Delays Malaise: Time for Change?

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GUEST COMMENTARY. As flight delays in the U.S. rise to alarming levels, everyone acknowledges that the system is broken, but nobody agrees on how to fix it. The controller's union blames the airlines for impossible scheduling practices. The airlines blame the FAA's ATC command center ("central flow") for excessive delays and in-trail spacing, while the FAA blames the weather. Meantime, airports are saturated, runway incursions are increasing alarmingly, and pilots are screaming about position-and-hold and LAHSO. While the FAA desperately tries to modernize the crumbling U.S. ATC infrastructure one piece at a time, Australia is about to launch a whole new clean-sheet-design ATC system. Ken Cubbin says that the U.S. has all the money and resources it needs to create an aviation system for the 21st century, but seems to lack the political will to do so.

As the story goes, a disgruntled passenger complains to an airline representative, "Your flights are always delayed so much! Why do you bother publishing a schedule?"

"But sir," the quick-witted employee responds, "if we didn't publish a schedule, how would you know how late our flights were?"

Most of us would agree that this joke used to be a lot more amusing than it is today! Flight delays in the U.S. for 1999 are the worst on record and threaten to cost airlines and passengers approximately $4.5 billion; this figure could triple by 2008. As the demand for air travel continues to increase, airports and the air traffic control system stretched to the breaking point ... or perhaps beyond it.

Who's to blame? Depends on who you ask. The FAA blames the weather, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) blames the airlines, and the airlines blame everyone but themselves. The truth is that some of the problems have been weather-related and airline-scheduling-induced, but most of the delays have been caused by inefficiencies in an outdated system that has increasing demands placed on it every day.

The airline view

ATA logoA recent report by the Air Transport Association (ATA) the Washington lobby group representing the airline industry warns that flight delays in the U.S. will dramatically increase in the next ten years unless the FAA makes a concerted effort to alleviate air traffic congestion. The report forecasts that by the year 2008 there will be an increase in passenger volume of approximately 43% with an additional 2,500 aircraft in service; unless significant improvements are made, this will result in a 250% increase in passenger delays.

Looking at the recent past, the period April to August 1999 averaged a 20% increase in delays over last year, more than half of which occurred during the taxi-out phase ... mostly ground stops caused by flow control. The controller's union (NATCA) has stated publicly that airlines are to blame because of their scheduling, but the ATA has concluded that airline schedules account for only 7.5% of delays.

The FAA has stated that approximately 72% of delays experienced in the aforementioned April-to-August period were due to weather. However, the ATA discovered that mismanagement of the severe weather avoidance process by the FAA's Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC, otherwise known as "central flow") created unnecessary ground stops on aircraft. Last summer, for example, flights were held at the gate because a line of severe thunderstorms was forecast to have a 50% chance of forming from Buffalo to Kansas. Unfortunately, the ATCSCC didn't bother to track the actual storm front, and 700 flights were delayed unnecessarily for up to four hours. According to the ATA, the FAA needs to improve ATCSCC command and authority over regional Traffic Management Units (TMUs) at the various Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCCs) which currently operate with a degree of autonomy that, according to the ATA, precludes coordination.

Delayed passengers, of course, blame the delays on whom they can most easily vent their anger: the airlines.

So what's the FAA doing?

FAA logoThe Federal Aviation Administration is the federal agency primarily responsible for ensuring the safety of civil aviation. Its charter includes regulating civil aviation to promote safety and fulfill the requirements of national defense; encouraging and developing civil aeronautics, including new aviation technology; developing and operating a common system of air traffic control and navigation for both civil and military aircraft; research and development with respect to the National Airspace System and civil aeronautics; developing and implementing programs to control aircraft noise and other environmental effects of civil aviation; and regulating U.S. commercial space transportation. Talk about heavy lifting! To make matters more interesting, the FAA is expected to fulfill all these obligations on a budget that is passed around Congress like a hot potato. Is it any wonder, then, that the FAA has too many responsibilities and too few resources?

ATCTo its credit, the FAA has initiated several modernization programs aimed at improving traffic flow. One of these, the Display System Replacement (DSR), was introduced last April at Cleveland ARTCC ... with disappointing results. An increase in miles-in-trail (MIT) separation between aircraft (from the usual five nautical miles lateral separation and 2,000 feet vertical separation) was imposed by the FAA in order to provide an introductory comfort level for controllers. This resulted in a 51% increase in year-over-year delays for the month of April. Exacerbation of the delay problem ensued with the introduction of DSR to Chicago and New York ARTCCs. According to NATCA, DSR is fundamentally flawed and its introduction should be discontinued until software improvements are made.

