ATM Modernization, Commercial

Q&A: Russ Chew

By David Jensen | September 1, 2004
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A little more than a year ago, in June 2003, Russell Chew became a pioneer in the annals of U.S. aviation history by becoming the first chief operating officer (COO) of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) newly formed Air Traffic Organization (ATO). It has been an eventful year.

Chew was assigned the momentous task of consolidating FAA’s air traffic services, research and acquisition, and Free Flight program activities into a lean, efficient, performance-based service organization. The ATO’s establishment resulted from an executive order signed by President Bill Clinton in December 2000. The concept of converting a government bureaucracy into a customer-focused service business, in turn, derived from Vice President Al Gore’s National Partnership for Reinventing Government.

The ATO still is very much part of FAA and receives its funding from Congress, which is why Chew cannot wear the chief executive officer mantle worn by the heads of private businesses. But that doesn’t diminish his tremendous responsibility. FAA operates and maintains the world’s most complex and extensive air traffic control (ATC) system. No other country can boast of monitoring more than half the world’s air traffic — up to 5,000 aircraft at any one time.

Nevertheless, Chew appears to be comfortable with his duties. He once said his previous executive position with American Airlines, managing systems operations, was similar to his post at FAA because both jobs involve "moving thousands of aircraft every day." Chew generally has received praise for his achievements over the past year, even though the new organization has dramatically changed FAA’s management structure. His management team, including 10 vice presidents, was announced in November 2003.

The optimism surrounding Chew’s implementation of change probably was best expressed in an oft quoted comment by John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Recognizing the agency’s deficiencies prior to the ATO, Carr said: "Many people in the aviation community, including myself, thought he was just here to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, [but] Russ’s plan gives us a realistic chance at missing the iceberg." For a closer look at how Chew is navigating FAA’s new organization (and hopefully missing icebergs), Avionics Magazine (AM) interviewed the COO. Here is what he told us.

AM: How has the transition to the ATO impacted FAA’s workforce?

Chew: I realized very soon after my arrival at the FAA that there were too many layers of management between my office and service providers in the field. The first transition move was primarily my forming my management team. The second transition activity involved realigning the workforce located here at headquarters — approximately 5,000 employees. And the third transition activity that is now under way involves realigning the field workforce. This represents the bulk of our personnel, some 32,000-plus air traffic controllers, technical specialists and support specialists. We should conclude field realignment later this year.

AM: How are you making decisions regarding these realignments?

Chew: One underlying principle that we follow is to group the logical elements where the costs of providing the service could be aggregated for cost reporting and budget planning. This is key to developing accountability up and down the organization layers.

We consciously attempted to move everyone closer to the point of service — the customer — and we tried to centralize support functions for efficiency. That will be especially important and evident as we watch where our money is going and how it’s being used. It’s vital that everyone — customers, employees and owner — fully understands our mission, the resources available to make it work, and our accountability and responsibility in utilizing the precious resources. I’ve received wonderful suggestions from the employees, and if we’re diligent in our search for productivity gains, the workforce should feel secure in the ATO’s success.

AM: You started with good relations with the unions. How do you plan to address the escalating costs from union demands?

Chew: Union relations are important to me, and the ATO leaders understand that the unions represent most of our workforce at the point of service. I haven’t encountered union demands that will escalate our operating costs. I think the unions are very much aware of the budget constraints and the continuing pressures from our owner to show savings and efficiency gains.

AM: How do you feel you’ve progressed in establishing a performance-based organization?

Chew: We’ve realigned the headquarters service organization around the five service domains where we provide the greatest amount of service, and we have five additional service units specifically focused on providing the planning, organizational support, and analysis and reporting required for an organization of this size. Overall, I’m proud of the progress we’ve made since last November.

AM: Have you seen productivity gains?

Chew: Early indications of productivity changes in the past 12 months are very positive. We’re over 3 percent more productive than we were in 2003.

AM: Have all the "stovepipes" been removed from the organization?

Chew: We set up a flatter organization that eliminated the worst stovepipes in the former organization. Now we have to be vigilant to not create or allow new stovepipes to creep back into the organization. People like to create specialized work areas because people with parallel interests and similar missions share much in common. But we need to focus on the overall ATO mission and, as a former customer of the old FAA, I have a special perspective that I feel helps the leadership team here maintain that focus.

AM: You’ve met with officials of Nav Canada. What information did they provide, and did you consult other agencies in the world?

Chew: Besides Canada I’ve met with several other national ATC organizations, including Germany, UK, China, Australia and Eurocontrol. They’ve all helped me develop an appreciation of what can work and the time involved in developing a new organization.

