Thursday, January 31, 2008

No Further Comment Needed

Take a peek at the comment section over at The FAA Follies. You can read the article (Retain. Recruit. Rehire. Too late? ) if you have the time but what I want you to read are the comments.

It’s raw and unfiltered. It’s also the truth. It will help you figure out who’s telling the truth too.

Don Brown
January 31, 2008

So, It Isn’t Just Me

My hat is off to Stanley Holmes and Business Week for an excellent article on a different side of airline safety.

Airline Safety: A Whistleblower's Tale

”There's little doubt that Lund rubs some people the wrong way. He knows the agency's thick rule book almost by heart, and he interprets it strictly....

He makes no apologies for his sometimes abrasive personality. "I'm here to keep the public safe," says Lund,...”

I don’t know Mr. Lund but I think I would like him. And I bet he could care less. It isn’t about being liked or even being pleasant. It’s about doing your job. If you’re not willing to risk your job in order to ensure the public’s safety -- you don’t need to have a job ensuring the public’s safety.

Thank you Mr. Lund, for doing your job.

As for the FAA managers that tried to fire him...I spent my career working around people like you. You are a disgrace to public service. If you don’t have the courage to stand up to your bosses then at least stay out of the way of those that do. Either get out of the way or (better yet) just get out. Go work for private industry. There is always another Enron out there willing to employ those lacking in moral courage.

Don Brown
January 31, 2008

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Ye Shall Know the Truth

The truth always comes out. Sooner or later. It always has. It always will. Sometimes it happens quickly -- sometimes slowly. It may take 3,000 years but the next thing you know somebody is digging up your grave to prove you married your sister or that you were a cross-dresser. I guess its the ability to transform the here and now -- to delay the consequences of the truth being known -- that motivates people to lie, to deceive, to bear false witness.

The election season is upon us. That presents us with another chance to practice our political perfidy. Paul Krugman had an interesting editorial about it yesterday.

”Let’s review the sad tale, starting with the politics.

Whatever hopes people might have had that Mr. Clinton would usher in a new era of national unity were quickly dashed. Within just a few months the country was wracked by the bitter partisanship Mr. Obama has decried.

This bitter partisanship wasn’t the result of anything the Clintons did. Instead, from Day 1 they faced an all-out assault from conservatives determined to use any means at hand to discredit a Democratic president.“

Mr. Krugman is referring to the “vast right-wing conspiracy” for which Hillary Clinton was mocked for even suggesting existed. Let me provide a fuller version of the quote from Mrs. Clinton.

This is — the great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.

Well, lo and behold, someone did decide to “write about it and explain it.“ I’ve read several articles/books by those that have but I heard a new one yesterday on NPR’s ”Fresh Air.“ In addition, it presented an angle that was new to me. Terry Gross, the host of ”Fresh Air“ , was interviewing Randall Balmer about his new book, God in the White House. You can read an excerpt from the book at NPR’s web site but trust me, you want to listen to the interview.

”The architects of the Religious Right, however, eager to politicize evangelicals, blamed Carter—wrongly—for stripping places like Bob Jones University of their tax-exempt status because of their racially discriminatory policies.“

Hang on to your hat because this has more twists and turns than a bucket full of snak...uh... serpents.

Bob Jones University (in Greenville, SC) lost it’s tax-exempt status because the Supreme Court upheld a lower-court ruling that said you can’t be a charity if you have racist policies. That motivated the powers-that-be in the Religious Right to become a political force to be reckoned with. They couldn’t win on a racist platform (not to mention that would be somewhat unseemly for a group that is supposedly religious) so they decided to galvanize around the issue of abortion. (You have to listen to the story to get that part.) Accordingly, they dumped a very religious President (Jimmy Carter) in order to support a (divorced and remarried) Republican that had signed the most liberal abortion bill in the country when he was governor -- one Ronald Reagan. The irony (not to mention the hypocrisy) is incredible.

A black man won the State Democratic primary in South Carolina (home of Bob Jones University in case that irony escaped you.) The Republicans belonging to the vast, right-wing conspiracy are on their knees, praying to God (make that Jesus) that Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination so that they can generate enough hate to motivate the party faithful across the country and keep God in the White House.

Never have so many Republicans been so pleased by Hillary Clinton's success. "Sweet baby Jesus, they saved our bacon," a veteran of the Reagan Administration exulted. "We're back in the game."

Maybe President Bush’s favorite philosopher had it right.

“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”.

Thomas Jefferson said we should keep church and state separate too. By the way, he was a Founding Father but he wasn’t much of a Christian-Founding Father.

Each --religion and politics -- are complicated and confusing enough by themselves. Maybe those guys were onto something. I can’t help but wonder if the people that are so interested in making their preacher the President would be so keen on making the President their preacher. I think not.

You might be asking yourself why a retired air traffic controller is writing about religion and politics. It’s simply because I know how the President affects government. Ronald Reagan fired a bunch of controllers. George Bush (the first) ignored them. Bill Clinton made peace with them. George Bush (the second) declared war on them. It’s much too narrow an issue for any citizen (including me) to base their vote on but it is indicative of how the government has worked (yes, I emphasized “worked”) under each President.

You just had to live with them. I had to work for them. That’s the job you’re voting for them to do -- to run the country. Not to preach to the country and not to run some over-sized business. But to make the government work. Think on it will you ?

Don Brown
January 29, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- January 29

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Jan 29, 1970: The Air Traffic Controller Career Committee (popularly known as the Corson Committee) submitted its report to Secretary of Transportation John Volpe.

The report's recommendations included:

*Reduce the overtime work required of controllers in high-density areas.

*Reduce the consecutive hours spent by controllers in operational positions to two, and the total hours per day on such positions to six.

*Detail qualified journeyman controllers to high-density facilities with critical manpower shortages.

*Develop a more mobile controller work force so that the needs of the system, rather than the preferences of controllers, determine assignments.

*Develop incentives to attract the most talented controllers to the most difficult positions.

*Pay special rates for employment in facilities located in high-cost-of-living areas.

*Accelerate and improve training of developmental controllers.

*Seek legislation providing for the early retirement of controllers who attain a certain age and cannot be retained or reassigned to less arduous duty--e.g., retirement at age 50 after 20 years of ATC service with 50 percent of high-three average salary.

*Designate a single official immediately responsible to the FAA Administrator to handle all relationships with employee organizations at the national level.

A number of the committee's recommendations, including detailing journeyman controllers to facilities with critical manpower shortages, and providing developmental controllers with "update" training, received immediate attention. In addition, FAA appointed a Director of Labor Relations on Mar 23, 1970. The agency established nine groups to consider the remaining recommendations and develop programs for their implementation. (See Aug 8, 1969, Mar 25-Apr 14, 1970, Nov 6, 1970, and May 16, 1972.) “

I could go on for days about this one. I could build an entirely new blog on just this report. If you’re fair and impartial about this subject (can’t say as I am) then right about now, you’d ask, “Is there any working controller out there that has downloaded and read this report ?” If not, why not ? Do you really think the FAA is going to solve this problem ? Do you really think that those with the power will surrender it without a fight ?

It’s dawning on some now. A Democratic administration might not have done what the Bush Administration has done. But once it’s done, they can think of a lot of reasons for not undoing it. Breaking up may be hard to do but giving up power is next to impossible for a politician -- no matter what party.

You might want to ask yourself why a Republican administration (Richard Nixon’s) commissioned this report. It’s simple. The system was threatened. It says so right in the report. (Note: It’s a scanned document -- with all the formatting problems that presents. I’ve attempted to make appropriate corrections.)

The Honorable John A. Volpe
Secretary Department of Transportation
Washington, D.C. 20590

Dear Mr. Secretary:

I transmit herewith the final report of the Air Traffic Controller Career Committee.

This report presents recommendations as to what needs be done with respect to (a) manning the air traffic system, (b) improving working conditions, (c) bettering the controller's career, and (d) improving employee-management relations. The recommendations are neither novel nor unexpected. They flow directly from the facts we have assembled and the analyses we present.

The need now is for action. The Committee's study, as you know, has received widespread attention among controllers and aviation organizations. A high level of expectation has been developed that the results of this study will be made generally available and that improvements will be effected. Hence, we recommend that you ensure the early and wide distribution of this report. Some recommendations that are presented, if they are accepted, can be implemented immediately. There is an especial need for expeditious consideration of those recommendations designed to resolve the employee management relations problems which threaten the system....

(Emphasis added)

You can bet your last nickel that when Richard Nixon signed the “Air Traffic Controllers Career Program Act” in 1972 that he didn’t do it out of a sense of benevolence. Richard Nixon wasn’t a benevolent kind of guy.

