Operators fume over steep costs of DRVSM

 - May 5, 2008, 5:19 AM

August 8 marked the official close of the rulemaking comment period
on the contentious FAA proposal calling for implementation of domestic reduced vertical separation minimums (DRVSM) in U.S. airspace starting in December 2004. A large number of business aircraft operators, particularly smaller flight departments and charter providers, are fuming over the proposed rules, which will require sophisticated–and inevitably expensive–height-keeping equipment in airplanes that operate in DRVSM airspace, spanning from a floor of FL 290 to FL 410, inclusive.
Estimates put the cost of DRVSM compliance in the $175,000 to $300,000 range per airplane, in addition to a month of downtime to install new flight instruments and sensors. While many GA groups have already made their positions on the proposal public, official comments submitted to the FAA by NBAA, AOPA, the National Air Transportation Association and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association serve to underscore the deep concerns about the expected economic effect of DRVSM on business and general aviation.

In all, the FAA received more than 70 comments on the DRVSM proposal, many of them from individual business aircraft operators who wrote to say that the costs associated with equipment upgrades would be prohibitively expensive. Learjet 25 operators in particular voiced objections, arguing that because no compliance solution exists for these older business jets they are essentially being regulated out of existence.

The president of an Indianapolis-based charter operator, for example, pointed out that there currently does not exist an RVSM-compliance solution for the company’s 1979 Learjet 25D–nor is one actively in development–and said the cost to upgrade its Learjet 35 and two Hawker 800As will run from $175,000 to $250,000 apiece, with downtime of five weeks per airplane.

Many shared the opinion of the charter company executive that FAA regulations are conspiring against operators of older business airplanes. The financial burden, they say, will be difficult to bear.

“How can the government arbitrarily tell our industry that you are going to have to pay on average $175,000 per aircraft to comply with this rule, or sell your aircraft at a substantial loss because no RVSM package is available, and assume all will accept it?” wrote the charter firm’s president in the company’s official comment. “Reducing or eliminating the economic impact of this proposed rule on the general aviation industry is critical to the survival of smaller operators.”

As one solution, the Part 135 operator suggested that money from the Aviation Trust Fund might be used to subsidize equipment costs for small businesses. And as an alternative to DRVSM he also proposed that ATC equipment be upgraded to monitor aircraft altitude more precisely, thereby putting the cost burden on the FAA instead of individual operators. Both are options that the FAA is unlikely to accept as tenable.

Economic Ramifications
DRVSM, as proposed, will reduce separation between airplanes flying in the higher flight levels from the current 2,000-ft minimum to 1,000 ft. The FAA estimates DRVSM will save the airlines about $5.8 billion in fuel costs between 2004 and 2018, a compelling argument in support of the proposal. Smaller companies that operate light to midsize business jets, however, argue that the FAA ignored the full ramifications of the rule on their segment of aviation, and contend that the economic model supporting DRVSM is incomplete.

Scott Tweed, chief pilot for Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based charter operator Air Voyager, a Learjet 25 operator, told AIN he is worried that if the FAA does not provide a certain amount of leniency to operators of aircraft for which RVSM-compliance packages do not exist, his business will be in trouble. He agreed with others that the Learjet 20-series is on the verge of being regulated to the point of extinction.
“If they don’t have a provision for non-RVSM-compatible aircraft, it essentially renders a whole set of airplanes useless,” he said. “I don’t know if anyone is working on an RVSM conversion for the 20-series Lears, but even if they are it would probably be cheaper to get a new airplane.”

Spirit Wing, a Guthrie, Okla.-based warbird restorer, is in the midst of an ambitious Learjet 20-series re-engining program that the company said hinges on the ability of the airplanes being able to gain RVSM approval. New noise restrictions at many airports around the country prohibit operations by Learjet 20-series aircraft, creating a market for the re-engining program–but operators are unlikely to spend the money for new engines if they can’t fly at optimum altitudes.

Spirit Wing is developing an STC to fit quieter, more fuel-efficient Williams FJ44-2C turbofans on the series, and plans to seek group RVSM approval on its own. A company spokesman, however, admitted the program right now is on the “back burner” and that an application to the FAA has yet to be submitted. He also said Spirit Wing’s plan is to use the aircraft’s original Jet FC-110 autopilot with new pitot-static probes and an air-data system from an unnamed supplier, a configuration that may not be viable if the out-of-production autopilot cannot hold altitude to strict RVSM specifications.

