ATC Is Not the Problem

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EDITORIAL. As the U.S. heads into the busiest travel weekend of the year, it's a good time to take a look back at last summer's airline delays and what exactly caused them. AVweb Publisher Carl Marbach writes that contrary to what the airlines and the airports would have you believe, the people and equipment comprising the U.S. ATC system aren't the problem. Instead, could runway capacity and airline scheduling practices be to blame?

Problem? What Problem?

Last summer, I flew 43 cross-country flights, traveling over 20,000 miles. I didn't have one cancelled flight, I experienced no delays and my wife's baggage never got lost. My Aerostar and the air traffic control (ATC) system performed flawlessly. The airlines and their passengers weren't so lucky.

True, I never got closer to Chicago's O'Hare than Oshkosh during EAA AirVenture, I flew over Denver but never landed there and my only visit to New York was by car while I was having new avionics installed nearby in Pennsylvania. About half of my flying was in the IFR system with only a very small part of that in actual IFR. I flew around a number of thunderstorms and descended through a number of cloud decks but saw mostly good, normal summer weather throughout the U.S. As a rule, I found the ATC system to be "kinder" and more cooperative than ever.

On one flight, an electrical connector came out of my altitude encoder while en route to Maine. This caused my transponder to report that I was over 18,000 feet and in class A airspace (where you have to be IFR) although I was really at 17,500 feet and legally in class E airspace enjoying the VFR weather. When I arrived at Lewiston, Maine, (LEW) the FBO gave me a message requesting that I call Boston ARTCC. When I reached the watch desk, the person there told me of the problem. In response, I said that I was really at 17,500 feet. "Better get that fixed," was all he said. I thanked him, went out and pulled open the avionics panel on the airplane, and discovered the partially disconnected connector on the encoder. I tightened and tie-wrapped it for security and have had no problems since.

Later in the summer, as I climbed 100 feet past my assigned altitude, a controller asked me to confirm the altitude to which I was climbing. This alerted me to my laxness and I leveled off before busting the altitude — thank you Denver Center.

I also found controllers willing to work for me. When I asked for direct clearances that were hundreds of miles into the next sector or center, they researched whether such a route was possible or allowed by calling ahead when it would have been much easier for them to simply say, "make that request of the next controller" or "I don't control that airspace." My requests for deviations around weather were routinely approved. In sum, the professional men and women on the scopes and in the towers made my 111.5 flight hours much more pleasant this summer with their help and cooperation. Ladies and gentlemen: Thanks.

Meanwhile, Out on the Concourse...

Looking back on my experiences last summer and at AVweb's news coverage at the time, it seems to me that most — if not all — of the complaining about the ATC system came not from airline passengers but from the airlines themselves. Among the organizations that registered complaints about the ATC system was the Air Transport Association (ATA), which is the oldest and largest airline trade association in the U.S. and claims to represent 23 domestic and five foreign carriers. The ATA says that the summer's massive (their word, not mine) airline delays were "caused mostly by weather and the government's outdated air traffic control system." Really? No mention of United Airlines' labor troubles and the resulting massive (my word) flight cancellations? According to DOT statistics, United was on time only 49% of the time this summer. In July, its on-time rate was 42 percent when the industry average was 70 percent.

No mention of the airlines' practice of scheduling more flights in and out of most major airports during certain hours of the day than the airports can handle? Airport capacity is a major factor when considering the causes of delays. According to the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Aviation, "An insufficient number of runways and outdated air traffic control equipment are often cited as a prime cause of the delays. Only five new runways were added at the 29 largest airports between 1991 and 1999." When industry groups blame their problems on the hardworking men and women staffing the ATC system in the U.S. and ignore other problems of their own making, I believe it's time for all of us in general aviation to step up and take them to task.

Frankly, that an unsuspecting public was forced to bear the brunt of United's labor problems should be abhorrent to the industry, to the FAA and to Congress. "Soft" strikes by airline labor unions — such as those predicted by some mechanics during this Thanksgiving Day weekend — are too unfair for too many unsuspecting travelers. (Of course, if airline passengers would use general aviation more, the employee unions wouldn't have as much of a stranglehold on the carriers.) If passengers had been treated only a fraction as well by the airlines as I was treated by the "outdated air traffic control system" and the controllers themselves, the summer could have been a lot more pleasant than it was for airline passengers.

Why Is This Stuff So Difficult?

