1990 vs 2005 vs 2016 Operations: Exposing FAA’s Inaccurate Forecasts

While doing some online research and archiving of older FAA documents, I ran into a copy of FAA’s 1993 Aviation System Capacity Plan. (click here for an archived copy of the 389-page document). Within this document, Table A-3 offered a detailed assessment of the 100 busiest towered airports, including operations in 1990 and forecasts for 2005.

The table below was created using the 1990 operations levels and 2005 forecast data for those 100 airports. But, it goes much further. It includes the actual operations counts as they happened in 2005. AND, it includes data showing how the operations counts evolved between 2005-2016.

Take a close look. This data explains why people are suffering so much at a few key FAA airports: KSEA, KJFK, KDCA, KBOS, KSFO and others.

Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded.

It is extremely revealing, showing how FAA consistently forecasts far beyond what would reasonably follow … almost as if the FAA forecasts are not intended to be accurate, but instead are created to sell excessive airport development while also enhancing Congressional funding support.

A more in-depth aiReform analysis follows on page two.

Reflections on FAA as a Faux-Regulator Serving Industry, Not the Public

At year end, we often take time to reflect. This year, let’s reflect on precisely what it means, when a U.S. federal agency is ‘captured’ by industry, so as to serve the industry instead of the larger Public. This Post will look more closely at FAA later, but for now, to help see how serious the regulatory capture problem is, let’s look at another failing U.S. federal agency: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

FDA, just like FAA, has many responsibilities. For example, they are charged by Congress to regulate pharmaceutical companies. Additionally, Congress has funded FDA with the intent that they will be effective, working to protect public health from dangerous new drugs. One of those drugs, released two decades ago, is the addictive opioid, OxyContin. An online search reveals a jaw-dropping epidemic of addictions – and fatalities; indeed, odds are very high that everyone reading this Post knows at least one person who has been impacted by opioid addiction. Also, and not insignificantly, a deeper online research shows the fact that representatives of both major political parties have aided and abetted this epidemic, while also obstructing reforms and failing to pass overdue corrective legislation.

So, how well has FDA done their job? If agency leaders actually view their job as ‘serving customers’ such as the pharmaceutical industry, well, they’ve done a fantastic job. But, if any of us objectively assesses FDA performance from the perspective of serving the larger Public and actually protecting health, well, FDA is a total failure.

Patrick Radden Keefe recently wrote an article in The New Yorker, The Family That Built an Empire of Pain (click here to view the source article online; click here to view an archived and annotated version of the same article). Below is an excerpt that summarizes how Oxycontin legal actions are evolving; this particular excerpt primarily quotes Mike Moore, a former Mississippi State Attorney General:

… Ten states have filed suits, and private attorneys are working in partnership with dozens of cities and counties to bring others. Many public officials are furious at the makers of powerful painkillers. Prescriptions are expensive, and taxpayers often foot the bill, through programs like Medicaid. Then, as the ruinous consequences of opioid addiction take hold, the public must pay again—this time for emergency services, addiction treatment, and the like. Moore feels that the Sackler family, as the initial author and a prime beneficiary of the epidemic, should be publicly shamed. “I don’t call it Purdue. I call it the Sackler Company,” he said. “They are the main culprit. They duped the F.D.A., saying it lasted twelve hours. They lied about the addictive properties. And they did all this to grow the opioid market, to make it O.K. to jump in the water. Then some of these other companies, they saw that the water was warm, and they said, ‘O.K., we can jump in, too.’ ” There may be significant legal distinctions between a tobacco company and an opioid producer, but to Moore the ethical parallel is unmistakable: “They’re both profiting by killing people.” …

FAA as Faux-Regulator

So, how does studying this opioid epidemic, and Mr. Keefe’s article, help us to better understand FAA’s failure? Simply by showing a near-perfect analogy for the many signs of regulatory capture. Here is a short list of discernible failure patterns, the ‘symptoms’ of regulatory capture:

