Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Milestone to Mark

In case it might have escaped your notice, on Saturday -- May 30th -- it will have been 1,000 days since Marion Blakey imposed her contract work rules on the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Just to refresh your memory, she did it on Labor Day, 2006. She was sending a message, of course. Unfortunately, NATCA did not send one back. Not effectively anyway.

Perhaps I’m belaboring a moot point. Perhaps not. I urged NATCA to strike back when the Bush Administration was still in office. Making a statement now would probably be counterproductive. The Obama Administration is making a good-faith effort to rectify this situation. There doesn’t appear to be a need for NATCA to share its displeasure with the public at the moment. However, in the future, you can be assured that there will be.

The anti-union elements of American society have not fallen by the wayside. I seriously doubt that the Republican Party is mortally wounded. There is a chance that it is...but I wouldn’t bet on it. There will be a time in the future when NATCA will be challenged again. And the lesson its foes will learn from reviewing this period of history are not promising for NATCA.

In the greater scheme of things, NATCA isn’t important. Air Traffic Controllers are. So are unions. And so is the National Airspace System. It is perhaps easiest to prove that point by highlighting the negative aspects of this struggle. Historians now recognize the PATCO strike in 1981 as a milestone for labor relations in America.

The Reagan Administration established a new climate. After PATCO, employers regularly wielded replacement workers as a weapon in labor disputes. Management shunned negotiation in favor of bare-fisted confrontation. Union busting became a billion-dollar business for consultants and lawyers who advised companies on how to thwart organizers. The National Labor Relations Board, formerly a neutral body that oversaw the nation’s labor practices, turned overtly anti-union under Reagan, studiously ignoring labor-law violations by corporate managers and letting cases linger for years without resolution.

If a group of people have the capacity to cause that much harm, they have the capacity to do much good.

I have faith that the Obama Administration will come up with an equitable settlement to the current impasse with NATCA. It would be unwise for NATCA to view it as anything more than a gracious reprieve. While looking after the interests of air traffic controllers is NATCA’s main function, I believe it has a higher duty. A duty to the profession and a duty to the country. As I’ve said so many times, a public servant’s best interest is in serving the Public’s best interests.

I once received some advice I hated but it might be useful in making my point clear. “In order to do good, you must first do well.” In other words, if you want to be able to make a real difference in the world -- through charitable donations or whatever -- you must first become wealthy so that you can concentrate your attention (if not your money) on the things that matter. Personally, I reject the philosophy even though I get the point. Rockefeller, Ford and Gates have all had a big impact with their charity work. The charity part would never have come about without taking care of business first.

NATCA needs to take care of controllers so that controllers can take care of business. Controller compensation needs to be high to attract the appropriate talent. The talent needs to concentrate on the job. Part of that job -- part of the social contract with the Public -- should be that controllers look after the National Airspace System (NAS) from their unique perspective. As damaging as the imposed work rules have been to controllers, it is nothing when compared to how damaging the lack of controller input has been to NextGen and the NAS as a whole.

You can make a controller that suffered a pay cut “whole” again with a little bit of money. You can’t do the same for the profession. Nor the system. Thousands upon thousands of years worth of experience has walked out the door in these last 1,000 days. It is irreplaceable -- just as it was after the PATCO strike. It will take 20 years to recover -- if the Government works at it. I know. I’ve seen it first hand.

NextGen -- just like the Advanced Automation System before it -- will be a bureaucratic disaster. In large part, it will be because the profession that has the expertise needed to make it work was cut out of the project by Marion Blakey and her imposed work rules.

The new crop of controller trainees are clueless about these matters -- just as my generation was clueless after the PATCO strike. Many of the older controllers still left -- and most of the aviation industry -- think we have just suffered through an ugly period in labor relations. But some of us -- and it should include all of the FAA and NATCA leadership -- realize that we have suffered so much more. We have allowed the profession, the National Airspace System and the United States of America to suffer irreparable harm.

The fact that we are unable to articulate the problem clearly does not absolve us. Those that try to console themselves that NATCA -- unlike PATCO -- remained within the law miss the point. The damage is just as great, no matter the legalities or who gets the blame. History will not judge us kindly.

Don Brown
May 28, 2009

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Make Sure Marion Sees This

The Partnership for Public Service puts out a report every two years called The Best Places to Work. It ranks government agencies and the rest is self-explanatory.

You know what’s coming don’t you ?

Department of Transportation: 30th out of 30. Dead last.

Federal Aviation Administration: 214th out of 216.

God help the National Drug Intelligence Center (215th) and the Office of Postsecondary Education (216th). Let me know when your life depends on how well they do their jobs.

