Monday, March 31, 2008

CFS Video Feed

Well, I made it to Chicago safely and I am settled in my room. Dinner is about to start but I wanted to let you that you can watch the Communicating for Safety conference on the ‘net. It will start on Tuesday morning. You can check the schedule here.

The live feed will be from here.

Don Brown
March 31, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- March 31

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

”Mar 31, 1956: The Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) was established as a nonprofit professional organization to promote the advancement of air traffic control. Originally composed only of controllers, ATCA broadened its membership to include governmental agencies, private companies, and other individuals and organizations worldwide. “

I’ve only heard the oldest of stories about ATCA (as opposed to PATCO or NATCA.) I believe it started with the same intentions -- to represent the controller profession -- but it transformed into the good-old-boy network for FAA management. Whatever the story, one look at their board tells you they aren’t controllers.

I know Mr. Planzer is ex-FAA. And I recognize Mr. Washington from his recent appearance on The Main Bang (which is usually not a good thing for FAA management -- and it wasn’t.) You’ll probably recognize some of the companies. Harris, ITT, NAV CANADA, etc. They might be involved in air traffic control but I don’t think they’re representing controllers anymore.

Don Brown
March 31, 2008

Saturday, March 29, 2008

FAA Oversight

You are paying attention to the airline inspection story right ? Southwest Airlines got popped with a big fine, the FAA is accused of letting them slide and the FBI is investigating threats made against the FAA inspector that blew the whistle on the whole deal.

If you go to the union that represents the people that blew the whistle, you start getting the whole story.


”It is appalling that the FAA chose to impose this penalty only after several months of investigations by Congress and the threat of a pending hearing instead of immediately addressing the implications brought forward by inspectors over a year ago “

That investigation was instigated by my buddy Chairman James Oberstar. And a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum...

American and Delta Ground More Than 200 Planes

”American Airlines and Delta Air Lines said Wednesday that more than 200 of their planes might not comply with Federal Aviation Administration rules “

Golly gee, it seems as if oversight actually works. Too bad it takes a Congressman (from the right Party) to make the FAA do their job.

Do you see how all this works ? Did you notice that all this hasn’t been working for the last few (about 7) years ? Pay attention.


”The culprit for this outage was once again problems directly attributed to Harris Corporation’s Federal Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI) system, which provides vital circuitry and communication functions for the FAA. Harris engineering failed to provide appropriate backup, which would have kept air traffic fully operational following the primary failure. “All around the country, we’ve seen very serious issues resulting from Harris’ unreliable services. This failure is no different, yet the FAA continues to ignore the issue while declaring the FTI program a success,” said Steve Garrett, a local PASS representative. “


”And no, we will never forget that the FAA abandoned a fair collective bargaining process, and tore apart the already tenuous relationship it had with its controller workforce.  

This is the open, bleeding wound we are desperately trying to repair, for the sake of the safety and stability of the system. But, we are faced with an employer chasing after us with a salt shaker. “

”As a direct result of this, the total number of fully certified controllers has fallen to a 15-year low.  

Nationwide, more than 2,200 controllers and trainees left their jobs between Oct. 1, 2006 and Jan. 5, 2008. 

That’s roughly one out of every seven in the workforce. Only 17 of the 911 controllers that retired last year reached the mandatory age of 56. “

”The FAA knows its imposed work rules have failed. That is why it has begun offering $24,000 bonuses to veteran controllers to try and keep them from leaving. It hasn’t worked.  

This fiscal year’s attrition total is on track to shatter FAA projections by a wider margin than even last year’s record exodus of over 1,600. “

The FAA has more problems than oversight alone can fix. In other words, one committee chairman -- no matter how good he might be -- can fix it all.

PASS is doing their part. NATCA is doing theirs. Chairman Oberstar is doing his. Are you doing your part ?

Don Brown
March 29, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- March 29

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

”Mar 29, 1996: The Clinton Administration announced a Presidential directive assuring the availabilility of Global Positioning System (GPS) signals to civilian users. The new policy included a planned end to the practice of degrading civil GPS signals, within a decade, in a manner that would allow the U.S. military to prepare for this eventuality.

On Apr 26, FAA cancelled its contract with Wilcox Electric for the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) to enhance GPS signals (see Aug 1, 1995). The agency cited project management problems and projected cost overruns. On May 1, FAA entered into a letter contract with Hughes Information Technology Systems regarding WAAS. This was followed by the Oct 29 announcement of a comprehensive contract with Hughes for WAAS development and implementation. Other related milestones during 1996 included a Jul 26 FAA plan for transition to GPS-based navigation and landing guidance during a period of about 10 years that would start when augmented GPS service became available.“

When you start talking about GPS, WAAS and LAAS -- things start getting complicated in a hurry. Like so many things, I suggest hopping over to Wikipedia if you’d like to find out more.

To be honest, the only thing that grabbed my attention in Wikipedia’s WAAS article was this:

”The 2004 baseline estimates the final program cost to the US Federal government as over US$ 3.3 billion when delivered in 2013; more than 3.7 times the original budget and 12 years behind schedule. “

When we’re talking basics, controllers don’t really care how pilots navigate -- just so long as they can navigate. The problem is when the FAA starts certifying various means of navigation without basic commonality. Controllers don’t care how you get to TAWBA -- with INS, GPS, LORAN or NDB -- we just want you to get there and we don’t want to have to spell it, give out the radial/fix distance or look up the Lat/Long for it.

Don Brown
March 29, 2008

Friday, March 28, 2008

ATC Globalization

I’m pretty sure you didn’t see this news story. Unless you’re reading the news from Botswana that is. It's about an air traffic controller conference held in Arusha, Tanzania.

3,000 air traffic controllers lacking worldwide

”Citing the immediate need for an estimated three thousand controllers, IFATCA president and CEO Marc Baumgartner said:  "This shortage of controllers, which is evident in all regions - Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, and North and South America - represents a serious hazard to the flying public as we strive to maintain a safe and efficient air traffic system handling ever increasing numbers of flights. “

This dire situation is exacerbated when air traffic service providers, in an effort to keep the system running, resort to mandatory or forced overtime. Excessive overtime amid the continuing growth of air traffic results in mental and physical fatigue that threatens the health of air traffic control personnel.

"We call upon States and air traffic services providers worldwide to recognise this potential hazard and to take immediate steps to mitigate the serious risks posed", stated Baumgartner.

IFATCA is the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers' Associations , based in Montreal, Quebec. It’s embarrassing that I haven’t mentioned them before. You really should check out their forum section. The language barrier is always a problem but they are still informative.

For instance. I learned that in Mexico, controllers only work 35 hours a week. Overtime is paid at double your hourly rate and anything beyond 9 hours of overtime in a week is paid at triple time. In that I know some American controllers occasionally work a 60 hour week (6 days, 10 hours a day), I bet they’re calculating what 16 hours of overtime at triple their rate -- instead of 1 and 1/2 their rate -- would be worth.

But before you get blinded by the dollars, think about this. The fact that controllers are working overtime seems to be a problem worldwide. This statement was also in the article.

”In addressing the staff shortage and the consequent safety issues, IFATCA resolved that its member associations should discourage air traffic controllers from working overtime and to be aware of their obligations concerning the number of working hours permitted within the framework of the applicable laws. “

While many controllers are just calculating what they make in overtime, the air traffic control service providers of the world made those calculations long ago. It’s cheaper to use controllers up than it is to hire new ones. Keeping staffing to a minimum and covering the shortage with overtime is cheaper than hiring the extra body and taking on the other costs -- administrative, benefits, retirement etc. If their cost of hiring a new person is 1.5 times the cost of their current controller (and I bet that number is close), when you’re only getting 1.5 times your regular rate for overtime...well, the math isn’t very hard to figure out is it ?

Right now, some controllers are figuring out that overtime doesn’t hurt the FAA and some citizens are figuring out just how little value their safety gets in that equation. Think about it and it will clue you in on the worldwide shortage of controllers. Because no matter who is running the system -- the civilian government, the military, a private contractor or some type of combination thereof -- the calculations are the same.

(Note to CK: Thanks for the tip on the topic.)

