NAS Modernization: An Update, Part I

Much is under way to reverse the developing gridlock in the U.S. air transportation system, and ALPA’s in the thick of it.

Air Line Pilot, June/July 2001, p. 24
By Jan W. Steenblik, Technical Editor

For I dipped into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales…
—from "Locksley Hall," Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1842

Foretelling by more than 70 years an age of burgeoning air commerce, Tennyson’s oft-quoted lines earned him the right to be called visionary by future generations. But England’s poet laureate was able to call his vision into being with a mere stroke of the pen: he had only to worry about rhyme and meter. In his romantic notion of the future, Tennyson could not foresee his "pilots of the purple twilight" contending with rime and metering and a thousand other things during a winter rush hour in the crowded skies over Denver, Chicago, or New York.

Heavier-than-air flight has been reality for nearly 100 years; scheduled commercial air travel, almost 90 years; systematic air traffic control (ATC) and air navigation on a national basis, more than 60 years. The U.S. national airspace system (NAS) that has evolved during the last six decades is the safest, most efficient system in the world —but it is very expensive to operate and maintain, limited in its capacity to expand and change, and badly in need of sweeping, systematic modernization.

The U.S. Congress, responding to the growing frustration of the traveling public and the business community for whom efficient air transportation is so important, has been putting nearly constant pressure on the FAA recently to reduce airline delays and traffic congestion and to develop near- and long-term solutions to these problems.

New FAA 10-year plan

In April, FAA Administrator Jane Garvey proposed a 10-year NAS modernization plan to revamp the U.S. ATC and air navigation system and facilities and equipment, including airports. Called the NAS Operational Evolution Plan (OEP), "A Foundation for Capacity Enhancement," the 10-year blueprint groups capacity-demand problems into four areas—arrival/departure rate, airport weather conditions, enroute congestion, and enroute severe weather.

The OEP further divides the next decade into three time periods—near-term (2001), mid-term (2002 through 2004), and long-term (2005 through 2010), with goals and milestones for each in four areas.

In the near term—i.e., by the end of this year—the FAA plans the following NAS solutions that focus on resolving choke points and coordinating operational decisions:

• Airport surface—Better distribution and coordination of airport-specific tactical information, plus new runways at Detroit and Phoenix.

• Terminal area—Improved terminal traffic patterns, more efficient arrival flows, and reduced air/ground communications. Specifically, additional precision-approach runways at 14 airports; and closely spaced precision runway monitor (PRM) approaches at Philadelphia and Kennedy to sustain arrival rates as visibility and ceiling decrease.

• Enroute—Redesigned airspace and improved regional traffic management. Specifically, decoupling holding areas from enroute flows in the Great Lakes Corridor to decrease routing complexity; expanding use of special-use airspace, through improved sharing of information; creating airspace sectors to better balance controller workload, and thus reduce the need for flow constraints; and establishing limited "dynamic resectorization" (i.e., temporarily changing airspace sectors) to manage traffic congestion, weather, and access to special-use airspace in five ARTCCs.

• Traffic flow management—Enhanced congestion and weather management tools for predicting traffic congestion earlier and evaluating potential resolutions, with airspace users collaborating more in resolving conflicts. These tools would include metering and merge-planning capability at as many as seven ARTCCs, shared FAA/user flight plan and situational awareness information, and better dissemination of common weather information to FAA and user facilities.

The mid-term and long-term parts of the OEP call for new runways or extensions at 12 of the 31 busiest U.S. airports—first Houston, Minneapolis, Miami, Orlando, Charlotte, and Denver, then Atlanta, Cincinnati, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Dulles, St. Louis, and Seattle. Other parts of the plan include such things as increased use of RNAV; more ATC software programs; more precision approaches; reduced vertical separation; redesign of airspace, routes, and arrival/departure flows; and consolidating selected TRACONs.

One of the potential flight deck changes that figures prominently in the long-term part of the OEP—and in the specific plans the FAA unveiled recently for improving capacity at the 31 U.S. "pacing" airports—is cockpit display of traffic information (CDTI).

A concept that has been in development and discussion for more than two decades, with ALPA’s full participation and at ALPA’s instigation, CDTI raises sobering issues regarding pilots sharing with air traffic controllers the responsibility for aircraft separation. ALPA will be working on these issues to ensure that the proper procedures and training for airline pilots and air traffic controllers are developed and implemented in a timely manner.

