2001—An Airspace Odyssey

As the new millennium begins, the FAA has taken bold steps—mostly good—to improve the U.S. ATC system, but would do well to heed ALPA’s suggestions.

Air Line Pilot, February 2001, p. 14
By Jan W. Steenblik, Technical Editor

It’s finally here—the year that made Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, an icon of popular culture. The movie—and the subsequent novel by space scientist, visionary, and prolific author Arthur C. Clarke, who scripted the screenplay for the film with Kubrick—chronicled a manned mission to Japetus, one of Saturn’s moons, stimulated by the discovery on Earth’s moon of a black rectangular monolith, the calling card of an extraterrestrial intelligence.

As film and novel, 2001 was exciting and thought-provoking. However, no author can forecast the future precisely. A fully operational international space station, a mere stepping-stone in 2001, is still some years off, and humankind has not established a permanent base on the Moon or built a manned interplanetary probe. We’re still essentially bottom dwellers under the great ocean of Terran air.

But how we do scoot along through the depths of our atmosphere! A distant observer might have noticed that, in recent years, the number of airplanes crisscrossing Earth’s sky has increased greatly. Similarly, their congregations on and near major airports, especially during bad weather and early and late in the terrestrial day, have grown ever more crowded.

Reducing air traffic delays, improving the safety and efficiency of the U.S. national airspace system (NAS), and anticipating the ever-greater demands that will likely continue to be made on the NAS are big tasks indeed.

These daunting problems must be attacked on many fronts. What follows is a brief look at some of the FAA’s latest efforts and ALPA’s two most recent public statements on this constellation of issues.

Administration initiatives

On Dec. 7, 2000, then-President Clinton announced bold steps intended to reduce airline delays and improve air travel in the United States.

First, by Executive Order, he directed the FAA to create a "performance-based organization (PBO)" to focus solely on efficient operation of the U.S. air traffic control system. The new PBO, to be called the Air Traffic Organization (ATO), will provide ATC services; it will be part of the FAA, but "will be separate from, and overseen by, the FAA’s safety, regulatory, and enforcement arm," according to the agency.

A chief operating officer, to be hired through a nationwide competitive search, will manage the ATO. The COO will negotiate a performance agreement with the FAA Administrator and be paid partly based on performance. Working with its customers (airlines and other ATC users), the ATO will "set clear performance goals, which will be spelled out in a performance agreement; using agreed-upon indicators, customers can measure the organization’s performance and hold it accountable," the FAA said.

Second, then-Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater appointed a group of five business and labor leaders from outside the aviation industry to serve as a board of directors for the ATO. The group will make up the Air Traffic Services Subcommittee of the FAA’s Aviation Management Advisory Council. Congress created the five-member subcommittee in recent legislation. This quintet will oversee the management and budget of the ATO and ensure that the new organization will be "customer-driven and performance-based."

The designees are

• John J. Cullinane, president of The Cullinane Group;

• Nancy Kassebaum Baker, former U.S. senator (R-Kans.);

• Leon Lynch, international vice-president of the United Steelworkers of America;

• Sharon Patrick, president and COO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc.; and

• John W. Snow, chairman, president, and CEO of CSX Corporation.

Third, the Department of Transportation and the FAA will review the statutory and regulatory impediments to using "congestion pricing" and other market mechanisms at airports to stimulate more efficient use of existing runway capacity and encourage creation of airport new capacity.

The Clinton Administration said that both the DOT and the FAA should expand their efforts to reduce air traffic congestion and delays, citing the recent "slottery" at New York’s La Guardia Airport as an example.

President Clinton cautioned, however, that Congress must also act. He said his recent executive actions were "necessary but not sufficient" to allow the ATO to operate efficiently. As the Administration noted in 1995, the individual reforms of the ATC system are interrelated, and "fundamental air traffic reform requires that these changes be made together, or the benefit of individual changes will be greatly reduced."

Accordingly, President Clinton said he would ask Congress to reform the way ATC services are financed, in keeping with recommendations from both his Administration and the National Civil Aviation Review Commission (NCARC), which Congress created in 1997:

• Congress, said President Clinton, should replace the excise tax on passengers with authorization for the ATO to set cost-based charges on commercial users of the U.S. ATC system. General aviation would continue to pay the aviation fuel tax. The ATO must be able to price its services, to balance supply and demand in the short run and meet customer demand in the long run, he said.