Don Brown
January 29, 2008

Monday, January 28, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- Jan 28

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Jan 28, 1987: Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Hanford Dole announced a three-part effort to help reduce airline delays. The initiative included: a proposal to grant immunity to the airlines to permit them to conduct joint discussion aimed at adjusting schedules; an investigation to determine if and how airline scheduling processes contributed to delays; and a series of FAA actions to increase system capacity and efficiency. Those FAA steps included the use of computer traffic models to help airlines adjust schedules, a realignment of the air traffic control sectors in the New York/Boston corridor, a review of air traffic procedures on a facility-by-facility basis, and the transfer of additional controllers to the busiest facilities. “

And the band played on.

Do you see why people say history repeats itself ? Computer models, readjust schedules, redesign airspace, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

I don’t suspect the FAA will be transferring any controllers to busier facilities -- in that they are quickly running out of controllers to transfer anywhere.

Don Brown
January 28, 2008

Sunday, January 27, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- January 27

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Jan 27, 1969: Under an FAA contract, the University of Ohio initiated a five-year study seeking to improve the overall capabilities of the existing instrument landing system, giving particular attention to interference problems. The contractor examined existing criteria for controlling taxiing aircraft on or near ILS runways and also examined criteria for taxi-strip and warmup-area construction. This part of the study had largely been prompted by the introduction of the Boeing 747 and the Lockheed C-5A, which, because of their size, could seriously interfere with ILS signals. Another part of the study dealt with the possible effects of hangars, buildings, powerlines, and terrain on electronic signals. A computer manufacturer developed a mathematical model and a generalized computer program for predicting these effects for the study. “

I know, that’s pretty dull isn’t it ? But if your airplane is on the ILS when one of these new monsters crosses the runway, it might pique your interest. Click on the “Full Size Photo” and check out the size of the tail.

Don Brown
January 27, 2008

Writers and Controllers

It’s amazing where you bump into talk about air traffic controllers. I was searching for some news on the Writer’s Guild strike and found this article at The Huffington Post.

A Conversation with John Sayles on Labor and the Writers' Strike

Buried in the post, you’ll read this:

”That's why when Ronald Reagan first came to power and wanted to bust a union, he picked a well-paid bunch of people, the air traffic controllers. But then, when airplanes were about to crash all over the country, their successors got everything the original air traffic controllers were asking for. So it was a symbolic thing that Reagan did, but he knew he could do it because some of them made over $100,000 a year. Nobody was sympathetic to them.“

Now -- all you young controllers out there -- turn off the TV, pull out the ear buds, go read the whole thing and put your thinking cap on.

I don’t know John Sayles from Adam so I’m not going to tell you he’s the great thinker of our time. However, it’s been my observation that most successful artists are pretty sharp people with keen powers of observation. Even if they are a little odd. Controllers aren’t exactly “normal” either you know.

If nothing else, you’ll get a glimpse into how someone else sees the history of your profession. At best, it might spark an idea you can use. You would be surprised by where some of the ideas I’ve used over the years have come from. I know I was surprised.

Speaking of which, the rest of you need to do some thinking. This is as good a place as any. The Writer’s Guild is on strike. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association is not. They probably would be if it was legal. (Yes, thing are that bad.) If it gets much worse, they might go anyway.

The PATCO strike wasn’t the first illegal strike in this country and it won’t be the last. Unions themselves were once illegal. That didn’t stop the people from forming them. Nor did violence or even murder.

If you didn’t click on that last link, you should. History isn’t always what we were taught in school. It isn’t always about what happened. Sometimes, it’s about what didn’t happen. I wonder how history would have treated General Mitchell if he had gassed his own country’s citizens ?

Don Brown
January 27, 2008

Friday, January 25, 2008

Peters Proposes Robbing Paul

Mary Peters, the Bush Administration’s Secretary of Transportation, is increasing her visibility in the public debate about transportation. The Washington Post takes the first shot at her.

She Brakes for Ideology

” The next time you are stuck in traffic (and when are you not?), you might take a moment to ponder Mary Peters's contribution to the fix you are in. “

You would be forgiven if you thought that was about air traffic but they’re talking about regular-old highway traffic. The ideology remains the same though.

” Peters is the Bush administration's transportation secretary, and her main objective seems to be blocking any increase of public contributions to the public infrastructure. The main reason you are sitting in traffic, she believes, is not that the purchasing power of Highway Trust Fund revenue has been dwindling for the past decade, not that population and freight traffic have been soaring with no government response -- but that you are not being asked to pay enough to use the road you are on. “

Then we move on to her comments found in a USA Today article.

”"I am a little tired of all the noise from Capitol Hill about how bad aviation delays are when they are sitting on the sidelines in Washington while passengers sit waiting in airports and on taxiways across the country," Peters said in a speech prepared for the Aero Club, an aerospace industry forum.“

I see. It’s Congress’ fault.

”The airlines and the FAA repeatedly tout a new, $15 billion satellite-based air traffic control system, dubbed NextGen, as the key to improved operations. In August, the agency awarded ITT Corp. a contract worth up to $1.8 billion to build the first portion of the system, that will overall take nearly 20 years to complete.

"The technology is there. But the support from Congress isn't," Peters said, warning that if lawmakers continue to "play politics with our reauthorization," the department may not be able to invest in improvements, including NextGen, already planned for 2008. “

So, the answer to today’s congestion is a program that will take “nearly 20 years to complete” ? I think it has more to do with the Bush Administration’s one-size-fits-all ideology.

”To help avoid another summer of record delays, Peters last week said congested airports nationwide can charge landing fees based on the time flights land and traffic volume. The goal is to encourage airlines to spread operations more evenly throughout the day.“

There’s no need to “encourage” anybody. Or to make it more expensive to fly by charging increased landing fees. The FAA (a part of the Department of Transportation) has the statutory authority to limit the number of flights at Newark. All Ms. Peters has to do is pick up the phone and tell the FAA what to do -- once she's finished chewing on her ideology.

”JFK will be allowed 82 or 83 flights per hour at the peak times, down from about 100 that had been scheduled last summer. Similar caps, which already exist at LaGuardia, also will go into effect at Newark, but the exact number has yet to be determined.“

The “exact number” for the caps at Newark isn’t tough to figure out. Here, let me help.

42 arrivals +42 departures per hour = 84 operations per hour

Add in 6 operations per hour (or not) above the IFR rate like you did at JFK and you’re done. Move on. Go negotiate a contract with your air traffic controllers before you lose any more experienced controllers or any more trainees. And maybe -- just maybe -- you’ll have somebody to work all those airliners. Once you finish chewing on your ideology of course.

Don Brown
January 25, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- January 25

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Jan 25, 1990: Attempting to land at New York Kennedy airport, a Boeing 707 operated by the Colombian airline Avianca ran out of fuel and crashed on Long Island, fatally injuring 73 of the 158 people on board. On Feb 25, demonstrators drove a procession of automobiles through Kennedy as a protest against air traffic controllers’ alleged mishandling of the flight. The National Transportation Safety Board cited the probable cause of the accident as the crew's failure to manage their fuel load or alert controllers to their fuel emergency. Among the contributing factors, however, the Board pointed to a lack of clear, standardized terminology on fuel emergencies, as well as inadequate traffic flow management.

FAA’s actions in response to the accident included steps to address these concerns and to stress the need for clear pilot/controller communication and for air carriers to be thoroughly familiar with rules and procedures. “

As most of you have already read on Wednesday, in Air Traffic Safety vs. Capacity, I used this accident to highlight the safety implications of over scheduling airports. Avianca 052 was held on three separate occasions during it’s flight to Kennedy (JFK.) The total time in holding was 1 hour and 17 minutes.

Still, the aircraft had enough fuel to make an approach to JFK. However, the weather was so bad that they never saw the runway and had to go around for another try. They didn’t make it.

Like all aviation accidents, there are a number of errors to note. After the missed approach, the captain told the co-pilot (who was operating the radios) to declare an emergency. The co-pilot never did. You could write a book on just the language problems found in this accident. The controllers knew that the aircraft was “running out of fuel” but so was everyone else on this night. From the moment any aircraft takes off, it is running out of fuel.

You can read an analysis of the accident at Aviation Safety Network. There is a link at the bottom of that page where you can download the NTSB’s report if you so choose. I’ll warn you ahead of time, it’s a tough read. It’s 295 pages of mismatched fonts and formats that were scanned into a .pdf file.