Don Brown
March 28, 2008

Thursday, March 27, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- March 27

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

”Mar 27, 1977: Two Boeing 747s collided on a runway at Tenerife, Canary Islands, under conditions of limited visibility. One of the aircraft, a Pan American jet, was moving down the runway toward an assigned taxiway. The other, belonging to Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM), had been assigned to wait at the end of the same runway. The Dutch crew was approaching the legal flight duty time limit. Their captain apparently misinterpreted a message from the tower as clearance to take off. Disregarding the doubts of a crew member, he began the takeoff roll. The resulting collision killed all 248 persons aboard the KLM jet and 335 of the 396 persons aboard the Pan American. The fatality total of 583 was the worst that had occurred in any aviation accident. Most of the casualties were caused by the intense fires that engulfed both aircraft. The accident stimulated interest in fire safety (see Jun 26, 1978) and in airport surface detection equipment (see Jul 5, 1977). “

Tenerife is still the biggest accident in the history of aviation. So much has been written about the accident but yet, in searching around the internet, I have found another documentary I hadn’t seen before. It’s in two parts, on YouTube. Please use your discretion before clicking on the links and watching. Some of the scenes aren’t easy to take. The camera panning the (seemingly) endless rows of coffins is haunting.

Part I

Part II

Aviation accidents rarely have just one cause. This fact usually gives rise to debate as to which cause was the main cause. It’s not all that relevant as far as safety goes but -- after safety fails -- the lawyers enter to attach blame. Having said that, this documentary emphasizes what I believe to be the main cause. The KLM 747 had taxied to the end of the runway and was in position to take off without having received its routing clearance -- the route it would be cleared to fly. It seems as if the captain of the KLM believed this ATC clearance was (or would include) his takeoff clearance. We’ll never know what he was really thinking. He died along with everyone else aboard his aircraft.

Don Brown
March 26, 2008

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

NextGen Irony

The modern-day traffic light traces its roots back to 1912. Too bad it wasn’t in 1908. I like nice, round numbers and “100-year-old technology” just has a better “ring” to it than “96-year-old technology.”

Regardless, traffic lights are what the FAA is going with.

F.A.A. Wants Stoplights Added to Runways

”The system will use a computer to determine when a runway is in use, and then turn on red lights embedded in the pavement at each intersection. Thus it would help to counter errors by pilots and controllers at the 20 airports, which include Kennedy International and Newark Liberty International, but not La Guardia.“

I’ll wait and see what my Tower friends have to say about all this before I pass judgment. Airport surface operations are not my area of expertise. I just enjoy the irony of it all -- a “space-based” air traffic control system installing lowly traffic lights.

Don Brown
March 26, 2008

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- March 25

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

” Mar 25-Apr 10, 1970: Some 3,000 air traffic controllers, all members of PATCO, engaged in a "sickout" strike. All but a few of those involved were en route, rather than terminal, controllers. Some remained absent for a day or two, others for the entire 17-day period. The work stoppage reflected widespread discontent, but its immediate trigger was FAA's decision to ignore PATCO's protests and carry out the involuntary transfer of three controllers from the Baton Rouge combined station-tower. The absentees claimed sick leave, but the Department of Transportation viewed their action as a strike against the U.S. government and hence illegal. The government obtained temporary restraining orders against PATCO. When the union failed to comply with these orders, a show-cause order was obtained against its officers. During the hearing on the show-cause order, PATCO agreed to call off the "sickout." FAA suspended nearly 1,000 controllers and fired 52 for their role in the affair. (See Feb 18, 1970, and Apr 23, 1970.) “

History is always a little different -- depending upon the sources. As I understood it, every one of those controllers was rehired -- except for Mike Rock. Mike Rock was one of the original founders of PATCO. The stories I was told seem to be verified in this document.

” 1970: PATCO stages a three-week "sick-out" in which 2,200 controllers participate. The Air Transport Association wins a court order ending the job action. PATCO ignores the order, but an eventual deal bars PATCO from further job actions. Sixty-seven controllers are fired. All but PATCO founder Mike Rock eventually are reinstated. “

If you’re interested in the bigger story, a good place to start is ”The Pressures of PATCO by Rebecca Pels.

Don Brown
March 25, 2008

Monday, March 24, 2008

Where Angels Fear

Some of you may remember from awhile back that I recommended reading the Economist’s View. I don’t read it as much as I used to simply because of time constraints and the fact that Paul Krugman’s column at The New York Times is now available to all.

I realize that economics is not my field and that the true experts (such as Mr. Krugman) are having a tough time deciphering what all is going on...but I can’t help myself. For my money, Fred Block hit the nail on the head with this article.

Mortgage Meltdown for Dummies: Defining the Changes We Need

You can read a condensed version of that article at Economist’s View.

All the smart guys keep telling me that another Depression is virtually impossible. Yet Brad DeLong (another well-respected economist) had an attention-getting post on his blog Saturday where he used the “D” word.

It’s all enough to make you sit up and take notice. With so many controllers up for retirement and so much of their money wrapped up in the Thrift Savings Plan, the future economic situation could have a substantial impact on air traffic control in ways most people aren’t aware of. Speaking of which, I wonder how many are aware that U.S. government employees have $224 billion in “the market” ? Or that, every two weeks, Uncle Sam deposits up to 15% of the Federal payroll into “the market” on behalf of its employees ? (Somebody check the math. It’s a big chunk of change whatever the percentage.)

It’s a good thing Barclays isn’t Bear Stearns. What do you mean, “Who is Barclays ?”

Don Brown
March 24, 2008

Sunday, March 23, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- March 23

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

”Mar 23, 1962: FAA type-certificated North American Aviation's Sabreliner (Model 265), an executive type jet aircraft. It thus became the first executive-type aircraft with twin turbojet engines to be designed, developed, and certificated in the United States. “

I was reading some piece on aviation the other day and the author was saying that business aviation wasn’t really a factor in air traffic control until the 80’s or the 90’s. That was news to me. The Jetstar came out even earlier than the Saberliner.

”Aug 28, 1961: FAA issued type and production certificates for the Lockheed Model 1329 JetStar, powered by four Pratt & Whitney JT12A-6 engines. The JetStar was the first four-engine turbojet executive-type transport designed and developed in the United States to be certificated. “

And the Learjet was right behind them.

”Oct 7, 1963: The Learjet 23 made its initial flight. FAA certificated the twin-engine executive aircraft in July of the following year, and the company made its first delivery in October. The success of Model 23 and later Learjets helped to popularize corporate jet transportation.“

I find it very odd how we used to value this industry, and now, it too seems to be slipping from our grasp. Corporate jets are now being built by Brazil, Canada and, soon, Japan. Cessna will manufacture it’s SkyCatcher -- a “light sport aircraft” in China.

Factor in all the conventional wisdom you’ve heard about expensive labor, exporting jobs and fair trade. See if any of it makes sense to you. Japan has a skilled workforce but they’ll manufacture their jet here in the States. China isn’t known for its high-tech workforce but an American company (Cessna) will export its jobs there. Brazil isn’t even on most American’s radar scope but has been quietly invading our market for years. If you clicked on the link above, I assume you noticed the Bombardier bought the Learjet. If you want to read something that doesn’t jibe with conventional wisdom, read about Bombardier.

Don Brown
March 23, 2008

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Wall Street Needs You

Every once in a while, someone writes something that makes me say, “I wish I had written that.”

”The Street on Welfare “

”Never do I want to hear again from my conservative friends about how brilliant capitalists are, how much they deserve their seven-figure salaries and how government should keep its hands off the private economy.”

I mean it -- I wouldn’t change a single word of the article. I look forward to reading more from E. J. Dionne Jr. in the future.

Don Brown
March 22, 2008

Friday, March 21, 2008

Kyrie Eleison

Just a reminder that it’s Good Friday and an observation: Have you ever noticed how many exclamations come from church ?

Lord have mercy, the airline industry is talking about bringing back the turboprop.

North America Looks to Turboprops

One of the problems you see in air traffic control (over and over again) is that business can move so much faster than government. Airlines can put a dozen airplanes into a new airport before the FAA can redesign the airspace to accommodate the new traffic. When the price of fuel goes up, the airlines change the way they operate and the FAA, once again, has to play catch up.