Nav Canada was very helpful in showing us the organizational model that they created when they chose to move the country’s air traffic services to a privatized organization. The geography and neighboring flight information regions are very similar to ours, but because Nav Canada’s relationship with its owners is different from what we have in the U.S., its model tends to look different. In addition, we have almost 10 times the number of employees and seven times the number of controllers. The size and complexity of the ATO makes us unique.

AM: Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta said the National Airspace System (NAS) transformation is an imperative. Yet funds toward that goal have been cut dramatically. How do you reconcile this?

Chew: The budget cuts we’re seeing are a signal to us that we’ve not been managing costs as well as we could. It’s a wake-up call to start managing better. We’re starting to manage better, but we need the tools to really do it right. The difficult transition to the Delphi financial management system (developed by the Department of Transportation to improve financial accounting and reporting) has slowed us down, but we’re confident that we ultimately will be successful in getting the system up and running.

AM: So, more than additional funding, what you need is more efficiency and cost accountability?

Chew: We have specific goals to help us, and I recently appointed a senior vice president and chief financial officer to set up operating and capital budgeting processes and oversee the establishment of a cost accounting system for the ATO. Our business plan will be tied to the FAA’s budget in September 2005, and our operating plan is tied to the FAA’s business plan. This FY2005 operating plan will contain cost targets for each ATO service unit. We’ll push accountability down to the service delivery point, and each of these points will have its own financial budget and unit cost goals. They will see their budget and actual results for each month and will be held responsible for meeting the goals that we’ve established.

AM: Have you established some personal performance goals for the ATO?

Chew: Yes. For one, I want data-driven decisions by FY2005. That means establish baseline performance goals for safety, service, cost and productivity.

I also want more financial responsibility, which means establishing financial baselines and reports for all ATO components, using cost accounting and labor distribution reporting.

I seek to establish organization excellence–in other words, implement 10 percent of the unfunded portion of the FAA strategic plan through cost savings, reprioritization of projects, and financial initiatives.

And, finally, I’m looking for leadership and human capital management. By Sept. 30 [2004] we will develop Phase 1 of management training–budgets and costs–and ensure completion by applicable personnel.

AM: The Miami controller pilot data link communications (CPDLC) project will be shut down Oct. 1 and, we hear, not restarted until the $2-billion En Route Automatic Modernization (ERAM) program comes on line, in 2011. In view of the positive results in Miami, does placing CPDLC on hold make sense?

Chew: CPDLC Build 1 — the first version, or prototype — has provided an opportunity to validate many of our assumptions about the use of data link in an operational environment. Now our plans are to shut down the system at the Miami air route traffic control center (ARTCC) this summer and capture the Build 1 functionality and requirements for a CPDLC national deployment with ERAM.

As you know, the ERAM program will provide hardware and software to better manage high-altitude traffic and help improve on-time arrival rates. ERAM Release 1 will allow us to shut down the host computer system and replace it with the new functionality. ERAM Releases 2 and 3 will provide still more functionality.

CPDLC is tightly coupled with the aging host computer system, which is not the platform for deploying CPDLC in the NAS. Shutdown of CPDLC Build 1 in Miami will free up funds for a national deployment program, and that will ensure a future for CPDLC in the NAS. Our intent is to deploy CPDLC operational capability, hosted on an ERAM-compatible CPDLC subsystem, at all 20 ARTCCs. Our schedule for ERAM shows Release 2 to be available before the end of 2009, at which time CPDLC capability is envisioned to be available.

AM: Is FAA on track in approving wide area augmentation system (WAAS) approaches, using satellite navigation, throughout the U.S.?

Chew: Yes. The FAA has been publishing WAAS approaches for several years. There are more than 600 runway ends that are served by area navigation (RNAV) procedures, and these include approaches that can be made by WAAS-equipped aircraft. The FAA will continue to produce RNAV procedures at a rate of 100 per year.

AM: Do you know of plans to have WAAS ground stations modified to monitor Europe’s Galileo satellites?

Chew: To secure a seamless international air transportation system that is safe and secure, the FAA would consider using signals from other GNSS (global navigation satellite systems) if they are compatible and interoperable and meet our operational requirements. With respect to the Galileo system, the U.S. and EC (European Commission) have been negotiating a cooperative agreement for the past several years, and an agreement was signed at a summit meeting in June in Ireland [see page 12 in the Industry Scan section, August 2004].

AM: We know of WAAS demonstrations in Brazil. Is FAA making a concerted effort to internationalize WAAS?