You can play with the data all day if you so desire. The Federal Highway Administration (part of the DOT) was ranked 33rd out of 216. So, being in the DOT doesn’t mean you have to be a disaster. But speaking of disasters, perhaps it might be enlightening to notice that our friends at FEMA are at 210th -- four slots above the FAA.

Heck of a job”... Marion.

Don Brown
May 27, 2009

Monday, May 25, 2009

How Does He Do That ?

(Whoops ! Forgot to hit the "publish" button yesterday.)

Be sure to catch Krugman’s column today. I’ve been wanting to comment on the crisis in California but I haven’t been able to come up with a coherent blog about it. Krugman makes it look easy. (It isn’t.)

A few of my right-wing friends (aviation and Georgia are full of them) have been cheering the fact that California can’t raise its taxes to meet its budget shortfall. They see it as a victory. I see it as a disaster.

”For California, where the Republicans began their transformation from the party of Eisenhower to the party of Reagan, is also the place where they began their next transformation, into the party of Rush Limbaugh. As the political tide has turned against California Republicans, the party’s remaining members have become ever more extreme, ever less interested in the actual business of governing. “

California was (and may still be) the fifth largest economy in the world. It also has the reputation of setting trends for America. God help us indeed.

Mr. Krugman does a marvelous job of weaving the historical context into his editorial from today. I’d like to add some very recent history to it. Remember not too long ago when I was saying that 10 percent unemployment seemed to represent some kind of tipping point to economists ? Here and here and here ? I just want to make sure you understand the significance when you read this line from Mr. Krugman’s column.

”California’s unemployment rate, at 11 percent, is the fifth-highest in the nation. And the state’s revenues have suffered accordingly. “

Some subtleties may escape you if you don’t have the time to read as much as a retired guy does. Don’t let this one. (Speaking of which, it’s hard to see -- Rhode Island is above 10% too.) Eight States have passed that tipping point.

I think Mr. Krugman is a brilliant writer but there is only so much you can put in a column. Still, I’m subtracting 10 points from today’s column for his use of ”Sui generis“. Read it anyway.

Don Brown
May 25, 2009

What Will Randy Do ?

I assume that by now you’ve heard the news that Randy Babbitt has been confirmed as the next Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. It might be a good time to ask yourself what he is going to do. What would you do ?

If you click on that link above, you’ll see that his boss, Transportation Secretary LaHood says he is going to implement NextGen.

"Also last night, the House passed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill (H.R.915.). LaHood said, "Moving forward with reauthorization will support our important aviation programs, including aviation safety and NextGen, the FAA's program to modernize our nation's airspace. I urge the Senate to act quickly and look forward to working with Congress on legislation that will continue our progress in improving the safety and efficiency of the U.S. aviation system."

I guess it’s time to face reality -- NextGen is going to happen. Oh well. I tried. It’s not as bad as it might sound though -- in that no one really knows what NextGen will look like. Not to mention, much of it will fail. Here’s a prediction for whatever newly-certified controller might happen to be reading today’s blog. When you retire, you’ll still be using radar. And New York still won’t have enough runways.

Here’s a little obscure piece of the FAA that is waiting on Mr. Babbitt. I got a kick out of the flowery prose but I’ll highlight the important parts so they don’t escape you.

FAA Today -- Friday 5/22/09 (a .pdf file)

Operational Update

Though Atlanta is blessed with an abundance of pavement and a generous swath of airspace, they may be wishing they could trade their skies for New York’s after being laden with low ceilings for the past few days. The Big Apple has been graced with nearly nothing but blue above it for much of the week, though that great expanse of azure has been clouded by quite a few streaks of silver, white, red and whatever other colors airlines are using in their liveries these days.

Volume remains a major contributor to New York’s delays, but wind was also a big source yesterday after it added complexity on both sides of the Hudson. Neither cause compares with Georgia’s clouds, which caused more than a third of the day’s 1,082 system-wide delays and left Atlanta longing for a sky transplant. Volume may surpass those ceilings as the leading cause of delay, however. Approximately 250 delays are probably going to be added to the total for departure delays off JFK and they will most likely show up in N90’s count. Wind was also an issue in the Southeast, while thunderstorms continued to demonstrate their paradoxical affinity for sunny weather with a trip to a state out West with an abundance of it.

