Runway Chicken Revisited

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Just as you think government management of anything can't get any more ridiculous, surprise. That's exactly what happens. This week's supremely absurd example comes in the wake of that runway dustup at Reagan National at the end of July. I wrote about it in this blog. Saving you the click through, the executive summary is that approach controllers at National—or maybe the TMU, we're not sure—had weather clogging up the arrival fixes so they reconfigured to approach from the opposite direction. The tower controller never got the word and launched two departures into the nose of an incoming arrival. That resulted in loss of separation. but it wasn't exactly a paint swap. The FAA did its usual public saber rattling, vowing to get to the bottom of this outrage and prevent it from happening again. If, on the off chance, you're reading this blog on a mobile device while sitting out a gate hold somewhere, you may be a surprise beneficiary of this new policy. Here's the FAA policy change if you'd like to read it directly: (PDF). In an act of sheer, undiluted futility, I had hoped that the FAA would either issue a mealy mouthed order meaning essentially nothing or that it would distribute a procedural directive that the facilities could simply ignore. Unfortunately, neither happened. The gist of the order is to suspend all opposite direction operations at Part 139 airports until the local facility produces a written procedure describing how they intend to conduct opposite direction procedures and this must be approved by higher HQ. On its face, this doesn't sound entirely silly until you stop to consider how long it takes to get anything approved by the FAA. So how's it playing out in the real world? About as you'd expect. If the wind changes at O'Hare, there's chaos over Gary and somewhere, airplanes are being vectored or spun while controllers are forced to burn those two things they never have enough of: time and airspace. In this recording from, you can listen to a local controller at Los Angeles International explaining to a couple of inbounds why they're flushing a few thousand pounds of Jet A with the destination runway tantalizingly visible through the windshield:

Click here for the MP3 file.

Evidently, LAX hasn't gotten its opposite-direction procedure approved yet, although I feel fairly confident in saying they've probably submitted same. So if you're one of those pilots (or passengers) being mysteriously vectored around and the controller isn't as forthcoming as LAX local on why that's happening, thank the FAA for this sublime order enhancing the safety of the nation's airspace and never mind that you missed your connection to Baltimore. What should have happened here? It's really simple. Back in the days when controllers wore skinny ties and gas was 50 cents a gallon, controllers actually talked directly to each other. Shocking as it may seem, they did so entirely without benefit of a front line supervisor watching. Controllers who came of age in this era will tell you it actually worked kinda well. So if the FAA's order simply went back to that well-hewn procedure, the DCA nose-to-nose wouldn't have happened and there would be fewer airliners out there burning up expensive kerosene and generally throwing sand into the works of what used to be a decent watch. But that's progress for you.

Comments (10)

Maybe the aircrews should take the initiative on this. Next time your number one for the field at 02:30 with not another plane for eighty mile in any direction and the airport is turned around, just declare an emergency and land straight in......

Posted by: Scott McGowin | August 22, 2012 11:01 AM    Report this comment

I agree with Scott but the problem with declaring an emergency is you have to substantiate it.

When Lanseria airport in SA was still a dual (Mil/Civ) airport the jet jockies would declare an emergency saying they were low on fuel and get priority while everyone else had to wait. One day the controller told the jockey to hold off until he had cleared the action with his Commanding Officer. After that non of the military pilots declared an emergency unless it really was and they stood a chance of being Court Marshaled.

Unfortunately we are now in the age of Bean Counters so everything has to have a written policy. Shame we let them get in.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | August 23, 2012 4:58 AM    Report this comment

This appears to be another means whereby the FAA, under the guise of safety, is slowing the aviation system down. With no skin in the game, the costs associated with a one in, one out operation costs do not appear to be considered by the government ( remember when they implemented a reduced runway incursion policy at some airport by not allowing another aircraft to be in position and holding?). With management decisions like this one has to wonder how well & effect the NextGen plan will be on aircraft operators. Do you think the FAA understands who their customer is?

Posted by: Douglas Manuel | August 23, 2012 5:12 AM    Report this comment

The biggest problem that occured here was that the mainstream media got their hands on this story. As usual, they did their best to inform the flying public of the severe dangers associated with commercial airline transportation. The procedural changes enacted by the FAA after this incident are merely to pacify the passenger anxiety that was created by the fools in the press. If this story had never made the headlines the FAA would likely have quietly reprimanded the ATC facility and individuals involved. The fact that the FAA, and general public, is ignoring is that this procedure is done succesfully countless times everdyay. Unfortunately, the efficiency of the NAS is now being reduced to handle a situation which should have been resolved by now.

Posted by: Benjamin Horning | August 23, 2012 7:30 AM    Report this comment

"...Do you think the FAA understands who their customer is?..."

The FAA's customer is the general public, and the safe, not necessarily expediant, transportation thereof.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | August 23, 2012 11:13 AM    Report this comment

TMU does not equal first line supervisor, no way, no how. Please do not denigrate the poor sups for a TMU screwup. The procedures that allow a TMU between controllers should be revisited at DCA.
The order that pertains to opposite direction operations is not as onerous as I would have bet on to begin with. It's pretty much as we used to teach the controllers at our facility because it mirrors non-radar procedures, and if you can do something non-radar, you can sure as heck do it as well or better with radar. It also only pertains to IFR aircraft, not VFR. Rewrite the local SOP, get the Operations division to approve it, and carry on. One-way airports are going to have a tough time making this fit, but knowing the good 'ole FAA, they'll have waivers anyway. It's the FAA way.

Posted by: David Slosson | August 23, 2012 3:09 PM    Report this comment

No, Edd the FAA's customer is congress. They can't afford to look bad, so they keep airplanes on the ground or spinning in the sir. Anything is fine as long as they can tell congress they are keeping us safe.

Posted by: Roy Zesch | August 26, 2012 5:15 PM    Report this comment

The FAA is like most knee-jerk government agencies. They make a mountain out of a molehill and then turn around and tell you the mountain they created is nothing more than a molehill. Then they formulate absurd rules and regulations to make the molehill into another mountain!

Posted by: James Dippel | August 28, 2012 5:38 PM    Report this comment

Just flew right seat from KMOD to KMFR in a PC-12. Listening to ATIS prior to arrival, we heard: "By national directive, no opposite-direction operations permitted." Neither of us had a clue what that meant or why. Kudos to Paul for passing the word. What a waste of Jet-A!

Posted by: JOHN RULEY | September 8, 2012 1:18 PM    Report this comment

Failures to communicate between approach control and the local controllers happen. This is the root of the problem and should be investigated and effective procedures should be clearly delineated and understood by all. Challenging the regulation by declaring a false emergency is not a good solution.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | September 10, 2012 12:15 PM    Report this comment

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