AVmail: September 15, 2003

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Reader mail this week about contract towers, whether new technology helps pilot safety, the public's perception of aviation and more.

Contract Towers

Comparing "safety" at contract towers with FAA staffed towers is nigh onto impossible (Newswire, September 8). What is the unit of measure, metric? The OIG uses reported errors (systems errors and systems deviations) exclusively.

And who is more likely to report that error/deviation: A manager who might be given two weeks notice by the contractor concerned about losing that contract, or a manager (FAA) who might suffer disciplinary action for not reporting it?

AVweb has persisted in editorializing that towers that are under FAA operation are also under union operation. While one union (NATCA) has the exclusive bargaining rights for controllers at FAA towers, no controller is required to join or pay dues to a union. Conversely, contract tower employees can and do have union representation.

Bob Merrilees

I have worked in two different contract towers, as well as USAF and FAA towers. The contract towers may, or may not, have enviable safety records, but at what price?

I have found the contract tower staff to be less arrogant and bureaucratic than the FAA tower staffing. I perceived a sense of less authority from the contractor side. In any given situation, the contractor is not the authority (as is the FAA), but rather is put in the position of having to justify themselves to the FAA.

Further, the less formal contractors are less likely to report an infraction. In the FAA, you CYA by reporting. In contract facilities, you CYA by quietly "flying below the radar" and not having problems.

The contract towers are understaffed. As soon as staffing is not 100% -- including time off for vacation, appointments, etc. -- overtime and shift changes kick in. It is common to spend the entire day on position, take your meal on position, and have a single operator on duty with no bathroom relief.

Robert C. Long

From where I sit it appears that you are firmly in favor of the privatization of air traffic services in this country. I don't believe that you have taken the time to look at all the factors on this issue.

The I.G. report states that contract towers are just as safe as FAA towers. When a private controller works 10 aircraft per hour, the chance of error is less than a controller working 100 planes per hour. One cannot compare a busy general aviation airport (like Van Nuys or Deer Valley) to a small, rural one.

What the FAA does not tell you are the hidden costs to the users. Currently, the FAA pays for all the services at air traffic facilities. These include (but are not limited to) janitorial, window washing, plumbing, electrical, elevator repair and maintenance, and heating and air conditioning maintenance and repair/replacement. The average cost to the city/authority/municipality averages $65,000 per year where a contract tower exists. This is passed on directly to the user ... you the pilot. And don't think that you will get a rebate for the $65 million that the government expects to save by this move ...

... Because the controllers at those facilities will not lose their jobs. They will be transferred to much higher-paying jobs. The government will foot the bill for all associated moving expenses and pay raises.

Perhaps what we should be looking at is where the FAA really spends its money. The WAAS program is 5 years overdue and $2 billion over budget. The FAA has nine regional offices, each with identical positions doing the same work as the other eight. All are in major cities costing hundreds of millions of dollars. While each facility has at least one -- if not more -- computers, every month stacks of FAA publications are mailed out (as opposed to electronic mailings), again at a cost of millions to all of us.

No, it is not the FAA controller that is costing money. The European Aviation Agency reported that FAA controllers work more hours, more efficiently than their counterparts in a privatized European Air Traffic Control system.

I urge you to look at all the facts. I urge you to call 1-866-I-FLY-SAFE and tell your congressman to vote against privatization. If Congressman Young of Alaska believes that privatization is not good for his airports, then why should it be OK for the other 49?

James "Beamer" Bermant

AVweb Responds:

As far as I know, AVweb hasn't taken a position on the issue and we won't. What we will do is report significant developments as they occur and make sure you know what's going on in the debate. I can tell you that we were among the first to report it as an issue and that Monday's report is just the latest. Stay tuned.

Russ Niles
AVweb Writer/Editor

Pilot Safety and New Equipment

If there is a serious issue with full utilization of new equipment then the manufacturers need to get in the ball game (Newswire, September 8). Recently I purchased a fuel totalizer from JPI. it came with a CD and video to help familurize the pilot with the operation. It is great. But I also purchased a new UPS GPS/Com and there is no similar software to help the new owner. It would be great if this were the case but it is not. Most of the features on the new GPS/Com remain a mystery because the manual is a bust and there is usually no help from the folks who install such equipment. What a waste. If there is really a committment to what you wrote about, then start with the equipment suppliers. It's that simple.