Clouds weren’t the only thing filling the skies over the Big Peach. ATL’s traffic count climbed to 2,801 yesterday, an increase of more than 1 percent over last year’s average Thursday. ATL guided all those planes through the clouds with the help of a 94 rate ground delay program that was deemed more predictable than a series of ground stops. The program ran for seven hours, and ATL reported 370 delays. Wind blew through the Brick City, limited the availability of the overflow runway and left EWR in the helpful hands of a 38 rate GDP for nearly 10 hours. EWR reported 253 delays, with 51 falling into the departure bin. So many airplanes couldn’t resist the allure of the Jewel’s twinkle that PHL had to delay 77 of their 1,445 operations for volume. N90’s current volume-driven delays stand at 54, though that number could climb above 300 once JFK’s departure delays are added in. LGA slowed 43 of their 1,164 operations for volume, while wind blew 42 delays into JFK during a 35 rate program. Wind also harassed CLT’s 1,523 operations, and 37 flights were delayed in the Queen City.

Thunderstorms rumbled into the Valley of the Sun, and PHX reported 37 delays.

Just to help you analyze whatever part of that might interest you, take EWR as an example.

”...EWR in the helpful hands of a 38 rate GDP for nearly 10 hours. “

GDP is a “Ground Delay Program”. Keep in mind that ”The Big Apple has been graced with nearly nothing but blue above it... “ and the only problem was wind. If you’ll check out EWR’s capacity, you’ll see that 38 arrivals per hour is the VMC (good weather) rate. Note that the “perfect” weather rate is 48. Conclusion ? Even the “good” weather rate isn’t enough to handle the demand at Newark for 10 hours of the day. Don’t be surprised if even the “perfect” rate wouldn’t be either.

(Hint: Airport Arrival Rates here. Click on the East or West “Directory”. Click on the Center. Then click on the airport. Hey, it’s the government, not Amazon.)

Bearing in mind that we are in the biggest financial downturn since the Great Depression, what do you think will happen to those delay figures when the economy improves ?

I don’t know what Mr. Babbitt will do but what he should do it make it clear that the FAA can’t control delays unless it controls the volume at the major airports. Airport capacity is finite. The demand for that capacity is exceeded everyday, even in bad economic times. Until we face that reality, don’t expect any improvement.

Don Brown
May 25, 2009

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Feel Like a Game of Poker ?

Legend has it that Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx, once upon a lean time, made the company payroll on a trip to Las Vegas and saved the company. It appears he still likes to gamble.

From the Wall Street Journal:

The U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill that would make it easier to unionize FedEx Corp. workers, prompting the company to renew its threat to hold off buying billions of dollars of new planes if the bill becomes law.

I’d call that bluff. More importantly, James Oberstar -- Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure -- did.

It’s all a complicated labor relations subject but the power play is interesting. Don’t lose sight of what is important though. We’ve gone through the period where the right-wingers -- where business is good and government is bad -- were in charge and they wrecked the economy. No environmental regulation, no business regulation and an Administration that was blatantly hostile to unions. You remember the arguments don’t you ? Money will “trickle down” to us peons, profitable companies will take care of their employees and your money is safer being handled by Wall Street than your own Government. Remember ? And if we let those thugs form unions, America as we know it would collapse.

How is that 401k looking ? How about your pay ? Let me guess, you took a hit on your health insurance too (assuming you’re lucky enough to still have any.) Did your union do that or was it the guys telling you how bad unions are that did it ?

By the way, Fred Smith will buy whatever airplanes he wants to buy -- regardless of who makes it. Remember, he started with Falcons made by the French. And the current fleet isn’t real heavy with American airplanes either.

I can’t understand why people think they would be better off without unions. It’s almost as dumb as thinking you’d be better off with no health care than government health care. I hope there are 13.7 million people that are taking a look at just exactly what the cold hard facts really are. Businesses are not in the business of taking care of citizens. That is the government’s “business”. Your government. Your business. Don’t you think it’s time to stop letting businesses mind our business ?

Don Brown
May 24, 2009

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The “Illusion of Progress”

As I told you yesterday, I have more comments on the NPR story about air traffic control. I went back to check on my information regarding trainees at New York Tracon (aka N90) and for once, my memory is correct. No new trainee (a raw recruit without any ATC experience) has checked out at N90 since September of 2006. That information was accurate as of a month or two ago. In addition, during that same time frame, 40 air traffic controllers have retired or quit at N90.

In case you didn’t remember, New York Tracon (N90) is special for a few other reasons. First, it is historically a hotbed of union activity. Because it is such, the Bush Administration went after the controllers there with a vengeance. It started with the “New York 11” getting fired and it hasn’t stopped since.

That brings me to my main point. Mr. Conan and Ms. Laskas both get the point the controller that called in was trying to make -- ATC is the job controllers love to hate. Controllers love what they do. They just hate who the do it for -- the FAA.