The one odd detail I would like to mention is the experience level of the controllers. Of the five New York controllers mentioned (4 controllers and 1 supervisor), all five -- every single one of them -- was hired in 1982. That’s eight years of experience per person. No one with 18 years of experience -- much less 28 years. For the non-controllers out there that aren’t making the connection, PATCO went on strike in 1981.

It’s hard to quantify experience. There’s no telling if it would have made any difference in this situation or not. In the end though, I’d rather have that one old guy -- the one with that nagging thought that something isn’t quite right -- looking at the radar scope too.

By the way, controllers hired in 1982 became eligible to retire last year, in 2007.

I’ll leave you with the comments of NTSB member Jim Burnett about this accident.

” While I can accept the argument that such unsatisfactory service was not causal to this accident, this pattern of substandard service reflects poorly on the ATC system and raises serious safety concerns.

Although the reasons for this pattern of substandard service have not been developed in the report, I suspect that it has little to do, in this case, with the experience level of the controllers and a great deal to do with controller workload under the weather conditions and with the fact that the Federal Aviation Administration flow control intentionally allowed a greater flow of traffic, bound for JFK, into the system than could be safely and efficiently accommodated by the system. “

Don Brown
January 25, 2008

Thursday, January 24, 2008

An “A” for Creativity

A couple in suburban Philadelphia has a message for the FAA. They’ll lose points for the language skills but they get an “A” for creativity in presentation.

Take a look and come back. (Yes, I know it’s the internet and I could get away with copying it. I used to be a photographer. Copyright is copyright.)

Just this morning, I asked you to consider the implications of slot limitations for airports. Did you think about noise ? If you reduce the number of scheduled flights back to a level that makes weather delays manageable, you negate the argument for the illusionary efficiencies the FAA says it can get out of redesigned airspace. Without the redesigned airspace, the noise stays where it has been for years and years -- and there will be less of it. Less airplanes = less noise.

As I’ve said before, there are legitimate reasons to redesign airspace. Perhaps they have legitimate reasons now -- I don’t know. I do know that redesigning airspace won’t change runway capacity and the location of JFK, EWR and LGA hasn’t changed.

Oh, I almost forgot. Years ago, I tried to get NATCA to rent a farmer’s field near an airport, to display a message. Old sappy me, I wanted it to spell out “Merry Christmas from NATCA” in lights so that the pilots and passengers could see it as they flew by -- low and slow -- near the airport. Forgive me. For, right about now, some guy in advertising is thinking he can make that idea work.

Don Brown
January 24, 2008

The Silver Lining

But first, the news. Evidently it was a busy news day yesterday. Either that or the midnight shift of the 24/7 news organizations fell asleep.

The main computer system (know as the HOST) at the Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center (aka ARTCC or Center) failed yesterday during the evening rush hour. It only lasted about an hour. Of course, an hour in air traffic control (or sitting in an airline seat going nowhere) can seem like an eternity.

I’m particularly interested in the performance of URET during this outage. Any controller that would like to share their thoughts with me can look left, go to the bottom of the “About Me” column, click on the “View my complete profile” link and then click on the “Email” link. (Goodness, the things we do to avoid spam.) I would really, really, really love to hear some honest thoughts from the new controllers and trainees. What was it like switching from URET to Flight Progress Strips for you ?

Moving on to the silver lining.

Instead of watching the sky fall, yesterday, people were watching the market fall. Well, until the afternoon when it rallied. It actually ended up on the plus side. But the talk of a recession dominated the airwaves anyway.

Controllers could always tell when a recession was coming. The corporations started grounding their business jets. The airlines try to hang on longer, but they too start grounding airplanes as a recession takes hold of the economy.

You won't find a better time to impose slot restrictions.

Imposing slot restrictions on commercial airports has numerous implications. I think it would spur a major effort in improving all weather operations. The trick would be to improve IFR operations to nearly the level of VFR operations. It could be something as high tech as synthetic vision to something as low tech as the angled flight deck on an aircraft carrier. If you can’t build another runway to increase capacity -- think LGA -- then the pressure to maximize the capacity you do have will be intense.

There are many, many other implications -- both large and small. You might want to think about them. The operations at airline hubs would probably smooth out. No more max efforts at 8 AM to get all the arrivals in at the same time followed by a lull. I suspect it would lead to more point-to-point flights. Airlines would start looking at other airports for growth.

The biggest implication is the one that worries me the most. Somebody -- some organization -- has to administer the system. The logical organization would be the FAA. The FAA’s poor performance in managing the current system doesn’t make that logic very appealing.

Have I mentioned how important it is to have a good government ?

Don Brown
January 24, 2008

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A note to my regular readers

In reading Air Traffic Safety vs. Capacity, it won’t take you long to realize it’s a departure from my normal style on this blog. I wrote it with the intention of selling it and getting the information in front of a more general audience. In other words, you’ll notice that it was written for a non-aviation audience. It has some uncomfortable generalizations that were required in order to keep it short enough for most publications. Brevity precludes detailed explanations. There will also be small parts that are already dated. No matter, the concepts still hold true.

At the risk of stating the obvious, my (feeble) attempts to sell it failed. To be honest, my heart just isn’t in the marketing end of writing. I’ll let the thought that my lack of writing skills might be the problem pass without comment. How I miss having a good editor. (Hi Kevin.)

Having said all that, my intention in writing this piece was to get the information in front of the general public. Money is nice, but it is indeed secondary. At least to me. So here it is (warts and all) for free.

Please, if you think it the least bit helpful, send the link to your friends that travel. They’re the ones that still pay for my retirement and they are the ones that deserve to know the truth -- no matter how poorly I may write it.

Many thanks,

Don Brown
January 23, 2008

Air Traffic Safety vs. Capacity

Air Traffic Controller -- "Avianca 052 heavy roger what is your alternate ?"

Avianca 052 -- “ It is Boston but we can’t do it now we, we will run out of fuel now. “

That was a radio exchange between Avianca Airlines flight 052 and an air traffic controller, 47 minutes before the aircraft ran out of fuel and crashed. The flight was trying to land at New York’s John F. Kennedy (JFK) airport. Avianca 052 had been placed into different holding patterns on three separate occasions during its flight. It was repeatedly placed in holding for one simple reason -- the number of airplanes scheduled to land at JFK exceeded the capacity of the airport. That was a fact in 1990 when this accident occurred and it is still a fact today.

The press runs a story about air traffic control (ATC) virtually every day now. The stories cover a variety of issues. The Bush Administration wants funding for a new ATC system called “NextGen”, various groups are suing the FAA for redesigning the departure and arrival routes into New York (thereby increasing the noise in their neighborhoods) and it seems as if everyone is upset by the FAA’s proposal to impose limitations on the number of flights into JFK.

It appears as if all have forgotten the lessons of Avianca 052.

Various entities in aviation are using the complexities found in air traffic control to obscure the basic facts in order to further their agendas. The basic fact I would like to clarify is the finite capacity of a runway. I too have an agenda. My agenda is safety.

Any runway has a finite capacity. The key to understanding this is in understanding time. Only one aircraft is allowed to use the runway at any time. It takes a certain amount of time for a departing aircraft to taxi onto a runway, accelerate to flying speed and lift off. Likewise, it takes a certain amount of time for an arriving aircraft to touch down, slow down and taxi off the runway. The time it takes the typical airliner to do either one -- land or takeoff -- is roughly one minute.

The math is as simple as it is inescapable. Roughly 60 airliners can use a runway in one hour if conditions are absolutely perfect. It is physically impossible to improve that number. However, it can get a lot worse.

It helps in understanding all this if you’ll focus on the simple, physical acts required in aviation instead of dwelling on the confusing complexities. Imagine it is foggy at the airport. An aircraft landing on the runway has to find a taxiway to get off the runway just as you must find the entrance to the parking lot when you’re driving down a foggy street. In good visibility, you can see the entrance from a distance and slow down at the last second. In poor visibility (rain, fog, snow) you must slow down to ensure you have enough time to spot the entrance and then make the turn. Every extra second an aircraft spends on the runway -- searching for the taxiway -- decreases the capacity of the runway. There is another aircraft flying towards the same runway and air traffic controllers cannot allow it to land until the first aircraft is clear of the runway.

For air traffic controllers, time equates to distance. If an aircraft is over the threshold of the runway and about to touch down, we know that it will take approximately one minute for that aircraft to touch down, slow down and taxi off the runway. That means that the next aircraft to land must be at least one minute behind the one about to land. To keep matters simple, I’ll use an average aircraft approach speed of 180 mph -- or 3 miles per minute. If you could visualize an air traffic controllers’s radar scope in these optimal conditions you would see a string of aircraft aligned with the runway and spaced out at 3 mile intervals. Not so coincidentally, the legal separation controllers must use in this situation -- the distance required between each aircraft -- is 3 miles.

