After four years, opinions are mixed on Nav Canada-led ATC

 - May 9, 2008, 5:54 AM

Now halfway into its fifth year of operation as the world’s first fully privatized provider of air navigation services, Nav Canada today finds itself lauded by its clients and castigated by some of its employees.

The big bouquet came from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents the world’s airlines. In May, IATA presented Nav Canada with one of its two Eagle Awards, which are given each year to an airport and an air navigation service that provide “value for money” and are diligent in improving productivity and efficiency.

The brickbats came from two of Nav Canada’s unions, which have accused the company of cutting back on employees, forcing them to work overtime to accommodate long hours on difficult shifts, and generally being indifferent to their needs. The two unions, one representing air traffic controllers and the other representing electronic maintenance technicians, are hinting that strike action is not out of the question. Rob Thurger, newly elected president of the Canadian Air Traffic Controllers Association (Catca), said, “The Nav Canada model was a good one, and Catca was supportive of the move to privatization. So we expected to be fully involved in its development. But that hasn’t happened.” As a result, said Thurger, there was a major disillusionment among his members.

Yet, curiously, both the satisfied clients and the dissatisfied employees all appear to agree that Nav Canada is doing a better job than Transport Canada, its predecessor. As Canadian Business Aircraft Association (CBAA) president Rich Gage put it, “I don’t know anyone who would want to go back to operating under Transport Canada.”

Bizav Operators Generally Happy

Certainly, CBAA members appear to have no complaints about life in a privatized environment. “We have a success story in Nav Canada,” said Gage, adding that under the new organization corporate operators were by and large “a lot better off than before” because of clearly increased system efficiency. This has in turn led to higher productivity for users, and also brought added safety and cost savings, he noted.

Gage acknowledged that Nav Canada’s creation brought the imposition of user fees to business aviation, which had formerly been exempt, but said most members accepted these charges as the cost of doing business, and that there has been little or no feedback on this issue.

To Gage there were two key improvements brought about by Nav Canada. First, while Transport Canada had recognized the potential benefits of new technologies, its implementation of these was slow. Nav Canada, on the other hand, has not only actively embraced new concepts, but has introduced and is using them. This, he said, was a “fundamental issue” and marked the difference between a private organization and government agencies like Transport Canada and the FAA, neither of which has the ability to move quickly to take advantage of new technology.

The second improvement, Gage noted, has been in the level of consultation with the various user groups. Here, Nav Canada established an advisory council made up of all segments of the user community. It meets periodically to receive suggested system improvements, debate issues and review how well the company is serving its customers.

The notion of system users being customers is a key one, Gage and other user group representatives told AIN. At the advisory council meetings and in frequent discussions with individual Nav Canada officials, the business edict of satisfying the customer comes through clearly.

Air Transport Association of Canada president and CEO Cliff Mackay echoed many of Gage’s observations. “Our overwhelming view is that Nav Canada’s creation was a beneficial move, and we are pleased how it has all come out,” he said. “Nav Canada now has a sustainable capital investment plan of $100 million per year for new technology, and this is totally out of the reach of political influence.”

User fees, which Mackay described as “fair, transparent and established after industry consultation,” have steadily decreased over the last two years, as Nav Canada’s revenues exceeded expenditures. (Any excess revenue, after covering operating costs and capital investments, must be disbursed to users as fee rebates.)
Mackay also noted the new radar systems installed by Nav Canada to cover routes in the country’s northern regions and the newly introduced polar tracks. Additionally, he said, top U.S. airline officials were following Nav Canada’s progress closely, with several expressing the opinion that eventually the U.S. “must move to the Canadian model.”

Satisfaction Is Only Relative
However, the level of customer satisfaction with Nav Canada is proportional to the size of the airplane one flies. When asked for the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association’s view of Nav Canada, COPA president and CEO Kevin Psutka responded, “The jury is still out.” Like AOPA, COPA’s major concern is user fees, which Nav Canada imposes on all general aviation aircraft. This annual fee started out at about $40. but in line with the rebates offered across the user community has now dropped to $37, Psutka stated that while the fee is reasonable for the services provided, the Canadian government adamantly refuses to withdraw or reduce its fuel tax, which, at 11 cents per liter on avgas, is one cent more than regular automobile gasoline and seven cents more than turbine fuel.

Psutka also said “some promises are still unfulfilled,” referring to Nav Canada’s delay in instituting its transition from the earlier patchwork network of Flight Service Stations across the country to a system of regional, advanced-technology Flight Information Centers, the first of which is scheduled to open in Halifax, Nova Scotia, later this year.