Despite this, Mr. Conan and Ms. Laskas both are drawn to that distractingly shiny object called technology. We all seem to be trapped in the thought that technology will make things better. It might even replace people -- even controllers. It won’t. It can’t. When humans are involved in life and death decisions the only entity that can make those decisions are other humans. Pick any analogy you would like. I’ll pick unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). We are a whole lot closer to replacing pilots than we are to replacing controllers. We have UAVs. We don’t have unmanned air traffic control. But our language trips us up. UAVs aren’t “unmanned”. There is a pilot sitting in front of a computer screen somewhere telling the plane what to do. Even if we could eliminate these “grounded pilots” (and we can) we wouldn’t be eliminating the human decision maker. We would just be replacing a pilot with a computer programmer. Somewhere, somehow -- some body is making the decisions.

Add to that thought, a concrete runway has a finite capacity. We can improve the technology that will allow us to use that runway. With better technology we could (theoretically) get the arrivals rates in bad weather up close to the arrivals rates in good weather. Then what ? Where does the extra capacity we will surely want above that limit come from ? We can make cars that will go 200+ miles per hour. Why are we still driving around at 55 mph ? We can make an SST. Why don’t we ? The answer is the same to all the questions. It’s possible. It just isn’t practical. I’ll stop beating this dead horse -- for now.

The pilot that called in provided another distraction. The reason we don’t have 60-year-old controllers is the same reason we don’t have 60-year-olds winning the Masters. I’ve talked about this before, so I’ll limit myself to two words -- bad idea.

Out of this whole segment on the radio, the phrase that grabbed my attention was the phrase I used for the title of this post -- “the illusion of progress”. Is that what we are after ? Is that what is important ? If so, I don’t get it. I’d much rather face the reality. But maybe that’s just me.

Don Brown
May 20, 2009

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

TV Reminder

Don’t forget Randy Babbitt’s confirmation hearing is today. The hearing starts at 11 AM. Maybe. Anyone who has ever watched one of these knows that they’re never on time.

Don Brown
May 19, 2009

How Did I Miss This ?

I could kick myself. Neal Conan, the host of NPR’s Talk of the Nation had Jeanne Marie Laskas on the show yesterday. Neal is my favorite host on NPR and Ms. Laskas is the reporter that did the story on LGA Tower for GQ.

I’ll have some comments later (the yard is waiting on me and it’s an absolutely gorgeous day here) but I want you to keep two things in mind as you listen to the story.

1) The team of controllers at LGA referenced in Ms. Laskas’ original story didn’t “survive” the New York Tracon. I noticed it when I first blogged about it. I just didn’t say anything because I wanted my readers to focus on the story. But if this story is going to take off (if Ms. Laskas is going to appear in a lot of interviews about it) it’s something people need to realize. I’ll have to check the dates, but roughly, no new trainee has checked out at New York Tracon since I retired. That was in 2006. A lot of new trainees have washed out at New York Tacon. It’s not a place to send trainees without any ATC experience. But the FAA has been doing it and that is a part of the larger story.

2) The FAA’s claim that this is the safest period in aviation surfaces again. I just happened to be watching a story on Enron last night. Once upon a time, Enron was thought to be the hottest company in America. It’s amazing how you can deceive people with creative accounting.

Listen to the story.

Don Brown
May 19, 2009

Monday, May 18, 2009

Freaky Weather

It was 53 degrees this morning when I got up at O’dark thirty. That, in of itself, is strange for Georgia. But there is more. It’s supposed to be sunny but there is a high, thick overcast. When the sun did break out (once) it started raining. The rain was such a fine mist that you couldn’t even fell it. I only noticed it when the drops were backlit by the sun. Five minutes later, it was back to being overcast. And to top it all off, the wind is gusting from 15-20 mph.

Like I said -- freaky. At least for Georgia in May. Whatever it is, I’m loving it. I’ve been out in it all morning, doing various gardening chores and I haven’t hardly broken a sweat. That is really freaky. Maybe I’ll have something to read later today. Maybe not.

Don Brown
May 18, 2009

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Uber BWG -- Update

About that NMAC over BWG...I have learned that one of the aircraft involved was indeed in a holding pattern for DFW (Dallas/Ft. Worth). I can’t imagine why. I thought it was outrageous when I used to have to hold New York traffic over GSO (Greensboro, NC) -- and that’s 500 miles from New York. From BWG to DFW is closer to 600 miles.

