A Weirdly Provocative Way To End The Year


Sometimes organizations do things that are just plain weird and that’s where I’m filing Airlines for America’s weirdly provocative letter to the FAA and Department of Transportation last week about some relatively minor flight delays during the Christmas break.

Now, I get that a two-hour systemic delay can create some chaos in airline schedules and across the rest of the National Airspace System, but this time the “traffic management initiatives” put in place because of ATC backups at Jacksonville Center seemed to be handled pretty well by the robust measures engaged by the FAA Command Center to deal with just this sort of thing. I was on duty when the alert went out and I monitored for delays and cancellations but nothing dramatic happened so I didn’t bother writing about it. Compared to the mayhem we’ve seen on other holidays it was insignificant.

In fact, thanks in no small part to the preparations of that Command Center, which is staffed by representatives of the FAA, airlines and general aviation bodies, the whole season has been pretty uneventful. Of course, the relatively benign weather has helped, too.

So I found it surprising that A4A would gather its brain trust together during a time of traditional good cheer and lob a potentially incendiary nastigram of the type sent to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker on the Friday before New Year’s. In the letter A4A singled out GA traffic as the cause of the delays in Florida and elsewhere because GA was doing what GA does–taking people places on their own schedule and allowing them to change their minds about a destination on a whim. Freeing its participants from the chore that commercial aviation has become some of the time is the very reason for its existence.

A4A didn’t just complain about the bizjets and weekend warriors it says clogged the system. It asked that “the Administration take all possible actions to find the appropriate balance between commercial and private aviation traffic with the goal of minimizing delays and cancellations for the traveling public.” As several commenters noted within minutes of the story going live today, those in private aircraft are also members of the “traveling public.”

So let’s unpack that request bit by bit. “All possible actions” would suggest to me that A4A is looking for some kind of regulatory measure that can result in private aircraft being denied airspace access in favor of airliners. In fairness, that already happens in busy airspace near major airports, and let’s not forget some of the questionable TFRs that persist in the face of pretty minimal security threats.

But this request seems to refer to some kind of magic regulatory wand that suddenly clears the pesky jet set and piston crowd the hell out of the way when the 7:15 to La Guardia or (insert busy airport here) is in danger of running late. Since the airspace belongs to everyone and access is more or less guaranteed to those with the gear and credentials to use it, it seems like a dangerous threat to those liberties.

And how about “find the appropriate balance between commercial and private aviation traffic?” Who gets to decide what that balance might be? Is there a show of hands at FAA HQ on whether the G650 at Fort Lauderdale gets to go to Westchester or the 172 at John Wayne gets to go to Bakersfield? Or do you just shut down GA when the airlines are struggling. What, precisely, is that “balance?”

There was another phrase I didn’t understand in A4A’s missive, which also made vague reference to the controller shortage. It asked that “all possible steps be taken to avert additional staffing triggers, particularly in high volume centers.” What, exactly, is a “staffing trigger?” It seems to suggest that some sort of external influence is at work affecting staffing levels at the busiest ATC facilities, but I really don’t know. Maybe some controllers can chime in on that one.

Perhaps the biggest question raised by all this is “Why now?” With only a few days left of the holiday season, we’ve so far avoided the almost unbelievable meltdowns of the early post-COVID era. The overwhelming majority of the “traveling public” got where they were going within no more than a few hours of when they were supposed to get there.

It could have, maybe even should have, resulted in high fives all round among aviation stakeholders, regulators and legislators for the cooperative effort that got us here. Oh, and let’s not forget about the weather and smooth running computers.

Instead we end a fairly positive period, maybe even a turning point, on a combative note that has those in A4A’s crosshairs looking for the underlying meaning and waiting warily for the other shoe to drop. It just seems weird.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.


  1. FAA is populated with dedicate trained people, who are unprepared for untold volumes of eVTOL aircraft entitled to replace outdated autos delivering the traveling public to Class B airspace.

    When will FAA initiate response to this inevitable?

  2. Move military airspace offshore and much of the problem goes away. Military training can go on anywhere in the world, why choose around busy metro areas? Take out the Restricted Airspace and you’ve freed up plenty of room and NextGen can work as promised.

    • One of my New Year’s resolutions is to be nicer to others this year. I’ll go with, ‘you might want to think this one through a bit more’.