With the price of fuel -- and the financial crisis -- expect to see a lot of changes in the entire aviation community. It could be a huge break for the FAA. Air traffic usually declines during a recession. That could give the FAA some extra time to hire more controller trainees and it might keep some from leaving.

Don Brown
March 21, 2008

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Yesterday, I sent you to Strange Maps and I’m going to send you there again. Open up this map in a new window on your browser so you can refer to it as you read.

Locate Atlanta, GA on the map. Precisely.

Describe to me how to drive from New York to Atlanta using this map.

How many “intersections” are there between New York City and Atlanta on this map.

No, this isn’t designed just to frustrate you. I want you to think about maps. In transportation, you have to be able to give directions. To be able to give directions, there must be common points of reference. A road -- Interstate 85. An intersection -- the SW corner of Maple and Third. Landmarks -- In Marietta (an Atlanta suburb), you can’t go anywhere without reference to “The Big Chicken.”

The FAA is heading down a dangerous road and I really wonder why no one seems to be paying attention. Take a look at these two STARs (Standard Terminal Arrival Routes.)

I see only two common points of reference -- the ATL (Atlanta) VOR and the SOT (Snowbird) VOR. That doesn’t do you much good (some, but not much) when you’re trying to figure out if you can hold at SHANE or PLEES on the PECHY STAR while you’re holding at ODF on the WHINZ STAR.

Some of my long-time readers might recognize this as another version of the same problem I’m been talking about for years...Where does a flight from GSO direct M54 cross a flight on V35 ?

If you don’t know what GSO, M54 and V35 are then you begin to see the problem. It’s like trying to program the GPS in your car to turn left at the first light south of the Big Chicken.

Think about it.

Don Brown
March 20, 2008

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Holy, Holy, Holy

It is Holy Week and holy cow ! (the crowd groans) am I busy. Things to do, places to go and people to see. So take this opportunity to visit some other folks.

Hop over to The FAA Follies and help out John at The Main Bang.

See those links on the left side of my page ? They’re there for a reason. Go read Paul Krugman’s “Shouting “fire” in a crowded theater” or Robert Reich’s Why the Fed's Wall Street Bailouts Won't Work (it’s a 2-parter) or see what James Fallows has to say about China or Obama.

For something really different, head over to Just an Earth-Bound Misfit. WARNING : For Mature Audiences Only. She has a gun and a cat (more than one actually), an airplane, a law degree and she can cuss like a sailor (which I believe she was.) I’m not kidding, she can make you blush. But E-BM is never dull.

And just for fun, there is Strange Maps. If I had hours to kill I could do it here.

Don Brown
March 19, 2008

Monday, March 17, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- March 17

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

”Mar 17, 1966: The Bell Triservice X-22A, a tilting-duct Vertical/ Short Takeoff and Landing (V/STOL) aircraft, made its maiden flight. On Jun 30, 1966, with the tilting ducts at an angle of 30 degrees, the aircraft made its first STOL takeoff, and subsequently attained a top speed in excess of 100 miles an hour.

Mar 17, 1966: FAA type-certificated the Learjet 24, a two-engine turbine-powered business aircraft seating eight (two crewmembers and six passengers). In the first flight of its kind by a business jet, a Learjet 24 completed a 17-leg, 23,002-statute-mile, round-the-world flight on May 26, 1966. The global flight took 65 hours 40 minutes (actual flying time, 50 hours). “

I would normal give these two entries a pass -- neither really has much to do with air traffic control. However, because of so much talk about technology and what it will do for ATC, I thought I’d use them.

The Lear 24 was wildly successful. The X-22A -- after 42 years -- is almost ready for the field, having morphed into the V-22 Osprey.

Here are a few pictures I found as I was searching the ‘net.


V-22 Osprey

Lear 25 (a stretched version of the Lear 24 but a really neat shot.)

Sometimes, the promise of technology works out. Sometimes, you have to wait 40 years or more.

Don Brown
March 17, 2008

We Warned You

This quote from Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) is just too good to pass up.

”Tyler Duvall is a little pointy-headed neocon with grand ideas about the future of transportation, and they all involve tolling," DeFazio said. "He's bright, young, energetic -- just totally wrong, and has a bizarre, neocon view of transportation. “

Just in case you’ve forgotten who Congressman DeFazio is, he’s one of the good guys.

Run over to The Washington Post and read:

Letting the Market Drive Transportation

And while you’re at it, I’ve been waiting for on opportunity to throw this one out. Grover Norquist is one of the biggest -- if not the biggest -- proponents of the NeoCon movement. He made the mistake of showing up on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Well, I thought is was a mistake. You can judge for yourself. Watch the video.

Don Brown
March 17, 2008

Air Referee

Whenever controllers hear from the pie-in-the-sky crowd about self-separation and cockpit-based separation in air traffic control we try to suppress the urge to snicker. We know that if these programs ever get close to succeeding we still have one ace-in-the-hole to maintain our job security -- refereeing. I saw this first hand right after the PATCO strike in 1981. Everybody likes to think they’re “first” and the arguments can quickly get out of hand.

I mention it because of the current deadlock on the FAA’s reauthorization. Congress is spilt into two camps. One wants to continue funding the FAA as it has been funded for many years -- with fuel taxes. The other camp wants to fund it with new “user fees.” If you don’t already know about this fight you can read more of the details here.

Before I start refereeing, let me provide some personal disclosure. I grew up on a General Aviation airport. That is where I worked through high school and college. I am not a pilot nor do I own an airplane. I am not a dispassionate observer about this issue but I believe I am an honest one. Here goes.

User fees will spell the beginning of the end for General Aviation. I believe the effort to impose user fees is part of the larger effort the privatize the National Airspace System. If for no other reason, I would oppose user fees on this issue alone. As I have stated many, many times on this blog, there is no comparison between the U.S. and the rest of the world when it comes to aviation. We are the sole aviation “superpower.” General Aviation is a large part of the reason behind that. We got the public policy right.

Regardless, lets examine the case for user fees. The argument is that it is a “fair” and proportional way to tax the industry. User fees would ensure that General Aviation -- especially the corporate business jets -- paid their “fair share.” When you look at the facts from behind a radar scope, that argument doesn’t hold water.

In my Area of Atlanta Center, we had 7 sectors. That is 7 radar scopes -- each dedicated to a certain area defined by geographical location and altitude. My favorite sector was the Wilkes sector (named after Wilkesboro, NC). The reason it was my favorite is that 90% of the traffic in the sector was General Aviation. The sector only “owned” the altitudes from the ground to 10,000 feet mean sea level (MSL).

Above that sector, life was very different. The proportions flipped and 90% of the traffic became airline traffic. The Area -- at one time -- handled all the traffic into and out of Charlotte, NC (CLT) but as the USAir hub grew, we had to divide the airspace into smaller sections and split the Area in two. There are now five sectors in Atlanta Center and one sector in Jacksonville Center designed to handle the airline traffic into and out of CLT between the altitudes of 11,000 and 23,000. In case anyone is interested, the sectors are SHINE, MOPED, LEEON, LOCAS, UNARM and CTF (Chesterfield in Jacksonville Center). Above 23,000, the traffic is probably 95% airline traffic.

Tomorrow, if all General Aviation traffic suddenly disappeared, the only change we would make would be to close the WILKES sector and combine it with the SHINE and/or MOPED sectors. On the other hand, if all the airline traffic disappeared, we would have to totally redesign the airspace. The number of sectors in my Area would certainly be cut in half and maybe more. As a matter of fact, that would probably hold true for all of Atlanta Center. We would only need half (or less) of the radar scopes we currently use.

That is a pretty powerful argument right there but there is one even more powerful -- one that paints a clearer picture. If the Charlotte and Atlanta airports disappeared tomorrow we would make almost the same amount of changes as if all the airline traffic disappeared. We wouldn’t be able to combine up as many high altitude sectors (above 23,000) but we would close just as many low altitude sectors. The hub airports -- the airports designed for and dominated by the airlines -- are the resource hogs of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization.