Another system aimed at improving traffic flow is the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS). It has also been tested, again with disappointing results. This system is intended to be introduced eventually to 172 terminal-level ATC facilities that control traffic within 50 miles of airports. Part of the problem with the initial tests have been caused by the new STARS system being linked to the older ARTS computer system presently being used at these facilities.

One problem evident in both the DSR and STARS system tests is that the FAA is trying to improve the air traffic control system by ad hoc methods: a little improvement here, a little modification there. Or as FAA Administrator Jane Garvey put it not long ago, the FAA "is doing the best it can to fix a complex and outdated system that has been plagued by unusual problems."

Show me the money!

Show me the money!Taxes raised from airline tickets, cargo and fuel sales are deposited in the Aviation Trust Fund (ATF). Although more than $10 billion has been going into the ATF annually, only $4 billion has been used each year to expand and improve aviation infrastructure. A bill titled AIR-21 is before Congress that would require the federal government to use all ATF money to improve aviation infrastructure. Most observers in both industry and government believe that money raised for the purpose of ensuring the free flow of air traffic should be allocated accordingly, and that it's an abomination that the airways system has been allowed to stagnate for lack of funds that were earmarked for aviation use.

However, even with ample funds, it is unlikely that major improvements can be accomplished on an ad hoc, piecemeal basis. Radical changes have to occur to ensure safe and timely flow of future air traffic.

Perhaps Congress and the FAA should take note of what is happening in other countries. Air Services Australia (ASA), for example, is introducing a completely new air traffic control system at a cost of $500 million. The Australian Advance Air Traffic System (TAAATS) is planned to be operational in July next year. This is the largest public works program ever undertaken in Australia, and serves to illustrate how important that country considers the safe and expeditious flow of air traffic in the future.

The tortoise and the hare

RJRecently, yet another curve has been thrown at the ATC system. With the advent of improved technology has come a new generation of regional jets (RJs). These aircraft seat between 35-70 passengers and are rapidly replacing turboprop commuter aircraft throughout the country. Regional jets are quieter, more comfortable and perceived to be safer by the traveling public.

However, the introduction of RJs has increased the total number of aircraft flying in high-altitude airspace where MIT flow control is prevalent. Despite pilot union misgivings about the introduction of such aircraft, all major airlines are introducing regional jets to their feeder networks. Regional jets, such as the Embraer RJ 145 and Fairchild 428Jet, complicate an already-clogged high-altitude airways system because they have cruising speeds lower than larger jets. For example, at FL350, the Fairchild 428Jet cruises at Mach 0.72 while a Boeing 747-400 cruises at Mach 0.85. These large cruise-speed differences greatly complicate the job of air traffic controllers in high-altitude sectors, and create a slowing-down effect that ripples throughout the system.

Airports and runways

Airport signsMuch has been said about the inconvenience to the traveling public due to delays, but the degradation of safety due to increased congestion at airports and along airways is a more serious issue. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), for example, has experienced such a steep increase in runway incursions that a Runway Incursion Action Team (RIAT) has been created to deal with the problem.

Among other problems, LAX traffic is so busy during peak travel times that ground controllers have to speak very rapidly in order to communicate with all aircraft on their frequency. Of course this raises the stress level of the controllers, but it also makes it very difficult for pilots to understand instructions, especially those for whom English is not their first language. As a consequence, many misunderstandings occur and safety infractions ensue. Every runway incursion has the potential of becoming a major accident.

LAX is not unique there are many other major airports in the U.S. with similar problems. Airports already operating at capacity are utilizing controversial procedures in an effort to maximize airport usage. One such procedure is called Land and Hold Short Operations (LAHSO), wherein aircraft are given instructions to hold short of a runway intersection after landing to enable other aircraft to simultaneously take off from intersecting runways. Many airline pilots feel that this procedure is inherently dangerous, since the landing aircraft may either travel farther than the runway intersection during its landing roll or have to go-around due to an operational problem. Pilots of both aircraft may also misinterpret instructions.

The most obvious cure is to build more airports. Unfortunately, public syndromes of NIMBY (not in my backyard) and BANANA (build absolutely nothing, anywhere, near anything) are so prevalent that new airport construction rarely occurs.

Another possible solution is to diffuse the congestion from airports such as LAX by redirecting commuter and regional traffic to existing secondary airports (e.g., Burbank, Long Beach, Ontario). While this solution would also meet with public resistance from local residents surrounding such airports, it is perhaps the most expedient and practical solution to airport congestion at the moment.

