The Congressional Process to Reauthorize FAA: Is it Just a Show, and Will it Go Far Enough?

Lots is happening in DC right now, though it is not clear if more than a few of the well-paid elected officials care enough to press through long-overdue reforms. If they fail to alter FAA’s cozy protectionism of this industry, the problems will persist: more noise (along with less sleep), more air pollutants (along with higher morbidity rates), and more rapid expansion of the greenhouse gas emissions by an industry that is the fastest growing contributor to global climate change. In time, the latter will mean loss of the polar ice (which appears to be accelerating), as indicated in this chart:

selected years added and labeled by aiREFORM (click on image to view source at NSIDC)

Note how Arctic sea ice has steadily declined in the past three decades. Losing polar ice is not a trivial matter; it will result in much higher sea levels, higher atmospheric energy and water vapor levels (stronger winds and bigger rain/snow events), and intensified weather extremes (the kind that fool trees into blooming early, only to freeze off the pollinized blossoms, killing that year’s fruit crop).

The Ball is in Your Court, Congress!

This week, the details are being deliberated in the U.S. House, and it looks like the Senate is also pressing to ‘hurry up’ and reauthorize FAA. Congress has important work to do for us in the U.S., but the consequences are global, going far beyond just us. From a climate justice perspective, the consequences are horribly unjust. Air travel and air cargo are industries that serve the wealthiest nations, but the poorest nations tend to be the most vulnerable. A nation like the U.S. can spend enormous funds elevating runways in Florida, but what is a small nation in equatorial regions to do, except simply move away? And, as the most vulnerable nations are destroyed, the global scarcity of land will only compel more instability, more refugees, and more wars.
We need to understand this now: there are real and ugly consequences for our obsessive hyper-consumption, and aviation is a big part of that bad habit. Every benefit bears a cost; the aviation-related benefits we enjoy today are at a growing cost to others on the planet … not just airport neighbors near over-developed U.S. hubs, but also communities at or near sea-level, across the globe.

Some Resources

Here are a few current documents and articles for readers to ponder:

  • HR.4, FAA Re-Authorization draft, Section-by-Section Summary – offers summaries of the many proposals, before most were either withdrawn or voted out by committee. One wonders: is there a better process for compelling a captured agency to serve THE PEOPLE, not just their industry? Is this current process rigged to empower lobbyists and opportunistic politicians? (27p, click here for archived copy)
  • HR.4, Draft Rule – take a look at the rules set up to ‘manage’ the amendment proposals and ensure the final draft serves industry. (click here for archived copy; click here for source)
  • UPDATE: The Dirtiest of Washington Politics? — ATC Privatization By Deception? – it was suspicious when Shuster suddenly announced abandonment of ATC privatization and his decision to not run again. Now it is back on the plate again, which begs the question: did Shuster et al decide to quit wasting effort deliberating and instead just impose their industry-serving plans? (click here for archived copy; click here for source)
  • Climate Change Could Increase ‘Whiplash’ Between Wet and Dry Years in California, Leading to More Disasters (click here to view source, a 4/24/2018 article at EcoWatch)

Airport Reference Materials: Annual Enplanements, ATADS Operations, Tonnage, AIP Grants, and NPIAS Lists

There is now a newly-completed and extensive collection of searchable/downloadable PDFs with valuable information on U.S. airports. All data was collected from online sources, either FAA or vendors who do outsource work for FAA.

Many of the tables are grouped by state and ranked by a factor such as enplanements. Alaska is top of the list, and a huge aviation state, so be sure to scroll down a few pages to see Alabama and the other states where NextGen abuses are causing so many problems (Massachusetts, Maryland, New York and Washington are good studies).

Here is a short index, with links:

Much more will follow, as these resources make it easier to expose how deeply FAA is captured, in service of industry players. Readers are encouraged to spend some time studying parts of this data collection; if you see something that really jumps out (for waste, abuse of authority or outright fraud by FAA) please share it on.

UPDATE, 4/13/2018: — correction to original posting… ATC staffing data was inadvertently not included. The Consolidated Airport Data for 844 Airports table has been updated, and one more table has been added (the more extensive data table showing annual ATC staffing for 263 FAA-staffed towers).

Debunked: FAA’s Latest 20-Year Forecast

It is that time of year, when FAA again parades out a 20-year forecast to prop up agency spending. These forecasts are notorious for being routinely exaggerated, i.e., robustly unrealistic, but the pro-spending bias keeps happening, since the exaggerations work well to dupe the public.

The opening line is revealing; compare this statement (“…All indicators show that air travel in the United States is strong…”) with FAA’s own data, which has been compiled into the table below.