If you don’t believe that, all you have to do is look at Flow Control (aka Traffic Management, Air Traffic Control System Command Center). Or, as I refer to them, The Tenth Kingdom. (Air Traffic Control in the FAA used to be divided up into nine Regions. Flow Control became the tenth “kingdom.”) The Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC) was designed and built to keep the airline hubs running. It now handles special events for General Aviation (like the Super Bowl or the Master’s Golf Tournament) but -- much like the entire National Airspace System -- it was designed for the airlines.

In closing, you might ask yourself why the airlines want to change the funding system. I’ve already mentioned the fact that user fees will really hurt General Aviation. If you’ll think about one of my other favorite themes -- runway capacity -- the picture might become a little clearer. If the major airport runways are operating at maximum capacity (and they are), the only way to add capacity is to build more runways . Or use other, existing runways. Runways currently used by General Aviation.

The future of air travel isn’t in cramming even more airplanes into maxed out airline hubs. It’s in more point-to-point flights. Technological advancements are making this possibility more and more likely. General Aviation is in a better position to take advantage of those changes. And the airlines know it.

(Note: Don’t get excited about Mr. Fallows use of the term “free flight” in the link above. As I’ve said before, the term means different things to different people. We’ll get to that problem another day.)

Don Brown
March 17, 2008

Saturday, March 15, 2008


Okay, I admit it. I’m becoming Narcissistic. I really get a kick out of searching the web to see where my work is winding up.

It started back when I was still writing for AVweb. I was dumbfounded when I started getting emails from Germany, Australia and Hong Kong. We all know it’s called the World-Wide Web but knowing and knowing are two different things. Even now, with Get the Flick, it still happens. This is obviously a very America-oriented blog but still...

I have more readers in Australia than Washington State.

I have twice as many readers in New Zealand as Hawaii.

I have more readers in Canada than Nevada.

It just blows me away that I get more hits from Germany than I do from right-next door in Alabama. (Don’t get too excited Wilhelm and Hans. It is Alabama we’re talking about.)

The upside of my psychosis is that I’m always finding new blogs. I bumped into a new one just this morning -- JurassicBark. I don’t know who it is and I haven’t seen anyone else in NATCA talking about it but it’s yet another close-to-retirement controller that has had enough of the FAA. And from everything I can tell, JurassicBark has the flick.

For the non-controllers that decide to visit, be sure to take a look at this post. Don’t get distracted by the video. Scroll over the picture and click on it to enlarge it. The last time I saw something that ugly I was on Valium for three days. Don’t worry -- you’re safe. It’s not so bad as long as you aren’t the one talking to them -- or riding on them.

You can add JurassicBark to the growing list of voices -- barking in the wilderness. Maybe Congress will wake up and start asking, “Who let the dogs out ?” Hopefully they won’t think it’s an Echo.

Don Brown
March 15, 2008

Friday, March 14, 2008

Think Tank Thunk

Recalling (if you will) yesterday’s blog, Robert Poole of The Reason Foundation wrote to Mike Lewis of the Boeing Company’s ATM (that’s Air Traffic Management) business unit to dispel my “eloquent” but quaint notions about air traffic control. Mr. Poole, being true to his word, sent me Mr. Lewis’ full remarks (very quickly I might add) upon request.

Let me pause here to make my first point.

As I told my regular readers in a post (oddly) entitled “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... “

Giving Mr. Lewis the benefit of the doubt, I’ll assume he is not a regular reader and didn’t see that note. I don’t assume that Mr. Poole is a regular reader either. I just thought it worth noting that Mr. Poole felt the need to turn to his “expert” to try and dispel the assertions in an article written for a general, “non-aviation” audience. Moving on...

Mr. Poole did an excellent job summarizing Mr. Lewis’ main points. They were:

• "GPS, centimeter-precise digital maps, synthetic and enhanced vision, taxi-map displays, and precision guidance can eliminate visibility as a constraint.

• "ADS-B, multilateration, integrated radar, and flight deck displays can precisely locate all traffic.

• "RNP routings, trajectory tracking and planning can give very accurate four-dimensional paths for use in automation and displays.

• "Wake vortex detection and tracking could show where wake hazards are—and aren't. (This is the one area that still needs advances in technology.)

• "With these items in place, we could safely operate with more than one plane on a 10,000-foot runway, especially with departures."

Let’s take them one at a time.

”GPS, centimeter-precise digital maps, synthetic and enhanced vision, taxi-map displays, and precision guidance can eliminate visibility as a constraint.

I addressed this issue in The Silver Lining . “ 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.” It’s interesting that Mr. Lewis chose to mention “taxi-map displays.” I’ve been asking around about this same question. (I’m not an expert on cockpit displays either.) It turns out that most airliners don’t have them, but according to my sources, they’re now coming on line. We could argue about the “why”s but it misses the larger point that they don’t. Regardless, we still bump into the theoretical limits of VFR runway capacity even if we manage to conquer the IFR limits by requiring half-million dollar (or more) upgrades on every commercial aircraft. Synthetic vision is not cheap.

”ADS-B, multilateration, integrated radar, and flight deck displays can precisely locate all traffic. “

To which I answer; “So what ?” I will point out that Mr. Lewis has the good sense to include ADS-B and radar. The FAA would have you believe ADS-B is going to replace radar. It isn’t. I’ll be honest, I really don’t see the relevance of this point (I think it’s about accuracy) so I’ll make my own point. (Besides which, my dictionary doesn’t contain the word multilateration.)

When I left the FAA, our radar scopes were big (I think 20 inch) monitors. They were really nothing more than a fancy TV or computer screen. The targets (depending upon the range settings) were anywhere from one half mile wide to a full mile wide. It didn’t matter if the target was a Cessna with 33 foot wingspan or a Boeing 747 with a 200+ foot wingspan -- they were all the same size. If we ever move to cockpit-based separation, the pilots will be using what -- 10-inch displays ? 12-inch displays ? Granted, ADS-B is more accurate than radar. But how useful is that accuracy when the target is two miles wide because of the range setting on your display ? I won’t even get into the extra skills a pilot will need (think training and wash-out rates) or the distraction from the pilot’s primary duty -- flying the airplane.

”RNP routings, trajectory tracking and planning can give very accurate four-dimensional paths for use in automation and displays. “

Right up until a thunderstorm gets in the way. Besides, we’re now getting off track. The title of the article was “Air Traffic Safety vs. Capacity” and the main point was that runway arrival rates were the main limits to capacity. “Planning” on the “trajectory” for an arrival on final is real simple -- draw a straight line to the runway.

”Wake vortex detection and tracking could show where wake hazards are—and aren't. (This is the one area that still needs advances in technology.) “

That’s a fair statement. We’ll talk again when the technology is fielded and see how much it will increase runway capacity. I would make a totally uneducated (remember, I wasn’t a Tower controller) guess and say less than 10 percent.

”With these items in place, we could safely operate with more than one plane on a 10,000-foot runway, especially with departures.“

Let me use Mr. Lewis’ own words to answer this one.

”...runways have capacity limits only with respect to the operating assumptions used. “ Where does that leave us ? If we could safely and accurately plot wake vortices (we can’t yet) we could put more than one airplane on the runway at a time. Sometimes. If we had the entire airline fleet equipped with synthetic vision we could start bringing the IFR arrival rates up to VFR arrival rates. Would-a, could-a, should-a. We could triple the width of runways and take off in formation like the military does.

Using the assumptions of today, we’re stuck with a certain capacity. Using the assumptions of tomorrow, we’ll be stuck with a certain capacity (hopefully a better one.) Whatever that capacity is, I am 100% certain -- for the places that matter, like New York and Chicago -- we will use all of it. To steal a line from a movie, If you build it they will come. And there will still be more capacity in the sky than on ground. Runways will still be the limiting factor. And safety will still be the determining factor in how those runways are used.

The question we seem to arguing over is, “What shall we build ?” The tax payers are being asked to pony up 20+ billion dollars (emphasis on the +). Boeing is not in the runway-building business (at least I don’t think they are). The Reason Foundation is in the privatization business. I’m not in any business at all. I’m a retired public servant with the quaint notion that we ought to ask how the public would best be served.

