December 26, 2004
By The AVweb Editorial Staff
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The political games should begin soon on how the FAA will redeploy resources to meet a looming controller crisis. AVweb has obtained a list of 48 airports that could see reduced service or even off-peak tower closures as the agency tries to put staff where it says it needs it and save money on airports that now have 24-hour controller services but see little or no traffic during certain time periods. "Having too many controllers on duty during off-peak times makes little sense," says the FAA's executive summary of its new ATC staffing plan. "We're also reducing our hours of operation at our facilities where there is low or no activity, especially during the midnight-to-5 a.m. shift." In the past, when there's been talk of service cuts, politics sometimes appeared to be at least part of the equation in the final decision on where the axe would fall. It follows that those most vocal in the defense of their 24-hour tower service stand a better chance of keeping it. And call us cynics if you like, but the side of the house the representatives and senators who represent those potentially affected airports sit on might have a teensy bit to do with which ones make the final cut ... if past experience is any indicator.
Meanwhile, it's possible the FAA will have a surplus of a different kind of air traffic professional in 10 months and that might help it fill some of the current openings. The agency will soon decide whether to privatize flight service stations and it's generally believed that regardless of who ends up running the FSS system, there will be numerous closures and curtailments. Kate Breen, president of the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists, said in a news release that up to 2,000 FSS positions could be eliminated in the move. The FAA says some of those employees might be invited to bid on tower or en route control jobs. However, Breen isn't taking much comfort in what she calls the "vague terms" being used by the agency. The FAA report says it will "consider a special effort to provide opportunities for those employees who qualify to apply for terminal and/or en route positions." Breen would like something a little more concrete than consideration. "This is a perfect opportunity for the FAA to take care of professional, highly trained, and dedicated employees," she said. For about two years, the FAA and its consultants have been looking at the potential for privatizing flight services through what is known as the A-76 process. Breen said an announcement is expected in a few weeks.
And in Germany, the government is considering turning almost three-quarters of its air traffic control system over to the private sector in a bid to raise money and make the system more flexible and competitive. Faz.net reported Friday that the government has approved a bill that would see 74.9 percent of the Deutsche Flugsiche-rung (DFS) privatized by 2006. Retaining 25.1 percent would give the government what it calls a "blocking minority," allowing it to retain enough clout to ensure national interests are protected. Nothing is very easy about these things, however, and the Germans have some thorny issues to work out. While the private interests that might take over the system are presumably looking to make a buck, German airlines have been campaigning vigorously for a reduction in fees, which they claim are 70 percent higher than those paid by U.S. airlines to the FAA. Also, the existing contract with air traffic controllers expires next year and it's expected to be a tough round of negotiations.
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If Santa left a factory-rebuilt Lycoming under the tree (hey, it could happen) don't assume it's free. Company brass have decided there is no Santa clause and what used to be free, isn't anymore. In fact, it's been about a year since Lycoming began strictly enforcing its exchange core policy, which can result in chargebacks for damaged or worn-out crankcases and crankshafts. If the timed-out engine you send back for exchange has any of a number of faults that Lycoming considers unacceptable, you could be facing a bill for thousands of dollars -- and you likely won't see the bill until weeks or even months after your new engine is flying. What's more, some of the conditions that cause Lycoming to reject a crank or case are perfectly acceptable to the FAA. For instance, while the FAA approves of many types of weld repairs on cracks in the crankcase, Lycoming is much stingier and it will scrap a case that has a crack in a "stressed area." In fact, if a crankcase comes back to the Lycoming engine shop bearing the stamp of any of a number of FAA-certified engine rebuilders, the case will be automatically rejected by Lycoming on grounds that it might have previously been repaired in a way not approved by Lycoming. "We realize that FAA-approved repair stations are permitted to accept as airworthy some field-repaired parts and some parts that would not meet Lycoming tolerances," Lycoming VP Todd Stoner wrote in a letter to Lycoming distributors in October. "Lycoming, however, does not compromise the integrity of engines we warrant or the safety of those who depend on them by permitting the reuse of any part that fails to meet our own strict manufacturing specifications and standards."
