Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Our Menu Has Changed

Looking back at this year and the last ten years, many important things happened in aviation in general and general aviation in particular. If that sounds confusing, it's fitting because the last decade has been a bit confusing. Here's my round-up/rant on some of the major aviation events of the last ten years.

The Cirrus SR22 received certification in 2000 and quickly became the best selling GA aircraft. Ten years later, with the economy slowly trying to crawl out of what can only be described as a slippery commode, the company is behind on their rent and co-founder Alan Klapmeier is no longer employed by Cirrus.

Very Light Jets were going to transform air transportation by utilizing smaller airports, avoiding airline delays at large airports, and essentially bypassing the airline-style security screening. The subtext here was "Those able to afford to travel by private aircraft should not be asked to remove their shoes and belts." Arguments over whether swarms of VLJs would improve air traffic delays for passengers or simply clog up our allegedly antiquated air traffic control system became moot when the market for these aircraft never really materialized and Eclipse Aviation, one of the pioneers of the VLJ, went into Chapter 11 (bankruptcy) and then ultimately into Chapter 7 (liquidation).

The use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles has grown tremendously, though mostly for military uses. In my neck of the woods, a Temporary Flight Restriction was created around Beale Air Force Base, but it's anything but temporary: It is, in fact, in effect most of the time. There has also been a push to allow UAVs to be used for police surveillance and other security tasks. How and when UAVs will mix with civilian, manned aircraft has got to be the most under-reported story of the decade.

The best, feel-good aviation story of the decade would have to be the ditching of an Airbus A320 in the Hudson River after multiple bird strikes crippled both engines. The successful outcome of this ditching involved a skilled flight crew and a lot of luck. The most disappointing story of the year is a toss up. It may be the mid-air collision between a Piper and a sightseeing helicopter over that same river where a contributing factor, and I'm going to be really blunt, was a tower controller who appeared more interested in talking on the phone about a dead cat than controlling aircraft. Or it could be the crash of a Colgan Air Dash 8 by a relatively inexperienced flight crew, both of whom were sick and tired and where a contributing factor was (and continues to be) a culture of denial about crew duty hours, rest requirements and miserably low pay.

Numerous cockpit devices were created and released in the last 10 years, some of them good, some not-so-good. The only unanswered question is "How did pilots and aircraft ever manage to fly without at least one iPhone on board loaded with a bevy of aviation apps?"

The most over-reported and over-hyped story would have to be NextGen, the FAA's answer to everything from airport delays to restless leg syndrome. There are a lot of problems that NextGen could address: Improved ATC services in remote areas, greater emphasis on satellite-based navigation, better handling of flight plans and direct routings, and enhanced collision avoidance. The hype surrounding NextGen include claims that it will solve airport delays at major hubs. It won't and if you want a really cogent explanation of why it won't, go read this series from the WWVB blog. And no, NextGen will not replace "antiquated" radar and from a national security perspective, there's no way we'd want to get rid of radar, thank you very much. As to why NextGen receives so much ink, look no further than the former head of the FAA, Marion Blakey, who has moved to greener pastures ... representing the very industry that is trying to get contracts to implement NextGen.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were related to aviation, but only in that they exploited passenger airline security flaws. There were certainly ramifications for GA and there continue to be, but issues surrounding national security ... er ... I mean Homeland Security are more far-reaching than just a private pilot's $100 hamburger privileges. What followed those attacks was intensified airport security procedures, some of which actually added some security value. A lot of the screening procedures came to be known as "Security Theater: A DHS/TSA production."

Flight instruction, particularly for foreign nationals, became more tightly regulated with flight instructors being conscripted as unpaid border guards. Airline passengers began disrobing to varying degrees and checked bags were randomly searched. I didn't travel by airline much in the last decade, but when I did I often opened my checked bag only to find a little calling card left by the TSA explaining why they'd searched my belongings. But no chocolate mint!

Returning from San Juan, Puerto Rico, after completing a ferry flight to the Caribbean, I had my first experience passing through one of the new bomb-sniffing detectors. Before entering the machine, which looks like a futuristic telephone booth, I was admonished to keep my shoes on. After exiting the machine, still somewhat dazed by being blasted by a fast sequence of air "puffs," I was admonished to remove my shoes. Reminds me of a line from the old Woody Allen movie Bananas:
... all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half-hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check.

There has yet to be another successful attack using airliners but there have been two notable attempts. Richard Reed tried to light off an explosive device concealed in the sole of one of the athletic shoes he was wearing and the talking heads just couldn't seem to believe it. They all continued to repeat one phrase with head-shaking, wide-eyed astonishment; " ... in his shoe!" until he became known as the Shoe Bomber.

The packaging of news is crucial because it distracts us from important details, like those behind latest airline bombing attempt. Maybe it's just me, but this reads like something out of a Keystone Kops script: 1) The alleged perpetrator's father notified the US that he believed his son was a threat, 2) The US Department of State didn't revoke guy's visa but put him on a list that wouldn't have allowed him to renew his visa, 3) The guy shows up at Schiphol with a one-way ticket and no baggage. And that's just what we know of that went wrong. Instead of talking about those issues, let's discuss the really important stuff: Should he be called the Underpants Bomber or the Nut Cracker?