It’s more than just the distance though. Put your thinking cap on. New York is some of the most congested airspace in the world. Not just the airspace at the surrounding airports -- but the airspace in its entirety. You’ve got to fly by Washington, DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, etc. There isn’t a lot of empty airspace in which to establish holding patterns (which eat up tons of airspace.) DFW, on the other hand, doesn’t have anything around it. Draw a line between Bowling Green and Dallas and you cross...Memphis ? Little Rock ?

The only thing I figure might have happened would be thunderstorms near DFW. But that is just cause to think even further. Think NextGen. Think CDAs ( Continuos Descent Approaches). The FAA has spent millions (probably billions) over three decades on “flow control”. That is the science (supposedly) of matching the “flow” of aircraft with an airport’s capacity considering the airport’s current and predicted weather conditions. In other words, if DFW is predicted to have thunderstorms impacting operations, Flow Control (aka Air Traffic Control System Command Center) is supposed to match the number of airplanes with the capacity of the system. Either the weather prediction failed or Flow Control failed -- by a large margin. 600 miles worth.

How is NextGen going to change that ? Are our weather prediction capabilities going to improve that much ? The idea is laughable. How about Flow Control’s capabilities ? Now controllers are rolling on the floor laughing. Flow Control has been in existence since the PATCO days. Yet I routinely held New York traffic over Greensboro and the incident we’re discussing is even more appalling.

Don’t forget CDAs. We’re going to save you a ton of fuel by letting you “coast” in your descent...after we get you out of a holding 600 miles from the airport and get you spaced out perfectly while you’re still at your enroute altitude. (If you need details on the concepts see Another Reason CDAs Won’t Work.)

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the answer is as simple as it is obvious . Limit the number of arrival slots at all commercial airports to a workable number. It won’t end delays but it will make them more manageable. NextGen is just another version of the 30 year charade we call Flow Control. We’re just trying to fool ourselves into thinking we can “manage” the overscheduling of airports. There is some good in both (Flow Control and NextGen) but neither will ever address the core problem.

Don Brown
May 14, 2009

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Nomination Hearing Soon

Thanks to Senator Schumer and Fox News (there are some words you won’t read very often on this blog) I finally learned Randy Babbitt’s nomination hearing for FAA Administrator is scheduled for Tuesday, May 19th. Of course, the story didn’t have anything to do with Randy Babbitt. But Senator Schumer drug him into the conversation anyway.

Schumer Wants Assurances From FAA Nominee Re-Flight 3407

”Schumer, describing himself as “a skeptic of the FAA,” said he now plans to meet with President Obama’s nominee to the agency, Robert Babbitt, before a scheduled confirmation hearing next week. “I want to get assurances from him that we’ll get to the bottom of this,” Schumer told Fox. “

Well, that was helpful. Not. I thought “the bottom of this” was obvious. In case you didn’t know regional airline pilots were culinary experts with ramen noodles and spaghetti (when you make captain you can afford to try some meat sauce) then here’s a YouTube video for you about their pay. If you don’t know their pay is atrocious, you aren’t in aviation. The video will give you the visual references you need to recognize the airplane on your next flight.

You get what you pay for. That is true for regional airline pilots, air traffic controllers and Senators.

Don Brown
My 13, 2009

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

NextGen Nonsense

I’ve got this bad habit of listening to the news while I’m napping. That’s the only excuse I have for the news that President Obama’s budget includes cutting a “long-range navigation system” slipping by me. It took me a day or two to figure out they were talking about LORAN -- Long-Range Aid to Navigation.

Among the programs on the president's chopping block::

• A long-range navigation system now made obsolete by the GPS. Cost: $35 million. “

Now, you tell me, did anyone (besides me) mention that LORAN was supposed to be the backup system for GPS ?

”The JPDO-sponsored NGATS Institute SatNav Backup Study and JPDO involvement in the National Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT) Architecture both indicate that positioning/navigation accuracy and robustness requirements will require a “complementary” PNT system (or systems) based on phenomenology that is dissimilar to Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) – candidates include eLORAN and advanced Inertial Reference Units. “

Well, actually it was the DOD (you know, the folks in charge of GPS) via the JPDO that was warning everyone. I just happened to include it in my blog. Remember ?

(Using my best Billy Mays’ voice) But wait ! There’s more !

This is from James Fallows at The Atlantic yesterday. (Thanks for the tip, Joe.)

”And so it is with heavy heart that we learn about a new Government Accountability Office study (here in PDF), via Michael Cooney's story in NetworkWorld, saying that the U.S. Air Force, which runs the GPS satellites, has not managed to get new "IIF"-model satellites ready in time to replace the ones that are wearing out. “

”But the nightmare scenario no one thought to worry about was that the US-run system would start to crumble and wear out. Arrrgghh! “

So, we’re going to eliminate the system that GPS made obsolete, just in time for the GPS system to become unreliable. I assume the thought that the left hand of the government doesn’t know what the right is doing pops into your mind also. But how about this thought ?

