Sunday, December 02, 2007

Three Kinds of Lies

Much has been written about the pre-Thanksgiving announcement by the White House of their amazing strategy to reduce holiday flight delays, but one of the best has to be the piece by James Fallows. The astounding thing is that virtually no professionals in the news media dug into this story to see if what the White House press release said had any value or basis in fact. Without a competent Fourth Estate it seems the public (flying and otherwise) will believe anything that's put into print.

This leads to the inevitable conclusion that it's time to update Samuel Clemens' quote: "There are lies, damn lies, and PR/Marketing."

The fundamental problem with air traffic delays has to do with too little pavement (taxiways and runways), too few gates at the airports, and too many airlines trying to use that pavement and those gates at the same time of day. One contributing factor to this mess is the flying public's unrealistic expectations about how much it should cost to ship their carcasses across the country in pressurized, climate-controlled comfort: In 1955, airfare from New York to London was about $450, which in 2006 dollars would be approximately $3250.

Another contributing factor is the airline industry's unwillingness to face facts, choosing instead to lose money on most every flight and (as the old joke goes) make up for it on volume. Poor service by weary cabin crew who have seen their wages shrink and their pension plans sacked is just the icing on the cake.

So some seemingly smart people did some thinking and decided that light jet aircraft could be created that could take passengers into and out of smaller airports, thereby bypassing the bigger, clogged up airports. On the surface this sounds like a good idea - We need more pavement and these smaller airports are paved - bingo! Let's leverage the underused infrastructure of smaller GA airports. But if Americans have learned anything, it should be to have a healthy distrust when it comes to simple solutions.

I recently accompanied an aircraft owner on an IFR flight to a Class Delta airport just north of San Francisco to have his aircraft serviced at a factory maintenance facility. We were on top of the clouds at 1500 feet, but our destination was reporting overcast skies at 1200 feet and since there were no holes in the clouds, we'd need an instrument approach to get on the ground. Checking in with Center we were told that we were number five for the approach, which was somewhat surprising to me since it was 11 AM on a Thursday morning. After many delay vectors, we finally were cleared for the approach and as we circled for a landing on a different runway I noticed six (maybe more) business jets waiting in line to depart IFR. So I did the polite thing and told the tower we were canceling IFR. The response was "I already did that for you." Fascinating ...

So it seems that not all airport pavement is created equal. And while the light jet/air taxi scheme sounds promising, there are problems with relying on the infrastructure at smaller airports that few seem to be talking about.

In bad weather, the approach control facilities may only be able to handle one IFR arrival or departure at a time and that can create back-ups on the ground and in the air. This is certainly the case when arriving IFR or departing IFR at a non-towered airport since ATC will treat the airspace as a serially reusable resource - only one IFR aircraft can use the airspace at a time. So while a big city airport may be able to depart one aircraft every two minutes or 30 aircraft per hour per runway, a smaller airport may only be able to manage one departure every 10 minutes for just 6 aircraft per runway per hour.

Another problem often overlooked is that many small, non-towered airports don't have surface weather reporting. Under 14 CFR part 135, you can't fly an instrument approach procedure under IFR to a destination airport that doesn't have surface weather reporting. Even fractional operations have similar weather reporting requirements under 14 CFR part 91 Subpart K.

Departing IFR from a smaller airport, pilots operating under 14 CFR part 91 can ignore the takeoff minima published for that airport but commercial operators cannot so you may still end up waiting for the weather to improve. Other things than can delay your departure include difficulty in obtaining your IFR clearance and a departure path that conflicts with air traffic flying on nearby airways or flying instrument approaches into a nearby airport. During bad weather there may be several other aircraft trying to do exactly what you want to do. As the I Ching says, "The way is groovy."

Over the years I've witnessed housing developments growing by leaps and bounds with many developers drawn to the land surrounding a small airport, like a moth to a flame. People who choose to live close to the approach course for that airport may tolerate a Piper Cherokee flying over their houses for years, but most will not tolerate a Gulfstream coming over their house on a regular basis. So new air taxi operations had better plan for noise abatement curfews and the like.

As I waited with the aircraft owner for a simple repair to be made, I kept an eye on the weather at this busy class D airport. The forecast called for VFR conditions, eventually, but the ceilings had barely risen by the time we were ready to depart. The ATIS for our departure notified us that a ground stop program was in effect for IFR aircraft and there was still a line of small jets waiting to take off. We checked the weather and decided we would go VFR under the overcast that had risen to 1800 feet at our departure and was overcast 2500 feet at our destination. After a discussion about there not being any surface observations along our route, it was resolved we'd need a Plan B. Our Plan B, should the ceilings in between get too low around Golden Gate Fields due to strong on-shore flow, would be to return to our departure airport, file IFR, and wait in line.

As we taxied for take off and passed the line of jets waiting for their IFR release, I actually felt lucky to be in a little Cessna.


Zach said...

Maybe the airports should hand out these
for pilots until the controllers are ready. Either this or put karaoke machines in all airplanes to kill the waiting times. I haven't even got my PPL yet and this frustrates me to know that there is brewing trouble in even the smaller airports.

Anonymous said...

How about business-jet floatplanes? Voila! Suddenly miles and miles of coasts, lakes and rivers to land on. Airport problem solved. (Actually, I'm kind of serious...Is there such a thing as a jet floatplane?)

John said...

It's not clear to me that jet engines on a seaplane was ever proven to be viable, but here's a link to some examples.