The policy itself is nothing new. Lycoming has always reserved the right to charge back for exchange parts it considered unserviceable. What's new is the company's suddenly vigorous enforcement of the policy. In the past it was common for the company to look the other way when even an obviously flawed case or crank was sent back for exchange. Lycoming spokeswoman Karla Sexton told AVweb's sister publication Aviation Consumer the company just couldn't go on absorbing the revenue "leakage" from bad exchange parts. "It's important for us to get the best possible value for our shareholders," said Sexton. "The world has gotten to be more competitive." (Something some fear Lycoming may become even more familiar with as customers react to the policy shift.) Although the decision to enforce the policy was made a year ago, it has taken time to trickle through the business. In fact, some customers who got their new engines last spring didn't get their chargebacks until the fall. Lycoming and its distributors started getting angry phone calls from customers who had received the bills. In the October letter, Lycoming's Stoner directed distributors to ensure, as of Jan. 5, 2005, that everyone buying a factory rebuild read and sign a letter saying they understand that there's now a real possibility of getting a chargeback.
Depending on the engine and the defect, the chargeback can add 25 percent or more to the cost of the engine replacement. On four-cylinder engines, a rejected crankshaft will result in a $3,500 chargeback and an unserviceable crankcase will set you back $3,000. On the sixes, a bad crank is worth $4,500 and a faulty case $4,000. Eight-cylinder cranks and cases each cost $12,500. Not surprisingly, perhaps, enforcement of the policy is predicted to change the dynamics of the engine business. Allen Weiss, of Certified Engines, of Opa Locka, Fla., predicted that cost-conscious owners would look at the field-shop alternative more carefully because of Lycoming's stand. "We're assuming it's going to be a big boon to the overhaul shops," he said. "It's good for the engine overhaul business but, it's a shame, I don't think it's good for the industry." But Howard VanBortel, of Air Power Inc., which claims to be the world's largest distributor of Lycoming factory rebuilds, said the exchange route is still a good deal. He said field shops simply incorporate the costs of replacing or repairing unserviceable parts into the overall bill, rather than as a chargeback, and he would hate to see a significant shift away from the factory engines because of the perceptions created by the chargeback policy. "I just really believe in these factories. They really do an unbelievable service to the aviation industry," Van Bortel said.
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The Colorado crash of a Challenger bizjet that killed two pilots and the son of NBC executive Dick Ebersol a month ago has reignited the debate on when and if aircraft should be de-iced. The Rocky Mountain News polled a range of experts on the topic and got a range of opinions. And while the decision to de-ice is always the pilot's, some have some pretty direct guidance on how that decision should go. The newspaper's research found that major airlines serving the area de-ice as a matter of course if it's snowing, something endorsed by the Flight Safety Foundation. But both the National Business Aviation Association and the FAA give much more leeway to the pilot. NBAA spokesman Joe Hart told the paper that if it's warm enough that snow is melting as it hits the wings, or if it's cold enough that the accumulation will simply blow off, then de-icing isn't necessary. The FAA leaves it up to the pilot, saying, in an e-mail to the newspaper, the pilot has to "determine whether or not contamination has adhered to the aircraft surfaces." But Roger Rozelle, of the Flight Safety Foundation, said there are too many variables that can lead to the pilot making an incorrect assessment. "The accident reports speak for themselves," he said. "If you've got snow falling, you need to put something on that wing."