Chew: We’re making a concerted effort to promote commercial proliferation, interoperability and use of GNSS and GNSS augmentation systems internationally. Through our efforts in Brazil the FAA is encouraging South America to implement an augmentation system to GNSS much like WAAS. In addition to Brazil the FAA is expanding the WAAS infrastructure into the northern parts of Alaska, parts of Canada and of Mexico to provide the WAAS signal to all the continental United States, most of Alaska, and most of Canada and Mexico. We’re also working with the governments of Japan and India on GNSS augmentation systems and are participating in the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) standards development process for GNSS augmentation systems.

AM: When you worked at American Airlines you said the local area augmentation system (LAAS) "is a critical element of satellite-based navigation services and represents the airline industry’s top priority." Do you still believe this?

Chew: Yes. Our airline customers continue to support development of LAAS technology to provide precision approach and landing services in zero visibility conditions. However, although the FAA supports continued development of LAAS, budget constraints coupled with technical issues and an uncertain business case prevented us from funding the program in FY2005. This is unfortunate, but the pause provides more time to resolve the outstanding issues associated with meeting integrity requirements. The LAAS Integrity Panel is making progress towards reaching technical consensus on a way forward for LAAS Category 1, which should apply to Category 3.

AM: When do you think the LAAS integrity issue will be resolved?

Chew: The solar events of October and November 2003 were more severe than anticipated, and this new information required additional analysis of ionospheric effects on LAAS. We expect to reach technical consensus on the integrity issues for LAAS in FY2005.

The FAA also has sponsored an independent benefits analysis of LAAS to ensure our procurement decisions have a sound business case. We expect that to be completed in early FY2005, as well. Assuming progress continues, the FAA will be able to reassess funding priorities for the LAAS program later in 2005.

AM: The Capstone project in Alaska would appear to be a shining star in FAA technology development. Is it on firm financial footing?

Chew: The Capstone program supports the FAA administrator’s Flight Plan 2004. Funding for Capstone is included in the FAA’s capital improvement program through FY2007.

AM: Where does Capstone go from here?

Chew: It’s working to confirm requirements for Alaskan avionics users, and it’s coordinating a statewide implementation strategy based on lessons learned during the previous phases of development, Phases 1 and 2. This plan will include deployment of ground-based communication and surveillance system components. We also will demonstrate and evaluate an aircraft-satellite-ground data link capability. We will look for affordable avionics and the expansion of navigation capabilities to construct new and lower-altitude routes and procedures. Finally, we plan to install additional systems to support the IFR (instrument flight rules) and VFR (visual flight rules) infrastructure.

AM: When can we expect Capstone Phase 3?

Chew: Phase 3 statewide expansion activities will begin in FY05. Budget cuts have not impacted Phase 3 at this time.

AM: And what role will automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) play in Capstone?

Chew: The Technology Development Organization under the new ATO is currently working to examine the business case for ADS-B and present this case for an investment decision in December [2004].

AM: Would you agree that Eurocontrol seems to have taken a technological lead over FAA–in areas such as reduced vertical separation minimum (RVSM), Mode S, ADS-B and CPDLC?

Chew: No. I see the FAA and Eurocontrol working together to define systems and procedures for the future. In fact the FAA and Eurocontrol are in the process of finalizing a revised memorandum of cooperation that expands our cooperative work beyond research and into the systems development and air traffic operations areas. It’s important that we define the future architecture together, to minimize the impact of differences in avionics and procedures on board aircraft. While our implementation timelines may differ for various reasons — generally operational needs — we expect our overall plans to be very similar.

I’d like to add that the FAA is working with Eurocontrol, the EC and European manufacturers to harmonize longer-range plans developed by the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO — established in the last FAA reauthorization bill and tasked to define the shape of the ATC system for 2025 and beyond). The JPDO expects to complete a roadmap for the future by mid-2005. We’re also working closely with ICAO and have bilateral relationships with other civil aviation authorities around the world.

AM: Administrator Marion Blakey has proclaimed the goal of assuring FAA’s global leadership in air safety initiatives. Do you plan to be pro-active in advocating FAA solutions?

Chew: We’re very active in providing technical assistance to foreign civil aviation authorities to help enhance safety and meet international standards. We’re currently assisting Caribbean and South American countries with the implementation of RVSM. We’re optimistic that the region will implement RVSM in harmony with the U.S. in January 2005.

We’re an active participant in ICAO; for example, we’ve been one of the leading contributors to the ICAO panel charged with developing worldwide GNSS standards. And in ATM (air traffic management) operations we’re leading the way in the runway safety area, and we’ve shared our expertise with others around the world. In addition, we’re planning to initiate exchange programs with several of our sister air navigation service providers to share our operational expertise and gain insight into their business practices.

AM: What is the status of the Free Flight program?