    • “In the letter A4A singled out GA traffic as the cause of the delays…” That’s GA traffic not military.

    • Where exactly is this a problem? I’m thinking you are extrapolating a local issue into a national one.

      There are certainly improvements possible in the coordination between military areas and civilian ones, but afaik, the bulk of training is away from busy routes already.

  3. The letter smells like an airline CEO calculating his year end bonus and realizing he is a few points short of his “percent on time flights” objective calling up the association and screaming “you have to do something! These little airplanes are getting in the way of my bonus!”

  4. For 17 years I was in the thick of this argument when I worked for NBAA. “Equal access” is a mythical beast that nobody has ever actually found. The FAA, my airline ops brethren, and I on behalf of NBAA settled on the term equitable access. Even that term had no firm definition, and it was more of a “it feels like” definition. The various operational representatives of the air carriers in general aviation, who work at the command center actually get along pretty darn well, even to the point of looking out for one another every now and then. It’s the POLITICOs in downtown Washington continue the sour drumbeat.

    I posted the following as a comment to the other article in today’s air web:

    As Yogi said, “this is déjà vu all over again!” A4A (or ATA as it was known back then), was arguing the SAME EXACT THING when I started working for NBAA literally in the last millennia! Any time they could they whined about “private” aviation causing their own scheduling delays – just how many airliners can you depart +/- 5 min on the hour anyway? A4A and your not good friends at Reason Foundation constantly argue for privatization as the cure for what ails the NAS solely so they could control and push out GA. Death, taxes, and “it’s GA’s fault!

  5. I wonder how the “Travelling Public” would respond to and announcement by DOT that, as of now, all interstate highways are reserved for over-the-road trucks, due to supply chain issues?

  6. Government “central planning” rarely works—it is always trumped by capitalism. Airports are publicly funded—perhaps airlines would like to consider BUILDING THEIR OWN AIRPORTS?

    • That’s a great idea. Pretty sure Greyhound built their own bus stations. If part of my taxes fund these airports then I as a GA pilot should not be restricted from using them.

    • Clever, but unfortunately, we the taxpayers pay or would pay for airports one way or another – currently through taxes or through higher fares if the airlines did have to build their own airports.

      • Good point, but not the point. Taxpayers MUST pay currently, but if airlines are paying then the citizen customer becomes a VOLUNTARY payer. If GA is relegated to second-class status, then airports can become citizen-funded instruments almost exclusively for private corporate profit.

  7. I flew on the airlines a few times in December. Were there delays? Yes. Reasons included: Weather (really BAD weather); congestion on the ramp, blocking aircraft from departing or arriving at the gate; and completely unrealistic schedules and boarding procedures. In one case, thirty minutes to board a large number of passengers was insufficient, even though the passengers themselves were cooperative. The door didn’t close until more than five minutes after departure time. However, we had to sit there for another ten minutes while bags continued to be loaded. That doesn’t include, as other have mentioned, the number of airliners attempting to land or take off at the same time.

    None of these have anything to do with GA of any sort. Nor are they FAA/ATC derived. With the exception of weather, they are self-inflicted injuries caused by the airlines and their own operating procedures. I have learned, however, that business and political leaders will never admit to their own failures or even to lessons that they can learn from. Not when they can blame someone else.

  8. I’m remembering Cirrus 4252G stall spin accident at Houston Hobby with 3 fatalities from being deviated multiple times on final til finally control is lost. GA gets dealt to the bottom of the deck to keep the big iron on time.

    • Yes, we often do get so dealt. On the other hand, that accident is a strong reminder to all pilots of the value of saying “no”, or more likely “standby” or “unable”. But yes, we are often told to get out of the way instead of the heavy iron performing a $5000 go-around.

      I seem to remember an incident, probably from AVweb’s Final Approach column, of an airline pilot pleading to the contoller to have the GA aircraft deviate in order to avoid a “$1200 go-around” (or however much it was) and the controller instructing the airliner to perform that “$1200 go-around”. A rare win.

  9. In the absence of their desired “balance” the solution would seem to be that the most butt-hurt airlines build, maintain, and staff their own airports so schedules will not be impacted by traffic other than their own. Instead of attempting through policy to monopolize public use facilities. I would be more than happy to avoid their airports both while operating my own airplane and as a paying customer.

