’t necessarily think that we should be commenting on what happens in other countries that don’t share the same culture and background and approach that we do.”
Regardless, Wilson is very proud of what Nav Canada has accomplished since it was founded 21 years ago.
With a clear focus on people and technology, Nav Canada is recognized for its achievements throughout the world. In fact, it received three prestigious Eagle Awards for “Best ANSP” from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in 2001, 2010 and 2011.
Whether or not it will serve as a model for U.S. ATO reform remains to be seen, but Wilson isn’t concerned. He’s busy focusing on the business at hand, which is delivering value to users of the Canadian air navigation system.
“Our people have taken a system that was safe, and a system that was pretty efficient, and they have made it safer and they have made it more efficient–and they have done it in a very cost effective manner,” he concluded.
“They have provided significant, significant value to all of the stakeholders in the organization.”