Monday, January 19, 2009

A Challenge for the Press

I just finished reading this line from The Mercury News in a piece by Ed Perkins.

”Accelerating the modernization of our air-traffic control system is both a "should do" and likely "will do." The current failure to modernize our creaking system is a national disgrace — especially since we have the technology to provide major improvements. Using available satellite-based equipment and systems, the Federal Aviation Administration could reduce fuel consumption, speed flights and increase the capacity of congested airports. “

(Emphasis added)

I don’t mean to pick on Mr. Perkins (I’ve heard this line dozens of times, from dozens of reporters) so I’m issuing the following challenge to all reporters. Show me. Show me how any “satellite-based equipment” will “increase the capacity of congested airports.”

While you’re at it, give me some numbers. As a matter of fact, give me some numbers for some real airports. Something along the lines of, “A satellite-based system will increase the capacity of LaGuardia airport by 2 operations per hour.” First, I don’t think you can do it -- and second, I bet if you could it couldn’t be done except by limiting the traffic at Kennedy and/or Newark.

I know these three airports have issues with their shared airspace, due to their close proximity. It’s tempting to believe that more precise navigation would mitigate these issues. Even if it does, how does that increase the capacity of the airport ? This is more than just semantics.

Let’s suppose we have an absolutely perfect flying day. In addition, we have the very best pilots and controllers on duty. Everything is going to run perfectly. The final controller will have the airplanes perfectly spaced for landing, the pilots will taxi off the runways without any hesitation. The pilots in the departing aircraft will be ready at the departure end of the runway and they will not hesitate when the controller says “cleared for takeoff.” At the end of a perfect hour we find that we have run 62 operations. That, my friends, is the maximum capacity of the airport. It will never, ever, increase until a new runway is built. How will a satellite-based system increase that number ?

Now, here’s the real question. How many of you think there has ever been a perfect hour at an airport ? Much less a day, a month or a year ? Don’t you think aircraft ought to be scheduled using a more “reality-based system” ?

Oh, and Mr. Perkins ? You’re wrong about this too.

”4) Airport fees

Changing the way users pay for air-traffic control and airport services is another big "should," but the "will" outlook is bleak. Currently, the funding and fees artificially encourage airlines to overschedule flights in small aircraft, causing unnecessary airport and airways congestion and limiting the system's total capacity. Airport and air-traffic control fees based on actual use of capacity would be a major step in the right direction. The best way to implement such a change would be to spin off the air-traffic control function from the FAA into a quasi-public non-profit agency that could set its own pricing formulas and issue bonds for needed investments. Sadly, these improvements are likely to be stalled: Too many entrenched interests — from private fliers to some union groups — oppose them.“

You might want to take a look at what is happening in Australia. Australia used to come up quite often in the Free Marketeers’ talking points - as a system we in the States should emulate. Now ? Not so much.

Now I’m picking on you.

Don Brown
January 19, 2008

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