Saturday, November 08, 2008

Recess Is Over

The campaign must be over. Everybody and their brother is back to writing aviation stories now that we know Barack Obama will be the next President. If I had to pick the best, I’d pick “Ask the Pilot” by Patrick Smith, over at Salon.

I disagree with some of Mr. Smith’s positions but at least he is being honest -- which is more than I can say for some others.

”We can modernize ATC to our hearts' content -- and we should -- but an airport can only accommodate so many arrivals and departures in a given amount of time.“

This is fundamental. It is bedrock. If anyone out there submits a plan for our aviation system that doesn’t recognize this fundamental fact -- they might was well be lying to you. There is no ATC system in the world that will significantly change the number of aircraft that can use an airport per hour. The only thing that can change that number is more concrete -- more runways. You don’t have to think very far down the road to recognize that there is a limit to the number of runways we can build at any one airport.

I’ve said what I wanted to say about the issue in the past. Evidently, it is important that I keep saying it -- over and over. At least that is what everyone else seems to do.

Let me see if I can rephrase the basics for you one more time. The fundamentals of air traffic control don’t change. The most important fundamental of air traffic control to understand is time. It takes time to talk on the radio. You can only make so many transmissions per minute. You can switch to another communications format -- something like email -- but you’re still limited by time. People can only type so fast too. We cannot significantly change the amount of time an aircraft spends on a runway. We’re stuck with the number of airplanes a runway can handle per unit of time. We can change the number of runways but we cannot change the amount of time. How far apart airplanes are isn’t nearly as significant as the amount of time that distance represents. Time to notice and correct errors. Time to communicate. Time to react. Time for wake turbulence to die down. Time to be careful, thoughtful and safe.

Time is everything. And it’s high time we stop chasing pie-in-the-sky solutions. The basic air traffic control system we have right now can handle the traffic our runways can handle. Actually, it can handle more than the runways can handle. When Atlanta (ATL) added it’s fifth runway the ATC system already in place was able to handle the extra load. ATL went from an arrival rate of 96 an hour to 126 an hour. We didn’t need NextGen, GPS or slot auctions to make that happen. We didn’t need anything new -- except a new runway.

Our air traffic control system is falling apart because we refuse to take care of it. We are too busy trying to replace it with a bunch of gee-whiz equipment that we don’t need. We won’t change the oil and put on a new set of tires because we want that new car with the GPS system and the DVD player. We’ve lost sight of the fact that we don’t need a GPS system to get us to our job -- we already know the way. And we don’t have time to watch the DVD player on the way to work anyway. We just need a reliable transportation system to get us to work.

Don Brown
November 8, 2008

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