  • Industry becomes the primary customer. For FAA, nothing shows this failure as starkly as the whistleblower hearings held on 4/3/2008.
  • Money trumps health and environment; the faux-regulator enables industry to advance corporate profits, by assisting in expansions and system redesigns that invariably bear an enormous cost on environment, health, and local (usually residential) quality of life.
  • Consequences of failures are eventually lethal. FDA failures fuel a rise in addictions and overdoses; FAA failures sustain sleep-deprivation that cause most of today’s multi-fatal commercial accidents, such as Colgan-Buffalo, Comair-Lexington, and UPS-Birmingham.
  • Consequences of FAA failures also extend to the corruption of a culture that we are repeatedly and fraudulently told is ‘all about safety’, when the full record shows it is anything but. For example, the agency’s use of ATSAP to hide ATC safety data from the general public; the agency’s inability to see the enormous impacts imposed by NextGen changes and hub expansions; the agency’s wanton denial of obvious performance failures (such as the controller error at Santa Monica, or the rash of near-collisions at San Francisco); and of course the war against whistleblowers (those rare few inside FAA, who choose to speak up to correct the cultural failures, only to suffer retaliation).
  • Key personnel within the faux-regulator end up serving only industry, often via a revolving door. In the Oxycontin story, the key FDA regulator was earning his federal pay and building his eventual federal pension when he signed off on the fraudulent Oxycontin marketing plan; just two years later, he worked for Purdue! The same pattern happens repeatedly at FAA, all the way to the FAA Administrator position (e.g., when Marion Blakey retired, she immediately became head of a major aviation lobby firm).
  • The legal system becomes a third-party tool, used to maximize corporate advantage, an additional ‘enabler’. Both industry players and faux-regulator officials posture around threats of legal actions by industry, using this pattern as a hammer to force changes that accommodate industry, at the expense of the larger Public.
  • To protect industry greed, and to ensure the legal system will enable these failures to persist, a heavy budget is allocated to lawyers who self-enrich with what is effectively a ‘license to lie and deceive’. Not just industry-paid lawyers, but also agency lawyers, paid for by the people.
  • If and when manipulation of the legal system appears likely to fail, especially if the case is headed for trial, a ‘settlement’ suddenly appears. ALWAYS, this last-ditch legal maneuver protects both industry and faux-regulator from any accountability, by sealing records that were about to become a part of the public record, records that would among other things reveal how badly agency officials have failed. And, routinely, the so-called ‘settlement’ will include language that shuts out third parties (such as actual communities, or victim families) from future legal action.

Can This be Fixed?

Yes, it’s all fixable. And really not that difficult to do, so long as people demand performance from both agency and elected officials. The first step, though, is obvious: we have to accept that FAA, FDA and other agencies are broken, serving as faux-regulators, enabling industry players to evolve in ways that are truly destroying homes and people. Perhaps with a new year, we can get to work?

People and Communities Would Benefit, if We Disincentivized Hubs

Interesting discussion about community impacts and port authority overdevelopment at Sea-Tac [KSEA], in this Quiet Skies Puget Sound Facebook Post.

(click on image to view source Facebook discussion)

Here, one of the area residents being victimized by Sea-Tac overexpansion suggests what really is the easiest solution: spread the flights out, so people are served locally, by their own local airport.

So, how do we make this change? The key to getting there includes changing the current system of fees/taxes to economically disincentivize hubs. For example, the U.S. Congress and FAA need to do three things:

