• U.S. debate to privitize air-traffic control spotlights Canada
  • NAV CANADA's software guides the skies over nine countries

There’s an unusual quiet in Canada’s 41 air-traffic towers.

There is none of the loud clacking of controllers stacking plastic containers holding paper strips -- a flight-tracking relic dating to the early days of aviation and still in use in the U.S. and elsewhere. Instead, computer screens glow silently.

Air traffic controllers at the Nav Canada tower in Ottawa.
Air traffic controllers at the Nav Canada tower in Ottawa.
Photographer: Patrick Doyle/Bloomberg

NAV CANADA, the country’s flight-control operator, began 18 years ago to replace the paper strips with a computerized system that it now sells around the world. The seemingly simple innovation is not just quieter, but improves efficiency and safety, linking airports electronically in a seamless operation.

“Nobody would go back to strips,” Jean Beauregard, a supervisor at Ottawa/Macdonald-Cartier International Airport’s tower, said on a recent afternoon. Behind him a color display showed a lineup of pending flights, complete with safety notifications and restrictions for each one.

In the 20 years since it became an independent nonprofit corporation, NAV CANADA has transformed itself from a public agency struggling with antiquated technology into a global leader in air-traffic systems. It generated C$135 million ($105 million) over the past five years exporting its products. Its success has members of Congress calling for the oft-criticized U.S. air traffic system to be spun off from the Federal Aviation Administration into a structure like Canada’s. 

Eight Buyers

Its technology is now in use in eight other countries, including Australia, the U.K. and Dubai. NAV CANADA has leaped ahead of the U.S. in using more efficient e-mail-like communications with pilots instead of radio voice calls. Canada’s computer system for tracking planes over the oceans has been adopted by the U.K. And NAV CANADA is a majority partner in a company building a revolutionary space-based system of tracking planes that will for the first time work in the world’s most remote oceans and polar regions. The new firm, U.S.-based Aireon LLC, is negotiating deals to sell this tracking data to other countries.

NAV CANADA earned C$29 million, or 2 percent of its C$1.33 billion total revenue in 2015, from selling its technology, according to its annual report.

Export Income

“The pace of what they’re doing, you can’t compare it to what we’re doing here,” Paul Rinaldi, president of the U.S. National Air Traffic Controllers Association union. After multiple visits to Canada, Rinaldi earlier this year reversed the union’s decades-long opposition to putting FAA’s air-traffic division into a nonprofit corporation, endorsing the proposed split under consideration in Congress. “The Canadian system is very impressive.”

Australia installed NAV CANADA’s tower software at four airports and last year signed a contract to add it at four more. “By transitioning away from a manual, paper based system, controllers are able to concentrate more on the visual surveillance of the airport and aircraft,” Sarah Fulton, spokeswoman for Airservices Australia, a government corporation that oversees air traffic, said in an e-mail.

Complex Software

Air-traffic computer systems are among the world’s most complex software programs, and difficult to develop. The FAA in the late 1990s abandoned what was known as the Advanced Automation System and declared more than $1 billion in losses. Other development projects since have been marred by cost overruns and busted schedules.

NAV CANADA faced just such a mess after it took over in 1996. A computer system under development by a private contractor to help controllers guide traffic between airports was bogged down in delays and dysfunction, according to Kim Troutman, NAV CANADA’s vice president for engineering.

Four years later, when the system known as the Canadian Automated Air Traffic System or CAATS was finally delivered, NAV CANADA’s senior engineers decided the model of using outside contractors was broken. The corporation decided to take the unprecedented step of upgrading the computer code themselves, according to Troutman and Sidney Koslow, vice president and chief technology officer.

DIY Development

Since then, they’ve added safety features including a midair collision warning and efficiency tools that allow controllers and pilots to send text messages to each other instead of relying on crowded radio channels, making it one of the leading such systems in the world.

With automation, controllers no longer have to perform the time-consuming task of printing out and distributing the strips, what had been a full-time job in some facilities, Troutman said. It also transmits flight data instantly to the rest of the country, making the coordination of long-range flights across regions easier. And it enhances safety by such things as notifying controllers about construction on runways.

Doing their own development has the added benefit of helping speed recovery should crashes occur, as happened in 2013 when CAATS briefly failed. “This is where building it yourself really, really pays off,” Troutman said.

The two technology chiefs attribute NAV CANADA’s ability to adopt new technology to several factors. They have involved controllers throughout the process, which helps with design and testing. If an off-the-shelf product exists that meets their needs, they don’t bother building it in-house. And they work on manageable, small improvements rather than the moon-shot projects that are typical for air-traffic providers.

“We don’t take too big a bite,” Koslow said. “We do it incrementally.”

Shuster’s Plan

While both said they didn’t want to become part of the debate over whether the U.S. FAA should spin off its air-traffic system, they believe that being outside government has helped. Instead of having to envision how a new system will work before writing contract specifications -- and then having to live with that for years -- NAV CANADA has more freedom to tinker with functionality during development, they said.

Representative Bill Shuster, the Pennsylvania Republican who is chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has repeatedly cited NAV CANADA’s technology successes as grounds to partially privatize FAA’s air-traffic division. His legislation would model the U.S. after Canada.

Opposition to the idea is one of the main reasons a reauthorization bill allowing the agency to operate was been held up. Shuster has vowed to keep pushing.

“There are a lot of positives to be learned from the Canadian experience,” said John Hansman, an aeronautics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has advised the FAA on air-traffic issues. “They run a really good shop and they have been technically innovative.”

Canadian Model

Of course, Canada’s controllers handle less than one-fourth the flights of their U.S. counterparts. “They don’t have the same challenges,” Hansman said, questioning whether the U.S. would enjoy the same benefits with the switch to a Canadian-style nonprofit.

The FAA believes its recent technology acquisitions are on track after adopting some similar practices to Canada, and the system is among the most modern in the world, Michael Whitaker, the deputy administrator, said in an interview.

At the same time, the FAA believes that rhetoric surrounding the call to spin off its air-traffic division has unfairly tarnished its efforts to roll out new technology in a program called NextGen. “It’s perhaps an inconvenient truth that the implementation of NextGen is working well and with the collaboration of industry,” Whitaker said.

At the Ottawa tower, NAV CANADA is showing off another new technology system, which allows controllers to log into work and receive pre-shift briefings on an iPad, replacing sign-in sheets and binder books. Known as iSign, the system was rolled out last year and the company hopes to sell it to airports and other aviation clients.

With NAV CANADA Chief Information Officer Claudio Silvestri present, tower supervisor Jean Beauregard sees an opportunity to provide some of the feedback that the company says is so important to ensuring quality. The iPad system has been useful, but doesn’t track employees on special assignments outside the tower, Beauregard says.

Silvestri takes out a notebook and jots down Beauragard’s suggestion. "That should be easy to do," he says.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE