Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Controllers Have Cure for Energy Crisis

HAMPTON, GA, August 5, 2008 -- A group of the world’s most preeminent air traffic controllers, while sitting on the picnic tables under the pavilion at the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center, came up with the solution to America’s crippling energy crisis. Local president, Calvin Phillips, reading from his notes written on the back of a grievance form told the crowd, “If the oil companies hadn’t allowed the pipeline technology to become so outdated there would be no energy crisis. The Alaskan pipeline is 31 years old and is one of the newer pipelines in the country. We believe that the oil companies should build more pipelines and until they do, the government needs to step in and auction off the limited space within those pipelines.”

That fantasy makes as much sense as this one from MarketPlace.

Brattle Group Principal Dorothy Robyn Recommends Major Changes to Air Traffic Control System

” Dr. Robyn's remarks were based on her paper, "Air Support: Creating a Safer and More Reliable Air Traffic Control System," one of six new papers written for The Hamilton Project around which the forum was organized. The paper argues that the nation's air traffic control system, run by the Department of Transportation's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), has not kept up with the explosive growth in air travel. For instance, in 2007 flight delays cost passengers and airlines more than $12 billion in lost time and fuel. Moreover, controllers and pilots continue to rely on antiquated air traffic control technology, which contributes to delays and the rising cost of the system.“

Dr. Robyn, I’m sure, is a very good policy advisor. But I’m still not sure how “air traffic control technology “ has any bearing on runway capacity. I don’t know how many ways I can say it or how many times supposed experts can ignore it -- it’s the runways, stupid. Tell me, how can technology expand the capacity of the Alaskan Pipeline ?

There may actually be some capacity improvements we could make. Who would you ask about that ? The CEO of Exxon ? You might. But I’d start with the guys running the pipeline. After all, that is who has the answer. The CEO will ask the same guys -- only with 10 layers of management filtering the answer. But at the end of the day, you and I both know that even if you filled the pipeline from one end to the other with oil, the capacity is limited. It only holds so much. You don’t need an engineering degree to figure that one out.

It follows that a Ph.D. in Public Policy (Ms. Robyn) should be able to figure out that a runway has a finite capacity. The current air traffic control system can overwhelm that capacity. Better technology would be welcome but it won’t change the capacity. Only more concrete will change the base capacity of an airport.

” Dr. Robyn proposes that Congress create a new agency within the Department of Transportation focused exclusively on the delivery of air traffic control services and regulated at arm's length by the FAA. “

This argument, on the surface, sounds a little more reasonable. But examples are out there and the reality doesn’t support the theory. What you wind up with is the computer equivalent of the software manufacturer blaming the hardware manufacturer (and vice versa) while you sit there was a busted computer. It also ignores the fact that the FAA -- at one time -- was considered the best air traffic control service provider in the world. This same argument was made about the FAA’s previous dual mandate to regulate and promote aviation. Removal of that (seemingly) conflicting mandate hasn’t improved the FAA at all. The FAA has only gotten worse. (I’m not making a case for cause and effect between those two events. I’m just stating an observation.)

I’ve taken the time to read one Dr. Robyn’s papers. She makes her case better than the Press presents it but it is still flawed. She swallows the NextGen propaganda hook, line and sinker. What is missing is a fundamental understanding of air traffic control. For controllers, this is all too familiar. Consider her proposal to separate the operation of air traffic control from the regulation of air traffic control again. That will give us air traffic control inspectors. Somebody has to make sure the controllers are doing their job, right ? Who is going to do that ? Who understands air traffic control on the level needed to inspect it ? The answer is obvious -- air traffic controllers. Where are you going to find them ? There is only one place in America -- in the FAA. Now you’re creating the same revolving door between a company and the regulator that we’re dealing with in airline inspections.

Once again, we find the media and the policy wonks nibbling around the edges of the problem. I seriously don’t know if they don’t understand the basic problem of if they do understand it and are trying to distract the public with costly non-solutions that only generate income for various entities but no relief for the traveling public. If we want more capacity, build more runways. It’s that simple. If we are unwilling to build more runways (for whatever reasons) then we must regulate demand to match our existing airport capacity. It doesn’t take new technology or a Ph.D. or a complicated auction scheme. It just takes a leader willing to tell the truth and act on it. Has anybody seen one of those ?

Don Brown
August 5, 2008

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