• As soon as the ATO is fully financed by cost-based fees, Congress should allow it to borrow from the U.S. Treasury or from private markets to finance long-term capital investments. Fees would replace direct appropriations for capital, and would allow debt financing of needed capital investment.

ALPA testimony

ALPA welcomed the White House announcement of President Clinton’s recent steps to create the ATO and the board of directors that will oversee its operation, and to explore options for using market mechanisms to improve airspace efficiency and create more runways. However, the Association has recently drawn attention to a number of other issues that also need to be addressed.

On Sept. 14, 2000, ALPA’s president, Capt. Duane Woerth, testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which was holding a hearing on the increasing delays in the U.S. ATC system.

Capt. Woerth said that the ATC system "has become a convenient target and a scapegoat for much deeper systemic problems." He pointed out that "the causes of delays are primarily weather, scheduling that is based on optimum weather scenarios, the hub-and-spoke system, usable runways, and gate availability, among others."

ALPA’s President praised the FAA’s Spring 2000 initiative, which set up a daily collaborative planning process designed to allow significantly better response to severe weather and other ATC system constraints. "The Spring 2000 initiative has shown that tactical management can relieve some of the problems," he said, "but there is no total solution to mitigating the impact of severe weather, except to not fly into or near it."

Capt. Woerth articulated ALPA’s suspicions that "capacity is being emphasized to the detriment of safety." He charged, "Several of the FAA’s innovative capacity enhancements have been aimed directly at this aspect of the equation—how can we get more airplanes on the concrete at the same time?"

Noting that ATC has very specific, safety-based restrictions on runway utilization, Capt. Woerth warned that "we cannot afford to lessen these standards without full and open testing and evaluation. Capacity-critical initiatives must be backed with data that prove that the minimum level of safety is maintained and hopefully enhanced. The FAA clearly has the burden of proof."

Switching to a different aspect of the overall problem, Capt. Woerth asserted, "Sometimes forgotten, or underestimated and overlooked, is
the real impact our punishment-based ATC system has on delay potential. With the FAA’s emphasis on disciplinary programs designed to assess blame or fault, rather than educational-based programs designed to determine the cause of and solution for the problem, the FAA has created a built-in delay producer."

The FAA, he pointed out, grades itself on the number of controller and pilot mistakes it detects—i.e., operational errors and pilot deviations, respectively. Pilots and controllers are subject to administrative disciplinary action if they are found to have been at fault in operational errors or pilot deviations.

Error detection in enroute airspace, Capt. Woerth told the senators, is automated via the FAA’s Quality Assurance Program, also called the "Snitch Patch," and the agency leaves no leeway for "no harm, no foul" situations. Therefore, he said, "controllers add miles in buffers to existing separation standards to ensure they won’t have a ‘deal.’

"Pilots," he added, "are equally...mistrusting of anything the FAA suggests because most of their inter-face with the FAA is when Flight Standards is pursuing an enforcement case.…This does not contribute to a healthy environment on either side of the microphone and results in additional questioning, readbacks, and pilot rejection of clearances that only serve to further clog the [ATC] system."

Another significant element of any program designed to enhance safety and efficiency, said Capt. Woerth, is "an ability to collect accurate data concerning incidents that occur within the system. The only realistic way to do this is to establish a ‘no fault’ reporting system for both pilots and controllers."

Capt. Woerth pointed out that several programs that could be used as models already exist, including the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS), which NASA administers for the FAA, the US Airways Altitude Deviation Reporting System, and the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) developed by American Airlines and now being used by other airlines and their pilot groups.

Noise restrictions, said Capt. Woerth, are another source of ATC delays, because these restrictions constrain arrival and departure routes. "Pilots are compelled to fly highly complex procedures at less-than-optimal operational performance standards to comply with ground-based constituent concerns," he explained. "The [airline] industry has done all it can do to alleviate these complaints." He argued that the public must undergo a "paradigm shift…to understand that part of the cost of reducing [ATC] system delays may be the more efficient use of terminal airspace and aircraft performance capabilities—and that may result in an aircraft flying over someone’s house."

Similarly, said Capt. Woerth, "resectorization of enroute airspace can lead to some efficiency gains. Initial evaluation of enroute airspace resectorization proposals being touted by a number of potential contractors [shows that resectorization] seems feasible—and [it] may well be, but not quickly."