  10. Analysis of A4A’s Letter:


    After examining A4A’s recent communication on ATC conditions during the 2023 holiday season, seven key interpretations stand out. While the letter acknowledges the FAA’s efforts, there is a not so subtle hint of a power dynamic against general aviation. Here are the observations:

    1. Bias Against General Aviation: A4A’s emphasis on private aviation could be seen as biased against general aviation, attributing delays, and cancellations primarily to non-scheduled private operations.
    2. Exaggeration of Challenges: The letter’s use of strong language and selective examples to illustrate operational challenges may contribute to an exaggerated portrayal, fostering a perception of an underlying power struggle.
    3. Questionable Timing: Expressing concerns during a reported period of strong operational performance raises questions about the sincerity of the presented issues and their urgency.
    4. Implicit Inefficiency Accusations: The letter subtly implies inefficiency on the part of the FAA without presenting concrete evidence, potentially aiming to gain influence over decision-making.
    5. Lack of Collaboration: Despite outwardly expressing a willingness to collaborate, the overall tone suggests a confrontational approach, creating the impression of an effort to exert influence rather than fostering genuine collaboration.
    6. Regulatory Influence Attempt: The framing of inconveniences in the letter raises the possibility of advocating for regulations that could benefit A4A carriers, potentially at the expense of general aviation stakeholders.
    7. Challenge to “First Come, First Serve” Principle: A4A questions the fairness of this principle by emphasizing the unpredictability of private aviation, conceivably aiming to influence airspace prioritization.

    In conclusion, the letter, despite recognizing FAA efforts, overtly conveys insincerity, portraying private aviation negatively, and positioning A4A for more influence. A rank example of throwing crap against the wall to see what sticks.

  11. As I often say, there’s the “Things seen” and “Things NOT seen” underlying objective behind the curious timing of the A4A letter. With the end of the MOSAIC comment period looming, I’d be willing to bet that they’re posturing themselves somehow to fight that, too. Gotta rid ourselves of those ‘bug smashers’ don’t ya know. This is but one ‘tool’ in their box IMHO. To the airlines, even Gulfstreams are bug smashers.

    If the airlines are gonna accept Government help — both directly and indirectly — then there’s a price they have to pay starting with “sharing” the NAS and it’s support mechanisms. There’s no room for favorite treatment here … we’re all equal. As it is, using a class B airport with a 172 is already mostly prohibited by default. Now they want expansion of that notion. Last time I flew, I felt like a sardine in a can; next up … standing room only 🙁 .

    It’ll be interesting to see how the FAA / DOT reacts to this letter. Everyone here better write SOMETHING to the FAA about MOSAIC before the end of January.

  12. Since part 135 operators fall under the GA umbrella, it’s not very hard to read between the lines in this letter and possibly conclude that the airlines’ actual motive – in part – could be to pressure the FAA into considering restrictions on air traffic prioritization for those on-demand operators. Or….maybe the airline CEOs are just falling short in earning their end-of-year bonuses. Who knows.

  13. Was it not the airlines decision to use 1000 small jets with a limited number of seats instead of fewer large jets. Seems like an issue of there own making to increase the bottom line.

  14. All of this minutia on the part of the A4A / ATA is to simply sleaze out of their Airline Fine$ imposed in recent times for poor, lousy service by the DOT.

    Example: SWA $140 million dollar fine imposed by the DOT for their flop job of a meltdown during the 2022 Holiday package.

    Blame it on “GA.”

    Airline Lawyers might think it works well in the airline’s appeal process.

    • This was my idea as well – sort of. I see it as a pre-emptive strike in order to head off any such actions this year by DoT. I place this all at the feet of the DoT, who needlessly poked the bear last year. I don’t believe its a legitimate function of government to fine airlines for running late. Folks ought to remember and not buy tickets on that airline again. Simple and easy. But since the government now seems to think its entirely reasonable to tell a private company how to run its business, this association of private businesses is just “heading them off at the pass.” GA just got caught up in the storm as a flailing and overmatched executive trying to support his constituency’s desire grasped at any straw. Given that this is more actually written to the airline riding customer there was never a need for rational thought, reason or fact. People who know nothing will believe anything.