  1. end ticket charges (especially the PFCs) that incentivize airport over-development. With airport PFCs, FAA/DoT collects billions of dollars each year, which are then reallocated into airport development projects. Much of this money goes to rural airports with nearly zero traffic (such as the recent debacle at Mora, MN), and the funds are generously doled out with near-zero local matches required. Airports like Sea-Tac are thus motivated to develop far beyond what the actual airport property and surrounding neighborhoods can stand.
  2. impose a steep carbon tax with at least half of revenues going away from aviation, such as to high speed rail. Indeed, the aviation sector provides an excellent opportunity to trial such a tax, while also funding new programs that are far more energy-efficient.
  3. establish a user fee system based on two key factors: direct-miles (between origin airport and destination airport), and aircraft seating capacity. Apply this fee system to all commercial flights (passenger and air cargo) as well as to all higher performance aircraft (e.g., bizjets, and flights by fractionally-owned aircraft). Thus:
      • for any origin-destination pair, a 200-passenger jet would pay twice the fee as a 100-passenger jet, and a 400-passenger jet would pay 4-times as much.
      • a 30-passenger bizjet would pay the same aviation user fee, whether it is chartering one elite passenger of 28, whether it is flying IFR (in the ATC system) or just out on a high-performance VFR hop.
      • passenger ticket fees/taxes would be proportional to itinerary distance. E.g., a passenger ticket from Seattle to Boston via Atlanta would pay 25% higher fees due to 25% higher distance (2,712 NM through ATL versus 2,161 NM direct SEA-BOS); likewise, a SEA-LAX-BOS itinerary would pay 43% higher fees than a direct SEA-BOS itinerary (hubbing via LAX, in this example, increases distance flown from 2,161 NM to 3,091 NM).
      • and, of course, this all would apply to commercial helicopters, too. A helicopter doing an urban air tour, or a helicopter charter hop from KSMO to Staples Center, would pay the fee, subject to a hefty minimum user fee per operation.
      • similarly, it would apply to commercial skydive operators, whose noisy aircraft would also be subject to a hefty minimum user fee per operation.

This simple set of proposed fees/taxes would not only reduce hub pressure at places like KSEA, KJFK, KCLT, KPHX, and KBOS; it would also all but eliminate system delays, and reduce environmental impacts. Plus, this system would strongly incentivize the airlines to offer more direct flights. This would mean less travel time for the consumers who fund this system, and would be a Win-Win for nearly everyone. The only losers would be the airlines and airport authorities who have gone too long, abusing too many, under the current flawed fee/tax system that maximizes consumption.

Just one thing is required: an elected Congress willing to work together, to order FAA reform: to totally revamp the fee/tax system, replacing it with only a carbon tax and a direct-miles fee.

Unfriendly Skies: Forty Years of Airline Deregulation Failure

An excellent analysis was sent to the aiReform administrator, along with this email comment:

“This is the best article I have seen in a VERY long time about the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on the traveling public, airline deregulation.”


He’s right. David Dayen did a fantastic job writing “Unfriendly Skies: It’s time to admit that airline deregulation has failed passengers, workers—and economic efficiency.”

A paragraph from the opening page of the article.

Mr. Dayen points out the role of all politicians, at both political extremes, in passing the Airline Deregulation Act in 1978; he debunks the myth of lower costs and higher efficiencies that actually did not happen, and shows evidence of FAA’s expanding regulatory capture; he also bears down on how the airline industry is a microcosmic example of the rise of oligopolies, that change processes and markets for their narrow benefit while imposing great costs onto many of us.

Click here to view Mr. Dayen’s source article at American Prospect, or click/scroll below to read a PDF archived copy with aiREFORM annotations.

Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded.

NextGen is the FAA’s Carte Blanche to Wreak Havoc on the Public’s Ears and Serenity

Here’s an archived copy of an excellent article, written by Barbara Castleton, one of many NextGen victims in the Seattle area. She does an excellent job portraying how FAA and industry do not care at all about the health impacts (and diminished quality of life) caused by NextGen. A few aiREFORM footnotes have been added to this archived copy, to expand on some technical aspects.

Click here to view the source article at Medium.com.

Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded.

NAS Annual Ops Have Declined for Decades Now, And NextGen Is Just Hype

One of the most frustrating and damnable aspects of today’s FAA is their manipulation of data, to steer public opinion toward more aviation expansion. This propagandistic phenomenon has worsened in the last decade. Sometimes, to get to the facts, you have to dive deep and find what FAA wrote long ago. Here is an example…Let’s go back to early 2001.

