Tuesday, July 07, 2009

NextGen Needling

While we’re on the subject of NextGen, a long-time reader says I’m guilty of not taking on the mythical cost savings of more aircraft on direct routes. I thought I had made that clear. But perhaps it was in a different time and place.

Okay, here’s my favorite story to make the point. Pilots love “shortcuts”. Most controllers love to give them. It makes the pilots feel like they’re special -- that they’re getting something they’re aren’t supposed to get -- and the controllers love getting the positive feedback from the pilots. “Gee buddy, you’re the best controller we’ve talked to all day.” It’s simple human nature -- the kind of human interaction that takes place in any endeavor.

When USAir first started flying from CLT (Charlotte, NC) to LAX (Los Angeles, CA) non-stop, it was a pretty big deal for the company. That might give you an idea as to how long ago it was. It isn’t a big deal now. It was 10-15 years ago. Anyway, humans being humans, we soon found out that TNP (Twentynine Palms VOR) was stored in the computer. TNP is an arrival fix for LAX. It only took a few seconds longer for one of our short-cut-inclined controllers to clear the airplane direct.

ZTL CENTER -- ”USAir Nine, cleared direct Twentynine Palms, DOWNE4, LAX.”

USA9 -- “USAir Nine, Roger, direct Twentynine Palms. You guys at Atlanta are the greatest.”

Another satisfied customer. Trying to stay on track...let’s think of this in terms of NextGen’s promise. How is NextGen going to improve on that ? From CLT -- direct, a straight line -- clear across the country to LAX. We’ve been doing this kind of stuff for decades, long before most aircraft had advanced navigational capabilities. Heck, when I first hired on -- almost 30 years ago now -- there was a guy nicknamed “Straight Shot”. He’d clear anybody direct anywhere and just put them on a heading (a radar vector) to the fix.

”Delta Twelve, fly heading zero four zero, receiving KENNEBUNK (Kennebunkport, ME) proceed direct KENNEBUNK as previously cleared, London Heathrow.”

It’s rumored that “Straight” put an airplane on a radar vector for Germany one time. All the way across the Atlantic Ocean. And I have no reason to doubt it. But forget the old war stories. The question is, just how much money is NextGen going to save anybody by shortening routes ? The answer is; not much over what is already routinely done.

Okay, I can’t stand it. Go back to the USAir flight to LAX we would clear direct to TNP. Word finally came back to Atlanta Center (it took a few weeks) to stop clearing them direct. It seems that one of them got close to getting into the White Sands Missile Range. You know, the place where they...uh...test missiles.

White Sands Missile Range is still out there. There are artillery ranges all over the county. The military “owns” all sorts of airspace where they practice such things as shooting down airplanes. dropping soldiers from the sky with parachutes and study alien life forms. (Okay, that last one was just for the conspiracy crowd.) The point being, there are places in the country that you can’t fly over so you won’t always be able to go “direct”.

The cost savings promised by NextGen simply aren’t there. They are no different that the projected savings for URET. They are ficticious...falsehoods...outright lies. I’ve written about this before. The fact of the matter is that aircraft aren’t always going to be able to travel in a perfectly straight line. Nor do they always desire to do so. Radar didn’t change that. URET didn’t change it. And neither will NextGen.

Don Brown
July 7, 2009

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