Well, maybe they'll have a happier New Year. Tens of thousands of Comair and US Airways passengers spent a miserable Christmas thanks to foul-ups that may take until Tuesday to clear up. Comair cancelled all 1,100 of its flights on Christmas Day after the computer that manages flight assignments simply threw in the towel after fighting two days of weather delays and cancellations. "There was a cumulative effect with the cancelled flights and trying to get crew assigned that caused the system to be overwhelmed," said Comair spokesman Nick Miller. "It just stopped operating." About 30,000 passengers in 118 cities were affected. Many US Airways passengers encountered another problem altogether: They got where they were going -- but without their luggage. Again, the winter storm that socked the Midwest was blamed for thousands of suitcases being heaped in piles at the airline's hub in Philadelphia while workers tried to sort through them. Naturally, many of the bags held Christmas presents, and some of their owners maintained a vigil to ensure they delivered their holiday cheer. "I can't show up empty-handed," John Price told the Associated Press. "That just doesn't cut it." Baggage problems were also reported at other major US Airways destinations.
DO YOUR HOLIDAY SHOPPING AT THE MARV GOLDEN PILOT SHOP
Scientists are using cutting-edge technology to help preserve the last true wildernesses in Africa, and aviation is playing a leading role. Dr. Mike Fay, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, has spent the last six months crisscrossing Africa by Cessna in a project called Megaflyover Africa. His mission is to examine places relatively untouched by humans (no roads, lights, or railways). In his semi-regular dispatches to a Web site set up by National Geographic, Fay finds hope for the wilderness by spotting wildlife he didn't expect to see. He also sees trouble coming as some countries begin to exploit their oil wealth. The practical side of intentionally operating an aircraft where there are no services for it is a common theme through the journey. On one stop Fay had to wait for eight hours while fuel was brought in by truck. And while much of the journey seems to follow a theme of discouragement and concern for the future, there are pockets of hope. For example, a group of volunteer guards has for 15 years protected from poachers an area of Zakouma National Park in Chad, and all species are recovering from a previous slaughter fueled by high ivory prices and a seemingly endless supply of war-surplus automatic weapons.
Everybody feels like skipping work once in a while but a Pinnacle Airlines flight attendant is being charged with trying to do something about it. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports that 23-year-old Stephen R. Hirtzinger was charged Thursday with causing a plane to become inoperable. The airline became suspicious after two dozen flights, 13 of which Hirtzinger was the sole flight attendant on, were cancelled or delayed because of tampering with fire extinguishers, oxygen equipment and other safety-related equipment. According to court papers quoted by the newspaper, the airline set up a sting operation with the help of a local maintenance shop. A mechanic thoroughly inspected an airplane Hirtzinger was scheduled to fly on and found everything in order. About 80 minutes later, as the plane was ready for takeoff, the pilots noticed torn packaging on breathing equipment. After replacing the gear, they were allowed to take off, only to return a short time later because of an oxygen leak. Someone had cracked the valve on an oxygen tank. Hirtzinger's been suspended and is banned from airports. He's back in court tomorrow.
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What do airliners really cost? That's nobody else's business, say U.S. airlines fighting to keep that information secret. The financial details of commercial aircraft transactions are recorded by the Department of Transportation but for the past 10 years, at the request of the airlines, they've been kept confidential. Now, the government (spurred by the financial industry) is considering releasing all that information and the airlines are trying to block it. "We do not want our competitors to have this information, nor do they want us to have theirs," United Parcel Service spokesman David Bolger told Bloomberg News. But financial experts claim the secrecy is hurting the industry more than disclosure would. Airlines are normally financed on the open market and the lack of credible information on aircraft value is gradually eroding confidence in those types of investments. Because there has been no information on the value of new aircraft for 10 years, appraisers can't accurately assess the value of airplanes that financiers may be considering investing in. In one case, five appraisers estimated the value of a Boeing 747-400 and their guesses ranged from $38 million to $54 million. John Vitale, president of AVITAS, a Virginia appraiser, said the airlines may be shortsighted in trying to keep their secrets because public markets depend on a free flow of information. "I think releasing the data would facilitate that," he said.