Air Line Pilot will provide a more detailed look at the mid-term and long-term parts of the OEP in a future issue. For now, focus on the near term covers some interesting specifics.

ALPA testimony

On May 16, the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved another short-term measure—a bipartisan bill designed to promote more efficient use of U.S. airport capacity. H.R.1407, "The Airline Delay Reduction Act," would grant airlines limited immunity from antitrust laws so that they could coordinate their flight schedules at congested airports and reduce delays by smoothing out current unrealistic peak-period scheduling.

On April 24, ALPA’s president, Capt. Duane Woerth, wrote to Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the Committee, to express ALPA’s "strong support" for H.R.1407. Capt. Woerth noted, "Although many long-term solutions are in the works,… very few effective solutions [are] available to deal with the problem in the short term. H.R.1407 represents a very profound and meaningful approach to dealing with delays and congestion that …the public demands we alleviate now."

On May 3, Capt. Woerth presented the Association’s views on ATC delays to a congressional committee for the third time in 8 months.

Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Transportation Appropriations on delays in the U.S. air traffic control system, Capt. Woerth provided an update on the five action items he had given to the Subcommittee on March 15 in response to a question from Subcommittee Chairman, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Mich.): "What five things can your organization do to help alleviate the problem of delays and limited [NAS and airport] capacity?"

The first item, Capt. Woerth said, is to continue ALPA’s high level of participation on the RTCA Free Flight Steering Committee "to ensure that this Committee is properly focused and is defining what the system really needs, and that correct priorities are established."

RTCA, formerly the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, is a government/industry group that serves as an advisory group for the FAA and sets standards for aeronautical communications and navigation systems.

ALPA has been active in RTCA for more than 35 years. The Association’s participation includes membership on RTCA special committees, select committees, steering committees, the RTCA policy board, and the RTCA Board of Directors. An ALPA representative currently serves as the chairman of the board.

"I am a member of the [RTCA] Free Flight Steering Committee," Capt. Woerth said, "and I assure you that my attendance at the Committee meeting receives my highest priority. Additionally, John O’ Brien, director of ALPA’s Engineering and Air Safety Department, who is my key staff person on safety issues, will continue to place the highest priority on attending. We will continue to promptly and thoroughly respond to the action items generated by that committee and proper accountability for our work will be ensured."

Capt. Woerth added, "We have been a strong proponent of developing operational concept and requirement plans for the NAS, and for defining the NAS architecture based on these requirements. After several years of our advocating that methodology, the FAA and [the aviation] industry have adopted this approach. The FAA has chartered a Federal Advisory Committee within RTCA to facilitate the planning of NAS improvements based on this methodology."

In the near term, Capt. Woerth said, "one of our main concerns now is implementing the technologies and responding to the operational requirements as we advanced beyond Free Flight Phase 1 and 2 to Phase 3 and beyond. In this area, we support the FAA’s Operational Evolutionary Plan that is currently in the final stages of development and coordination with industry.

"This plan must become a living document that prescribes where the modernization work is headed, as well as serve as a means to evaluate how it is progressing. In particular, the implementation details and schedules must be realistic and deliverable. The FAA’s management of this comprehensive plan, supported by industry consensus and constructive input, will be critical to the success of NAS modernization."

ALPA’s second action item, Capt. Woerth said, is to improve ALPA’s liaison efforts with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) to ensure that issues involving flight delays, flight cancellations, and capacity enhancements are addressed. Capt. Dennis Dolan, ALPA first vice-president, heads this effort.

ALPA, said Capt. Woerth, had scheduled a meeting between key members of ALPA and NATCA to identify issues that both organizations can jointly support and to develop a work program.

Third, said Capt. Woerth, "is to bring the Air Line Dispatchers Federation into the ALPA/NATCA liaison process. We believe the dispatchers should be involved because of the critical role this group plays in planning, coordinating, and tracking airline operations."

Fourth, Capt. Woerth continued, is to standardize and modernize the federal aviation regulations (FARs) that set limits on pilot flight and duty time. The connection to airline delays, he explained, is that the current rules allow the limits to be extended for irregular operations—i.e., weather, ATC, or mechanical delays.

"Carriers," he asserted, "routinely overschedule their flight crews. Because these schedules are not realistic, the result is frequent delays and sometimes cancellations.

"Flight delays occur, in my view, as a direct result of these regulations," Capt. Woerth argued. "Because carriers want to maximize the duty period of each pilot, they are tempted to provide computerized optimum schedules. While the schedules look good on paper, a historic review of them reveals that they are not realistic, and as a result, flights are delayed.