Let’s take this optimal situation one step further. If you could line up an hour’s worth of arrivals, one minute apart -- 3 miles -- then you would have 60 aircraft in a straight line. That line would stretch out 180 miles from the airport. Furthermore, the last aircraft in that line would be limited to flying no faster than 180 mph lest it catch the aircraft in front of it. Again, the important concept to grasp is that the distance and the speed puts the airplane one hour away from the airport. For aircraft landing at JFK, the line would stretch past Philadelphia, almost to Baltimore. Aircraft flying from either city to JFK would be waiting in line before they even left the ground.

Pilot --“ happy with that distance?”

Co-pilot -- ”aah, he's.... we'll be all right once we get rollin'. he's supposed to be five miles by the time we're airborne, that's the idea.”

That was the conversation between the pilot and co-pilot of an airliner about to depart JFK airport. They’re discussing the distance between their aircraft and the Boeing 747 that had just departed in front of them. The pilots are concerned about wake turbulence -- the violently disturbed air found behind large aircraft. Just two minutes later, their aircraft did indeed encounter wake turbulence. When the pilot tried to compensate for the turbulence, the tail of the airplane snapped off. All 260 people aboard American Airlines flight 587 -- and 5 people on the ground in Belle Harbor, NY -- perished that day. It all started with wake turbulence.

What the accident investigations, the cockpit voice recorders and the air traffic control tapes don’t reveal to you is the enormous pressure the people in aviation work under. Pilots, air traffic controllers and even airline CEOs are under constant pressure to make the airplanes fly and to make sure they fly on time. The pressure to fly in poor weather, to tighten up the spacing between aircraft and to wring every last drop of efficiency out of the system is incredible.

The aviation industry can’t afford to let these economic pressures erase the memory of the expensive safety lessons we’ve learned in the past. The cost in lives and money is simply too high.

The media have devoted many stories to the FAA’s future air traffic control system called NextGen -- Next Generation Air Transportation System. It is the “satellite-based” air traffic control system that is touted as the cure-all for the current airline delays. One of the basic premises of the system is that -- because of its greater accuracy -- it will allow airplanes to fly closer to each other. Admittedly, there are some (very limited) instances in air traffic control where this would be desirable. But it won’t solve the core problem -- runway capacity. Remembering the lessons above, you still need a minimum of three miles (or one minute) between landing airliners. Controllers are capable of running airplanes closer together now -- with the current radar-based system -- but safety won’t allow them to do it. Until the safety-mandated rule that only allows one airplane on the runway at a time changes, a system that allows controllers to run aircraft closer together won’t increase the runway’s capacity.

While we are on this subject, I need to call your attention to another point about wake turbulence. Wake turbulence exists behind departing and landing airliners. Behind the largest aircraft -- classified as “heavy” aircraft -- the spacing requirements increase to 5 miles. Remember that theoretical line of aircraft stretching out 180 miles from JFK airport ? Throw in a couple of “heavy” airliners and the line will stretch past Washington, D.C. In that these “heavy” type aircraft are typically the ones used on overseas routes, a large number of them use JFK. All three aircraft involved in the accident scenarios noted above were indeed “heavies.”

“Air Traffic Controller -- Avianca 052 heavy roger what is your alternate ?”

These basic facts should give you some insight as to the complexities involved in air traffic control and airport capacity. If you see a comparison in the press between traffic at Kennedy (JFK) and LaGuardia (LGA), for instance, armed with the knowledge that JFK has many, many more “heavy” aircraft than LGA, you will understand that LGA can handle more airplanes per runway than JFK can. Most of LGA’s arrivals only need three miles of spacing while many of JFK’s will have to be spaced five miles apart.

The most complex issue in determining runway capacity is weather. Under the best weather conditions, JFK airport can handle 68 arrivals per hour -- using 3 of its 4 runways simultaneously. If low clouds or visibility -- or even unfavorable winds -- force the controllers to use different runways, the arrival rate drops dramatically. Even in relatively good weather the rate can drop to 51 arrivals per hour. During typical bad weather the rate can drop to 38. And as we all know, during a thunderstorm or an ice storm, the rate can drop to virtually zero.

This brings us to the heart of the problem. How do we determine a realistic capacity number for an airport when something as unpredictable as weather is the major variable ? I propose the we use safety as the determining criteria.

First and foremost, as I hope I have shown you, there is an absolute limit to the number of airplanes any runway can handle, per hour, even in perfect weather. At an absolute minimum that limit should be enforced -- by rule and regulation -- for every commercial airport in the country. Currently it is not and -- unbelievably -- airlines are allowed to schedule more flights than the runways can handle in even perfect weather. It is madness.

Let me use our theoretical runway capacity of 60 planes per hour once again. Imagine if we could schedule it perfectly. Imagine if we had 60 airplanes per hour scheduled for every hour of the day. Then imagine if there was just one tiny glitch -- weather, a flat tire or an airport vehicle mistakenly wanders onto the runway. An arrival has to go around and make another attempt to land. Where do you find the extra slot for that aircraft ? Every slot is taken for every minute of the day. But the airplane must land or it will run out of fuel just like Avianca 052. That makes the decision easy for air traffic controllers. An arrival takes priority over a departure. They will use a departure slot for the arrival. Now the departures will be delayed for the rest of the day -- or in this theoretical case -- for eternity.

The runway -- the system -- must have some “give” to it. It must have some unused capacity in order to ensure safety. In reality it does. That unused capacity is after midnight. That is the reason you see flights arriving at 1 or 2 AM after a day of bad weather. There is no “give” -- during normal hours -- in the system when there is adverse weather. This leads to the massive flight delays Americans suffered through this summer.

The reason is as old as it is simple -- greed. Airlines can make more money selling 70 airplanes worth of tickets per hour than they could if they limited themselves to the 60 airplanes per hour that the runway can handle. In fairness to the airlines, it’s not in their interest to limit themselves. It is easier to sell the tickets and blame the delays on the weather or the “antiquated” air traffic control system. Especially if the flying public doesn’t understand runway capacity limits and therefore fails to notice that the “antiquated” air traffic control system is delivering more airplanes to the runways than the runways can handle.

The government has abdicated its responsibility in this area. The economic portion of the aviation industry was deregulated in 1978. The safety portion -- supposedly -- was not. The Federal Aviation Administration has the legal authority to limit the number of flights into Kennedy, Newark, LaGuardia, Chicago O’Hare and Washington (D.C.) National airports. The FAA should be given the same authority for all commercial airports. And Congress should compel them to use that authority. Currently they do not. The FAA was forced into lifting the slots restrictions at JFK and the result was predictable -- massive delays. The FAA reimposed slot restrictions at Chicago O’Hare (after the last public outcry about delays) and delays went down. They are currently being pressured to relax or lift those restrictions at O’Hare. If they do, you can be assured that increased delays at O’Hare will return.

Congress should pass legislation mandating that each commercial airport’s maximum hourly capacity be established and published. Furthermore, the FAA should impose limitations on the number of flights that can be scheduled at each commercial airport. That number should be less than the maximum capacity, taking into account such factors as typical weather patterns for the airport, routine maintenance and any other factor that typically limits capacity. It is time to recognize the inherent limits imposed upon the National Airspace System by runway capacity. It is time to put safety ahead of economic considerations before we relearn the lessons of Avianca 052. It is time to put safety back in it’s rightful place -- First.

Don Brown
January 23, 2008

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

It Ain’t Looking Good

In case you were really on vacation this might want to keep your eye on the stock markets today.

Awaiting Wall Street’s Open, Asia Markets Plunge

Asian markets plunge for second day

Dow futures fall 550 points
Shares in Asia routed again; sell-off in Europe shows signs of slowing

I wonder how all this will affect the air traffic control world ? The price of fuel, salaries, travel plans, privatization and the savings of those controllers looking at retirement ?