This table shows combined total tower operations for all of the 500+ FAA and contract control towers, as documented in ATADS. Note that total operations peaked in 1999, and have fallen 26% since. The decline has gone on for decades, and has been steady; there is no concrete sign of a reversal.

Note also a paragraph deep in the FAA news release, justifying further expansion of infrastructural spending, on the weak FAA assumption that total airport operations will rise 19% in the next 20 years (from 51.0 million in 2018 to 60.5 million in 2038). Think about it; airport operations cannot even keep up with the positive growth rate of our national population. The data is clear: this industry has been declining. And, yes, the new forecast truly is based on FAA’s ‘assumption’, that a downward-flat trend for two decades will suddenly inflect upward.

While you critically study FAA’s news release, 24-page Forecast, and Fact Sheet (archived copies at the three links), ponder these notes:

  • The RPM metric is not a valid metric for industry growth. As the few remaining airlines continue to adjust schedules with increased hub concentration, passengers end up flying LONGER flights with added legs (origin-to-hub-to-destination, and even origin-hub1-hub2-destination, instead of origin-direct-destination). This increases RPM totals. If a routing via the Atlanta hub adds 24% to the total flight distance, RPMs also increase by 24%. The fastest growing hub right now is Seattle; when Delta sells tickets for passengers between California and the Midwest or East Coast, more and more itineraries end up flying via KSEA. Likewise, as FAA continues to over-accommodate airline excessive hubbing on the East Coast, we will see RPM increases on trips to the West Coast out of Boston, the NYC airports, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Reagan National.
  • Here’s another piece of spin, from the fifth paragraph of the News Release: “Air Traffic Modernization is rapidly moving towards satellite navigation technologies and procedures which will continue to allow enhanced navigation for more aircraft….” The truth is, there has been no rapid modernization because most of the GPS system was implemented in the mid-1990s! Also, the so-called ‘enhanced navigation’ is potentially a valuable improvement, but it is consistently rendered worthless by FAA’s failure to manage capacity, such as by imposing hourly flow limits. In other words, so long as FAA continues to allow airlines to over-schedule at a handful of airline-chosen hubs, ATC will have to continue to issue delays … as we routinely see at KBOS, KJFK, KLGA, KDCA, KSEA, and elsewhere. Using online flight tracking programs, we see thousands of delays everyday, in the form of gate holds, long taxi-out times due to congestion, turns and loops during the enroute/cruise segment, extended patterns to sequence arrivals via radar vectors, and long taxi-in times due to congestion. If FAA does not change their strategy, these delays will only grow.
  • The news release notes that there were 840.8 million domestic enplanements in 2017. If we fly a nonstop ticket from our origin to an airport destination, it will count as one enplanement, but ONLY if it is a direct nonstop flight. If we fly via a hub, or a series of stops, the number of enplanements increases (one enplanement per takeoff segment). Thus, a figure of 840.8 million enplanements in 2017 sounds like a big number, but actually means no more than 420.4 out-and-back ‘trips’. With more data, we could establish an estimate that is likely even fewer than 300 million actual full ‘trips’ per year, once we factor out extra trip legs (such as via hubs).
  • The news release also cites a 1.7% annual growth rate estimate for domestic enplanements, but how much of this will be due to increased hubbing? Even the simplest hub-related flights (e.g., outbound routed origin-HUB-destination, and return trip routed destination-HUB-origin) tallies four enplanements, which is roughly double the national annual average. If Delta, JetBlue, and others intensify hubbing, we can end up with an annual growth rate far exceeding the national population growth rate. But, with more hubbing, this would actually be less energy-efficient; lengthened flight distances and more stops would INCREASE fossil fuel consumption, having an even higher impact on climate and communities.
  • On average, U.S. citizens fly less than one commercial passenger air trip per year. And, importantly, some of us travel a whole bunch, many times per week. So, in this annual forecast, we really need FAA to go deeper with the data and attempt to accurately define just how elite air travel is. What percentage of our national population did not fly at all in 2017? And what is the trend year to year; are more people responding to climate change concerns by electing to travel less, or not at all? It could actually be that airlines serve an elite few U.S. citizens, more so than the larger ‘general public’. Considering the intensive fuel consumption (and impacts, upon climate change as well as health and neighborhood quality of life), it would be an appropriate national policy to stop subsidizing this industry and shift costs away from communities and onto the airlines and passengers; it would also be an appropriate national policy to impose a fee structure that discourages excessive flying by one passenger (e.g., no tax on the first two roundtrips per year, a steep tax for the third thru fifth roundtrip each year, and a very steep tax for subsequent roundtrips).
  • Aviation is the most intensive fuel-consumption activity in our modern lifestyle. It has enormous negative impacts, not only upon climate change, but also upon public health and neighborhood quality of life. Efforts to increase airport capacity do not reduce these impacts; they INCREASE these impacts.
  • Near the bottom of the news release, a paragraph glows about how this annual forecast is the ‘industry-wide standard’. More accurately, this annual forecast is a propaganda tool issued by a captured regulator, in collaboration with industry players and their lobbyists. It is disinformational, an improper use of public monies.