Dale Rush

Potential Airspace Incursion

Recently on a VFR flight to a large city [with Class B airspace] I called approach control several miles prior to reaching their controlled airspace at 7500 feet and advised my destination airport was XYZ. The weather was clear with six miles visibility and unlimited visibility above the haze layer at 5000 feet. I was given a squawk code and the response was, "Radar contact, proceed with your own navigation to airport XYZ."

My reaction was, "This is nice. His traffic must be light and the weather very good." So I tuned in XYZ VOR and proceeded on a direct course. The controller noticed this and came back with, "What are your intentions?" My reply was to maintain 7500 feet direct to XYZ and then to request a decent with the destination airport in sight. His immediate reply was, "Negative, descend immediately and avoid Class B airspace." I descended to 2000 feet at 3000 fpm and asked, "Give me radar vectors to avoid your Class B airspace." His reply was "Fly heading 360, maintain 2000 feet VFR," and his subsequent vectors to XYZ airport were without any problems.

My mistake was thinking that I was cleared into his airspace expecting approach control traffic information and probable further instructions to my destination. This potential violation could have been avoided by the additional words, "Avoid Class B airspace." In the future I will never have this problem again, but after presenting this to numerous professional pilots, many made the same assumption that I made.

Name withheld by request

AVweb Responds:

Thanks for that good reminder. The two things you need are: (1) To hear the words "Cleared to enter the Class B airspace" and (2) A copy of the NASA ASRS form to protect yourself if you make a mistake.

Kevin Lane-Cummings
Features and AVmail Editor

Perception of Aviation

The lead article this issue (Newswire, September 11) says:

While general aviation has long depended on the romance and excitement of flying to draw in students, that benign vision in the public consciousness now has been replaced with all-too-vivid memories of aircraft as the tools of evil men with destructive intent.

The airplane was used to pound entire European cities into rubble. Has that had an ongoing effect on aviation there? Our politicians are confident the public won't remember their mis-deeds 'til the next election. How long will this perception last?

Phil DeRuiter

I agree with the assessment made this Thursday (Newswire, September 11):

While economic factors are the major reason, some operators cite a "stigma" that has turned people off from the whole idea of flying. "If you tell people that you run a flight school, the first thing that comes out of their mouth is: 'How many terrorists have you trained?'" Mariano Garcia, of Palm Beach Aviation, told the Sun-Sentinel. That attitude translates directly into dollars lost, as prospective students stay away from the airport.

And I'll add:

Learning to ply is a prohibitively expensive proposition in and of itself, but if you add a weak economy -- pay freezes, pay cuts, layoffs, and a staggering rate of un-employment -- you will find that any post-9/11 stigma is really in the noise by comparison. If the GA companies -- big and small alike -- want to get their back-in-business mojo on, I'd suggest the following two-step guidelines:

Step 1. Remedy the poor economy. It's clear that when a certain group of elected officials and executors seize control of the U.S. Government, that the economy gets sick, and when they lose that power, the economy gets healthy. Therefore, it makes a great deal of sense for the entire GA community to get together and back the political regime that gets and keeps the money flowing into its coffers, regardless of any prior political affiliations or commitments.

Step 2. Do everything and anything -- short of compromising safety -- to reduce the costs of flight instruction. I have heard an adage that those who were meant to fly would do anything at all to follow that dream, including taking a vow of poverty, working 3 jobs etc. I say such attitudes are a load of bunk, and if you maintain that line of thinking, you're turning away thousands of potential students a year. If I had caught the flying bug 10 years earlier in my career, those sacrifices would have been a piece of cake. Unfortunately, I caught the flying bug when I had already established my career in a different field; and with 2 children, I am unwilling to make the sacrifices. Even though I still dream of flying, it's just too damned expensive to justify the expenditure. I've met handfuls of capable potential pilots in the same boat, and I'd bet there are many more out there.

Joseph Kelly

VFR Sectional Quiz

Great quiz (Brainteasers #72). I bit hard on question #2, thinking it was a trick question. I thought the white dot at the center of the airport was the NDB, not the VOR. So I answered false. Later I saw the blue VOR description box, but I still don't understand why we don't see the typical blue circle (with degree hash marks) around the Elmwood VOR, if it really is at Marshalltown airport.

Robert West

AVweb Responds:

The white dot at Marshalltown Airport signifies the position of the navaid on the field. This VOR is a terminal class VOR (service volume 25 nm) and not a part of the enroute structure; therefore, it has no compass rose. Yes, there is also an NDB -- which has its own frequency box -- but NDBs at an airport don't get the dot. Check the sectional chart legend.

Thanks for taking the BrainTeaser and keep flying!

Paul Berge