Diamond Aircraft's Austrian division will soon issue a Service Bulletin concerning possible cylinder-head corrosion problems on its Thielert diesel-powered DA40 aircraft. In a news release issued by Thielert, the company says the problem has affected "only a few" DA40s and none of the Cessna 172s or Piper PA-28s retrofitted with the diesels. The corrosion problem in the DA40s is electrochemical and traced to the cooling system, according to Thielert's release. Earlier this year, Diamond announced it was delaying introduction of its Thielert-powered DA42 TwinStar and speeding up development of a Lycoming-powered version. Among the reasons for the delay was the lack of a Thielert service network in North America, something the engine maker is now addressing. In the same release dealing with the corrosion problem, Thielert announced it will open a training center for technical service in the U.S. It will launch the initiative by flying a diesel-powered DA40 from Long Island to Paris following Charles Lindbergh's route. Along the way, the company hopes to set records: the first solo trans-Atlantic flight in a single-engine diesel aircraft, lowest fuel consumption, and least expensive trans-Atlantic flight. No date was announced for the flight, which is expected to take about 16 hours and 30 minutes, about half the time it took Lindbergh.
ATTENTION, AIRCRAFT RENTERS:
For some of United's longest-serving now-retired pilots, the new math imposed as United tries to claw its way out of bankruptcy could translate next year to a loss of nearly one-quarter of their expected retirement income -- in some cases, more than $100,000 per year. United Air Lines' four pension plans are under-funded by $8.3 billion, according to The Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. (PBGC), an insurer that expects to cover only $6.4 billion of that deficit and would leave the rest to be absorbed by 123,000 current and former United employees through benefits not received. If United's plans move forward, some retired pilots previously receiving pension payments on the order of $12,000 per month may see future checks arrive with one fewer zero (but closer to $3,300 per month). While the concept of a pension may be relatively foreign to entire generations of younger workers, that won't likely soften the blow to an older generation that based its retirement planning on continued income from a former employer. The adjustment would in part be due to a congressional cap that limits the amount the PBGC can pay to individuals. Those retired individuals falling closer to the cap would likely see their benefits less affected -- aside from perhaps finding as their new neighbor a retired pilot seeking more ... economically sensible ... surroundings.
An American Airlines aircraft effectively closed Richmond International Airport for eight hours on Thursday after the crew tried to pull a U-turn at the intersection of the main runways. The unidentified airplane went off the runway and got stuck in the mud, effectively blocking both runways. It was ultimately freed by a towing company, but not before five flights were cancelled...
Raytheon's newest bizjet, the Hawker Horizon, got provisional type certification Thursday. The "super midsize" jet seats six passengers and has a 3,100-nm range at Mach .82 that can stretch out to 3,400 nm throttled back. A Wichita businessman bought the first one...
A new IMAX movie puts theater patrons in the cockpit of an F-15 through some of the coolest flying anywhere. "Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag" follows a U.S. Air Force pilot through the air combat exercise held at Nellis Air Force base four times a year. It's playing in Seattle now...
Drop us a line. If it caught your attention, it will probably interest someone else, too. Submit news tips via email to email@example.com.
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The Pilot's Lounge #82: Integrity, Responsibility And The Lack Thereof
In a time of increasing challenges to general aviation, it is more vital than ever that pilots and lovers of flight stick together when threatened with yet one more airport closure or restriction. AVweb's Rick Durden recently dealt with pilots who didn't even support saving the very airport where they live.
Reader mail this week about airport security and photo ID; and lots of controversy about the controller retirement age.
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An oldie, but a goodie...
A fighter pilot called for a priority landing because his single-engine jet fighter was running, "a bit peaked." A controller responded and the lore follows...
ATC: Roger. You're number two behind a B-52. They've had to shut down an engine.
Fighter Pilot: Ah, yes ... the dreaded seven-engine approach.
AVflash is a twice-weekly summary of the latest aviation news, articles, products, features and events featured on AVweb, the Internet's Aviation Magazine and News Service. http://www.avweb.com
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Fly it till each part stops moving.
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