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White House Seeks to Ease Air Traffic:

The W$J reports on measures the Bush Administration has announced or proposed to ease holiday air travel woes. The White House fact sheet on the reforms is here. As a frequent traveler, I sure hope these measures are effective.

David Chesler (mail) (www):
[RANT ON]
The scarcest resource is not the high altitude airspace that the "express lane" will open but controlled space near the airports, at the runway and taxiway level.

Two and a half years ago I was laid off, as well as most of the team, from a group subcontracted to NASA's Ames Research Center developing decision support tools for air traffic controllers. These tools, while keeping humans in the loop, allow the controllers to schedule planes more tightly to the safety margins, thereby increasing throughput on the existing facilities. Other groups in the department worked on other aspects of air traffic control and management, often under NASA Langley or FAA Volpe contracts. NASA had received a mandate from on high to drop work on air (its first 'A') and earth sciences, in favor of space, and in particular the Mars initiative.

The stop-gap measures this holiday season are nice, but shutting down work for years at a time on a decades-long project, and disbanding good, established teams, is not the way towards a long-term solution.
[RANT OFF]
11.16.2007 11:14am
Mike Brown (mail):

As a frequent traveler, I sure hope these measures are effective.


They won't be - they're designed primarily to benefit the airlines at the expense of general aviation, with tax breaks for airlines and user fees for general aviation (everything except airlines) and ignore the true cause of air travel delays, which is the airlines themselves.

I've done a fair amount of flying this year, and nearly every flight has been late or cancelled - and in every case but one (which was a weather delay) the cause was the fault of the airline. I had a number of morning flights delayed or cancelled because the airline scheduled the departing flight in the morning so early that any delay in the last arrival the night before left the flight crews with insufficient required rest. A number were late because of the hub-and-spoke system which schedules too many flights onto too few runways too close together, so airliners sat in lines behind airliners waiting to take off. Several times I spent time sitting on the ramp because the airline didn't have a gate to put the airliner at - twice I missed a connection I could have made if I'd been able to enter the terminal instead of sitting on the tarmac watching my flight taxi out. Once I sat in a crowded waiting room with the other passengers and the airplane's cabin crew, waiting for an hour past the departure time for Delta to send a gate agent to open the door. Maintenance problems delayed two other flights. NONE of this would have been affected by the changes the White House has announced, or any of the tax breaks and user fees the airlines are pushing for.

The other side of the story, quoted from the Airplane Owners and Pilots' Association (AOPA) is as follows:

"If only it were that simple," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "At the top 10 busiest airports in the United States, the FAA's own data for all towered airports show that general aviation makes up less than 4 percent of all aircraft operations."

What are the real culprits? A June 5 front-page story in USA Today said that about 40 percent of the delays were caused by weather. Other factors were late-arriving aircraft, maintenance and crew problems, and flight coordination at airports. The article also said that flight delays are at their worst in 13 years.

Yet the ATC system was created for the airlines. The extensive cost is due to the airlines' hub-and-spoke system. It makes business sense for them to shift the blame and costs onto somebody else.
...
The truth is that airline passengers and freight users pay a portion of the total costs of operating the ATC system as a whole, similar to buying a postage stamp. No airline or airline trade group has assured travelers that their ticket prices would drop by even a penny if the airlines got the tax breaks they wanted.

The in-flight editorials try to use sheer numbers — present and future — to make their case by comparing corporate jets with airliners. What they don't say is that the airliners fly far more often, exacting a bigger load on the system while imposing a significant cost.

(I tried to post a link to the full article, but the system wont' allow links. Sorry.)
11.16.2007 11:23am
byomtov (mail):
Ok Mike, but isn't general aviation at least a significant part of the problem?

As I understand it, the fees private planes pay are dramatically below what they would pay if they were set based on the actual costs they impose. Note that the article you quote talks about total costs imposed by airliners vs those imposed by private planes. But this is BS. The relevant measure is cost per flight (or per landing), not total.

I'm not particularly knowledgeable here, but among other things some fees are based on weight, which has almost nothing to do with contribution to congestion or burden on the air traffic control system.

I'm not defending the airlines. I think they do a poor job and that air travel in the US could be improved a lot.
11.16.2007 12:09pm
John T. (mail):
NONE of this would have been affected by the changes the White House has announced, or any of the tax breaks and user fees the airlines are pushing for.

The Administration suggestions for congestion fees, or auctioning of landing rights, would be the most efficient way to solve the problem. Those solutions are at a minimum six months away, though. The airlines are strenuously opposing any sort of congestion fee or landing rights auction, though, so in that the airlines are definitely part of the problem. The Administration proposal for doubling the fees paid to involuntarily bumped passengers again would take at least six months to implement, due to the necessity of passing the rule, but it would provide some additional incentives for the airline to avoid overbooking.
11.16.2007 12:22pm
John T. (mail):
The weight-based fees are a part of the problem, because they don't correctly take into account the true impact of taking up a gate and blocking airspace during takeoff and landing. General aviators massively complains about raising those fees, because like all small planes, they would be strongly affected. However, it would also importantly affect all the small "express" flights that the airlines run. It would cause airlines to shift some flights away from hourly runs on small planes to 3-4 flights per day on larger planes for hub to hub connections. That would help with congestion.

They won't do it now because of the mispricing of landing fees that encourages such behavior.
11.16.2007 12:25pm
The Cabbage:
More than anything else, delays are caused because there is no breathing room in the system. The biggest airports need more runways (nice and spread apart so you can have side-by-side landings in lousy weather). One delay causes three more. To borrow an aerodynamic term, the ATC system has negative stability. Its a ball perched a top a hill.

