Aviation Drives Economic Recovery

ALPA gives Congress airline pilots’ perspective on funding aviation initiatives that would improve U.S. airspace.

By Rob Wiley, Staff Writer
Air Line Pilot, May 2003, p. 25

Testifying before the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Aviation Subcommittee, ALPA’s president, Capt. Duane Woerth, on March 12 outlined issues of great importance that he said Congress should address in its deliberations on funding the Federal Aviation Administration and continuing to meet the AIR-21 mandates to modernize U.S. airspace. Capt. Woerth was part of a witness panel that included James C. May, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association, and Deborah C. McElroy, president of the Regional Airline Association.

"We need only the most capable men and women in charge of our nation’s air traffic control system. Salaries should be good enough to attract the best candidates and reach levels that will retain the best employees."

"The U.S. economy depends on air transportation as a key driver," Capt. Woerth told the Subcommittee. "We must not fail the American people by failing to plan for success."

Capt. Woerth thanked Subcommittee members for their work on behalf of aviation safety and security after the September 11 terrorist attacks—from the initial emergency legislation enacted immediately thereafter to the enactment of the Transportation and Aviation Security Act and creation of the Federal Flight Deck Officer program.

Cargo carrier problems

"Some slippage has occurred, however, particularly in the area of all-cargo operations," he said. "While Congress provided funding for strengthened cockpit doors in the Omnibus Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2003 and the FAA set April 9, 2003, as a deadline for installation of these doors, the FAA also ordered its principal maintenance inspectors to stop enforcing the FAA’s Flight Deck Security Rule requirements on any all-cargo aircraft until further notice."

The FAA’s decision to not require hardened doors on cargo aircraft without installed cockpit doors or on aircraft that had cockpit doors removed before the date the rule was issued (Jan. 15, 2002), together with FAA’s interpretation of the Appropriations Act, created a significant and potentially disastrous weakness in national defense, Capt. Woerth said.

He noted that while most transport-category aircraft covered by the regulations already have approved cockpit doors, concern has grown that not all aircraft operating under FAR Part 121 would be required to comply with the increased security provisions that the Department of Transportation’s Rapid Response Team said were necessary. Those provisions stated that security modifications should include "a retrofit of the entire U.S. fleet of air[liners]."

Small passenger-carrying airliners —having fewer than 20 seats—are also exempted from the requirement for enhanced cockpit doors, Capt. Woerth said. Both exemptions—small airliners and some cargo-carrying aircraft—unnecessarily create potential danger for American citizens.

"We do not concur with the exclusion of any aircraft operated under FAR Part 121, regardless of its size or mission," Capt. Woerth said. "As part of our national defense, the FAA should modify existing federal aviation regulations to require that every aircraft used in FAR Part 121 operations be equipped with a lockable, strengthened cockpit door and that any future security measures are equally implemented across the entire industry.

"Hopefully," he said, "your bill H.R.765, which admits cargo pilots to the Federal Flight Deck Officer Program, will do something to mitigate the hole that currently exists in cargo security."

FAA funding

Capt. Woerth told Subcommittee members that the major issue facing the aviation industry was securing adequate funding for the FAA to ensure that several vital safety- and security-related programs are continued and that new programs are developed as needed. He said that the FAA needed a constant and consistent funding stream to maintain the United States’ leadership role in all facets of aviation.

"ALPA has always supported and endorsed spending every dollar collected in the Airport and Airways Trust Fund, in a timely fashion, for its intended purpose," Capt. Woerth stated. "The FAA should be funded through a combination of taxes, other appropriate charges, and ongoing general fund contributions. The aviation system benefits all of society, not just direct system users. As the National Civil Aviation Review Commission noted in its 1997 report, the aviation industry is a major component of the economic engine in the United States. When our industry suffers, our country suffers."

Tapping other revenue sources would ensure that long-term research, development, and testing efforts would not be subject to year-to-year fluctuations in funding, Capt. Woerth said. Committing to multiyear funding would allow the FAA to prepare and administer robust and stable 5-year plans, ultimately leading to improved efficiency, capacity, and safety throughout the aviation system.

The current economic climate—which has seen the airline industry lose 25 percent of its 2001 income—should not deter full FAA funding, Capt. Woerth said.

"AIR-21 is a flight plan for a nation bent on long-term success despite current and extraordinary difficulties related to the recession, the war on terrorism, or the war with Iraq," he said. "Programs vital to the health of the U.S. airline industry and therefore the nation cannot be held hostage to the uncertain funding commitments associated with single-year cycles."

