Advancing Air Navigation

Aug. 8, 2001

Advancing Air Navigation

Placing technology, safety at the heart of air traffic control

By Lindsay M. Hitch, Assistant Editor

August 2001

John CrichtonFees, For Example Cessna 172 (GA) • Canadian Registerd: $55/year • Foreign: $13.75/quarter Airbus A340 (Commercial) • Toronto to Hong Kong: $6,245 round trip For specific rates select the Service Charges button on

OTTAWA—Since its purchase the air navigation system from the Canadian government in November 1996, NAV CANADA has turned a lagging system into an industry leader. The Technical Systems Center, the source of NAV CANADA’s technological innovations, brings engineers and operators together in the development process.

Headquartered in a modern building in downtown Ottawa, NAV CANADA gets little notice from the average passerby. It is the people and purpose of the company inside that deserve attention.
"Safety is our only product; obviously, it’s the core of our business," explains John Morris, director of communications. "We’re a safety company. It’s what we deliver to the owners and operators of aircraft. It’s our number one priority."

Rethinking Boundaries
Creating a private company separate from government has been attributed as the main cause for the Canadian success.
NAV CANADA was established as a non-share capital corporation, meaning that the company does not have shareholders and operates on a break-even basis.
"The non-share capital structure is the best all around for running a business that is in essence a monopoly, because there aren’t profits that go to individuals," says John Crichton, president and CEO. "The money stays in a loop and in the business. It allows the customers who are paying all the bills to have a very significant presence on the board. And because of all those factors, and the fact that our governance is that we only charge what it costs to provide the service, it eliminates the need to have an economic regulator, which is the big point."
Another positive aspect to the separation from government is one of boundaries, as Morris explains. "We have an independent regulator. When the company was created, we were split off from Transport Canada, and Transport Canada retained the regulatory function. So rather than have the regulator and the operator together in one organization, which does carry with it an inherent conflict of interests, they are now separated in Canada. That makes for more effective hands-off, arms-length regulations."

Since privatization in 1996, air traffic control operating irregularities in Canada have decreased, from 2.6 per 100,000 aircraft movements to 2.2 per 100,000 movements. NAV CANADA has reinstated annual refresher training for controllers, something that had been scaled back under government direction. And the company has created the ARGUS system, a confidential hotline for employees to report safety concerns.

"The successful air navigation system combines very skilled people with leading-edge technology," says Crichton. "That’s sort of the secret to handle traffic demands and the problems in the future. And we have taken a different route than everybody else traditionally has done on technology. We do a lot of it ourselves."
Morris says, "If there’s any one thing that’s different from government days, it’s how fast we can respond to customer needs, how fast we can get new technology developed and deployed."
The NAV CANADA Technical Sys-tems Center (TSC) in Ottawa is a facility dedicated to testing, improving, and creating air traffic control components.
"The TSC reflects three levels of activity that we do in engineering," says Sid Koslow, vice president of engineering.
The first level involves supporting the existing systems. The TSC has one of each type of equipment in use throughout NAV CANADA and staff assigned to support each of them.
The second level, says Koslow, is the testing of all equipment, whether it was purchased "off-the-shelf" and modified to fit NAV CANADA’s system or developed in-house.
"We exercise it fairly extensively out there to make sure that we don’t add anything to a system in the field that is not fully integrated and as bug-free as we can make it in the test environment," says Koslow.
The third element is development, likely the most unique aspect of NAV CANADA and its Technical Systems Center.

The main development room at the TSC, reminiscent of a scene from a James Bond flick with its low ceiling and dim lighting, is full of computer screens, engineers, ATC operations staff, and contract support staff. Koslow says that NAV CANADA tries to have all the key players in one place working together, ensuring that what is created is mechanically sound, user-friendly, and appropriate to needs.
"What we’ve done is, rather than spend a lot of time looking way out into the future and trying to write it down, we try to put together small teams that usually consist of operational and engineering people from NAV CANADA, supplemented often by software designers and coders from industry. And we try to, rather than write things down, build something, build a small prototype. And then based on the prototype and the reaction of our people to it, including the reactions of people that are currently out in the regions doing ATC, we modify it."
The process has worked well for NAV CANADA thus far, and RSiT is one such success. RSiT, or Radar Situation Display, replaces radar-type displays with a desktop computer-type display with a mouse and adaptable capabilities. RSiT took only 16 months from the time it was first conceived to the time it was installed and fully operational in its first location.
Crichton says there have been a number of foreign visitors to NAV CANADA’s facilities in the past year interested in the company structure and its technological advancements. He expects that the company will begin reselling its technology to other air navigation systems in the near future.
"That will be a win for everybody, because we can sell it at a lower price and it’s already proven, so there’s no risk. The customers are mutual customers, so they get to lean on the investments that are already made and not have to pay again and again and again.... That’s something we’re looking forward to."

Canadian Firsts
A sampling of innovative technologies developed at NAV CANADA’s Technical Systems Center...

In service now:
• RSiT (Radar Situation Display)—provides enhanced display features on a desktop computer screen with real-time weather, zoom, display of only selected flights, and conflict detection and resolution.
• CRDA (Converging Runway Display Aid)—allows controllers to continue near-maximum use during IFR conditions of both converging runways. Based on software from Mitre Corporation, CRDA has increased runway capacity in Calgary up to 30 percent in IFR conditions.
• EXCDS (Extended Computer Display System)—allows for touchscreen display of flight strips and the instant transfer of strips from one controller to the next. The Toronto tower, using EXCDS, is completely paperless.

In the next 18 months:
• CAATS (Canadian Auto-mated Air Traffic System)—will automate flight data system-wide and will integrate weather updates and nation-wide radar data.
• Pilot Information Kiosks—are designed to serve the general aviation community with weather and NOTAMS, and will allow pilots to file flight plans. NAV CANADA plans to install 80-100 kiosks in 80 locations around the nation, and the information will be available on as well.