"The carriers cite these schedule-induced delays as ‘crew delays’ when, in fact, they are the result of unrealistic scheduling," he charged.

Capt. Woerth noted that a pilot working for the new Pan American Airways was fired recently for refusing to violate the FAA’s ruling that a pilot cannot fly beyond 16 hours.

"Since this pilot had been on duty for 16 hours, he had been awake more than 17 hours," he said. "Science tells us that the cognitive performance of a pilot who has been awake for 17 hours is equivalent to someone having a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05 percent. This is more than the FAA intoxication standard of 0.04 percent. ALPA is proceeding to arbitration to seek reinstatement of the pilot."

Capt. Woerth emphasized that the FAA has failed to act on rulemaking initiatives aimed at updating and improving the flight/duty time FARs.

"Since I last testified before this Committee," he added, "I have had personal discussions with [Transportation] Secretary Mineta as well as [FAA] Administrator Garvey, urging them to take action on this important issue. Additionally, we have had discussions with members and staff of the authorizing committees seeking their support to standardize the flight limitations regulations…. We are still waiting for the FAA to act, and we ask for your support in this effort."

ALPA’s fifth action item, Capt. Woerth said, was that ALPA affirms its commitment to "continuing the work of building industry consensus on programs that will improve efficiency and increase capacity in the [NAS] while ensuring that these programs maintain the highest level of safety."

ALPA is involved in such activities as

• the RTCA processes previously mentioned in this article (page 25),

• the Closely Spaced Parallel Runways Steering Committee sponsored by the Air Traffic Association,

• Spring 2001, an FAA/airline industry collaborative effort to improve handling of severe weather in the NAS,

• FAA/industry work to reduce vertical separation between aircraft flying above FL290 in domestic airspace,

• developing and refining procedures for land-and-hold-short operations (LAHSO),

• regional airspace redesign work groups, and

• airport planning groups.

"Another work program just getting under way," Capt. Woerth advised, "is an FAA/industry project to review separation standards to determine if some efficiency gains due to technology improvements are already in place or planned."

ALPA NAS Modernization Task Force

A number of these efforts fall under the umbrella of ALPA’s NAS Modernization Task Force.

In October 1999, Capt. Woerth advised the House Subcommittee on Aviation of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, "To emphasize our support, and publicize the need for NAS modernization, ALPA is initiating a program designed to raise public awareness concerning this situation.

"The ALPA NAS Modernization Initiative is a very aggressive six-year program to increase public and governmental awareness regarding the critical need to modernize our National Airspace System. It will focus on obtaining increased long-term funding commitments for NAS modernization and maintaining the industry consensus essential to success.

"We are mobilizing our line pilot safety structure and aligning our national work projects to this end. We plan on being vocal at every opportunity in the [news] media and at speaking events in support of the need for long-term financial support, by our government—with the support of industry, to the modernization of this critical national resource."

The purpose of the ALPA NAS Modernization Project is threefold:

• coordinate, validate, and prioritize existing work programs to assist primary managers in accomplishing common ALPA interests;

• advocate ALPA position and policy as determined by the appropriate technical committee; and

• provide a broad umbrella for future development including both domestic and oceanic initiatives.

Last year, Capt. Paul McCarthy (Delta), then ALPA’s Executive Air Safety Chairman, asked for line pilot volunteers to come forward to serve on this ambitious undertaking. Capt. McCarthy’s call for volunteers was gratifyingly productive: A total of 59 pilot volunteers are now involved in the NAS Modernization Project.

Capt. Ed Bearden (Northwest), a seasoned ALPA air safety volunteer, chairs the Project; Capt. Robert Swain (United, Ret.) contributed significantly as Capt. Bearden’s co-chair from February until October 2000.

The pilot volunteers, with ALPA staff support, are involved in the following:

• controller/pilot datalink communications (CPDLC);

• Safe Flight 21 (a government/industry initiative to evaluate and validate advanced communications, navigation, and surveillance technologies through operational demonstrations in the Ohio Valley and Alaska—ADS-B, GPS approaches, weather data to the cockpit, and datalink);

• satellite navigation;

• National Airspace Review Planning and Analysis;

• Automatic Dependent Surveillance;

• Free Flight;

• Spring 2001;

• Decision Support System Advanced Automation Tools; and

• NASA’s Advanced Air Transportation Technologies.

NAS Modernization: An Update, Part II, will be published in the August issue of Air Line Pilot.