Don Brown
January 22, 2008

Monday, January 21, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- January 21

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Jan 21, 1972: FAA commissioned the first operational Category IIIa instrument landing system at Dulles International Airport. The system, a British-made STAN 37/38, allowed qualified crews flying properly equipped aircraft to land with a runway visibility range (horizontal visibility) of 700 feet and a decision height (vertical visibility) of zero. Previously, the lowest landing minimums had been a 100-foot decision height and a 1,200-foot RVR, the Category II criteria (see Nov 3, 1967). FAA outlined criteria that had to be met before Category IIIa minimums could be approved--airport and ground facilities, airborne systems, pilot training and proficiency requirement, operations procedures, and maintenance standards--in an advisory circular published on Dec 14, 1971. (The Lockheed L-1011 became the first newly certificated aircraft to be equipped with flight guidance equipment that met the Category IIIa criteria.) (See Sep 1972.) “

”Jan 21, 1976: British Airways and Air France began the world's first scheduled supersonic passenger service (see Dec 26, 1975) with simultaneous takeoffs of Anglo-French Concorde SST aircraft from London and Paris for flights to Bahrain and Rio de Janeiro. The London-Bahrain flight, normally 6 hours 30 minutes by subsonic jet, took 4 hours 10 minutes. The Paris-Rio flight, scheduled to take 7 hours 5 minutes (compared with a subsonic time of 11 hours 10 minutes), arrived 40 minutes late. (See Feb 4, 1976.)“

I guess it’s the day for the British aerospace industry. With the typical English weather, it probably doesn’t come as too big of a surprise that they were keen to develop an instrument landing system. Likewise, the Concorde fulfilled another need for transportation to their far-flung empire. Not unlike the Comet -- the world’s first jet-powered airliner.

In case you haven’t heard of it, you might want to check out this video of the QSST -- the Quiet Supersonic Transport.

Don Brown
January 21, 2008

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Little Town, Little Voice

It would take longer to explain why I’m just getting to this now than it would take to read the article.

Memories of a Bethlehem Christmas

Just read it. It might just change the way you view your country, your religion or maybe yourself.

Don Brown
January 20, 2008

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Such A Deal !

My wife taught me that one. She’s from New York. It’s right along the lines of a “New York trust me.” It’s like a used-car salesman asking, “Would I lie ? It’s only had one owner and it’s never been in a wreck. Trust me. Such a deal !”

The FAA has a deal for me. They’re offering (up to) a $24,000 dollar signing bonus for retired controllers that want to come back to work (offer subject to approval.) Such a deal ! Check it out for yourself.

”Re-employing retired controllers is seen as a good way to augment facility staffing. They could be brought back to work a full- or part-time schedule, work just certain positions, or help with training new controllers. These controllers could be re-employed on term appointments for one or a few years.“

Wow ! Well, here’s what I want. All day shifts. No evenings. No mids (non-negotiable.) I only work the WILKES sector. I don’t train. I’m home for dinner every night by 6 PM -- no exceptions. No holidays. I wear whatever I please. That includes my cowboy hat if I so choose. I get to pick my own supervisor.

Oh, and one more thing. You put the flight progress strips back on the boards too. You can send the new kids over to watch when it’s non radar so they can see how it works. That’s observation -- not training.

You’ll notice I haven’t said anything about money. When it comes to money, I’m just a poor, dumb country boy. Tell you what -- I’m going to make the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (AFL-CIO) my exclusive representative. Negotiate money with them. When y’all are done, I get to vote “yea” or “nay.”

Oh, that’s right. Y’all could have done that 503 days ago but you didn’t. Well golly Gomer, I bet that winds up costing you.

I may not be from New York but I didn’t just fall off a turnip truck. Let me know when y’all get serious. Give my regards to Marion.

Don Brown
January 19, 2008

Book Break

The weather outside is frightful. It’s supposed to snow about 2 inches today, here, south of Atlanta. Nobody down here knows how to drive in the snow. As we tell the Yankees that move down here, it doesn’t matter if you know how to drive in it. All the other people sharing the road with you -- all of the road -- don’t.

It’s a good day to stay home and read a book. I can point you to the start of a good one anyway. My friend and fellow controller, Doug Wicker, has made it into the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award finals with his entry, Decisions. Take a look at the top right of this web page and you can download the first chapter for free.

If you like it, please be so kind as to return to the page and write him a nice review. I have, because I really liked it. It reminds me of the Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich. Conversation way wittier than I’ll ever come up with and a lot of fun. And it’s all free of course. Take a look for yourself.

Don Brown
January 19, 2008

Friday, January 18, 2008

All’s Fair

There is a good story in today’s Los Angeles Times. It is well written. It presents an accurate picture overall and explains the issues. It quotes authoritative sources. I think it’s fair. And it’s wrong. Read it and come back for a discussion.

Air traffic controllers' labor tactics raise concern

Being fair isn’t the same thing as being right. Doing the best you can doesn’t equate to getting the job done. Ask any controller. While we’re here, I don’t want to be unfair to the writer of the article, Jennifer Oldham. She has done her job and -- as far as I can tell -- she has done it well. This isn’t about whether (or how) she has done her job anyway. It’s about being right.

For instance, take Jim Hall, the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mr. Hall. When he talks, I listen.

"I think that anyone that is in a safety position has a responsibility to not obviously use inflammatory language and maintain their comments on a factual basis," said Jim Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, who now runs a transportation consulting business.”

I understand the concept Mr. Hall is putting forth and -- to a very large degree -- I agree with him. That does not mean he is right. But as Mr. Hall suggests, let’s look at the facts.

This is from NATCA’s press release declaring a staffing “emergency.”


-        The number of fully certified and experienced controllers at Southern California TRACON (SCT), which handles all flights going in and out of the major airports in the entire region, has dropped 40 percent since 2004 and now stands at 159.

-        With staffing numbers at SCT well below that needed to provide adequate rest and recuperation time for controllers between shifts, almost 85 percent of them are now regularly working six-day weeks. In 2007, many controllers logged well over 40 days of overtime. The amount of overtime the FAA has paid controllers to cover for staffing shortages has risen from $261,000 in 2004 to $2.8 million in 2007. “

I am not aware of anyone who has challenged the “factual basis” of those statements. And if I know the folks at NATCA that put together those numbers (and I do), no one will be able to challenge them. In other words, I strongly believe they are indeed factual. If (as I believe) they are factual, you have to ask yourself two questions.

1) What should we do about it ?

2) What is being done about it ?

As everyone who reads this blog knows, I look to history in search of answers. What did the FAA do in 1981 when PATCO went on strike, creating an instant “controller shortage” ? They limited the number of airline flights and severely curtailed General Aviation flights. In addition, they asked the military to limit their flights where possible.

I ask you, has anything like that taken place or even been proposed ? I am not aware of anything -- except for one safety-obsessed, looney-tune with a blog.

”The time to impose slot limitations at all commercial airports has come. There are many reasons to do so but there is one that trumps all others - -Safety. The current shortage of experienced air traffic controllers does not allow us to ignore reality any longer. We must limit the number of aircraft that are clogging up the ATC system, waiting for a departure or landing slot. It is a luxury we can no longer safely afford.

Don Brown
January 14, 2008“

I consider that a prudent, measured response to the current controller shortage. I don’t consider it “inflammatory” but I assure you other people do. By the way, now would be a good time for you to apply some of my own medicine to me. Being “prudent” and “measured” doesn’t mean that I’m right.

Be honest now -- when you read the quoted blog post above, only four short days ago, did you get a sense of urgency ? Or should I have said something that might have been “inflammatory” to get your attention ? Something like, “I believe the FAA should implement slot controls on an emergency basis. Today. Right this second.” Would that have done a better job of getting your attention ?

Perhaps an aviation analogy would fit better in that most of my readers are pilots or controllers. How many times have you heard -- after the fact -- that the pilot should have declared an emergency ? “If only the pilot had declared an emergency we could have saved him” ? I have an excellent example that I will share with you in just a few short days. Until then, I leave you with this guidance from the controller’s “bible”.


c. If the words "Mayday" or "Pan-Pan" are not used and you are in doubt that a situation constitutes an emergency or potential emergency, handle it as though it were an emergency.

d. Because of the infinite variety of possible emergency situations, specific procedures cannot be prescribed. However, when you believe an emergency exists or is imminent, select and pursue a course of action which appears to be most appropriate under the circumstances and which most nearly conforms to the instructions in this manual.

You may not think NATCA is right but, for now, I suggest you think of them as the ”pilot in command” and act accordingly. Declaring an emergency after the accident won’t help. They’ve chosen (correctly I believe) to do it now. You can step up to help -- or not.

Don Brown
January 18, 2007

FAA History Lesson -- January 18

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Jan 18, 1990: On its landing roll at Atlanta Hartsfield airport, an Eastern Air Lines Boeing 727 collided with a Beechcraft King Air 100 that had landed just before it. The accident killed the pilot of the King Air, which was operated as a charter by Epps Air Service. FAA decertified the controller who cleared the Eastern flight to land. On Apr 2, 1991, the majority of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) cited the controller's error as the accident's probable cause, while dissenting member Jim Burnett blamed inadequate separation standards. On May 29, 1991, NTSB announced a revised finding expanding the probable cause to include the failure of air traffic control procedures to take into consideration occasional lapses in human performance. Chairman James Kolstad dissented, saying that use of existing procedures could have prevented the accident. “

This is yet another example of how fast things can go wrong in air traffic control -- on the ground. And despite the short and simple historical entry, the events that led up to the accident were lengthy and complicated. An aircraft experiencing an emergency was inbound to Atlanta Hartsfield (ATL). The airport emergency response vehicles had been alerted and were on station with their emergency lights flashing. It was dark and the emergency lights were distracting and confusing -- to the pilot of the King Air and the controllers.