As with potential fixes to other problems, he added, "the technology is available to accomplish resectorization now." He noted that a special committee of RTCA, a government/industry group that sets standards for avionics, is exploring this and other concepts. "The recommendations that will be forthcoming from this committee will result in better management of our scarce airspace resource," he said, "but that will not be possible without allowing the FAA to consolidate facilities, and that will require some tough political decisions."

Those tough political decisions often involve hard choices about money. Capt. Woerth noted that the FAA funding provided by AIR 21 is "an excellent beginning," but because full funding will not be available in the near term, NAS modernization projects will continue to fall further behind.

"Parts of NAS modernization will be in [their] current holding pattern for some time," he warned. "Nonetheless, we hope the funding called for during the life of AIR 21 and the funding that will be authorized in the future lead to the completion of the core NAS modernization projects contained in the NAS architecture."

Capt. Woerth stressed, however, that "all [U.S. ATC system] capacity initiatives must be proven to maintain or increase the safety of air operations, and good test and evaluation data are needed to support the implementation of new technologies and procedures. We can accept nothing less.

"ALPA’s view is that construction of new runways, taxiways, terminals, and other infrastructure is equally important, if not more so, as the development of additional ATC capacity initiatives. In fact, many of the…100 [busiest U.S.] airports are planning for new and extended runways and other facilities to create more capacity.

"This is one of the top priorities, if not the top priority, for ALPA," Capt. Woerth concluded, "and you will be hearing much more from us in the future about the need to modernize our national airspace system."

Government and industry working together

In October 2000, Capt. Woerth presented the keynote address at an RTCA symposium on "ATC Modernization—Achieving New Operational Capabilities."

Capt. Woerth urged the symposium attendees to consider the following points while listening to speakers who offered their perspectives on various aspects of ATC modernization:

"First," he said, "aviation is an interdependent government/industry enterprise. Second, the focus of any modernization initiative must be operational benefits. Third, any modernization initiative, by virtue of the many and diverse interests involved, is a complex and challenging activity. Fourth, because government and industry activities are so interdependent, government and industry must always take a systems view of issues and planned actions."

Modernization, said Capt. Woerth, "is all about change—implementing new ideas and concepts, using new technology, equipment, and procedures.... These new ideas include proposals that some might consider to be radical change, such as the pro-posed transfer of responsibility for [aircraft] separation from the controller to the pilot."

On that score, he stressed, "We in ALPA believe that the primary responsibilities for separation should remain with [ATC]. We are willing to accept the authority to conduct limited self-separation tasks under VFR conditions today. We are willing to examine the possibility of taking additional separation authority, given appropriate resolution of situational awareness, workload, and safety issues."

The point, Capt. Woerth emphasized, is that "all proposals should be viewed with an open mind. Proper evaluation and tests will lead to the correct implementation decisions."

Likening the task of modernizing the ATC system to achieve new operational capabilities to that of directing an orchestra, he added, "Just as the quality of the orchestra’s music depends on each and every musician understanding the objective and making the very best use of his or her talent and instrument, so too the operational benefits flowing from ATC modernization initiatives depend on the many and varied ATC modernization ‘players’ using all of their resources...."

He urged the aviation community to "embrace the notion that ATC modernization is more than just equipment—it is simultaneously addressing all of the myriad nonequipment issues as well. It’s also achieving confidence that all of the ‘orchestra’ members will simultaneously play their parts, on cue, to produce the desired ‘music.’"

Asserting that ATC modernization "cannot take place without commitment of resources from both government and industry," Capt. Woerth acknowledged, "ALPA has resource commitment responsibilities, too."

That’s why, he said, the Association created an ALPA NAS Modernization Project, a 6-year program that involves a significant allocation of re-sources. "Some of these resources are here today in the form of several members of the ALPA NAS Modernization Project Team," he said. "These and additional ALPA members will be working with RTCA and other indus-try and government activities directed toward [NAS] modernization."

The Moon, Saturn, and Japetus will have to wait; much remains to be done on the blue planet to smooth our traverse of the sky. ALPA representatives, as they have for nearly 70 years, have already rolled up their shirtsleeves and gone to work. It’s neither spacewalk nor cakewalk, but somebody has to do it, and it can’t be left to Hal.