Elected Leaders Need to Work Together

Most of us are smart and rational people, who understand our growing problem with Climate Change and its connection to fossil fuel consumption. Those of us who apply critical thinking, to reason past the propaganda lines spun by the aviation industry cabal (aviation lobbyists, industry players, faux-regulators, etc.), understand this stark fact:

Aviation relies heavily on fossil fuel consumption, and is the fastest way for each of us to further burden our stressed atmosphere with more carbon emissions.

So, what to do about it? It seems to be a no-brainer. The growing number of responsible elected officials who are speaking up to address climate change … they need to join up with elected officials who are fighting to clean up the health and community impacts by excessive scheduling at the most problematic airports. On both counts, this is a fight for a healthy future, and to minimize the life-shortening consequences of too much fossil fuel consumption. Aviation is the perfect place to start.

One Congressional advocate for action on Climate Change is Sheldon Whitehouse, from Rhode Island. Click here to read a copy of a recent email, part of his ongoing campaign. Click here to see his 3/13/2018 news release for a recent speech.

First StART Meeting at KSEA: Great Write-up by David Goebel

The first StART Meeting was held at KSEA, on February 28th. Vashon Island activist David Goebel posted a great write-up at the website (click here for aiRchived copy). It also is clear that Sheila Brush asked some great questions, to try and help Port of Seattle (PoS … perfect acronym, no?!?) officials drill down into the real impacts of this major airport, which appears stuck in a mode of selling out to profit-seeking by Alaska and Delta airlines.

As I understand his story, it was around two decades ago that David purchased land near the north end of Vashon Island, hoping to enjoy the bucolic setting a ferry ride away from the city. Those dreams crashed when FAA implemented the HAWKZ arrival and accommodated Delta’s hub development, creating nearly nonstop arrival streams at lower altitudes. There are many nice places to call home, around Seattle, but sadly airline over-accommodation is destroying them.

David offered this closing comment:

“…something that struck me as sadly ironic is that it was really quiet in the conference room; I didn’t hear any planes. This is in stark contrast to my cabin on Vashon Island, where as often as every two or three minutes they drown out all the sounds of nature, destroying the reason I moved there 20 years ago…..”

See also:
  • PoS StART webpage – link
  • 2/28/2018 – POS’ Agenda for StART meeting (link for archived copy)
  • 2/28/2018 – Lance Lyttle’s 22-pg slideshow for StART meeting (link for archived copy)

A Victory for the People: Shuster is Scrapping A4A’s ATC Privatization Scheme

Yesterday, Congressman Bill Shuster, chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, announced he is abandoning his multi-year push (going back to at least 2015) aimed at privatizing the U.S. ATC system. The idea was sold as a way to remove roughly 35,000 employees from federal service, but many saw that in fact, the idea was just a way to give more leverage to the airlines and other corporate interests.

This is a big victory for all of us who want FAA to stop being a captured agency, a faux-regulator that fails to serve people while serving only aviation commerce.

Below is an archived compilation of various news articles with the announcement. The actual Press Release has not yet been posted at Congressman Shuster’s website.

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

See also this earlier aiReform content:

FEB 25-27: Aviation Noise & Emissions Symposium, at Long Beach, CA

Every year, industry representatives (including FAA and the lobbyists, of course!) meet at around this time, for the ‘Aviation Noise & Emissions Symposium’. The event is traditionally held in the Palm Springs area, but is at Long Beach this year.

On the following page, aiReform has produced a table listing the attendees as listed at the event website. An effort has been made to identify which attendees are there on behalf of their local impacted airport, as well as to identify the industry players, lobbyists, and regulators. It appears that more than half of attendees are industry/regulatory.

Some of the attendees are actual activists who have fought against growing impacts under FAA’s defective NextGen program, or caused by excessive aviation operations. Other attendees include local citizens who may or may not care much, but were selected by the airport authority and/or local political officials, to fill a spot in an oversight group. It might be constructive if attendees and/or readers of this Post will submit further information, to clarify who the real hard-working activists are. Likewise, it would be interesting to learn more about the many companies and regulatory officials in attendance. For example, Lourdes Maurice is listed representing a company; formerly, she was a high-ranking FAA official, in charge of environmental issues. This appears to be yet another example of FAA-industry revolving doors.

