ATC'er Speaks out!

This was taken from:
Mr. John Carr, past National Air Traffic Control Association President, now retired. Mr. Carr delivers a daily blog about the Federal Aviation Administration’s failures.

The following is a letter obviously from a controller about Nexgen, Marion Blakey, and I think you might find it interesting.

I am an air traffic controller. I say this both as a matter of pride, and as a matter of full disclosure. I have my personal biases, and as much as Id like to, I cannot be an objective voice in this issue. I have been in this profession for over twenty years, so although I may not be an expert in aviation, I like to think I have some idea about the topic.

For about the last year, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey has been touting the Next Generation Air Traffic Control System (NextGen) as the way to reduce (eliminate?) flight delays by letting aircraft fly closer together without reducing safety. NextGen is an integrated system including GPS based navigation, telemetry, and data communication. Actually, NextGen is none of these yet, it is a plan for such a system. This system is expected to cost upwards of $40 billion, split between the private sector and government funding. If the past is any indicator, this system will cost significantly more, and take longer than the fifteen to twenty years to implement than is now estimated.

As an air traffic professional, I have some issues with what Ms. Blakey has been saying.

First, weeks before the expiration of her term on September 13, Ms. Blakey was named to head the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA). A group which represents the manufacturers of equipment used in aircraft. Equipment like that needed for Nextgen. In 2005, the FAA awarded a $1.9 billion contract to Lockheed Martin (an AIA member) to take over Flight Service. This seemed ethical at the time, although not necessarily well advised. Yet after Ms. Blakeys new position was announced, but while she still was FAA Administrator, the FAA awarded a contract to ITT (also an AIA member) to develop the early stages of NextGen. This contract is worth $1.8 billion. I dont know what her compensation from the AIA will be, but it is my feeling that it will be significantly higher than her FAA salary. I see this as being an inherent conflict of interest, and has the distinct appearance of impropriety. Is it just me, or does there seem to be a quid pro quo here? How could anyone, much less a government official, openly lobby for a system that will directly and substantially benefit her (already announced) future employer? I do not understand why there is no public outcry; apparently no one else sees a problem with Marion Blakey, NextGen, and the AIA.

News stories have parroted the FAAs notion that 1960s radar is outmoded and the weak link in the air traffic system. One major news organization said that the planes fly from radar station to radar station. This is incorrect. Radar surveillance and aircraft navigation are two distinctly different systems. Although there is a system of ground based navigational aids which has been used for decades, most jet (and many small, privately owned) aircraft are equipped with satellite and/or inertial navigation systems. The ground based systems are often only used as a backup in case of an airborne equipment failure. Radar doesnt help an aircraft navigate; it is there to tell the air traffic controller where the plane is. Radar is not used by the pilots, it is used by air traffic controllers for the safe, orderly and expeditious movement of aircraft under their control. In the current system, most radar coverage overlaps, so that a failure of one site is covered by another.

If radar is replaced with airborne telemetry, any failure on board the aircraft can cause the plane to disappear. This could be an electrical or mechanical failure, or in this uncertain world, it could be done purposefully. It would make an aircraft untrackable. Controllers and other aircraft will not know where that plane is. In 2001, several individuals took control of four aircraft and turned off the transponders in an attempt to conceal their movements. We all know the results of that day. Although the air traffic system could not prevent their actions or predict their intentions, ultimately we were able to track their flights using radar.

Second, and this is where I may need to be educated, and if Im wrong Ill stand up and admit it, NextGen wont fix a thing. Currently, enroute aircraft need to be separated by a minimum of five miles laterally or one thousand feet vertically. The continental US is over 3 million square miles. If we double the separation standard to 10 miles laterally, that would mean that there could be 120,000 aircraft flying at each available altitude. If we assume that jet aircraft prefer to fly between 28,000 and 41,000 feet, there are 14 altitudes available. This gives a total theoretical enroute capacity, based solely on space available, of 1,680,000 aircraft at any given moment. In 2005, the US air traffic control system handled about 50,000 flights per day. Delays dont occur at 37,000 feet, they happen on the ground, at the airports.

Ms. Blakey has said that NextGen gives the pilots the option of flying direct routes as opposed to flying routes assigned by ATC. Fifteen years ago, or more, there was an idea called Freeflight. Freeflight was a system that would give pilots the option to fly direct routes as opposed to flying routes assigned by ATC. More recently, there was a program in place called the National Route Program (NRP), a program that would give pilots the option to fly direct routes as opposed to flying routes assigned by ATC. None of these systems/programs have done anything to reduce delays. Again, delays occur on the ground, at the airports, not in the air.

According to Ms. Blakey, Nextgen will allow pilots to choose their own route around weather. Now, when a pilot requests to deviate around a storm, the controller will, whenever possible, allow that pilot to deviate as necessary. Weather delays occur when aircraft will not, or cannot, fly through a weather system. If weather blocks one or several routes, the aircraft are forced to crowd into the same space. This is like a six lane highway narrowing to one lane due to construction. My question for the proponents of Nextgen is this, When two pilots wish to fly through the same gap in a line of thunderstorms, who decides which will go first? Will one airline yield to another at the risk of losing time (and therefore profit)? I have a difficult time merging onto a highway in my car; there are no fender benders at 600 miles per hour. Removing an objective air traffic controller from this situation invites disaster.

The solution to delays is not fancy new technology, although that may help. The solution to delays is smarter, more reasonable scheduling by the airlines, more runways and taxiways to increase airport capacity, and a capable, well staffed air traffic control workforce.

Throwing money at an untenable situation doesnt fix it. New technology, while sexy, cant solve every problem. To find out what is wrong with a system, ask the people who use it every day. Not the financial officers, not the executives, not the cloistered managers. Talk to the people wearing the headsets, the pilots and controllers. They may be the best resource in the world. One person may not have all the answers; I freely admit that I dont. The collective intelligence of thousands of experts working collaboratively may be able to fix anything. It may take some sacrifice, it may take some money, but what it really needs is reason and planning.

I urge the powers that be, whether FAA management, lawmakers, members of the media, or the general public, to stand up and demand discussion of these questions and problems. Dont let a for-profit industry determine your safety. Make informed decisions. I feel that the flying public is being sold a bill of goods. Dont sign the check.


Controller X

Once was enough.