Other possibilities might allow civil aircraft to use military airports that are underused or for new commercial aviation airports to be built on military land. Such a proposal has been suggested for the 24,000-acre Miramar naval base near San Diego. Proponents of a new, two-runway airport north of Fortuna Mountain at Miramar point to the financial and ecological benefits that would be gained by having extra traffic capacity in the San Diego area away from residential areas. This would not only allow a reduction of traffic at San Diego's Lindbergh Field Airport, but would increase present safety margins. A high parking lot complex on short approach to Lindbergh Field's runway 27 and the fact that there is only one short runway at this field makes Lindbergh, from the airline pilot's viewpoint, one of the most perilous facilities in the U.S. Others have even suggested that capacity might be improved for San Diego by having a terminal built on the U.S. side of the border at Tijuana's Rodriguez Field. Both of the suggested improvements for San Diego illustrate that there are possibilities to expand airport capacity ... if only the political will can be mustered.

Japan has undertaken ambitious new airport construction projects such as Kansai Airport in the Bay of Osaka which opened in 1994. Constructing new airports on reclaimed land reduces public complaints about noise pollution because aircraft approach over water instead of encroaching on urban areas. However, the cost of this type of new airport is enormous Kansai airport construction costs were approximately $15 billion and construction sites are limited to suitable bays on the coast. There are also environmental concerns regarding reclaiming land and utilizing it in this manner that must be addressed, and might not be politically tolerable in the U.S. Japanese authorities have been able to justify reclamation airport construction because of the limited land mass of Japan, but the U.S. has much more land than Japan, and environmental resistance to such projects would almost certainly be more pronounced.

Anachronistic airways

Weather delaysAs for the problems of airway congestion and aircraft traveling at different cruising speeds, a system of "random routes" and "free flight" in which high-altitude aircraft would not be restricted to predetermined airways would provide ample room for future traffic. However, this cannot occur with the technology in place today (although the required technology is certainly within relatively easy reach). Another possible approach would be to assign traffic to various flight levels or airways based on performance capabilities, although this may not be practical given the sheer number of aircraft and air routes, not to mention the unpredictable need for weather-avoidance flexibility.

Let's face it: There are no easy answers to the monumental problems facing the FAA. The best solution would probably be to scrap the present "legacy technology" altogether, and introduce a completely new system ... as Australian aviation authorities are doing. While the geographic size of Australia and the contiguous U.S. are comparable, the airways system in the U.S. is far more complex and the demands on it are far greater. The population of the U.S. is approximately 14 times larger than Australia and is more widespread throughout regional cities consequently, there are many more airports and air routes in the U.S. Investment of public funds in new technology to replace the current air traffic control system throughout the U.S. could cost as much as $10 billion. However, this is only the equivalent of one year's deposits in the ATF. In other words, the money is available ... only the political will to act is missing.

Can we fix the system?

It's not as though there is not enough land mass or airspace in the U.S. for airport and airways expansion. Everybody wants cheap, safe air travel that can be relied on to depart and arrive on time regardless of weather. So where's the problem?

CapitolThe problem is that Congress wants this done with minimum investment, homeowners want it done with no new airports or runways being built, and passengers want it done with no disruptions to service. Can this be accomplished?

Some including the Clinton administration believe that privatization of airports and the airways system is what's needed, saying that this might be the only way that innovation will occur fast enough to ensure the continued safe operation of aircraft. Under privatization, taxes raised and deposited in the ATF could initially be made available to private enterprise. Funding for future operation of airports and airways would be raised by user fees.

The proponents of privatization argue that since private enterprise is inherently more efficient than government, future user fees would most likely be less than the present level of taxes on tickets. While the FAA works with the best intentions, it is commonly understood that government agencies never operate as efficiently or as quickly as private enterprise. Largely, this is because of too much interference from politicians, too little funding and bureaucratic structures. However, opponents particularly those involved with general aviation say that a privatized system funded by user fees would inevitably discriminate among airport and airspace users based primarily on their ability to pay, and would therefore be the death knell for private aviation in the U.S.

The money needed to improve aviation infrastructure has been raised in taxes, but much of it has been included in general revenue rather than directed to airway and airport expansion where it is so badly needed. Passage of AIR-21 would go a long way to alleviate this situation, although improvements are already long overdue. There's no escaping the fact that delays due to traffic congestion are going to get worse before they get better. It's also inevitable that safety on the ground and in the air will degrade in the future unless dramatic changes are made as soon as possible. (In this author's opinion, transferring management of the airways system to private enterprise is the best way to have change occur quickly.)

Strangely enough, the so-called "Passenger Bill of Rights" legislation recently presented to Congress never mentioned the most critical aspect of an air traveler's concern: his or her safety. Sometimes, it seems, Congress can't see the forest for the trees.