The controllers at ATL were running the airplanes “tight.” In other words, they were using every trick in the book to be legal but the reality was that a much-faster jet was overtaking a turboprop. A different aircraft being worked by the controller was having radio communication problems that made for an additional distraction. As it turns out, a fatal distraction.

Don Brown
January 18, 2008

Thursday, January 17, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- January 17

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Jan 17, 1962: President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10988, which guaranteed the right of Federal employees to join organizations--i.e., any lawful association, labor union, federation, council, or brotherhood "having as a primary purpose the improvement of working conditions among Federal employees"--and engage in collective bargaining. The order also made provision for Federal agencies to accord informal, formal or exclusive recognition to employee organizations. FAA Administrator Halaby argued unsuccessfully before Kennedy Administration councils that air traffic controllers, because they served a national defense function, should be excluded from the provisions of the order. (See Jan, 1968.)“

”Jan, 1968: A group of dissatisfied air traffic controllers in the New York area formed the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). By the end of Jun 1968, PATCO had a national membership of well over 5,000 FAA employees. (See Jan 17, 1962, and Jul 3, 1968.)“

I think it worth reminding you of the history lesson from just two days ago (but to avoid having to scroll or jump...)

”Jan 15, 1969: The U.S. Civil Service Commission (CSC) ruled that the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) was an employee organization, not a professional society, because it had sought and obtained a dues-withholding agreement. FAA had agreed to permit a voluntary payroll deduction plan for the payment of PATCO dues with the understanding that PATCO would remain a professional society. As a result of the CSC ruling, PATCO became subject to the Standards of Conduct and the Code of Fair Labor Practices. At the same time, however, PATCO became eligible for formal recognition as a labor bargaining organization under Executive Order 10988. (See Jul 19, 1968, and Jun 11, 1969.) ”

Don Brown
January 17, 2008

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

ATC Globalization

America, Australia, Ireland...anybody else noticing a trend ?

Controllers' dispute may delay Dublin flights

Don Brown
January 16, 2008

Attitude About Aptitude

Once again, the guys over at The FAA Follies skewer the FAA. The latest entry is about the disappearing FAA employee attitude survey.

Don Brown
January 16, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- January 16

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

” Jan 16, 1991: One day after the expiration of a United Nations deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, military aircraft of the U.S.-led coalition began Operation Desert Storm, striking targets in Iraq and occupied Kuwait. At 7:00 pm EST, shortly after the attacks began, FAA declared Level 4 airport/airline security, the highest domestic level ever imposed. On Jan 17, the Department of Defense activated Level 2 of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) program, calling upon U.S. airlines to provide additional transport aircraft. American and allied troops routed Iraqi forces in a ground assault that began on Feb 24, and a U.S.-proclaimed ceasefire took effect at midnight EST on Feb 27. (See Aug 17, 1990, and May 14, 1991.) “

If you’ll remember, back before this silly notion that government should act like a business -- lighter, faster, cheaper -- we believed in overwhelming force. We sent 500,000 troops just to defend Saudi Arabia -- before we built up even more for the invasion of Kuwait. Getting the troops there and keeping them supplied required an extraordinary amount of airlift assets. The Civilian Reserve Air Fleet was activated.

It was said at the time -- and my 15 minutes worth of research leads me to believe it is still true -- that the U.S. Air Force has more C-135s than Brand X airline has airplanes. Pick any airline because that is more than the biggest airline, even now. Add in the C-130s, the C-141s, the C-5s, the fighters, etc., etc., etc...there were a lot of airplanes flying. Continuously. It was called an “air bridge” and if you could have seen it on the monitors you would have seen it did indeed look like a bridge.

There are two thoughts that come to mind.

1) There are a lot of things that go on in the National Airspace System that the average “civilian” never thinks about.

2) The “skies” weren’t “overcrowded.” The “antiquated” air traffic control system handled all the extra traffic just fine (thank you very much.) Of course, all the extra airplanes weren’t trying to take off and land at New York at the same time.

Don Brown
January 16, 2008

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Another One Gets the Flick

Sometimes, when your life flashes before your eyes, it’s easier to get the Flick.

”If this collision potential was tied to tired airline pilots, the Air Line Pilots union (ALPA) would be all over the issue banging on the doors of Congress to prevent such a tragedy … and I’d applaud them for their efforts. If the situation were bad enough at any airline, pilots would simply refuse to fly.

As government employees, air traffic controllers are banned from striking and just about any other sort of job action to rectify the chaos that’s brewing aloft.”

Jump on over to JetWhine and the rest of read Robert Mark’s excellent analysis of the situation.

Don Brown
January 15, 2007

FAA History Lesson -- January 15

This day’s entries provide a special education in the FAA’s history. There are three events listed for the same day, in the same year, that demonstrate how difficult it can be to determine what is important (and what is not) -- today -- in the here and now.

Especially in today’s world, so many events happen at the same time. Take a look at any day’s headlines and try to determine what is important. For instance, on this day the very first Super Bowl was played. Do you think anyone realized what an institution that would become ? Muammar al-Qaddafi was proclaimed premier of Libya. Do you think any regular citizen in America even noticed ? On the very date of these three entries from the FAA’s history -- January 15, 1969 -- the Soviets launched Soyuz 5. Do you think anyone even noticed that the U.S. Civil Service Commission issued a ruling about some obscure employee organization ?

Read the entries below. Think about them in the context of the time -- 1969. Vietnam, the space race, campus unrest. 1969 was a crazy year. Which of these events gained notice ? Which one had deep, unintened consequences ? Which one lasted ?

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Jan 15, 1969: The U.S. Civil Service Commission (CSC) ruled that the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) was an employee organization, not a professional society, because it had sought and obtained a dues-withholding agreement. FAA had agreed to permit a voluntary payroll deduction plan for the payment of PATCO dues with the understanding that PATCO would remain a professional society. As a result of the CSC ruling, PATCO became subject to the Standards of Conduct and the Code of Fair Labor Practices. At the same time, however, PATCO became eligible for formal recognition as a labor bargaining organization under Executive Order 10988. (See Jul 19, 1968, and Jun 11, 1969.)

Jan 15, 1969: FAA adopted a method of regulating the flow of traffic into the Metropolitan New York area. The new procedures went into effect each time the delay forecast for IFR aircraft flying into New York exceeded one hour. When this happened, the flow of air traffic into New York was limited by keeping New York-bound aircraft on the ground at their points of departure. Though the new procedures did little or nothing to reduce the length of delays incurred by New York-bound aircraft, they did reduce the length of time spent in airborne holding patterns to an hour or less. This, in turn, reduced congestion on the airways leading to New York and facilitated the flow of non-New York traffic using or crossing these routes. (See Jul 19, 1968, and Jun 25, 1970.)

Jan 15, 1969: The Boeing Company submitted to FAA for evaluation a new supersonic transport (SST) configuration, a delta-wing design with a horizontal tail. A 100-person review team drawn from FAA, NASA, and the Defense Department found that Boeing had adequately integrated the new design.

In February, President Nixon appointed an interdepartmental committee headed by Under Secretary of Transportation James M. Beggs to review the SST program. The committee’s report, submitted in early April, contained mixed views on the program’s future. Secretary of Transportation Volpe, however, continued to advise in favor of the program. “

Don Brown
January 15, 2008

Monday, January 14, 2008

Airport Capacity -- DCA

Washington National (DCA) is a special airport. In case I’ve beat around the bush too much in the past, let me speak bluntly -- most of Congress flies out of DCA. While it might be fine to experiment with “free market” solutions at other airports -- at DCA -- the planes are expected to run on time.

For the most part, they do. This is due to DCA’s inclusion in the “high density rule” dating back to 1969. The other “high-density airports” were: New York’s Kennedy (JFK) and LaGuardia (LGA), New Jersey’s Newark (EWR) and Chicago’s O’Hare (ORD). Unlike these, nobody ever seriously tries to eliminate the “high density rule” at DCA. As a matter of fact, it’s quite the opposite.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) is probably just another entity you’ve never heard of. It runs the Washington National (DCA) and Washington Dulles (IAD) airports. It also has something to say when the FAA wants to change the number of slots at DCA.