(click on image to view archived copy of entire FAA report, from April 2001)

Here’s a screencap from April of that year, FAA’s 125-page NAS Capital Investment Plan 2002-2006. This one small screencap offers some unvarnished statements about capacity and delays (and the whole document contains many, MANY more!):

  • “Currently, traffic at the 25 busiest airports exceeds their practical capacity by about 1 million operations a year.”
  • “Either demand is reduced, or capacity expanded to bring the NAS into balance. It is normal to experience some delay in the NAS, the challenge is to manage excessive delay.”
  • RE: 15 new runways scheduled to open in the next five years: “If all of these runways are built as scheduled, they will add about 1.4 million operations a year in capacity.”

OK, so let’s take a closer look. First, let’s look at FAA’s ATADS data, the most precise database available for studying operations at all FAA and contract control towers in the U.S. Here’s a table created for the ‘top 25’ airports; in this case, the 25 busiest OEP-35 airports in calendar year 2000:What does this show? It shows a critical reality: this aviation system is NOT expanding, is NOT becoming increasingly complex, and in fact has been down-sizing for nearly two decades. In other words, the expensive changes that industry and FAA are pitching so aggressively are NOT needed, and serve only to further line the pockets of the cronies they advocate for. (…which, of course, is why they are advocating!)

Now, let’s take another look at those quotes above, and let’s do the math. Those 25 busiest airports were allegedly exceeding practical capacity by ‘about 1 million operations’ annually. The totals in the table above (use the ‘TOTALS’ column, not the ‘Commercial’ column, because that is the number that matters to define ATC workload) show 13.4 Million operations in 2000. Thus, this FAA document suggests the ‘practical capacity’ of the top 25 airports in 2000 was 12.4 Million annual operations. By 2016, three key forces (airline consolidation, hub realignment, and economic normalization) had reduced total ops to 11.1 Million annual ops, well below the alleged ‘practical capacity’. While total annual operations at the top 25 airports are down 17% (from 2000 to 2016), the only airports bucking this trend are the ones where airlines insist on over-scheduling. In other words, their pursuit of profits is the root cause of daily system delays, it also is the primary source for massive impacts upon neighboring residential communities, such as near KJFK, KCLT, and KSFO.

Note, too, that actual capacity has increased substantially (which, of course, reduces ATC complexity), with the construction not only of the ‘15 new runways’ by 2006, but the many other new runways between 2006 and 2017.

As a side note, ponder this: notice the green background stats in the table above. These are the very few airports where operations have actually increased from 2000 to 2016. Most people would assume automatically, Charlotte was tops, because of American’s massive expansion there to create a super-Hub. They would be wrong. In fact, Kennedy airport in NYC beat out Charlotte. FAA and PANYNJ accommodations to JetBlue, Delta and American are the reason that the western half of Long Island is constantly inundated with long and low arrival conga lines into JFK. The 28% increase is quite impactful.

CONCLUSION: when Bill Shuster et al stand before press cameras or preside at hearings where they pitch NextGen and ATC privatization, they are out of touch and, frankly, pitching a fraud. They should instead be focusing on managing hub capacity, imposing limits at the most congested hub airports, so that the entire system can achieve higher efficiencies and lower impacts.

Representative Karen Bass Speaking About FAA Impacts, at a Rules Committee Hearing

A ‘thank you!’ is owed to Karen Bass, member of the U.S. House of Representatives. She has offered amendments to H.R. 3354, the ‘Make America Secure and Prosperous Appropriations Act, 2018’, legislation supported by the White House, aimed at funding what appears to be all or nearly all domestic policy agencies.

In the clip below, Bass speaks for just a couple minutes. It is interesting to notice the massive paper piles, the many empty chairs, the distractions of nearly all participants who are focused on their devices. One wonders how we can possibly accomplish meaningful legislation in these conditions and with these habits and attitudes. That said, Rep. Bass does make some very good points.

(click on image to view Rep. Bass’ speech)

Labor Day, 2017

Here’s a thoughtful commentary about our latest U.S. holiday. The author, George Jehn, is a retired airline pilot, former high-level union official at Eastern Airlines, author and whistleblower. He pauses a busy life each Fall and shares his assessment of how we are doing, on issues related to labor and the U.S. economy. His views are framed by his experiences in the aviation industry.

Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded.

People do not know the history behind this holiday, such as the deadly use of federal troops to break the 1894 Pullman Strike. People also tend not to know the many parallels between the extensive regulatory capture of FAA (by the airlines and other industry players) and the regulatory capture of the nascent ICC in the 1890s. Click here to view some documents about Richard Olney, and to learn more about how much 2017 is just like 1894.

(click on image to view source, at Clarence Darrow Digital Collection, University of Minnesota)

On a lighter note, here’s a no-holds-barred take by Jimmy Dore, a comedian who has become one of the leading online voices for those who feel our political and economic systems must be reformed. In this video, he dissects a Walmart employee orientation video that is extremely anti-union.

The Third Head of the NextGen Hydra: How FAA is Jamming Arrivals Closer Together

Three months ago, the ‘Dissecting NextGen’ presentation was made in Des Moines, to help people better understand the impacts of NextGen around Sea-Tac International Airport [KSEA]. Included within that presentation was discussion of ‘Hub Concentration’ and ‘Route Concentration’, as two of the main changes that are causing NextGen impacts. Well, continued research in the past months has revealed a third head to this monster: efforts by FAA to alter rules, to reduce spacing between arrivals, even setting up side-by-side arrivals to closely-spaced parallel runways.

FAA is using two main strategies to reduce arrival spacing:

  • Wake Recat: short for ‘wake recategorization’, this is the reduction of minimum safe distances behind larger aircraft that create wakes. Without getting into too much detail, a series of fatal accidents decades ago forced FAA to impose longer distances between successive flights on the same route, called ‘wake turbulence separation’. But, in time, with pressure to remove capacity limitations, the rules are being modified to shorter distances.
  • Simultaneous Dependent Approaches to Closely Spaced Parallel Runways (CSPR): many of the main hub airports rely on use of parallel runways that are spaced even less than half a mile apart. ATC can accommodate a lot of flights on/off parallel runways, primarily by using one runway to land and the other to takeoff. But, when weather deteriorates, especially if visibility is reduced or the ceiling (altitude of lowest cloud layer) gets to be too low, capacity plummets. So, FAA has been working with airlines to develop new ATC procedures that allow flights to be spaced much closer together when set up for landing on two or more parallel runways. [click here to view archived copies showing the evolution of FAA Order JO7110.308B since 2008]

What’s Bugging People?

Although most airports continue to be far below historic traffic levels, there are a dozen or so main hub airports where the ‘Final Four’ airlines (American, Delta, Southwest and United) schedule excessively. These are the airports where people are upset. They are seeing more flights, and they are seeing/hearing flights that are lower, often slower, seemingly louder (which is a given, for lower flights), and often turning closer to the airport than ever before. They are also seeing surges of flights — both departures and arrivals, in rapid succession, sometimes even side-by-side. It is scary to some, and deeply disturbing to many. Even retired air traffic controllers cannot believe what they are seeing. It is as if these few airports have acquired a meth or steroid addiction.

Authorities insist nothing has changed, but they are totally wrong. Well, not just wrong: they are lying, and they know it. At these few hub airports (Sea-Tac is the one growing the most in recent years, due to Delta’s 2012 decision to create a new hub), traffic volume is up, especially during the surges that happen in relation to expanded hubbing. But, there are also forces that are pushing arrivals closer to the ground. For example, with wake recat, the key thing to understand about aircraft wakes is they descend; i.e., the hazard that can flip a smaller airplane slowly drifts downward toward the ground, so ATC works hard to keep the trailing aircraft at least slightly above the leading aircraft. But, if ATC is trying to bring both aircraft in to land, on parallel runways, than ATC needs to push the lead aircraft down lower ASAP. Why? Because, if the lead aircraft is not descended low enough, the trailing aircraft will end up too high, unable to finish the approach. This results in a go-around, which carries higher risks and makes both flight crews and ATC do a lot more work.