While the current economy looks bleak, Capt. Woerth spoke of an inevitable turnaround, which will occur eventually, he said, despite the unpredictable business climate that has sapped the strength of the airline industry. Many of the very FAA programs threatened by lack of future funding could ensure the airline industry’s long-term success and the continued safety of America’s skies, he said.

Capt. Woerth cited the FAA’s partnership with American universities as an example of how effective a fully funded FAA could be in that success. Working closely with the FAA, various universities have established Centers of Excellence to develop programs to train tomorrow’s professional aviators and administrators and to develop the academic component of airport and aviation management.

"An FAA crippled by inadequate funding cannot effectively manage these valuable resources to make an effective investment in the future of the industry," Capt. Woerth noted.

Performance-based organization

While the current debate centers on adequate FAA funding for current and future needs, Congress should also consider other issues, Capt. Woerth told the Subcommittee members. For example, he said, FAA management has been under scrutiny for years, and while the FAA has taken steps to improve, concerns still linger.

"All of us who are part of the aviation industry are aware of the serious problems that the FAA encounters in performing its duties," Capt. Woerth said, "and we want those problems to be fixed. This is not news. In 1993, the National Airline Commission (NAC) addressed the FAA and the problems that face it today and recommended an independent FAA. In 1997, the NCARC recommended establishment of a performance-based organization (PBO) to manage air traffic systems, programs, and procedures.

"That recommendation has been partially acted on, but there is not yet a leader for the effort. Until that effort can be allowed to advance, problems with the FAA will remain precisely the same problems the earlier studies identified: funding, procurement procedures, and personnel."

Capt. Woerth noted that the Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST), the FAA’s Acquisition Management System (AMS), and the FAA’s Operational Evolution Plan (OEP)—all data-driven, consensus-based collaborations of government and industry stakeholders—are management processes that work. They prioritize improvements and determine the resources necessary for implementation.

He said that successful processes also use a systems approach to blend safety, efficiency, security, and economy into air and ground elements from early research efforts through acquisition and throughout the life of the system.

To achieve the level of management competence called for by the NCARC, Capt. Woerth stated, the FAA must develop a business model that provides for adequate funding for critical research, a process for timely acquisition and deployment of high-tech equipment, and salary levels that are attractive enough to draw the best and brightest to the workforce.

"We need only the most capable men and women in charge of our nation’s air traffic control system," Capt. Woerth said. "Salaries should be good enough to attract the best candidates and reach levels that will retain the best employees."

"Having federal, state, and local governments invest billions of dollars in modernizing the ground and air infrastructure, and then relying on voluntary funding by air carrier operators who have no incentive to invest, does not make good business sense."

Additionally, he said, FAA must revise its cumbersome procurement procedures that often swamp sorely needed state-of-the-art technical equipment in a marsh of red tape.

"Some improvement in procurement procedures has been evident," Capt. Woerth declared, "and we support FAA Administrator Marion Blakey in her efforts at reform. Clearly the post-9/11 world in which we must operate is challenging, but the FAA needs to continue its work to reform its acquisition and management processes. Particular emphasis is needed to establish the PBO structure and appoint an Air Traffic Chief Operations Officer."

Another vital part of the aviation infrastructure faces an immediate crisis, Capt. Woerth said. He noted that the number of passenger-carrying flights is increasing as smaller jet aircraft are serving smaller markets once thought to be unprofitable.

More aircraft require more air traffic services, he said, but less tax income is available to invest in the ATC system.

Air traffic personnel

Capt. Woerth said, "I have learned that the FAA is committed to hiring only 362 air traffic controllers in fiscal year 2004, although thousands of controllers may retire.

"If this program—or any of the other programs discussed today—withers on the vine or dies altogether for a lack of funding, our nation will not be prepared to handle the air traffic capacity increases that will eventually occur when our economy does recover."

The personnel crisis is real and imminent, Capt. Woerth noted. The current ATC workforce includes thousands of workers hired soon after the 1981 PATCO strike and the subsequent firing of most controllers. The post-strike controllers are reaching the 20-year retirement eligibility mark, and the system could lose half its controllers—as many as 5,000—between now and 2007.