Since the Obama Administration took office, numerous Bush Administration policies have been reversed. From torture to the environment to regulation and even labor relations with air traffic controllers, the previous Administration’s policies have been repudiated. But, as far as I can tell, NextGen hasn’t even hit a speed bump.

If anything, the drums beating for NextGen seem to be getting louder. (Hopefully, my readers can refute most of the details in that article without any further help from me.) If you’re wondering why that might be -- why the clamor for a flawed idea is so loud -- Paul Cox over at The FAA Follies has a few thoughts on the subject.

Getting the Flick yet ?

Don Brown
May 12, 2009

Sunday, May 10, 2009

NAS Confusion

I received a very nice “thank you” letter from a longtime reader the other day. He had followed a link I’d posted to one of the old articles I’d written for AVweb. It reminded me that pilots never seem to tire of “inside” information about the details of air traffic control.

I only mention it because I was just doing some catching up of my own at NAS Confusion. “Delta Mike” is doing a great job of providing the types of details that I used to supply when I was a working controller. If you don’t know about the blog, I’d recommend reading this one, this one and this one too.


Don Brown
May 10, 2009

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Weekend Fun

It’s a busy weekend so I’ll make a recommendation. Go see the new Star Trek movie. It’s a winner. It’s been a long time since I enjoyed a movie that much. And as a bonus, my kids (18 and 20) liked it too.

Don Brown
May 9, 2009

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Uber Bowling Green

Pay attention to this one. What I know about it already makes it special but my instincts tell me that there is something else that is -- as of yet -- unknown.

Novice air controller blamed for close call in Ky.

”A "significant error" by an air traffic controller in Memphis put two airliners too close together over Kentucky last week, leading both to take evasive maneuvers and one pilot to file a near mid-air collision report, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

The American Airlines jet and smaller Pinnacle Airlines commuter plane were both around 32,000 feet when they got within a mile of each other above Bowling Green, Ky., causing emergency warning systems in both planes to activate. “

You need to read the whole story so that you can note the details.

”The incident occurred April 29 as American Flight 395 from Boston to Dallas, with 122 passengers, was in a holding pattern over Kentucky and Pinnacle Flight 2594, with 43 passengers, was headed to Birmingham, Ala., from Detroit. “

If that is correct (I have my doubts), then you have to ask yourself why a aircraft inbound to Dallas is in a holding pattern over Kentucky. Odd.

This, however, sounds all too familiar.

”He told both planes to turn and directed the Pinnacle flight to descend, but the American flight descended, too, on a computerized voice command from the plane's collision avoidance system. The controller then directed the Pinnacle pilot to descend faster and told the American flight to get back up to 32,000 feet, Carpenter said.“

If it doesn’t sound familiar to you, then you probably don’t know much about Uberlingen. And you should.

Don Brown
May 7, 2009

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Surprised ? I’m Not

You know, if the powers that be at the FAA had earned an ounce of respect in the last decade or so, I would have let this story pass. After all, it’s inconclusive (so far) and it’s out of my area of interest. But they haven’t. And I didn’t.

”The May 2nd event seems to have been marred by the fact that two FAA Inspectors from the BHM FSDO showed and reportedly ramp-checked each and every involved aircraft while the event was running... That's 6 fixed wing airplanes and two helicopters, including a Citation 550, who were reportedly "ramped." According to several pilots who assert they witnessed the events in question, some aircraft were told to shut down after children had already been loaded in the aircraft and engines were started... leaving the kids, many of whom are dealing with severe or terminal illness (some bound to wheelchairs), simmering in the hot cabins while the Feds conducted the checks.“

You can read the whole story at

If I harbor this kind of ill will towards the FAA -- retired and living a life so good I actually feel guilty -- can you imagine the ill will that exists within the controller ranks ? You know, the guys and girls that had their pay frozen or cut ? The ones working the 6 day weeks -- month after grueling month ? The ones trying to keep their ulcers and blood pressure under control while they try to do their jobs -- working around the multitude of trainees and the inevitable mistakes that trainees make ? The ones living with the childish dress code and ban on dining out ?

If you can imagine -- just for an instant -- the seething anger that exists in the air traffic control workforce, you might begin to understand how tough the job facing the next Administrator truly is. Even if you believe every piece of the NextGen concept will work flawlessly, these are the human beings that will be responsible for operating it. The technical challenges of funding and implementing NextGen are immense. And they look easy when compared to healing the rift between the FAA management and its workforce.