The MWAA had some very interesting remarks that are contained in a Government Accountability Office Report entitled: “Reagan National Airport: Update on Capacity to Handle Additional Flights and Impact on Other Area Airports”. Below are select portions. I encourage those that have the time to read the entire report.

”We are of course aware of the value of airport capacity and the need to efficiently use it. We are also very much aware of the need to control airport congestion that diminishes efficiency and undermines the reliability of air transportation and does not serve the traveling public.“

”Reagan National enjoys one of the lowest average delay times of any large airport in the nation. Reliability of air service is a very valuable attribute of Reagan National and a great benefit to both the scheduled airlines and their passengers coming to and going from Washington.

The High Density Rule limits on scheduling, or slots, are a major factor in that reliability. National is essentially a single runway airport. More than 95 percent of its operations occur on one runway. “

In the past, you’ve seen me talk about the number of operations per hour, per runway. In a perfect world, I use the number of 60 operations per hour, per runway. That is the absolute best -- the physical limit -- of a commercial airport. As we all know, the world isn’t perfect. Keep this in mind as you read more remarks. One runway. Perfect conditions equals 60 operations per hour.

”The GAO report cites the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) report of 1995 which concluded that the airport could handle increased number of operations, from 60 (which had been the rule since 1969) to 67 an hour.“

”The 1995 report also assessed capacity using a "balanced" or blended capacity analysis. This is a blend of Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) and Visual Flight Rules (VFR) capacity. Clearly, that will yield a higher number than IFR alone. It will also lead to greater congestion, delays and unreliability when the airport is experiencing IFR conditions.“

I don’t know much about the MWAA but I can tell you this -- they have the Flick. That statement encapsulates the debate about airline schedules. The airlines want to schedule airplanes as if we have VFR weather (good weather) all the time. Actually, they’ll schedule beyond that at times. The FAA uses a benchmark (when it bothers to use one) that is between the IFR (“bad” weather) and VFR arrival rates. The MWAA wants DCA limited to the IFR acceptance rate.

”The High Density Rule is an IFR rule. Its limits were set to assure efficient operations in IFR conditions. We believe that the limits on National need to remain close to that number in order to avoid the congestion and assure the reliability, particularly in poor weather, that we have come to value so much. One need only look to the airports where the High Density Rule was in place and then lifted, i.e., LaGuardia and O'Hare Airports, for examples of where demand will quickly outstrip capacity and diminish dependability to the point that the government has had to reassert controls. “

Like I said, these guys have the Flick. I’ve noticed the pattern, they’ve noticed the pattern -- so why haven’t the airlines and the FAA noticed this pattern of deregulation followed by gridlock and re-regulation ? The answer is that they have (of course.) They just don’t want the public to notice it.

There is one last point I would like for you to notice. I want you to understand how small the number is -- how few airplanes per hour it takes to tip the scales -- between reliability and gridlock.

”I am going further and saying that the Airports Authority, based on our experience and knowledge of our facilities and operational realities, believes strongly that an increase of four air carrier aircraft operations per hour as the report implies cannot be accommodated at Reagan National without serious negative impacts on the airport facilities and passenger service levels.“

Four airplanes per hour at an airport that is, essentially, a one runway airport. That is the difference between being on time and being late. Add in another four per hour and you start talking about the kind of gridlock airports were suffering this summer. And I’d be willing to bet, many of the delays suffered at DCA were due to the fact that other airports -- airports where the FAA and local airport authorities refuse to acknowledge airport capacity constraints -- were gridlocked. In other words, flights at DCA were held on the ground because their destinations (such as JFK, ORD, LGA and EWR) were gridlocked.

Regulation -- in the form of hourly slot controls at airports -- works. Everybody in the aviation business knows it. We can have an honest debate about how to determine the number of slots at each airport but the fact that there needs to be regulated slots has been proven over and over again. Under pressure, the airlines will come to a “voluntary” agreement on limiting the number of airplanes they can schedule per hour. The reason they’ll agree to these “voluntary” restrictions is to avoid an involuntary agreement -- otherwise known as a regulation.

There are many details yet to be discussed about this issue and I intend to discuss them at a later time. For now, I want to leave you with this thought. The time to impose slot limitations at all commercial airports has come. There are many reasons to do so but there is one that trumps all others - -Safety. The current shortage of experienced air traffic controllers does not allow us to ignore reality any longer. We must limit the number of aircraft that are clogging up the ATC system, waiting for a departure or landing slot. It is a luxury we can no longer safely afford.

Don Brown
January 14, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- January 14

FAA History Lesson -- January 14

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Jan 1954: The Air Navigation Development Board (ANDB) was reconstituted with members from higher levels of Government (see May 23, 1948). The revised Board, chaired by Donald A. Quarles, Assistant Secretary of Defense (R. & D.), included: an Under Secretary of Commerce for Transportation; Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air; Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (R. & D.); and a Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army (see Oct 29, 1957). During its first meeting, the ANDB established a committee to study the military tactical air navigation system (TACAN) and the civilian very high frequency omnidirectional range/distance measuring equipment (VOR/DME) to determine which system offered the most benefits for the development of a common system of air navigation (see Jan 14, 1955). The committee consisted of representatives from all the military agencies, the Departments of Commerce and Defense, the National Business Aircraft Association, and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and was chaired by Milton W. Arnold of the Air Transport Association. “

”Jan 14, 1955: The VORTAC Committee of the Air Navigation Development Board (ANDB) reported its inability to reach a unanimous decision to resolve the TACAN/VOR-DME controversy (see Jan 1954). Despite the split report of its committee, the ANDB favored development of TACAN. On Feb 8, however, the ANDB issued a press release stating that TACAN was under consideration to replace VOR-DME, the civil system in operation. This was the first public announcement of the TACAN/VOR-DME controversy, and it sparked a series of hearings in public and executive session by the Transportation and Communications Subcommittee of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. (See Aug 30, 1956.)”

”Aug 30, 1956: The Air Coordinating Committee approved a study panel's recommendation that VOR and TACAN, the separate civil and military air navigation systems, be combined. VORTAC (an acronym used to describe a short-range navigation system, using the VOR directional component and the distance component of TACAN) would become a key element of the civil-military common system of air navigation and air traffic control. (See Jan 14, 1955, and Sep 16, 1985.)”

It is an interesting series of events -- in a geeky, ATC sort of way. I believe it’s indicative of the debate that existed between the FAA and the DOD at the time. The military had their ATC system and the FAA had their ATC system -- and nobody was interested in playing nice with the other. Well, except President Eisenhower.

The difference between the two dates -- Jan 14, 1955 and Aug 30, 1956 -- was 128 bodies.

Don Brown
January 14, 2008

Sunday, January 13, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- January 13

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Jan 13, 1982: A Boeing 737 operated by Air Florida crashed near Washington National Airport shortly after taking off during snowfall. The aircraft hit a bridge, killing 4 persons in vehicles, and plunged into the icy Potomac River. Of the 79 persons aboard the jet, only four passengers and one flight attendant survived.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of the crash was the crew's failure to use the engine anti-icing system during ground operation and takeoff, their decision to take off with snow/ice on the airfoil surfaces, and the captain's failure to abort takeoff when his attention was called to anolomous engine instrument readings. Contributing to the accident were: prolonged delay between deicing by ground crew and takeoff, during which the aircraft was exposed to continual snowfall; the known pitchup characteristics of the 737 when the leading edge was contaminated by even small amounts of snow or ice; and the crew’s limited experience in jet transport winter operations. As a result of the accident, FAA and the aviation industry took a number of actions to increase awareness of cold weather hazards and the proper response to them. (See Dec 12, 1985.) “

If you’re old enough to remember the crash of “Palm 90” (Air Florida’s callsign that day) you’ll remember how ugly it was. Here is a video of a news report about it.

Deregulation strikes again.

Don Brown
January 13, 2008

Saturday, January 12, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- January 12

Some entries in the FAA Historical Chronology don’t have specific dates associated with them. Today, I thought I’d post a few diverse entries from the month of January.

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Jan, 1966: FAA and the Department of Defense signed an agreement on development of DAIR (direct altitude and identity readout), an automated air traffic control configuration for military facilities and low-density civil terminals. Unlike more sophisticated automated ATC configurations designed to provide alphanumerics, DAIR would employ only numerics. During fiscal 1970, the Air Force contracted for 304 production models of the system, now renamed the AN/TPX-42, and FAA exercised an option to acquire 56 of the systems over a five-year period. “

Once again, you see the close relationship between the DOD and the FAA. The Approach Control at Asheville, NC (AVL) used a TPX-42 for most of my career.

”Jan 1975: FAA shut down the Fairbanks ARTCC, after 31 years of operation and transferred its functions to the Anchorage ARTCC. “

There have been many Centers in the FAA’s history. If you ever visit the link posted for each of these history entries, you can download a complete list. It’s listed on the web page as “Appendix V.”

”Jan 1978: FAA and the Office of the Secretary of Transportation submitted to Congress a new master plan for the long-delayed modernization of FAA's 292 flight service stations (FSSs). The plan involved a three-stage process to complete system automation. The first stage involved the installation of semi-automated computer equipment at the 43 busiest stations. The second involved a choice between: the eventual consolidation of all 292 stations into 20 large ones, co-located at the 20 Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCCs), and modernization of up to 150 of the existing stations at their present sites. The decision on this stage could be postponed until 1982. The third stage would add the capacity for pilot selfbriefings, thus completely automating the most important FSS function. FAA estimated that if the FSS system was left unchanged, up to 11,500 specialists would be needed to operate it by 1995, as opposed to only 4,500 in 1978. (See Sep 1977 and Jun 1979.) “

The best number I could find showed approximately 2,500 specialists employed when the FAA contracted them out to Lockheed in 2005.

Don Brown
January 12, 2008

Friday, January 11, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- January 11

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Jan 11, 1985: Ralph Nader's Aviation Consumer Action Project made public a study claiming that FAA had underreported near midair collisions (NMACs) for 1983 and 1984 (see Oct 18, 1984). FAA acknowledged that discrepancies existed and stated that procedural changes would ensure more accurate NMAC statistics in the future. On Apr 19, 1985, FAA released data showing a rise in NMACs for the first quarter of 1985. The agency stated that the increase reflected improved statistical procedures and renewed emphasis on pilot reporting of the incidents.

In June, Georgetown University Dean Ronald L. Smith began an audit of the new NMAC reporting system. In findings announced by FAA on Dec 3, Dean Smith judged the system to be working well and found no evidence of earlier deliberate suppression of NMAC reports. Meanwhile, media attention to the NMAC issue heightened due to two such incidents in the national capital area on Jun 9 and Sep 24, 1985.

In Oct 1985, NTSB Chairman James Burnett told Congress that the Board was very concerned about a trend toward increased NMACs. On Apr 14, 1986, FAA stated that reported NMACs for 1985 had totaled 777 (a figure later revised to 758), as compared to 589 for 1984. Commenting that the 1985 statistics were based on improved methods, FAA Administrator Engen pointed to the agency's efforts to reduce NMACs, including the establishment of Airport Radar Service Areas (see Dec 22, 1983) and the "Back to Basics" program (see Oct 10, 1985). Engen also stated that special working groups were studying the problem of potential collisions on the ground, termed "runway incursions."

FAA later issued the following statistics: 840 NMAC reports in 1986; 1058 in 1987; 710 in 1988; 550 in 1989; 454 in 1990; 348 in 1991; 311 in 1992; and 293 in 1993. “

(edited for clarity and emphasis)

I told you I’ve been down this road once or twice before. (Thanks Jerry Jeff)

Now, what was Ms. Brown (no relation) -- the FAA spokesperson -- saying in response to NATCA raising the alarm ?

” FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said fatal air accidents have declined to record low levels and said FAA measurements show reductions in serious errors.”

That is just casual enough where you almost miss the weasel words isn’t it ? Writers don’t miss them. When you’re trying to cram a lot of detailed information into a little bit of space -- yet remain accurate -- you learn a lot about weasel words. ”Fatal air accidents” ? What the heck is that ? Accidents in the air ? Or does it include this kind ? I know I’m supposed to interpret it as “aviation accidents” but that isn’t what it says is it ? It doesn’t even say “air accidents.” It says fatal air accidents. Does that mean the non-fatal ones have declined too ? I’m guessing the questionable “FAA measurements show” is obvious by now.

It’s almost enough to make you miss the fact that NATCA is talking about the present and future -- we’re short of controllers now and it will get worse in the future -- and Ms. Brown is trying to get you to look at the past.

What a coincidence. So am I.

” In Oct 1985, NTSB Chairman James Burnett told Congress that the Board was very concerned about a trend toward increased NMACs.

August 31, 1986 --- Cerritos, California mid air collision.

Don Brown
January 11, 2008

Thursday, January 10, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- January 10

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”Jan 10, 1981: The New York terminal radar control room (TRACON) became operational at Hempstead, Long Island. The building had been completed in Jan 1978, after which the Federal Aviation Administration had begun installing electronic equipment. Commissioning of the facility had been delayed, however, until the closing of a nearby resource recovery plant ended FAA's concern about unhealthful emissions. The TRACON replaced the Common Radar Room (also called the "Common IFR" or "Common I") at Kennedy International. Initially, the new facility handled approaches and departures at New York's three major airports, but was scheduled to later take over responsibility for numerous smaller airports in area. The TRACON's special ARTS IIIA system had 44 displays, 91 keyboard stations, and a track capacity of 1,200 aircraft (see Aug 10, 1976, and Mar 26, 1986). In contrast, the Common Radar Room's ARTS IA had only 12 displays. “

Don Brown
January 10, 2008

Like Sands Through the Hourglass

The soap opera at the Federal Aviation Administration will not end.

From the Associated Press:

” WASHINGTON - Experienced air traffic controllers are retiring faster this year than the government projected and their union said Wednesday the remaining veterans can no longer safely handle peak volumes in Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Southern California.“

Again and again, NATCA raises the alarm and -- again and again -- the FAA says all is well.

” FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said fatal air accidents have declined to record low levels and said FAA measurements show reductions in serious errors.”

Who is Joe Public supposed to believe ? It’s hard to know. The psychology of it all is interesting. If asked, most people will tell you they don’t believe the government. But their actions say otherwise. As do their lack of actions. They continue to fly and they don’t call their Congressman.

Me ? I just try to tell the truth as I know it. The last time we were in this situation was in 1981 when PATCO went on strike. The situation is similar -- but it isn’t the same. The drain of experienced controllers was overnight. And the government went into crisis mode. They limited flights, they hired tons of people as fast as they could (expense be damned) and they brought in the military to help.

Today, the Bush Administration is in denial. Their projections have been wrong from the start -- more people have retired -- so they keep “re-baselining” their projections. The FAA revised them three times last year and they were wrong all three times. Another major difference is in the number of flights. In 1981, the FAA all but grounded General Aviation and capped the number of airline flights. Today, traffic is at record levels. And we can’t very well look to the military to help. We’re busy breaking that workforce too, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So what will happen ? It’s impossible to know. But I can tell you what happened last time. I was there. I lived it. And I remember that in 1987 I was really scared we were going to have “the big one.” Take a look at these figures.

Number of Near Mid Air Collisions (NMAC)

1984 -- 589
1985 --758
1986 -- 840
1987 -- 1,058
1988 -- 710
1989 -- 550
1990 -- 454
1991 -- 348
1992 -- 311
1993 -- 293

You might remember, four days ago, I was talking about how “chance favors the prepared mind.” The last time I needed those statistics (remember how old they are) I couldn’t find them in time to meet my deadline. I kept searching and when I found them, I left the file on my (virtual) desktop because I had a feeling they would come in handy one day soon. Like today.

Instead of preparing, I could have just left it up to chance. You’ll see those statistics again -- in tomorrow’s history lesson.

Right now, I’d like for you to notice the timeline. The strike was in 1981 and met with a huge effort by the government. Today’s retirement exodus started in 2006 and is being met with denial. The number of NMACs peaked in 1987 -- six years after the strike and the government’s best effort to mitigate it. That will give you an idea as to how important experience is in the controller workforce and how long it takes to get it.

Recognizing this will give you an idea as to just how insane the FAA’s current policy is. Instead of husbanding the experience they have left -- instead of encouraging controllers to stay -- they keep slicing away at the veins, bleeding the system faster. It’s obvious there is no incentive to stay (the controller retirement rate keeps exceeding the FAA’s projections) and the FAA keeps making a bad situation worse by refusing to negotiate a contract with the controllers.

As I’ve said before, today’s equivalent of the strike in 1981 -- mass retirements -- will happen in comparatively slow motion. It started over a year ago and will continue for at least a couple more. All things being equal (even though they aren’t), you can look forward to today’s crisis peaking around 2013. Or 2014. Or maybe 2015. That is a long time to gamble with your safety. You need to ask yourself, “Can you throw the dice for 6 years -- 1,058 times a year -- without the dice coming up snake eyes ?”

Don Brown
January 10, 2008