The biggest story of the last 10 years, the one with the farthest reaching implications has to be the modernization of Flight Service. It's hard to remember what Flight Service was like before Lockheed-Martin took over. Many new pilots don't know that just a few years ago there used to be 58 Flight Service Stations throughout the US. Once LM took over, those functions were privatized and modernized. In the first year and a half, LM closed 20 of those stations which resulted in hundreds of FFS specialists being "relocated" or just plain fired. If that weren't bad enough, what ensued can only be described as a $#!+ storm:

Pilots waiting on hold, calls not answered or dropped, briefers not familiar with the local area and the subtleties of the local weather patterns where the callers were based. I would be remiss if I didn't point out that AOPA came out in favor of LM's modernization efforts, presumably as a way to forestall user fees, and had to eat a significant amount of crow when their membership realized they'd been sold up the river.

With 38 of the original 58 stations remaining, LM did eventually clean up their act. Things gradually got better, calls got through, hold times were reduced, but the actual level of service never returned to what it had been: Pilots learned they had to spell out VORs, intersections and even airport identifiers to briefers, but the march toward modernization didn't stop. In the months that ensued, LM closed even more flight service stations, reducing the number to 18, then 13. Now LM has announced plans to close seven more stations leaving six stations out of the original 58 and the loss of another 160 or so jobs.

With a 90% reduction in flight service stations and probably a similar number of staff cuts (I don't know the exact numbers), pilots found other ways to get briefings and file flight plans. For a while, LM's FSS site gave the distinct impression that they were going to implement an online service where pilots could get briefings, file flight plans, and close flight plans. Then, just as mysteriously, those plans fell by the wayside and now the website simply provides information on selected topics, provides some PR-generated rah-rah phrases, and gives pilots a way to provide feedback on LMs level of service.

During the first year of LM running FSS I recall several times I sat on a remote freight ramp, with FSS as my only official link for getting weather information. The problem was I frequently couldn't get through to file a flight plan or get a briefing. Some say that those days are behind us and to an extent they are right: Pilots can generally get through by phone to get a briefing and file, open, or close a flight plan. Trying to raise FSS by radio while on the ground or in the air is still proving problematic in some areas. Should the weather be worse than expected at your destination, Flight Watch can tell you while you are still en route, but they don't accept new flight plans - you have to call a Flight Service Station to do that. And if pilots can't contact FSS by radio, they have no choice but to throw themselves on the mercy of the ARTCC or TRACON controllers and ask for a pop-up IFR clearance. Understandably, many controllers are not thrilled with the prospect of having to provide a function that FSS used to provide. Another alternative would be to always file an IFR flight plan and always pick up a clearance, but that's seldom the most fuel-efficient way to fly.

LM just announced that even more closures are needed because of a 13% reduction in call volume. Hello? When you decimate a service, give it a black eye by firing a talented and trained work force, and take away most of the value-added features, pilots will find other ways to get the information they need. In my personal experience, the majority of pilots are getting their weather briefings online using a desktop computer, laptop, or smart phone. I still teach student pilots how to contact FSS by phone and by radio, but I tend to emphasize online briefings because it saves time and provides more value-added features than talking to FSS. There are several ways to to get online briefings and some sources provide complete, QCIP-approved briefings that meet the requirements of 14 CFR 91.103. Others online sources, while not official briefings because they do not provide NOTAMs or TFR information, are nevertheless quite useful.

The shift to on-line briefing might sound like progress, but much has been lost. The idea of having someone read you a description of the weather never seemed that efficient, but there were advantages to talking to a real person who had local expertise. Student pilots and less experienced pilots no longer have a local briefer who can give them the official weather, then use their years of experience with local weather patterns to help the pilot read between the lines. More responsibility is being placed on the individual pilot and without much weather experience, some pilots will make mistakes. They may interpret the online briefing incorrectly, their knowledge of weather may be incomplete, they may get an incomplete briefing, or the forecast may be turn out to just be plain wrong. With weather being one of the primary causes of GA accidents, the result could be more weather-related crashes and incidents. But rest assured that LMs balance sheet is safe and they continue to meet their performance goals ... rah, rah, rah!

So there you have my round-up of some of the important events of the last ten years. You may have your own list of high and low points, so let me just add that if you'd like to hear my holiday greeting, please press 1 ... All joking aside, I'd like to express my appreciation to all my loyal readers out there and wish everyone a Happy, Prosperous, Safe, and Fun-filled New Year.


Dave Starr said...

All the same back to you,John, and all who visit here. I personally see a lot of good things happening in 2010 ... hope I am making agood guess this time. Somehow, as you pointed out job, the very promising decade stumbled badly, it's been a lot tragic and more thna a bit boring for me .. maybe this year will be like a restart for the 21st century.

7700 said...

Right on about Flight Service John. The first clue for me was when they didn't even get the name right and started calling it "Flight Services"

Fr. Shawn P. Tunink said...

I would have to add the now common use of GPS as a key development of the last ten years. Instrument approved GPS units are opening approaches at very low cost at airports that previously would have been unlikely candidates for instrument approaches. Precision minimums for very little cost. GPS is my winner for the last 10 years and my bet for the most significant force in the next 10 years.

Christian said...

XM Weather has now removed any need for me to attempt to contact FSS in flight. At this point I think only a border crossing would require me to try contacting FSS these days.

If there was one thing I wished they'd add, it was updates of databases and flight plans via wifi at your FBO, or via a cellphone you can dock on the panel.

John Ewing said...

"... removed any need ..."

Really? That's a pretty far-reaching statement.

I've been in heavy enough precipitation that I've seen XM reception fail completely. That's right, just when I needed it, XM went Tango Uniform. And travel outside the US to, say, Puerto Rico, and you'll find that XM doesn't work at all. You'll also find that reliable, specific weather info is generally hard to come by, too.

So as much as we may lament what has become of Flight Service, the possible need to contact them by radio should not be relegated to the dust heap.

Not just yet, anyway ...