Don Brown
May 6, 2009

Monday, May 04, 2009

Another Reason CDAs Won’t Work

I got into a rather heated discussion with an airline pilot/friend about CDAs (Continuos Descent Approaches) the other day. In the process, I hit on another reason CDAs won’t work. And let me clear that up while I’m here. They’ll work -- for some of the people, some of the time -- but they won’t cure what ails the system.

If you take one group of airplanes inbound to one airport -- and consider nothing else -- CDAs will save that group of airplanes at that one airport a ton of fuel. In other words, it’s the same old story. It’s a valid theory -- on paper. Trying to integrate it into a system with hundreds of variables is another problem altogether. We can “make it work” (at a very limited number of places) but only at the expense of some other portion of the system.

With that caveat out of the way, let’s get down to that other “reason”.

I think of CDAs as unmolested descents. The aircraft reaches a certain point, and after that point, ATC won’t “molest” the aircraft (turn, level off or assign different speeds) any further until the aircraft lands. There is some wiggle room in all that, but that is the general idea. In order for CDAs to work, all the aircraft have to be perfectly spaced at their cruising altitude. That is “perfect” in human terms. With computers calculating the spacing and flying all the aircraft (i.e. everyone is using the autopilot) that sort of perfection is possible. The issue then becomes attaining the desired spacing of the various aircraft at their respective cruising altitudes.

It is that location -- the typical cruising altitudes -- that presents another reason CDAs won’t work.

Ask any enroute controller (ARTCC or Center controller) to describe the busiest airspace and they’ll have to think on it for a minute or two. If you’re at Atlanta Center (my old workplace) they will probably think in terms of sector names. “Spartanburg High is tough.” “The Pulaski sector is a nightmare if the ATL and CLT arrivals are there at the same time.” You get the idea. But for this argument you need to ask them which altitudes are the busiest. Once they (and you) start thinking in that frame of reference, the problem becomes clearer.

As a generalization, most aircraft spend 50% or more of their time at their cruising altitude. If you’ll ask the same Center controllers where most of the real spacing work takes place -- in terms of arrivals -- they’ll quickly come up with the altitudes of FL230 to 3,000 AGL (Above Ground Level). In other words, it takes place below the typical cruising altitudes right down until the arrivals are lined up with the runway.

Think of it as processing a piece of wood. The high altitude sectors do little more than knock the bark off the logs and rough cut them into boards. The low altitude sectors at the Centers -- typically FL230 to 11,000 MSL (Mean Sea Level) -- cut them into standard lengths and give them a rough sanding. The Approach controllers cut them into the custom lengths needed and sand them smooth.

A CDA tries to make that entire process happen at the cruising altitudes. After the aircraft starts down (begins its descent), controllers aren’t supposed to use anything but fine sandpaper to smooth out some slight blemishes.

If the problem isn’t obvious to you, that would be because you aren’t a Center controller. The high altitude controllers are already busy chopping down trees. Remember, that is where most of the aircraft spend most of their time. They already have their hands full just keeping the enroute aircraft separated. You’re asking them to monitor the cabinet shop (the computers for CDAs are supposed to do the work) while they harvest the trees and operate the saw mill.

To put a finer point on it, suppose the enroute controller turns aircraft B 20 degrees right to go behind aircraft A. Just when it looks like it is going to work, the computer trying to accomplish the spacing for the CDA says to slow aircraft A down. If the controller does that, the vector will no longer work. It’s either ignore the CDA computer instruction or turn aircraft B another 10 degrees so that it will still go behind aircraft A when aircraft A slows down.

The airline flying “aircraft A” will think CDAs are great because of the fuel they are saving. The airline that is flying “aircraft B” will quickly figure out that CDAs are costing them money. It isn’t hard to figure out that A and B are interchangeable so, in the end, the process is a wash. Except for the high altitude controller. He’ll now have three jobs to do, instead of one or two.

You might be asking yourself what the low altitude Center controllers will be doing -- assuming CDAs work (which they won’t.) That question (I hope) will bring some understanding, if you think about it. The reason the majority of the spacing work at the Centers occurs in the low altitudes (FL230 down to 11,000 MSL) is because those altitudes have the capacity to handle the work. There aren’t that many airplanes enroute at those altitudes. The structure of a sector (geographical boundaries and altitudes) comes about for reasons. Form follows function. There is a reason most of our low altitude sectors working airline hub arrivals look like funnels.