The General Accounting Office recognized the problem in its June 2002 GAO Report 02-591, "Air Traffic Control: FAA Needs to Better Prepare for the Impending Wave of Controller Attrition." It said that the FAA could mitigate the approaching personnel crisis by improving relations between management and labor, requiring less overtime, and offering more part-time work.

"While incentives to work beyond eligible retirement age would be helpful, they won’t solve the problem," Capt. Woerth declared. "With air traffic predicted to increase and with the near certainty of mass retirements among controllers, the FAA must develop a comprehensive plan to increase hiring and get more trainees into the pipeline."

He said that the FAA should begin hiring the next generation of controllers now because 3 to 5 years are needed to train a controller to full performance levels.

"Additional funding is needed in this area," Capt. Woerth said.

While the air traffic personnel issue looms as a potential crisis in the making, the U.S. air transportation system faces other problems. Capt. Woerth noted that the FAA had taken a good step toward improving air traffic efficiency with its Operational Evolution Plan, but the plan does not look far enough into the future.

"Every part of the aviation community advocated these improvements before the current economic realities set in," Capt. Woerth said. "The FAA has worked hard at developing and implementing them, but the plan does not address the long-term demand. It is a good start, but only a start."

The FAA should address the current air traffic management structure, which Capt. Woerth said is too inflexible and often keeps the airlines from making full use of modern computerized navigation systems to fly the most efficient routes. Additionally, the FAA needs to overhaul its processes for certificating and establishing procedural regulations covering innovative equipage. Finally, new runway and airport development currently takes much too long to meet projected demands.

Capt. Woerth noted FAA accomplishments in improving the air traffic management system. He cited the joint FAA/industry Spring 2000 Plus 2 Initiative for its efforts to wring maximum efficiency from the current air traffic system. He said the Collaborative Decision-Making tool has proved to be an effective tactical management method.

He also noted that FAA’s National Airspace System redesign program has made inroads by eliminating "choke points" in the flow of traffic and by installing high altitude routes for aircraft equipped with area navigation and required navigational performance capabilities through the High-Altitude Redesign Initiative.

"This work is cited because it is a good example of why the December 2002 ‘Report of the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry’ recognized the need to implement a rule that mandates aircraft equipage with systems that improve the efficiency of flight operations," Capt Woerth stated. "History has proven that voluntary equipage will not achieve the goal."

Current policies, he said, provide little incentive for airlines to purchase efficiency-enhancing technology. In the past, such technology was rejected because the air traffic system was, and is, married to the outmoded "first-come, first-serve" system.

"The most capably equipped airplanes are required to perform to the same standard as the least capably equipped aircraft," Capt. Woerth said.

"The business climate has obviously changed, and federal funding for aircraft equipage and appropriate regulation of airspace to give priority to the more efficient user must be enacted," he urged.

"Having federal, state, and local governments invest billions of dollars in modernizing the ground and air infrastructure, and then relying on voluntary funding by air carrier operators who have no incentive to invest, does not make good business sense."

He said that providing economic incentives to airlines that commit to the latest technology could save airlines money, improve overall safety, and relieve pressure on an already overworked air traffic workforce.

Safety and capacity

Capt. Woerth touched on various other safety and capacity issues in his testimony. He told Subcommittee members that ALPA’s motto, Schedule With Safety, which has been in place since 1931, means that the Association’s first priority will always be aviation safety.

"We are strong supporters of improvements in efficiency, capacity, and safety," he said. "The viability of our industry depends on these three factors."

Among the additional safety issues he discussed were the following:

• Free Flight capacity initiatives, Capt. Woerth noted, are beginning to show efficiency gains while enhancing safety. Phase I studied five basic tools: User Request Evaluation Tool, Collaborative Decision Making, Traffic Management Advisor, Center-Terminal Advisory Service, and Surface Management Advisor. He said that the tools had proved their worth and that Congress should fully fund the Phase II deployment stage.

• The Controller/Pilot Datalink Communications Build I system, now in operation in Miami Center with three air carriers participating, Capt. Woerth stated, is being studied because the airline industry has reached the limit of the radio frequency spectrum to support meaningful further expansion of air traffic services. He noted that, at times, the voice spectrum is so saturated that it prevents timely communications.

"The world aviation community is in agreement on this issue," Capt. Woerth said. "We must expand the use of ATC datalink text messages."

Build IA, the next part of the program, is being developed, he said, to include datalink transmission of ATC instructions.

• Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) permits the broadcast of call signs, altitude, speed, and other detailed data to other aircraft in the vicinity, as well as to ATC and airline operation centers, Capt. Woerth said. Pilots gain enhanced situational awareness, controllers receive more-accurate and -timely updates of aircraft positions, and airlines will have better information for fulfilling their command and control responsibilities.

"All this will improve system safety while improving efficiency," Capt. Woerth said. "It will likely permit reduction of separation standards and help develop procedures for pilots to assume limited self-separation from other aircraft."

ADS-B technology has been in operational use in the Capstone Project in Alaska, Capt. Woerth said, and has been so successful that Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has committed funds to equip its fleet of aircraft and bring the technology to its campuses in Arizona and Florida. Capt. Woerth urged Congress to provide funding to allow ADS-B use in the lower United States.

• Runway incursions—The FAA has done commendable work in limiting the number of runway incursion incidents, but the work is not finished, Capt. Woerth said. The number of incursions with the most potential for catastrophic results has not dropped. Again, he said, adequate funding is the key to continued success. Technologies such as airport movement and surveillance systems (AMASS) and airport surveillance and detection equipment (ASDE- X) should be fully funded to help controllers. And cockpit display of traffic information (CDTI) systems should receive priority funding, Capt. Woerth said.

"The CDTI is especially important because it dramatically increases the pilot’s awareness of airplanes around him or her," he said. "This is critical at airports that do not have ATC towers."

• Flight Operational Quality Assurance (FOQA) and Aviation Safety Action Programs (ASAPs)—Capt. Woerth called for continued industry and FAA support for these two proactive, nonpunitive safety programs. He noted that FOQA had proven itself in identifying trends in problems with flightcrew operational performance, operational procedures, aircraft performance issues, ATC procedures, and runway surface roughness—all significant efficiency and safety factors.

"FOQA is a strong tool enabling air carriers to discover safety issues, implement corrective actions, and monitor the effectiveness of the corrective actions," Capt. Woerth said.

He said that ASAP also fosters a cooperative environment for voluntary safety reporting. Focusing on training and corrective action works better than regulators’ established methods of imposing severe sanctions for any rules infraction. ASAPs’ positive, systematic approach to safety offers a better chance to eliminate future errors, he said.

"ALPA strongly supports these programs and urges the FAA to encourage their use at more carriers," Capt. Woerth said.

• Weather has a great effect on the ATC system, Capt. Woerth said, and therefore Congress should fully fund next-generation radar (NEXRAD). While any regular Internet user can access nearly real time NEXRAD weather displays, many cockpit professionals and on-ground air traffic managers cannot.

"NEXRAD weather data is a quantum leap in resolution and in ability to display weather phenomena," Capt. Woerth said. "FAA’s Operational Evolution Plan includes projects to improve the availability of weather information in cockpits. These projects must stay on schedule."

• Wildlife—The FAA is studying the feasibility of changing the rule mandating a maximum airspeed of 250 knots below 10,000 feet MSL, based on the assumption that higher airspeeds on arrival and departure will improve capacity. Capt. Woerth noted a recent finding by Transport Canada that Canada’s rule authorizing speeds above 250 knots in similar conditions should be changed to match the U.S. limit of 250 knots because of potential damage by bird strikes.

"Clear evidence shows that the damage caused by bird strikes at higher speeds is much greater than at lower speeds," Capt. Woerth said. "At the same time, the potential for a strike at lower altitudes is increasing because the worldwide wildfowl population has increased dramatically. Additionally, the ability of pilots to fly safely by complying with the ‘see and avoid’ rule is significantly decreased at higher speeds."

Positive trends

Despite the trauma of September 11 and the subsequent economic freefall, Congress and the U.S. airline industry have recently become more proactive in pursuing safety goals while improving capacity and efficiency, Capt. Woerth said.

He emphasized the proven value of a multiyear funding cycle and noted that pending legislation could build on that experience by providing the FAA with the means to develop a viable and stable 5-year plan.

Such a plan would allow properly managed and funded efforts to modernize the National Airspace System, update policies and procedures, upgrade ground and aircraft equipment, and properly coordinate security improvements, he said.

"We are under no illusions about the difficult struggle for tax dollars," Capt. Woerth said. "We are competing with other national priorities for these dollars.

"We believe," he said, "that air transportation is such a vital infrastructure industry that failure to maintain it adequately or provide for its long-term future will have profound negative consequences for all Americans."