The pay off for the public’s investment in NextGen hasn’t been defined any better than the cost. What is the percentage of improvement NextGen will provide in runway arrivals rates ? The proponents think it will improve the current IFR arrival rates to nearly the current VFR arrival rates -- in 20-25 years. I believe the percentage of improvement NextGen will provide for the current VFR arrival rates will be virtually ZERO. However, an additional, properly-built runway substantially increases the IFR and the VFR arrival rate. Even the FAA can get this one right.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the new runway, opening May 27, will increase by about 30% the number of arrivals the airport can handle at any time, reducing passengers' average waits as they taxi or circle in the air. “

Bear in mind that’s a 30% improvement at an airport that already had 4 parallel runways.

If you ask NextGen proponents the plain and simple question, “By what percentage will NextGen improve the VFR arrival rate at XXX airport ?” the answer will be a deafening silence. There will be a multitude of non-answers explaining that NextGen is so much more than that and those types of things are yet to be determined.

Let me close by making one last point -- one about attitude. To me, this quote sums up Mr. Poole’s attitude.

”If controllers genuinely believe the kinds of things Brown wrote, that's a big problem by itself, since they and their successors will be key participants in making NextGen a reality. And if they are not brought on-board and decide to oppose NextGen implementation efforts on safety grounds (the theme running through Brown's post), we will need a major educational communications effort to explain to reporters and editorial writers (and members of Congress) that the new paradigm not only increases airport and airspace capacity but does so simultaneously with increasing safety.”

In short, if the controllers don’t agree with him, Mr. Poole believes he needs to go around them. Nothing makes this point clearer than his consultation with Mr. Lewis of Boeing ATM. No offense to Mr. Lewis -- as I said yesterday I’m sure he’s an exceedingly bright individual -- but unless he has worked a substantial length of time as an air traffic controller, he isn’t an expert in air traffic control. I have no doubt that he is an expert on the systems that might come to be known as NextGen.

As I’ve pointed out at least twice in the last two days, I am not an expert on airport air traffic control. Yes, I know a great deal about it. I’ve spent more hours in Air Traffic Control Towers than I can count -- starting when I was 16 years old -- bugging the controllers with endless questions. Even after 25 years as a controller in the FAA, if I have a question about air traffic control operations around an airport, I still consult with the only true experts -- the controllers that work in those Towers. The fact that I do -- and Mr. Poole didn’t -- speaks volumes.

He has company though. The FAA stopped consulting with their controllers too. Considering the mess we’re in now, I’ll let the public decide if that is a wise course of action.

Don Brown
March 14, 2008

Space Based

Question: Will the space traffic control system be space-based ? Or ground-based ?

Does space need air traffic control?

Don Brown
March 13, 2008

Thursday, March 13, 2008

So Reasonable

I received one of the nicest, left-handed compliments ever last month. And I almost missed it.

”One of the most eloquent presentations of this view came across my screen last month from the blog of retired air traffic controller Don Brown.”

That sounds nice doesn’t it ? I wrote Mr. Poole back, thanking him, and also taking him up on his offer -- made later in the same article.

”Having heard many presentations on the technology behind NextGen, I knew this was not the whole story, but because (as my critics point out) I have never controlled air traffic or done hands-on work on any of the new technologies, I asked one of the best experts on this subject, Mike Lewis of Boeing ATM, to review Brown's post. I don't have the space here for Mike's full reply, but let me summarize the main points.“

”There's a lot more detail in Mike's response (which I'm happy to forward to you, if you're interested).“

I’d be most interested in Mr. Lewis’ response. I’ll wait until I see it (as opposed to Mr. Poole’s summarization of it) before I comment on the particulars.

Both Mr. Poole and Mr. Lewis have impressive biographies. They’re obviously smart and well educated. MIT and Princeton are impressive schools. Their price tags are real impressive. My son has applied to MIT and, quite frankly, I’m scared he might be accepted.

I don’t believe I’ve ever taken the opportunity to brag on my children on this blog. (Did you like that segue ? Bear with me.) My son is known as “the math god” at his high school. He took first place (again) in another one of his regional math competitions last week. When it comes to math, he’s scary smart. I haven’t been able to follow what he’s doing since elementary school. He’s a genius. The local paper said so. Of course, that’s the same paper that said he had applied to the Michigan Institute of Technology.

My daughter, on the other hand, has decided to be an artist (bless her heart.) There’s nothing wrong with that of course (except the term “artist” is usually preceded by “starving.”) What I find so amusing about the situation is that she is smarter than her brother (by a couple of points on their IQ scores.) She’s been on the Dean’s List every semester so far, yet the talk is always about how smart my son is. Even I do it.

My son is fortunate in that society doesn’t measure intelligence by the ability to draw. I swear, the boy can’t even draw a stick figure. He could probably come up with a mathematical description of one of my daughter’s pictures...but he still can’t draw it. My daughter on the other hand...well, a picture is worth a thousand words.

(an art class sketch from a painting by Tony Ryder)

There is a point to all this (besides being able to brag on my children.) Mr. Poole (the MIT engineer) -- by reaching out to Mr. Lewis (the Princeton engineer) -- brought a mathematician to a picture drawing contest. I have no doubt that Mr. Lewis is as smart as a whip and is as likely as anyone to bring some new tools to the world of air traffic control. The point is controllers don’t have those tools.

If Boeing (or anybody else) wants to give controllers a better paintbrush, a better pencil or a new and improved canvas -- we’re all for it. Until then, Mr. Poole is stuck telling you what “can” happen and what “could” be possible. He’s stuck -- telling the artists what is theoretically possible but unable to demonstrate it.

Of course, Mr. Poole gets paid to do his thinking. And Boeing gets paid when they sell the U.S. Government some new system. I’m sure Mr. Poole and Boeing would both be thrilled to privatize the system.

Me ? I’m just a retired guy that can’t do math and can’t draw. But I used to paint masterpieces in the sky. And I did it for 25 years without killing anybody. You can believe whomever you choose to believe.

Don Brown
March 13, 2008

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Pretend You’re an Airplane

The next time you find yourself at the airport -- standing in the security line with nothing to do -- I have a mental exercise for you. Pretend you’re an airplane and the metal detector portal is a runway. It’s a simple exercise but you’ll be surprised how much you can learn from it.

Let’s start off with only one metal detector portal. As you intuitively understand, the simple solution is to have one line. One portal -- one line. But someone has a better idea. Instead of a line that snakes down the hallway and blocks the entrance to the concession stand, it is decided we will have two lines. This looks better because the line isn’t as long. It isn’t any better though because is takes more time to blend the two lines back together as two people stand in front of the metal detector saying, “Please, you first” and “No, you go ahead” and “No, I insist, you go first.” (I fly out of Atlanta. I realize the scene in New York might be different.)

In simple terms, this is what President Bush came up with when he announced the “express lanes” during the holidays. The two lines looked better than a single line but without more runways, airplanes weren’t landing any faster and it just made the controller’s job more difficult -- blending the two streams of airplanes into one.

This concept is very easy for you to understand -- watching it as you are -- standing in the security line at the airport. I would be the last one to tell you that air traffic control isn’t complicated but everything about it isn’t that complicated. It’s easy to understand that it takes a second or two to walk the few steps through the metal detector portal. It is just as easy to understand it takes a minute for an airplane to touch down, slow down and exit the runway. It is also easy to understand that, with a certain number of people standing in line, two metal detector portals would allow you to handle them twice as fast as just one.

Again, it’s just plain old-fashioned common sense that, if you were to put a second metal detector in place, you would place it where it wouldn’t interfere with the first one. Assuming they were to handle the same gates, you would place them parallel to each other, far enough apart that they wouldn’t interfere with each other. Sounds pretty simple right ? Well, airports aren’t that simple.

Airplanes need to land into the wind. That is the reason you’ll find airports with runways that are at angles to each other. Let me show you one of the simpler ones -- LaGuardia (LGA.)

As you can see, LaGuardia has two runways that are perpendicular to each other. Even worse (as far as air traffic control) they intersect each other. Going back to our security line/metal detector portal analogy, it isn’t real hard to figure out that this arrangement is less than ideal. Just as you are about to approach the metal detector portal/runway, you have to cross a line of people/airplanes headed for the other metal detector portal/runway. If you bump into someone as you cross the line you can just say “Excuse me” and move on. Obviously, the consequences aren’t quite the same if you’re an airplane.