It really is hard to see the forest for the trees sometimes. Just remember, this is only one reason that CDAs won’t work any better than the current system works. There are others.

Don Brown
May 4, 2009

Sunday, May 03, 2009

FAA History Lesson -- May 3 (2009)

From the FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996...

”May 3, 1994: Vice President Albert Gore and Transportation Secretary Federico Peña announced the Clinton Administration’s proposal to create a new Air Traffic Services Corporation to operate, maintain, and modernize the air traffic system. (See Sep 7, 1993, and Jan 6, 1994.)

Under the proposal, 38,000 FAA employees involved in providing air traffic services would become part of a new not-for-profit government corporation. Support for the corporation would be derived from fees levied upon commercial aviation, subject to approval by the Department of Transportation. The Department would maintain additional oversight through membership on the corporation’s board of directors, on which airspace users would also be represented. FAA would continue to exercise safety oversight over civil aviation, including the new corporation.

On the same day that Gore and Peña unveiled the plan, President Clinton wrote letters urging Congress to make the new corporation a reality. During the following months, however, Congress considered a variety of plans for restructuring FAA. These proposals included calls to make the agency independent of the Department of Transportation. (See Sep 12, 1995.) “

It all seems so hard to remember now. Remember when President Clinton said, “The era of big government is over“ ? Thirteen years later, we’re still arguing over two little words -- “User Fess”. Perhaps you noticed a subtle difference in the words above; “ fees levied upon commercial aviation”. As you all know, “commercial aviation” tried to rope General Aviation into the process by claiming that they weren’t paying their “fair share” and the issue has been tied in knots ever since.

Don Brown
May 3, 2009

Friday, May 01, 2009

When Goglia Speaks...

...Safety people -- at least the smart ones -- listen.

”I hope that by the time you read this Randy Babbitt will have been confirmed by the Senate and be hard at work on the 10th floor of 800 Independence Ave. He’s an excellent choice to lead the FAA through these turbulent times in the aviation industry. “

I’m still not convinced that Mr. Babbitt will be a good Administrator but he couldn’t ask for a better endorsement.

John Goglia has a sterling reputation in the aviation industry. Especially the safety side of the industry. If he likes Mr. Babbitt, there is hope.

Don Brown
May 1, 2009

The Drama Continues

I saw the news just before I went to bed last night. I thought I’d wait until this morning to see what the Press would say about yesterday’s big (to controllers) announcement. Interestingly enough, not much.

”LaHood announced that he has tapped Jane Garvey, who was FAA administrator during the Clinton administration and the first year of the Bush administration, to oversee negotiations aimed at resolving a bitter dispute between the agency and its air traffic controllers.“

And that paragraph was buried way down in a story entitled:

Transportation secretary hints at aid for airlines

For those that don’t know, Ms. Garvey negotiated the last full contract with NATCA (Ms. Blakey extended it two years before imposing her own) and those negotiations earned controllers some substantial raises. Some thought Ms. Garvey gave away the farm. I thought she just brought us back up to where were supposed to be, after 15 years of inflation eating away at our salaries during Reagan and Bush.

But it wasn’t just the money. Ms. Garvey (and the Clinton Administration) insisted that the FAA collaborate with NATCA. NATCA was “in the loop” on major projects and had a voice as to what equipment we’d be working with and how we were going to work with it. It wasn’t a bed of roses but at least there was labor peace. Okay, peace is too strong a word. Let’s make it a truce. Things got done.

When the second Bush Administration came along and installed Marion Blakey as FAA Administrator, the FAA saw its chance to “take back” the FAA. And they did it with a vengeance. The rest of the story is on this blog. They took it back and they broke it. Controllers (including myself) retired in droves. Just to provide some perspective -- and honesty -- I was going to retire regardless. I left a week or two before Marion Blakey imposed her contract. Things have been ugly in the FAA...well, forever. I was more than ready to leave. Eight years before mandatory retirement. Blakey just made an already tough job so bad that everyone else left too.

You really ought to go back and take a critical look at Ms. Blakey’s justifications for imposing her contract. And then compare it with the reality of today. I think the disastrous results speak for themselves.

So, for today, the air traffic controllers -- desperate for any good news -- are happy to hear about Ms. Garvey’s appointment. I am too. But my enthusiasm is guarded. I’ll end by reminding you of what I’ve said before.

”Back to the controllers. NATCA is asking to “return to the bargaining table” during the worst economic crisis since the Depression and negotiate with a guy that just fired the CEO of GM. Furthermore, it is doing so with a membership that is highly fractured, inexperienced and thoroughly demoralized. Good luck with that NATCA. “

Don Brown
May 1, 2009