Wednesday, March 04, 2009

NextNewt



Really, I meant it when I said I could go for days on this theme. I’m learning something new from every panel out here at Communicating for Safety but nothing excites me as much as writing about Newt Gingrich sticking his nose into air traffic control.

James Fallows, as ever, being the thoughtful adult, is trying to reign some of us in.

”As for making fun of Newt in general, have at it! But on this idea, he turns out to be saying something smart.“

I hate it when someone takes away my fun. Especially somebody I like as much as I like James Fallows. On the positive side though, this is a wonderful opportunity to delve into the complexities of the truth.

I think NextGen is little more than a sales job. James Fallows (even I would believe him before I would believe me) thinks it’s “smart”. How can both of us be right ? Is it even possible ? I think so.

Even though I haven’t read Mr. Fallows book on Free Flight (and titled “Free Flight”), I believe I know what he sees in NextGen. Those two buzz phrases provide a key insight. Nobody even talks about “Free Flight” anymore. Now it’s NextGen. What happened to “Free Flight” ? Well, that depends on what you believe “Free Flight” is (or was). As with NextGen, it’s one thing to General Aviation and it’s another to the airline industry. It’s an entirely different thing to air traffic controllers. To Newt, it’s just another political opportunity. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)

I think Mr. Fallows has a very definite idea as to what Free Flight (or NextGen) will mean to General Aviation. And to a very large degree, I believe we share that vision of that future. To those of you that know me, you know I don’t have many visions of the future. I’m a here-and-now kind of guy. Or worse, I dwell in the past.

Let me see if I can get us there (to the future) in a coherent fashion. Yesterday, we listened to the industry panel tell us about all the fuel they could save with wind-optimal routes and the increased flexibility in altitude assignments, blah, blah, blah. Today we listened to the RNAV crowd trying to space arrivals into the hubs with CDA (Continuous Descent Approaches). That will require you to be at the same altitudes, on the exact same route and at the same speed as everyone else. And if they could do it, they’d adjust the speeds for hundreds of miles prior to the start of the CDA point. Which is it ? Flexibility or enforced consistency ? It’s whatever you want it to be depending on which sale you’re trying to make.

Here’s the truth. The current airline model says we fly to the population centers at the times the population wants to fly. We leave Atlanta at 6:30 AM to be in New York for the 9 AM meeting. That is the market. It always has been and always will be. The limiting factor ? Runways. You can tinker with any technology you’d like to tinker with and you will still wind up with these basics. The only way to increase that market is to get more people into the same airports. Build runways or fly bigger airplanes. And there is a point of diminishing returns.

The truth is, the airline market as we think of it is stuck. Technology will not change it. (I hope the thought that they’ve all been going bankrupt tickles your brain. Think about it on your own. I’m trying to get to another point.) Big airplanes to move masses of people between large population centers (markets.) The question that comes to mind is, “What’s next ?”

It is here that (I believe) James Fallows and I see the same future.

”Today's system funnels a great deal of traffic through a small number of specified routes - which therefore become the only crowded places in the sky.”

The routes between the population centers do not change. A straight line between JFK and LAX today looks just like it did before there were airplanes. At the risk of stating the really obvious, we’re not moving the City of Los Angeles.

A newer system would allow more planes to take a variety of courses, staying out of each other's way. (It doesn't solve the problem of too many airplanes wanting to land at the same few over-crowded airports, but as a side effect it is designed to make smaller, under-used airports more attractive and practical.) In a sense it's like the difference between cars, which can take a variety of routes through town, and trolleys, which go where the tracks are laid and nowhere else. “

Those “variety of courses”, by default, don’t include the courses (the routes, the straight lines) between the major airports -- “the over-crowded airports”. If we recognize the reality of the limited capacity at “the over-crowded airports” we can logically conclude that the future of aviation is at the “ smaller, under-used airports “.

The airlines are indeed the “trolleys” of aviation. General Aviation is in a much better position to adapt to and seize the next growth market in aviation. And the airlines know it. While the airlines want “Free Flight” and NextGen to help them gain a couple of percentage points in runway and fuel efficiencies, General Aviation wants NextGen to bring the new technologies on line that will help them open the new markets, flying point-to-point from one “under-used airport” to another instead. It’s a no-brainer. Would you rather fly from the local airport 10 miles down the road to another local airport 10 miles from your destination or... Drive to the big airport, switch airplanes at the hub to fly to another big airport ? Chattanooga to Asheville or Chattanooga to Atlanta to Asheville ? Like I said, it’s a no-brainer. NextGen might even get you from Dalton, GA to Weaverville, NC without having to go through the “big” airports of Chattanooga and Asheville.

By the way, did it hit you that Newt is on the wrong side of this issue ? Not that it matters to him. For him it’s all politics, all the time.

”“Our thematic is going to be — you’re going to love this — that if you have an air-traffic delay that’s not caused by weather, take the extra time at the airport and call your two senators and your congressman and demand they pass the modernization act,” Gingrich enthused. “

Destroying the political power of unions (by destroying their jobs) is more important than providing the American public with an air transportation system that works.

”...and by the way, you cut the number of unionized air-traffic controllers by 7,000.“

How does any of that help provide you with a functional air transportation system ? That’s right. It doesn’t. That’s not NextNewt. That’s the same old Newt he’s always been. Remember the Contract with America ? Expect Newt’s version of NextGen to be every bit as “successful” in transforming our National Airspace System.

Don Brown
March 4, 2009

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