We’re at a point now where we can follow thoughts in different directions if you so choose. I mentioned that airplanes need to land into the wind. There is a certain amount of flexibility to that general rule. For instance, if the wind is calm enough, the airplanes at LGA can use both runways at the same time. It allows us to run more airplanes per hour but as I’ve shown above, not as many as if the runways were parallel to each other. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that “shooting the gaps” between the two lines isn’t as efficient (or as safe) as using two lines that are parallel to each other. To be fair, when those runway layouts were designed, capacity wasn’t quite the Siren it is today.

We could follow the thought of how long the line would get if two runways worth of airplanes could only use one runway (because the wind was blowing so hard) but the thought I would like to follow is that all runway layouts are not equal. Yet, some people would have you believe things are simpler than they really are. Read this statement from a Port Authority of New York & New Jersey press release back in October of last year.

” The FAA has proposed a cut in the maximum number of flights at the airport to 80 an hour – equivalent to the cap at JFK in the late 1960s. Under the restriction, JFK would handle fewer flight operations per day than LaGuardia Airport, despite JFK having approximately 44,000 total feet of runway space compared to LaGuardia’s 14,000.“

To the uninformed, that statement would make it seem as if JFK should be able to handle a lot more traffic than LGA. Under the best of conditions, LGA can handle 44 arrivals per hour and JFK can handle 68. Conditions are not always the best though. It rains, it snows and sometimes, the wind just blows too hard or from the wrong direction. If you’ll look at the charts at the links provided, you’ll see that when the weather gets bad -- the IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) column on the charts -- the differences starts shrinking. Much of it can be explained by looking at the airport layout. (You can read about other factors here.)

JFK has two main runways that are parallel. That is good. Actually, it’s great. Then it has another set of parallels for when the wind blows in a different direction. That is good too. The statement from the Port Authority above would have you infer that all four of those runways can be used at the same time.

Let’s go back to our security line at the metal detector machine and check this out. Two lines to two metal detector portals are stretched out parallel -- we’ll say south to north. Then we have two other parallel lines headed for two other metal detector portals and these lines run east to west. To make this work you don’t have to “shoot the gap” once but twice. Any questions ?

For those of you who do have a question, watch this video.

Remember, I didn’t say it wasn’t complicated. This exercise is only in two dimensions but controllers work in three dimensions. The pressure to maximize the use of all runways might be overpowering for the Port Authority (and some other entities I could name) but controllers get to see the results firsthand when things go wrong. And sooner or later, something always goes wrong. Controllers want enough wiggle room to safely handle the traffic even when things don’t go exactly as planned.

I feel compelled to restate that I never worked in an Air Traffic Control Tower. I know that people forget that fact. Not having worked in a Tower, I’m sure there are some subtleties that I miss about airport operations. If you want to understand more than the basics, you need to ask the experts -- the folks that work in the Towers.

What kind of air traffic controller was I ? I was a Center controller. The next time you are standing in the security line at the airport, turn around. You see all those people coming in the doors, up the escalators and down the elevators to get in line behind you ? Pretend they’re all airplanes...

Don Brown
March 12, 2008

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Different Verse, Same Song

Or I could entitle this, “Does This Sound Familiar ?” The point remains the same. The Bush Administration has done everything it can to hamstring and silence unions -- to the taxpayers detriment.

Head over to The Washington Post to read the story.

At EPA, Unions Break From Management

”The agency's scientific-integrity principles, jointly developed by unions and managers during the Clinton administration, call for employees to ensure that their scientific work is of the highest integrity, and to represent it fairly, acknowledge the intellectual contributions of others and avoid financial conflicts. “

”Created during the Clinton administration, the EPA's Labor-Management Partnership Council, like its counterparts in other agencies, is intended to head off internal disputes and delays by discussing issues such as changes in work schedules and the introduction of new technology before final decisions are made. Bush dissolved the agency councils by executive order in 2001, but EPA officials maintained a working relationship with the unions. “

”The letter announcing the unions' withdrawal cites a lack of union input on the design of a performance appraisal system and a failure to engage unions before implementing changes in work rules.“

Don Brown
March 11, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- March 11

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

”Mar 11, 1991: FAA began a series of hearings in New Jersey to obtain public comment on the noise effects of air traffic changes under the Expanded East Coast Plan (EECP), which had been implemented in phases between Feb 1987 and Mar 1988 (see Aug 25, 1988). The meetings reflected strong citizen discontent with the EECP. On Jun 28, FAA announced a contract with PRC, Inc., to assist in developing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the effects of New Jersey flight patterns revised under the EECP. In Oct 1992, Congress acted to freeze the pay levels of certain FAA employees involved with the project until the final impact statement was completed. In a response to another congressional action, FAA on Oct 28 announced a series of public meetings in New York and Connecticut as part of an Aircraft Noise Mitigation Review for the New York metropolitan area (see Nov 20, 1992). On Nov 12, 1992, FAA released a Draft Environmental Impact Statment (DEIS) on the EECP's effects on New Jersey. The agency scheduled public hearings and gathered public views on the DEIS during a comment period that was subsequently extended until Nov 23, 1993. (See Oct 31, 1995.) “

(Emphasis added)

”Oct 31, 1995: FAA announced its final decision on the New Jersey Environmental Impact Statement (see Mar 11, 1991). The agency rejected a plan to reroute many flights over the ocean, but accepted a measure known as the Solberg Mitigation Proposal for implementation in early 1996. This measure involved routing changes to reduce noise in the Scotch Plains and Fanwood areas. “

And some things never change. If you haven’t heard of ”Quiet Rockland” yet, you probably will.

Don Brown
March 11, 2008

Monday, March 10, 2008

Don Brown History Lesson -- March 10

Twenty years ago today -- March 10, 1988 -- was a noteworthy day for me. Oddly, it will take more time to explain it than it did for the most significant event of the day to occur. I hope it will provide you with a frame of reference to understand the significance of today’s (or tomorrow’s) events. But first, I must set the stage.

I was hired by the FAA in November of 1981 -- just over 3 months after the PATCO strike of 1981. The strike was one of the most significant crises the FAA every faced. After attending the FAA Academy and suffering through the accelerated training program (much like the training today) I was certified to work all the positions in my Area in August of 1984. In short, by 1988 I was still a relatively new controller, having less than 4 years experience after I finished training.

Despite such a short period of time, I had already become disillusioned with the FAA. The petty and vindictive management, the bureaucratic inertia and the lax safety culture. By the summer of 1987, I and many other controllers had already banded together and formed the National Air Traffic Controllers Association -- a new union for controllers.

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

”Jun 19, 1987: The Federal Labor Relations Authority certified the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) as the exclusive representative of all GS-2152 series terminal and center controllers whose primary duty was separation of aircraft. The controllers had voted for representation by a margin of 7,494 to 3,275, using mail ballots sent to them on May 6. The Authority had announced the outcome on Jun 11. (See Jul 2, 1982, and May 1, 1989.)“

It is hard to overstate the significance of that brief time span. In slightly less than 6 years, a brand new group of very young people had banded together to form a union during the decidedly anti-union Reagan Administration. That one fact speaks volume about the culture of FAA management that -- in large part -- still exists today.

Within that larger context, I had already developed a deep interest in the safety aspects of air traffic control. I personally looked at NATCA as a vehicle that allowed me to speak out in public about the safety problems I saw within the FAA. I had been filling out numerous Radar Trouble Report forms (an official FAA form) on a problem with a radar site in my Area called Maiden. Little did I realize -- or even imagine -- how important those forms were to become.

Concurrently, the FAA -- in their never-ending quest to reinvent the wheel -- was busy implementing an airspace redesign program called the Expanded East Coast Plan. See if the following FAA history entry doesn’t sound just like today’s airspace redesign program.