On the other hand, Psutka would “definitely not” want to return to the Transport Canada regime. He noted that when the Nav Canada concept was first proposed, COPA and the rest of the user community supported it, “since it would do better than Transport Canada.” Like CBAA’s Gage, Psutka said “Nav Canada is a success story” since it is accessible to the community through its advisory council and also through its middle managers. He said these individuals are “always available, even on weekends and work a lot harder for you than they ever did at Transport Canada.”

So what new technology and services has Nav Canada introduced? The main project has been the Canadian Advanced Air Traffic System (CAATS) built by Vancouver-based Raytheon Canada, which is described as being far ahead of any other ATC system in the world. CAATS is hugely automated, and was described by one controller as “a controller’s dream,” incorporating just about everything that a next-generation system could offer.

Next year, installation of CAATS will commence in Canada’s ARTCCs over a three-year period. But in advance of complete system installations, centers have been equipped with CAATS controller displays, which incorporate many system features, including real-time weather.

Yet to COPA’s Psutka “there was no hope for CAATS under Transport Canada.” Initiated in the mid-1980s, the project drifted for several years, with costs rising and delivery delays increasing, as federal bureaucrats amended its specifications and quibbled over its features.

In its transition from Transport Canada, Nav Canada agreed to take over CAATS development, but only at a fixed cost of $200 million, with Transport Canada having reportedly spent around $670 million up to that point, and a guaranteed delivery date, which is now being met.

Interestingly, Nav Canada has dispensed with the paper strips that are standard around the world, on which controllers’ scribble individual notes about re-clearances and the like, and replaced them with electronic equivalents on the controllers' screens. Data entry is now done via touchscreen technology, which was developed by Nav Canada engineers, and already installed in the new control towers at Toronto International and elsewhere, and also at area control centers.

New long-range radars are also being installed in Northern Canada to support increasing arctic operations, together with future air navigation system (Fans) equipment to control and monitor the progress of airliners flying minimum-time flight plans from the U.S. and Canada to Asia via the Canadian/Russian Polar Track system. Separately, major upgrades have been incorporated into the Gander Oceanic Center in Newfoundland, which controls all traffic in the western half of the North Atlantic. Earlier this year Nav Canada instituted the first use in that region of satellite controller/pilot datalink communications (CPDLC) for position reporting, to replace the standard HF voice transmissions.

At major airports across the country, FMS-arrival procedures are being implemented, new ILS installations are planned and earlier ILS equipment upgraded, while GPS approaches are rapidly being expanded. Later this year, new pilot-information kiosks will be installed at a number of airports, offering free telephone, fax and Internet services 24 hr a day. Directly linked to the new regional Flight Information Centers, the kiosks will allow pilots to obtain briefings and other information from flight service specialists and obtain printouts of key information.

There appears, in fact, to be only one cloud on Nav Canada’s horizon, but it’s an ominous one, according to Gage, Mackay and Psutka. This is that of employee relations, which most observers, including company management officials, agree are in bad shape.

Several reasons are cited for this. One is the culture shock experienced by many employees in transferring from the calm civil service environment into the fast-moving, result-oriented business climate.

Another reason was that the new organization’s staff numbers were slowly whittled down to meet private-industry criteria.

In Nav Canada’s early years, key employee levels were at 85 percent of requirements. But burgeoning traffic volumes led to serious understaffing, requiring mandatory overtime. Even though current staffing has reached 95 percent, Catca’s Thurger cites instances of 16-hr shifts, critical staff reductions and cases of 11-hr shifts over consecutive nine-day periods.

But such overtime requirements will be eliminated, Nav Canada promised, when key staffing levels are forecast to reach 105 percent by the end of next year. Nevertheless, substantial dissatisfaction remains over what some employees–particularly controllers–perceive as management’s unsympathetic attitude toward them, and the fact that senior management is a lot harder to deal with than their former civil service managers.

In negotiations with Transport Canada, union officials would present a list of their demands and, after due consideration, the bureaucrats would say which ones were acceptable. But Nav Canada president John Crichton’s technique is different. When presented with a list of union demands, he reportedly reciprocates by presenting them with a list of his demands, and then invites them to negotiate.

Possibly apprehensive about the contract-renewal negotiations, which will commence later this year, the controller’s union has now affiliated itself with the Canadian Auto Workers union, one of Canadian labor’s heavyweights. Crichton said that this has a downside and an upside–the downside is that the auto workers union negotiators are as hard nosed as he is, but the upside is that once an agreement is hammered out, the union will observe it to the letter.