Chew: The Free Flight program office was disestablished as part of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization stand-up. The projects formerly known as Free Flight were moved in February to the ATO’s En Route/Oceanic Services Unit and its Systems Operations Service. By the time the Free Flight Office was disestablished, the net impact of the reduction from all sources to Free Flight was the delay of the last user request evaluation tool (URET) deployments, from the end of FY2005 to the middle of FY2006. All enhancements to URET are to be in place by the end of FY06. In addition, the TMA (traffic management advisor) deployments and enhancements are to be completed by December 2006 and CDM (collaborative decision-making) is to deliver its semiannual enhancements on time. Of course, these future events assume that all funding is provided in accordance with the FY2005 president’s budget request and the pending FY2006 funding requests.

The FAA has slowed or put on hold modernization efforts that are linked to avionics changes on the flight deck — LAAS, CPDLC, NEXCOM (next generation air/ground communications). That’s because these efforts are highly dependent on high levels of equipage to achieve customer benefits. When the benefits are overwhelming, such as with RVSM, a rule can be made and implementation dates set.

AM: So modernization hinges a lot on the health of the air transport industry?

Chew: When modernization of the NAS depends on voluntary equipage by the airlines, the economy plays a huge role. Since investments that include voluntary equipage are more uncertain, FAA continuously works with the aviation community through its federal advisory committees — in particular RTCA — to coordinate FAA and community investments and to identify early applications and target locations for which the benefit is overwhelming and investment is clear.

We know there’s a risk of slowing modernization by linking it to reciprocal modernization by the airlines. But there’s a greater risk to the FAA’s efforts to become cost-effective and performance-based by not doing so. Capital investments that do not improve operational efficiency because the airlines don’t equip increase the FAA’s costs without improving performance.

AM: Have economic conditions impacted the Operational Evolution Plan (OEP)?

Chew: The OEP’s strength is its ability to gain consensus from both industry and government on a course of action, to secure firm commitments from all the major stakeholders. These commitments require long-range and interdependent financial investments by airports, airlines and the federal government. And these investments can only be made responsibly within the context of the forecasted funding profile.

The solutions within the OEP are funded through individual program offices, not the OEP office. The plan provides a forum in which the effect of changes in the operating environment — financially driven or otherwise — can be explored. It also is where we can evaluate the effects of changes toward the OEP’s desired outcome: an increased capacity of the NAS by 28 percent over the next 10 years.

We’re examining what both industry and the government can afford and what the right timing is. Near term our emphasis is on developing services that minimize the need for our customers to make additional investments in avionics and other systems. For example, two major OEP initiatives that depend on avionics are domestic RVSM and the development of procedures for RNAV/RNP (required navigation performance). Here we’re building on the capabilities that are already in most of the commercial and business fleets.

AM: When you were with American you warned of the impact of flight delays if action isn’t taken to expand capacity. Do you still feel there’s urgency here?

Chew: Reducing flight delays is of constant importance to the FAA; however, flight delays are a function of both the demand for air traffic services and the ability of the NAS to supply capacity to meet that demand. Because those two factors may change at different rates, we must continually review whether the FAA can supply the capacity that is demanded.

At Chicago O’Hare airport we believed that increases in traffic would exceed the airport’s ability to handle the demand. So we requested that United and American reduce a proposed increase in scheduled operations. And the benefit of reducing delays in Chicago tends to spread system-wide.

The industry also is adding more and more regional jet flights, many of which bypass the hubs to provide more direct routing. This increases the demand for airspace between airports, a constraint we will have to increasingly address. Absent the construction of new runways, increases in capacity are basically the result of new technologies and procedures, such as RVSM. But new technology, equipment and procedures can only add marginal amounts of capacity. So the FAA’s ability to meet increased demand continues to be a challenge.

AM: As a performance-based organization, how are you measuring safety? Do you have a matrix, and what are the criteria?

Chew: The ATO Safety Service provides the focal point for safety and quality assurance of all our ATC services. They accomplish this through a comprehensive safety management system process that includes safety risk assessment, evaluation, data analysis and the promotion of safety enhancement initiatives. In addition, the FAA administrator has established a new organization within the agency’s Regulation and Certification Service, and it provides independent safety oversight of ATO’s delivery of air traffic services.

Two metrics used to track the safety performance of the ATO are operational errors — made by controllers that result in a loss of standard separation criteria — and runway incursions — occurring when an aircraft or vehicle enters a runway without clearance and conflicts with other traffic. Both types of errors have annual performance limits aimed at systemic risk reduction and are monitored on a daily basis. Currently, both of these types of errors are in a "green" status, which means they have occurred below annual projected levels. Work continues to develop additional performance measures, which will better illuminate and lead to further risk reduction in the national airspace system.

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