As a frequent traveler, I sure hope these measures are effective.

That's why they won't be. There is too much demand for low prices to force service up to practical levels. We, the flying public, want to fly when we want to, and we want to do it cheaply. We accept the delays because the ticket prices are low and we fly into our preferred airport. If on-time service was more valued, then feeder airports (by me, that would be Rockford and Gary) would get traffic. Instead we take the delay and the price savings.
Ok Mike, but isn't general aviation at least a significant part of the problem?

Nope. GA doesn't really sue the few key airports that spawn all these delays. Sure, there is some biz jet traffic into major hubs, but never during peak travel times. An airline's planes are never more than a leg or two away from a hub.

I, ex-flight instructor/current law student/ possible future commercial airline pilot/plane fetishist, generally side with AOPA on the user fee question. The ATC system was designed mostly for the big guys. Letting GA pilots into the system dramatically increases safety and efficiency, but doesn't add much in terms of costs.

The stats can be misleading. There are innumerable GA operations every year, but a great deal of them never even get into the ATC system.

The only area where GA should pay more into the system is in mid-sized airports. Lots of GA (esp. biz jet and flight school ops) use mid-sized airports. Capital Airport in Champagne-Urbana, IL is a good example.

Note that the article you quote talks about total costs imposed by airliners vs those imposed by private planes.
Private planes need to be distinguished. An oft-used Gulfstream adds almost as much cost to the system as another regional jet. An entire fleet of rental Cessnas wouldn't put as much strain on ATC.
11.16.2007 12:42pm
E:
As other commenters said -- the problems are on the ground at the airports -- not enough landing space. There's no congestion "in the air."
11.16.2007 2:21pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
Just to add more anecdotal 'evidence' to the pool:

I fly about once a month, including a few international flights per year. This year, with 11 domestic round trips and four international legs, I've had one delay, of all of 15 minutes. No cancellations, no bumping, no lost luggage.

My flights tend to be non-stop whenever possible, between a regional airport Sarasota (SRQ) and Reagan National (DCA). Sometimes non-stop isn't possible, so I get to spend a few hours laying over in Charlotte (CLT) or Atlanta (ATL). Internationally, I've had no problems at Heathrow, Charles De Gaulle, or Jeddah--though Jeddah airport, in need of replacement, saw several death due to mobbing. Talk about a flight delay....
11.16.2007 2:38pm
Lively:
Why the snark with the W$J?
11.16.2007 3:12pm
jetblue:
the president's plan is a nice first-step, but how about we build a new airport or a new runway for once? the problem is on the ground, not in the air. and specifically on the ground in new york, philly, and boston. i read in new york magazine last month that delays at the three ny airports are eventually responsible for 75% of all delays and cancellations nation-wide. it seems clear that it's time to expand jfk, et al.
11.16.2007 3:23pm
Floridan:
After about eight consecutive flights to NYC (both LGA and JFK) that were delayed, some for hours, I've lately been flying from Orlando directly to Newburgh (Stewart International). This works out for me as I want to end up north of the city anyway.

Still, a partial solution for NYC is greater use of surrounding airports.
11.16.2007 3:59pm
Waldensian (mail):

but isn't general aviation at least a significant part of the problem?

In a word, no.

The airlines' efforts to blame GA are good propaganda -- almost everybody hates rich people who fly on private jets.

But the claim that GA is significantly, or even minimally, responsible for our air travel woes is just flat wrong. The vast majority of general aviation -- including the rich guys in bizjets -- goes nowhere near the airlines' hub airports, in part because of the inconvenience and delays caused by airline use(!).

The story is not complicated. The airlines are scheduling too many flights at peak times, they are doing so using a fuel-inefficient hub system that is prone to major delays due to weather, and they are operating from airports where runway construction has been clogged for years. Moreover, their increased use of regional jets has added a lot of load on the system. THOSE are the small jets you really need to worry about if you're worried about delays.

General aviation pilots like me would LOVE to operate in, and pay for, a system that wasn't designed to accommodate the !#$!@ airlines. Make no mistake, my aviation fuel taxes subsidize THEM. The amount of expensive stuff they need, that I don't, is just incredible.

For example, I fly a small slow plane designed for good weather. They fly big fast planes in all kinds of weather. All weather operations require tons of investment and gear -- ground and air traffic control facilities and towers, with trained controllers, low-visibility taxi lights, precision approach monitor radar, ground radar, low-level wind shear alert systems, snow removal, and huge ramps, taxiways, runways, and parking areas.

I need about 1800 feet of nice grass. That's it. Preferably without trees at either end, but I can deal.
11.16.2007 4:41pm
byomtov (mail):
I fly about once a month, including a few international flights per year. This year, with 11 domestic round trips and four international legs, I've had one delay, of all of 15 minutes. No cancellations, no bumping, no lost luggage.

Next time you're going to Las Vegas let me know. I'll wire you some cash to put on the roulette wheel for me. Naturally there'll be a commission in it for you.
11.16.2007 6:02pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
Certainly could be good luck on my part. I'll take care of your LV business right after I hit a $100+ million lotto.
11.16.2007 9:12pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
They won't be - they're designed primarily to benefit the airlines at the expense of general aviation, with tax breaks for airlines and user fees for general aviation (everything except airlines) and ignore the true cause of air travel delays, which is the airlines themselves.

I don't know whether they cause delays or not, but general aviation's terrible "it can't happen to us" attitude on post-9/11 security (which may end up killing a lot of people at some point), and their exemption from such things as jet noise regulations, is reason enough to favor just about anything that pisses them off.
11.17.2007 3:14am