An Example: A 13-hr Arrival Stream to Runways 4L & 4R at Boston

Boston offers an example of how badly communities are being impacted. Here, we have densely populated communities and a dominant regional airport, [KBOS], that effectively monopolizes commercial aviation.  Three airlines schedule excessively at KBOS: JetBlue, American, and Delta. JetBlue is the dominant hub airline with a schedule that generates a large number of through-passengers (thus imposing much larger impacts on the area, to accommodate the added flights).

To gain airline support for NextGen, or at least to ensure the airlines will not oppose NextGen (which would kill FAA’s chances of getting Congressional funding), FAA has sold out on their responsibilities to protect communities and the environment. FAA has apparently told the airlines that they can expect increased runway throughput, which FAA will achieve by abolishing all noise mitigation procedures and creating new flight procedures that turn lower and as close as possible to the runways. NextGen is being used as a decoy or cover; by claiming NextGen is all new and fancy, FAA tricks everyone – including Congress – into not noticing that what is REALLY happening is simply the wholesale abandonment of FAA’s past responsibilities to protect the environment and community health. And, by the way, NextGen is NOT all new and fancy; most of it has existed and been used for decades; the alleged benefits are just a fraudulent sales pitch.

Clearly, when you study what FAA has imposed at ALL NextGen airports, the game plan is to maximize runway throughput. This accommodates the ideal all airlines want: unrestricted scheduling to tweak profits higher using expanded hub operations. So, with this in mind, at an airport like Boston, FAA focuses on using the combination of runways with the highest capacity per hour, which at Boston is to have arrivals land on the parallel runways 4L and 4R. Just like happens when new freeway lanes are added, the airlines are quick to eat up the increased capacity; supply defines and expands demand. At Boston, FAA is now heavily relying on 4R and 4L to ‘accommodate’ the expansion by JetBlue, Delta and American. So much for quality of life under the intensified approach corridor. Milton does not really need to get sleep, do they???

A recent 13-hr arrival stream to Boston’s 4L and 4R

And, of course, FAA applies the same strategy at all airports where airlines want to expand hub-related profits: they use runway combinations that maximize capacity, even if wind and other factors might argue against these decisions. It’s called ‘choosing runways to traffic’, and it’s a way to be overly accommodative to airlines.

The result is streaming arrivals: nearly nonstop impacts on the ground, one arrival after another after another, sometimes even paired arrivals that are nearly side-by-side. As shown in this table, summarizing arrivals per hour on the intensified approaches to Boston’s runway 4L and 4R, the impact is relentless. Note the busiest hours are non-stop, averaging as little as 1.2-minutes between flights. [click here to view the entire stream in a data table]

And, adding insult to injury, when people notice and ask what has changed, both FAA and the airport authority (Massport, in this example) play with them: they say nothing has changed.

How Do We Kill This Monster?

FAA is simply out of control. And, Congress is doing squat to correct this problem. We need leaders in Congress to:

  1. demand that FAA serve the people ahead of the corporations, and this requires an emphasis on both transparency and accountability;
  2. demand that FAA cease spending our money to propagandize for the industry; this regulatory capture has gone on far too long;
  3. pass legislation that strongly disincentivizes airline hubbing – one of the simplest changes would be to formulate a new set of fees and taxes, the heart of which should be a very steep aviation fuel tax;
  4. and, pass legislation that restores local control, so that local communities have a real voice, and can impose reasonable curfews and capacity limits, and can say ‘NO!’ to airport over-expansion.

NextGen: “A Virtual Highway, and the Traffic Never Stops”

A good opinion piece related to NextGen impacts (and ongoing FAA failures) near the Baltimore-Washington Airport [KBWI]. This airport serves as the hub for Southwest, in the DC area (NOTE: the two other major airports serving the DC area are Dulles [KIAD] and Reagan National [KDCA]; United hubs at KIAD, and American dominates at KDCA]. There is some misinformation in the Op/Ed, as happens in a world run by money and set on crafting and pitching propaganda, but they also make some great points.

Here is an archived copy, with aiREFORM footnotes added:

Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded.