Tuesday, February 05, 2008

It’s Worse Than I Thought

Today’s story comes from The Congressional Quarterly via Airport Business. Having written a few articles, I realize the problems with space constraints and dealing with complex issues but still...

If this is the information Congress is depending upon to make decisions, we’re in worse shape than I thought.

”So many thousands of planes are in the air today that they are seriously taxing an air traffic system that hasn't been fundamentally modernized since the 1960s.

The prospect of an aviation network riddled with delays, cancellations and choke points is prompting regulators for the first time to limit flights to and from the busiest airports. “

Excuse me ? I could let the first statement go. A lot of things haven’t changed since the 1960s (although more has changed than not) but the second statement is just plain wrong. And anybody who reads this blog knows it. The FAA has been limiting flights to the busiest airports for almost 40 years.

”Much of the pressure on the aviation system stems from changes unleashed on Sept. 11, 2001, when al Qaeda hijackers took over two United Airlines and two American Airlines planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and -- after they were overpowered by the passengers -- a farm field in Pennsylvania.

A sharp drop-off in passenger traffic following the attacks, combined with rising fuel costs, led many airlines to trade in their mid-sized aircraft that seat 130 to 150 people for smaller, more fuel-efficient jets that seat about 50 passengers... “

Perhaps there is some truth in that statement. I believe the larger truth is that the airlines were more interested in “controlling their costs.” That’s code for making sure that “upstart” airlines didn’t take their market and pressuring their long-term employees into wage concessions by paying regional jet pilots the modern-day equivalent of slave wages.

”A number of experts say major air carriers could act in the public interest and begin to address congestion by not packing as many flights into peak morning and evening rush hours and by refraining from overbooking flights on small planes.“

I found this to be the most curious statement in the article. When does any business act in the “public interest” ? That isn’t an insult to any business but a commentary on reality. A business doesn’t have a conscience. It doesn’t even think. It’s a mechanism to make money. It either makes money or it dies. The public interest doesn’t enter into. If donations, sponsorships and supposed goodwill gestures didn’t improve the bottom line then a business wouldn’t do it. If an airline willing gave up a landing slot, another business without such a sense of public duty would take it. This reality is the reason governments and regulations were invented. It’s hard to believe any “expert” (in anything) doesn’t know this. I guess it isn’t as hard to believe they might say it though.

”A typical coast-to-coast commercial flight from Washington to Los Angeles, for example, is handed off nine times -- a laborious process that places significant demands on controllers during peak travel times.“

Whoaaaaa there, Nelly. Which “expert” told the reporter this one ? Would anybody like to claim ownership of this statement ? The reporter is describing a “handoff” and in this day and age, nothing is simpler. You type in three numbers -- say 5 1 7 -- and press the ENTER key. Handoff complete. It’s so easy that we occasionally had to stop trainees from doing it during extremely busy times.

The axiom among controllers is that, if you don’t have enough time to notice a handoff is flashing on your radar scope, you’re too busy to work the airplane. When it gets that busy, controller trainees assisting the radar controller get overwhelmed and the lose “the flick.” As they search desperately for something that needs to be done, a new handoff starts flashing on the scope. “Ah ! Something to do.” 5 1 7 press ENTER. They’ve done something. Taking the handoff is ridiculously easy. It’s finding the time to work the airplane that is hard. And by taking the handoff, that is what the trainee has done. He has told the previous controller that it is safe to let the aircraft enter his airspace. He has time to work the airplane -- whether he really does or not.

I don’t mean to sound too negative about the article. It is lengthy and it has many good points. For instance:

"I think it was pretty difficult for this administration to do flight caps," said a senior Democratic transportation aide in the Senate, who was not authorized to speak for attribution. "They really didn't want to. They've been going all over the world talking about open skies, we need new agreements, open up your markets, and oh, by the way, we're capping the most lucrative one in our country."

I believe that quote to be quite correct. On the flip side of that issue, I was wondering how America was to gain any slots at places like London’s airport -- Heathrow. Heathrow’s landing slots are probably the most coveted in the world. But the international aspects of landing slots is not my area of expertise.

From what I know of The Congressional Quarterly, it is a well respected publication that is widely read by Washington insiders. It concerns me that so many details in this article are flawed if not downright wrong. Especially if government policy makers are using it as a source to make policy. Read the article for yourself and see what you think.

Don Brown
February 5, 2008

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