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

”Feb 12, 1987: FAA initiated Phase 1 of the Expanded East Coast Plan (EECP) to help increase the capacity of the National Airspace System (see Aug 21, 1986). The plan had been originally intended to relieve traffic congestion in the New York and Washington, D.C., areas through the more effective use of airspace, but was expanded to cover the airspace from Maine to Florida and west to Chicago. The EECP: created new departure and arrival routes; established separate paths and altitudes for jets and slower propeller aircraft; set up new city-pair routes; and used new traffic management techniques to increase airport departure flows and reduce holding procedures. The agency initiated Phase II of plan on Nov 19. That phase involved a realignment of the northwest departure quadrant from the New York Metropolitan area. The agency also increased the number of westbound high-altitude, routes from one to four to expedite traffic flows to Chicago, Detroit, and the west coast. The final phase of the EECP, implemented on Mar 10, 1988, was designed to improve traffic flow from the New York area to the northeast, and involved changes affecting the airspace in New England, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. (See Aug 25, 1988.)“

(Emphasis added)

It’s important to note that the plan itself wasn’t a bad plan. It was the implementation of the plan that was the problem. The FAA was changing all the routes into the New York and Washington areas and wasn’t providing any meaningful training to the controllers. As I said at the time, it was like changing the names of every street in town -- making some one way, closing others and paving a few new ones -- overnight. And controllers were the ones that were supposed to make it all work the next morning.

Our concerns were so grave that NATCA managed to arrange a meeting with the Secretary of Transportation -- James Burnley at the time -- through the office of Congressman Guy Molinari. I was volunteered to represent the Atlanta Center local of NATCA at the meeting. The meeting was absolutely brutal. Here we were, a bunch of mostly-young controllers in a brand new union, meeting with the Secretary and the top brass of the FAA. Secretary Burnley ran the meeting and left no doubt that he thought we were wasting his time. Unbelievably to me, he was even blatantly rude to the Congressman.

Towards the end of the meeting -- after the Secretary had threatened to throw us out -- I and another controller from Boston Center (Bill McGowan) got to present our safety concerns. I mentioned the problems we already had along Atlanta Center’s boundary with Washington Center and pointed to the enroute holding patterns near Greensboro, NC as evidence of how difficult the traffic in this area was already. That difficulty would be exacerbated by controllers being unfamiliar with the new routes. The controllers needed better training. They needed to work with the newly designed airspace in the simulation lab. I also mentioned something to the effect of, “We’ll be lucky if we don’t kill somebody without better training.”

It was a lucky -- but an educated and sincere -- guess. On the very first day of the Expanded East Coast Plan -- March 10th -- this event occurred just west of Greensboro, NC.


NTSB Identification: ATL88IA108A.
The docket is stored on NTSB microfiche number 36207.
Scheduled 14 CFR Part 121: Air Carrier operation of CONTINENTAL AIRLINES (D.B.A. TEXAS INT'L AIRLINES, INC. )
Incident occurred Thursday, March 10, 1988 in GREENSBORO, NC
Probable Cause Approval Date: 7/18/1990
Aircraft: BOEING 737, registration: N13331
Injuries: 159 Uninjured.


The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this incident as follows:

(Emphasis added)


There was no “ABT .6 MI SEPN” (about point 6 miles separation) to it. They “about” hit.

Adding to the confusion of the airplanes maneuvering to meet the new restrictions that were part of the Expanded East Coast Plan, was the fact that the Maiden radar site lost track of one of the aircraft in the middle of the event. It was the same problem I had been documenting on those Radar Trouble Report forms I mentioned earlier. It came out in the following investigation that my supervisor had been throwing the reports away. Unfortunately for him, I had made copies. That didn’t prevent his boss from trying to cover for him.

It is my sincere wish that you not focus on the personalities involved in this incident but instead, focus on the processes of the system. The Radar Trouble Report forms are there so that the people using the equipment (the controllers) can inform management and the problem can be fixed. Locking away the forms and even failing to educate the controllers to the existence of the forms subverts the processes that make the system work. As does a supervisor that intentionally thwarts the process and a manager that covers for him.

A bad supervisor isn’t unheard of. Neither is a manager covering for one. That is the reason other processes have been built into the system. A union gives employees added protection and encourages them to speak up about problems. Unions provide the resources individuals cannot attain by themselves -- the ability to speak to the Press without retribution -- the ability to attract the interest of a Congressman. A Congressman who -- by another intentionally designed process -- can command the attention of a Cabinet member. Or even the President himself.

As this incident points out, all of these processes can fail. It almost cost 159 people their lives on this day, 20 years ago. This event didn’t make the evening news. It certainly didn’t make the history books. The majority of these events never do. Pay attention to the ones that do manage to make it into the headlines.

When you read yesterday’s headlines -- or today’s or tomorrow's -- I hope you will take the time to read between the lines and try to fill in the gaps. Were the controllers properly trained ? Were the positions adequately staffed.? Is there a good first-line supervisor in place with adequate resources or is he overwhelmed ? Are the second-line managers competent or are they just petty and vindictive ? How about upper management ? Are they focused on their duties or are they distracted by that six-figure salary industry has dangled in front of them ?

Think of the political appointees running your government. Are they competent ? Or are they just checking a box on their resume ? How about your Congressmen ? Are they providing the needed oversight ?

Every single process in this system -- every check and balance -- is important. If you fly, you are betting your life that at least some of them work.

(Note: You can read a more detailed version of this story in one of my AVweb articles entitled, “Maiden and Me.” There are a few more details in Say Again? #61: It's Here!)

Don Brown
March 10, 2008

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Sunday Evening Show

Forget the reruns. Forget 60 Minutes. I’ve got compelling TV for you to watch right here on your computer. Seriously, I want you to take an hour of your TV-time and watch all this instead. A special word of thanks to my friend, Paul Williams, for putting all this together in one place on his site.

First, the news story that appeared on CNN. If you don’t have enough time to watch them all, this is the one to watch.

Next is the press briefing given by Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, James Oberstar. It’s in four parts. I’ve watched all four. I’ve listened to every single word. Chairman Oberstar is my hero. He handled this with just the right touch. He’s not screaming that the sky is falling. He’s not saying that Southwest Airlines is unsafe and he (on the last question asked) refused to say they were safe. That isn’t his job. His job is oversight.

My blog for tomorrow (it’s been written for days) will ask that question in just this context -- “Is Congress doing their job by providing the needed oversight ?” In this one case, I am thrilled to be able to say, “Yes.”

”The FAA will see the light -- or feel the heat. “

I personally cannot wait until Chairman Oberstar’s committee turns its attention to air traffic control.

There’s one last video you might want to watch. The uncommanded rudder movement problem on Boeing 737s didn’t really come across too forcefully. A picture is worth a thousand words. There’s no word on how much a video is worth but be sure to note the date so you can calculate how long this problem has existed -- and been ignored.

My sister is flying home today on a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737. I’ll make sure she watches this video.

Don Brown
March 9, 2008

Early Bird

Did you set your clock ahead for the time change ?

This is not exactly what I had in mind when I set out the blue bird boxes.

For those interested, I believe it’s an immature red-shouldered hawk.

Don Brown
March 9, 2008

Friday, March 07, 2008

The Safety Bill

Just a reminder -- the safety bill is still due.

Comair wants to speed up trial against FAA

You’re paying now and the final bill has yet to be determined. It’s your money. Pay me now or pay me later. Pay for safety on the front end or pay (and pay) for it later.

Don Brown
March 7, 2008

Thursday, March 06, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- March 6

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

”Mar 6, 1972: FAA announced the establishment of an FAA-Industry Area Navigation Task Force to advise and assist the agency in the further application of its area navigation system. The action followed a Jan 24-25, FAA-sponsored international symposium on area navigation that pointed up a need to review FAA's program. In subsequent months the task force conducted in-depth studies and tests to assess the system's value and to determine how area navigation could most effectively be implemented. The test results generally confirmed the advantages previously supposed (see Oct 1, 1969) -- that area navigation provided cost benefits by allowing an aircraft en route to stay higher longer and thus conserve fuel, and to arrive at the descent point at precisely the correct time for a letdown without delays. In addition, by extensively analyzing terminal area operations, the tests confirmed that area navigation equipment could be used to move traffic at the same level of efficiency as radar vectors while reducing controller workload by restoring greater responsibility to the cockpit. By the end of fiscal 1973, a nationwide system of high altitude area navigation routes had been established consisting of approximately 156 route segments. “

Let me reemphasize a point in the above -- “provided cost benefits by allowing an aircraft en route to stay higher longer and thus conserve fuel, and to arrive at the descent point at precisely the correct time for a letdown without delays.” That was 36 years ago and the tune really hasn’t changed.

