Monday, 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

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