Once you cut through the fog and mist of this problem, both the problem and the solution seem incredibly simple. We COULD upgrade ATC and squeeze a few more planes onto the existing runways. We might be able to squeeze more flights into EWR, for example, by maybe ten more airplanes an hour — perhaps a 20-percent increase. But these relatively small, incremental increases, particularly those that eventually can't go any higher (does anyone seriously think EWR can handle 100 an hour?) don't solve the problems being faced by passengers and their airline. What we need is more places to put the airplanes. In other words, the U.S. air transportation system is hurting for more runways.

Yet, for years the airlines fought the idea of allowing Midway to become a second air-carrier airport serving Chicago. Similarly, Dallas' Love Field was the subject of lengthy court battles waged by the airlines and only now is seeing its activity levels rise to the point that it can contribute to the nation's system capacity. Sadly, there are too few examples of cities building new airports or opening up underutilized ones in recent years. To be sure, there are many reasons for this national failure to add new airports. Among them is local opposition for reasons of noise or other issues. Many, however, have been blocked by the airlines themselves.

Why do the airlines fight against more airports? Well, they require additional staff and facilities, both of which cost more money. Also, the current airline "management" mentality is that everyone connects to somewhere and the logistics of having connections at more than one airport in one city is too mind-boggling for the airlines to work through.

Assuming that ATC is both the problem and the solution to airline delays is short-sighted and flawed. Sure, the ATC system needs new and better equipment and more people working the boards, but airport capacity continues to be the single factor that is most responsible for delays.

If you want to see where the problems are with air traffic today, AVweb has a wonderful tool that is easy and fun to use: Flight Explorer Personal Edition. With it, anyone can see the huge number of flights streaming to just a handful of airports and their few runways.

Asking the airlines to solve this problem isn't the answer either. The airlines just USE the airports, they don't build them — that is the responsibility of the local community. Does this mean that our air transportation system is dependent on local communities building and maintaining our airports? Yes and no. The federal government often pays a large portion of airport development costs through the Airport and Airways Trust Fund, which is supported by the revenues from the airline ticket tax, fuel taxes on general aviation and other resources.

All Politics Is Local

But money isn't the only problem. Currently Boston's Logan airport has a problem when the wind blows in certain directions and only one runway is available for landing aircraft. This severely degrades the airport's acceptance rate and can screw up traffic up and down the east coast. The airport would like to build a second runway, but that would affect the neighborhoods to the north and they are protesting the expansion. Denver was able to replace Stapleton only because there was so much empty land east of the city — very few people were affected by the new facility. Try to find room to build new runways at any of the New York airports, in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, St. Louis or many other cities and you'll find that one definition of a major city is a place where land is at a premium and often filled with communities that can't be displaced. When O'Hare airport was built it was far out in the sticks — now the suburbs surround it.

Attempts to expand the airport system in New York to include Stewart airport up the Hudson River have met with the usual lack of interest from the airlines. Long Island's Islip field is finally being used but is a long way from your Manhattan destination. Did you ever notice that New York has an airport already built in Brooklyn called Floyd Bennett Field? It is a closed military base, and we wonder why New York can't have a fourth airport.

Is there a move about to increase our airport capacity? In fact, it is just the opposite. For general aviation, we are losing airports with a regularity that does not bode well for the future. The military has closed many of its facilities around the nation and there are many under- or non-utilized runways just waiting for some community to develop them. Outside Philadelphia is the Johnsville Naval Air Development center which has mostly moved elsewhere and is now just "Closed." So, even when there is pavement available, we don't take advantage of it.

More Airports and Runways Are a Must

The cartoon character Pogo once said, "I have found the enemy and he is us." The real enemy to fixing our problem with delays is the fact that we (most of the citizenry of the U.S.) don't want a new or an expanded airport near us. What we DO want is fast, economical and reliable air service. To get that, we're going to need more airports and more runways. Nothing short of this is going to have any real impact on capacity and delays.

When Jane Garvey became FAA administrator, I had many reservations. In her first few years she has brought to the job vigor, honesty, intelligence and a genuine desire to make things better for the entire aviation community. To a large extent she has done that and more. More can and should be done, of course. Yet, she and the thousands of FAA employees — and controllers — who do a great job day in and day out don't deserve to be the target of the airlines, local airport managers or anyone else with an axe to grind. The traveling public deserves to know what the real problem is and what the real solutions are.