The latest incarnation of this idea is Continuos Descent Approaches. If you don’t know what they are you can read about them over at The Cranky Flier. Great ! Marvelous ! Wonderful ! Except they don’t work. Oh, a pilot can fly one. The computer can calculate it. You can even make them work (most of the time) if you’re the only company using the airport, all the surrounding airspace and it’s the middle of the night. Otherwise, they don’t work. I’m sure that won’t stop us from chasing them for another 36 years.

Don Brown
March 6, 2008

Who is This Guy ?

Following up on my post, “Searching For Excuses.” It appears Mr. David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, is quite the mystery man. Just ten minutes worth of searching on the internet has raised all sorts of questions.

From The New York Times -- ” But the Air Travelers Association, which once charged annual fees and sold travel insurance and various other travel-related services, no longer accepts members. And Mr. Stempler declines to say how many members his group has.“

From The Cranky Flier -- ” My biggest question is about who he is trying to support here. In his release, he says, “The Air Travelers Association is the airline passenger/consumer representative on the U.S. DOT’s New York Aviation Rulemaking Committee . . . .” He is clearly connected to someone if he made it on this committee, but as many others have asked, is he really supporting passengers?“

From CharterX -- ”Stempler was asked how many airline passengers his for-profit association represented, but he declined comment. When he was asked if he had any data to substantiate claims that airline passengers were complaining about corporate jets not paying their fair share for air traffic control services, he said he didn’t have that data. “

Who is this guy and why is he on a Transportation Department task force “ draft suggestions on how the federal government should deal with the problem of air traffic congestion in the New York area...” ?

Thanks to Evan Sparks’s Aviation Policy Blog for the point out.

Don Brown
March 6, 2008

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- March 5

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

”Mar 5, 1969: A Puerto Rico International Airlines (PRINAIR) de Havilland 114 Heron crashed near San Juan, P.R., killing all 19 persons aboard. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) listed the probable cause as the vectoring of the aircraft into mountainous terrain by a controller performing beyond the safe limits of his performance capability and without adequate supervision. NTSB noted that a routine psychological test in 1966 had suggested that the controller suffered from high anxiety and low stress tolerance. He then received psychiatric and psychological examinations, after which the regional flight surgeon pronounced him fit for duty. NTSB concluded the controller’s problems with anxiety and stress, in combination with other factors, might have caused his inadequate duty performance. NTSB therefore recommended that FAA expand the psychiatric and psychological assessment of controllers, and place such assessment under the strict supervision of qualified psychiatrists and psychologists. In reply, FAA pointed to the appointment of a panel of psychiatrists and psychologists to assist the Federal Air Surgeon. “

The NTSB report puts it a little more succinctly:


Don Brown
March 5, 2008

Searching for Excuses

I wonder if the number of absurd guesses goes up in proportion to the problem ? If so, this summer ought to be a doozey. This is from the Chicago Tribune’s article:

U.S. airlines' on-time arrival rates continue to drop

”"We're still bogged down here," said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association in Potomac, Md. "The antiquated air-traffic control system, I think, is at the heart of the problem." “

I couldn’t help but wonder about Mr. Stempler’s expertise in the area of air traffic control. So I took a trip to his site.

”David Stempler is an aviation attorney and has a background in all areas of aviation. “

Excellent. So, which ATC facility did he work in and for how long ? Unfortunately, the web site is mute on the point. I did find this curious statement though, ”The Air Travelers Association is not currently accepting new memberships. “ I get the feeling that there isn’t much room at the Air Travelers Association for anything except Mr. Stempler and photos of airplanes in silhouette.

Oh well. Never mind. We’re all in agreement though. The air traffic system in the United States does need to be modernized. Right ? Well, not so fast...

The Air Transport Association of America on Monday leveled sharp criticism at a proposal for pervasive change in air traffic control service.

Would someone please make up their mind ? I think I’ll just sit back, work at being retired and enjoy the show. I can separate airplanes using ADS-B, radar or nothing more that a piece of paper, a pencil and a radio. I’m betting most of the people you hear from this summer -- telling the public how we should separate airplanes -- can’t.

Don Brown
March 5, 2008

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Thank You Senator Lautenberg

WASHINGTON, DC - Under direct questioning from U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) today at a Senate hearing, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and Acting Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Robert Sturgell said they regretted remarks made last week by an FAA spokesperson, inviting air traffic controllers who had concerns over the safety of the new procedures to “look for work elsewhere” and, if they did not like working at the FAA, they should “reconsider their line of work.” “

I’ve only got one question: What price does Mr. Peter’s (the FAA spokesperson in question) pay ?

Does he forego a pay raise (as many controllers did this year) ?

Does he get days off without pay (as many controllers did) ?

Does he get fired (like many controllers were) ?

Does his arbitration get drawn out for months and months ?

I don’t want vengeance -- if I did I’d call for his head. I want justice.

Don Brown
March 4, 2008

FAA History Lesson -- March 4

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

”Mar 4, 1976: FAA announced a contract for the development of three engineering model Discrete Address Beacon System (DABS) ground sensors and 30 compatible transponders. This new advanced radar beacon system was designed to eventually replace ATCRBS, the existing air traffic control radar beacon system (see Dec 27, 1963). The chief advantage of DABS was its ability to interrogate and receive a transponder reply from a specific aircraft rather than from all aircraft in the zone of coverage. This would help eliminate the problem of overlapping and garbling of transponder replies from aircraft flying in close proximity to one another. Since DABS would address aircraft on an individual basis, it would also provide a vehicle for automatic communications between aircraft and the ground. This data link capability was seen as the basis for future implementation of a ground-based collision avoidance system called Intermittent Positive Control (IPC), later designated the Automatic Traffic Advisory and Resolution System (ATARS). (See Mar 1976.) “

I wish every reporter that will type the word “NexGen” in the next decade could read and understand this entry. Thirty two years ago the FAA was talking about NexGen. There are numerous good ideas on improving the air traffic control system. Getting them implemented is a different matter altogether.

See that “data link capability” above ? That is the key to improving the efficiency of air traffic control. Not the efficiency of runways -- I’ve already covered that subject -- but the number of airplanes a controller can handle. Right now, the limiting factor is the number of airplanes a controller can talk to on the radio. The more a controller has to talk, the less airplanes he can work.

For those that are scratching their heads, saying they’ve never heard of “DABS” -- it’s Mode S.

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

”Jun 23, 1981: Administrator Helms announced FAA's decision to adopt the Threat Alert and Collision Avoidance System, soon renamed the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). The TCAS system was an evolutionary improvement of the Beacon Collision Avoidance System (BCAS) that the agency had been developing (see Mar 1976). Like BCAS, TCAS would work in conjunction with the Air Traffic Control Radar Beacon System (ATCRBS) transponder already in wide use. It would also be compatible with the next-generation transponder, originally designated the Discrete Address Beacon System (DABS) and later known as Mode S (see Dec 27, 1978, and Oct 5, 1984).

Two types of the new collision avoidance system were planned. TCAS I, intended for general aviation use, would in its basic form simply alert the pilot to the proximity of another aircraft carrying TCAS I or a conventional ATCRBS transponder. More expensive TCAS I versions would have some ability to provide certain data on the altitude and/or "o'clock" position of threat aircraft. TCAS II would provide more sophisticated advisories, including data on range and bearing of transponder-equipped aircraft. When the transponder aboard the threat aircraft had altitude-reporting capability, TCAS II's advisories would also include altitude data. In the case of two aircraft equipped with TCAS II, coordinated advisories would be provided. TCAS II would suggest vertical escape manuevers. If feasible, the system might be enhanced to include both vertical and horizontal escape manuevers, a version later designated TCAS III. TCAS was expected to overcome a fundamental limitation of BCAS by its ability to operate effectively even in the highest air traffic densities. This modified the need for a new ground-based collision avoidance system, and led to discontinuance of the Automatic Traffic Advisory and Resolution System (ATARS) project, originally known as Intermittent Positive Control (see Mar 4, 1976). “

By the way...does anybody know what happened to TCAS III (27 years later) ? That is two years longer than my entire career with the FAA.

Don Brown
March 4, 2008