      This is however something which AOPA and EAA and all the other third world juntas who claim to represent GA need to respond to immediately. A few letters citing all the rational and practical reasons why the “A4A” letter is specious could save us a lot of trouble in the future. In fact, if any of those organizations fail to write, send and widely publicize such a letter of response, the GA public would be completely justified in questioning those organizations’ commitment to their own alleged goals.

  15. Once again–the Free Market will prevail where government fails.

    It’s already happening–most GA airplanes avoid the major hubs BECAUSE OF THE AIRLINES OVERSCHEDULING–the inevitable DELAYS, and the COST of using the facility.

    Even corporate jets avoid the hubs for these reasons–yet the A4A letter would have us believe that access to “their” airports is denied because of “private airplanes.”

    As a corporate pilot, flying turbine equipment, we avoid the major hubs as much as possible. Our passengers find it easier and cheaper to land at a nearby GA airport, and take a taxi to the major airport terminal if they are catching a long-haul flight. When a major city is our DESTINATION, we avoid the hub airport as much as possible–landing at a GA airport if closer to our destination–it’s faster, easier, and cheaper. On the DEPARTURE side of a hub airport, we try to avoid the known “push” periods–where there are departure delays–and if our passengers miss that opening, they know they have to suffer the consequences.

    One of the major reasons that corporate/private aviation exists AT ALL is because of the VERY THING AIRLINES HAVE CREATED–too many airline flights scheduled into the same facility at the same time.

    If A4A wants to do something about “airport delays”–perhaps they should look at “cleaning their own house first” by not scheduling flights during peak periods!

  16. “Seven Days in May”, or maybe December. Bring in the expert witnesses. Enter the professor. Music Maestro!

  17. Has the A4A said anything about the pilot shortage in the last year? They would do well to remember that a significant portion of GA traffic are new pilots on their way to the airlines.

  18. The only appropriate response from Secretary Buttigieg to this letter is, “Thanks for writing. We’ll get back to you on that.”

  19. Although I’ve been retired from ATC for awhile, I understand a “Staffing Trigger” is when a facility’s staffing level for a particular shift is so reduced that normal traffic levels cannot be maintained. Generally, that means that too many controllers are on leave and not enough can be brought in on overtime or held over for two hours to compensate. The flow controller for the overlying center is notified and will put out notices or restrict traffic accordingly. The surrounding facilities will also be notified by the affected facility and given any restrictions needed. Maybe that’s in-trail restrictions or no VFR handoffs, whatever is appropriate for the affected facility to lighten the load.
    Please understand that controllers have maximum time on position rules, minimum hours between shifts, and have to meet 2nd Class medical certification requirements. There’s also FEFFLA and FEMLA rules for meeting medical issues, extended time off and child birth. In short, leave is complicated and the FAA has NEVER, since I signed on in 1977, staffed facilities in an appropriate manner, whether large, medium or small. The agency has always had the attitude that it’s cheaper to pay overtime on a regular basis than hire more controllers. Never mind the burnout and fatigue that brings, the agency doesn’t care.

  20. I don’t know if I have an overly romanticized vision of how “it used to be” or if America really has changed. It seems like it used to be that if you weren’t good enough – you tried harder. Those that did well succeeded and those that did not, fell by the wayside. If a business gave bad customer service and couldn’t survive financially they went out of business and were replaced with others that were viable. In this current environment, it seems that if a business (in this case the airlines) can’t function well, rather than finding ways to improve, they feel it is a better strategy to tear down and vilify their competition (in this case General Aviation). Whatever happened the American sprit of working harder, being better? Or was that just a fantasy?

    • ‘Whatever happened the American sprit of working harder, being better? Or was that just a fantasy?”
      It went out with DEI aka “affirmative action.”

    • Inevitable that we cannot get through a story like this without some knee-jerk affirmative action comment. These problems don’t come from well qualified minorities being given a fair chance in our system. People are working just as hard as ever. What’s different is that we are trudging into a much stiffer wind driven by a corporate culture that fosters bean counting over quality, a paradigm created by the likes of Jack Welch, Don Rumsfeld, the Koch brothers, and the rest of fat cats. They have systematically degraded the earning power of working Americans since the days of Regan by shipping jobs overseas, fostering private equity over real investment, busting unions, incentivizing CEOs to skimp on product value to deliver shareholder return, and the like. The slight-of-hand here is to get us to blame anyone but the real culprits, a trick especially played by one particular cosmetically enhanced, old, orange-haired fat cat.