NBAA, a leading voice of opposition against what association president Jack Olcott calls “regulatory obsolescence of perfectly good airplanes,” reiterated in comments to the FAA its concerns about DRVSM, expressed a year ago to Administrator Jane Garvey in a joint NBAA/ GAMA letter. NBAA’s central argument is that it will be difficult for operators to equip and certify airplanes on time. As such, the association has led the call for a phased-in DRVSM implementation schedule–so far to no avail.

NBAA was disappointed when the FAA rejected an earlier proposal that called for DRVSM to be implemented in stages over a number of years, a plan that would have given corporate operators more time to gain needed avionics upgrades. The FAA decided to scrap the plan after the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca), the labor union that represents about 15,000 of the nation’s ATC personnel, said phased implementation would wreak havoc on the ATC system by forcing controllers to switch back and forth between 2,000- and 1,000-ft separation standards.
NBAA has generally supported the broader DRVSM concept, but it is worried that too little time remains to modify and gain approvals for the entire business aviation fleet. Olcott’s message to members is that they should start planning for DRVSM earlier rather than later.

“DRVSM is something that’s going to be reality,” warned Olcott. “It’s a reality in Europe, it’s a reality over the North Atlantic.” December 2004, he said, appears to be the firm date the FAA will adhere to, in spite of business aviation’s objections. “We have argued that there needs to be a phase in, we’ve argued that there needs to be a way of helping the community adjust to this, but so far the FAA has said, ‘We hear your community, we hear you NBAA, but there’s a time schedule here and we’re going to stick to it.’”

NBAA hasn’t quite given up the fight to delay DRVSM’s introduction, but it is clear that the association’s concerns now lie mainly in helping to ensure that operators can gain DRVSM approvals, including required pilot training, well in advance of the rule’s effective date.

“The big challenge with RVSM is for the operators to realize it is a reality, and that they had best make their arrangements to get their airplanes modified as soon as possible so that we don’t end up with a huge backlog of work just as we’re approaching the deadline,” said Olcott.

The FAA will hold DRVSM seminars on September 8 and 9 in Orlando, Fla., in conjunction with this month’s NBAA Convention. The association has voiced concern about the FSDO approval process, arguing that some of its members have encountered difficulty when dealing with local FAA officials, and that rules seem to vary from place to place. Such concerns are expected to be discussed during the seminars.

DRVSM Analysis ‘Flawed’
NATA, meanwhile, called the FAA’s DRVSM analysis “flawed,” arguing that the agency didn’t review the economic effect of the rule on “small businesses operating aircraft within the general aviation fleet.” The association also said that current cost estimates of $200,000 to $300,000 for DRVSM compliance represent “half the total value” of many older business jets. NATA asked for an additional 90-day comment period to allow for a “thorough review of the FAA’s economic and small business conclusions,” while also calling for an independent economic analysis in that time period.

AOPA, whose members generally will be less affected by DRVSM, argued that while the restricted airspace is supposed to increase capacity at altitude, major chokepoints remain in terminal areas. Until more runways are built, wrote the pilots’ group, DRVSM will have “little impact on improving total system capacity.”

Not all the comments submitted for FAA review were negative, however. In fact, several praised the agency for moving forward on DRVSM in spite of opposition from GA groups. For instance, one small corporate operator who reported having just gone through the RVSM-approval process with the company’s Cessna Citation said the experience was “entirely positive,” adding that the firm expects the savings associated with flying at optimum flight levels will, over time, “provide good financial returns.”

A surprising number of comments were from the general public, people who were perhaps moved to offer observations based on reports they had seen on TV or read in newspapers. While many of these appeared to be casual remarks that supported DRVSM implementation as a way to save the airlines money, a number dealt with safety and the potential for collisions in the higher flight levels that could result from reduced separation between aircraft. Such worries are perhaps to be expected considering that the DRVSM comment period closed just weeks after the highly publicized collision of a DHL Boeing 757-200 cargo plane and passenger-laden Tupolev Tu-154M over Germany. Sixty-nine people died in the accident, most of them Russian schoolchildren.

The flying public isn’t the only group worried about the potential for collisions in DRVSM airspace, however. Pilots for some time have hotly debated the question of whether DRVSM-compliant aircraft should be required to carry TCAS. In its formal comments to the FAA, the Air Line Pilots Association said TCAS mandates are not needed, writing that its members are of the opinion that an adequate level of safety can be maintained if non-TCAS equipped aircraft are equip-ped with altitude-reporting mode-C transponders, as is already required.

Also weighing in on the proposal was the NTSB, whose recommendations dealt not with the danger of collisions, but instead with wake turbulence, a frequent complaint of crews flying in RVSM airspace behind heavy jets over Europe and the North Atlantic. The Board suggested that the FAA “aggressively solicit and track reports” of such incidents to help identify any safety issues.