Lastly, it would be valuable to hear from the activist-participants. Did they find this event helpful and informative, or did they instead feel it was just a dog-and-pony-show aimed at gaining their support of further aviation growth? Were the presenters sincerely interested in managing and reducing impacts, or just yes-men, passing along the industry sales pitches?

Santa Monica’s Airport Subsidies, & the ‘Draft Minimum Standards for Commercial Operations’

This past week, numerous local citizens met with city airport officials, to discuss the DRAFT Minimum Standards for Commercial Aeronautical Services. This 41-page document (archived here) may be well worth reading … not just for those who fear continued air charter operations at the shortened KSMO runway, but also for people at other U.S. airports, seeking to clarify who is to be held accountable for the airport impacts.

Some of the content is mere boilerplate, but other details make it clear that the two key airport regulatory parties (FAA and airport authorities) both tend to ignore area residents while serving only commercial operators. And how is this done? Well, if and when a citizen raises a concern, the airport regulatory party is quick to pretend they are not accountable while also directing all concerned citizens ‘to the other party’. The result is regulatory failure; where safety and environment demand real and timely accountability, instead we find an accountability vacuum.

At Santa Monica, the impacts continue. Although the runway was substantially shortened, jets and charter operations still fly. Area residents remain fearful that the City will allow – or even encourage – the development of increased air charter operations.

‘Minimum standards’ should exist, especially as related to safety and environmental impact. Given how marginally unsafe the shortened runway is for larger, fuel-laden commercial flights, it is absolutely appropriate for the city to refine their minimum standards in a way that shuts down commercial charter operations. But, will they do so?

Submitting suggestions or comments on this Draft

Ben Wang, at the ‘SMO Future’ Facebook group, submitted a table with his suggestions (click here to view the aiReform archived copy).

Readers who wish to may submit their own suggestions. The two key airport officials to contact are:

Something Else to Think About: Who pays for these airport officials?

Mr. Markos is Airport Manager, a position he has held since 2013 (per this news release). After a quick online search, it was not yet clear what his annual salary is. But, that same search revealed that Ms. Lowenthal, as the Senior Advisor to the City Manager on Airport Affairs, earns a $162,036 annual salary. (click here to view the City’s 9/28/2017 press release)

Here’s something to think about. In good form, to justify a high salary, the city’s press release proceeded to identify Ms. Suwenthal’s substantial background, both educationally and professionally. But, that point aside, if senior assistants earn this large a salary, it suggests that the costs to manage KSMO, which frankly caters to just a small group of charter operators, are quite substantial. And these costs have to be born by someone.

These high costs beg a few more critical questions:

  1. what exactly is the full extent of city subsidy for this airport?
  2. if the city subsidies ended, would area residents finally obtain relief from air pollutant, noise, and safety impacts, especially those caused by charter operators and leaded-fuel local flights? In other words, is this subsidy pattern actually perpetuating impacts that destroy health and residential quality of life?
  3. if the city continues the pattern of impact upon nearby residents (both in Santa Monica and in adjacent neighborhoods, such as West LA), where is the money coming from to pay these subsidies?

Federal Way’s Mayor at PSRC, Expressing Numerous Concerns about KSEA Over-Expansion

Here’s a summary of some concerns opposing KSEA over-expansion, expressed by Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell, at a meeting of the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) executive board. Highlights and aiReform footnotes have been added. To view the three attachments in the summary, click on these links:

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

What’s Going On Here?

The pattern observed across the nation is that decision-making behind airport expansions is intentionally dispersed and distorted, so as to create plausible unaccountability for all involved officials. In this example, the industry (especially Delta and Alaska airlines, the two major hub players at KSEA) are getting FAA assistance to push through even more hub development, with two regional authorities offering cover: Port of Seattle, and Puget Sound Regional Council. It needs to be understood that both of these regional authorities are heavily biased toward commerce; they have no meaningful concern for impacts in residential communities, as evidenced by non-mention of these growing problems in Lance Lyttle’s POS slideshow.

What is the Biggest Distortion?

Lance Lyttle’s slideshow, especially the part pretending that the expansion is serving local demand. Quite the opposite, the two major hub airlines are simply adding supply and scheduling huge numbers of passengers THROUGH KSEA, to boost their profits. People in and around Puget Sound have not and will not massively increase their alleged ‘demand’ for air travel, as Mr. Lyttle is implying (i.e., the 41% growth in enplanements in just 5-years is almost entirely to serve people outside Puget Sound). Again, the expansion is solely for airline benefit, and entirely at a cost to local community health and quality of life.

Why is Archiving These Documents?

These documents are being archived to encourage people to study them, and to ensure the records remain available to future airport impact victims who may seek to study the past. It is hoped that this archiving will help people to become more effective in advocating for balance, to protect their homes and communities. Readers are invited to send their comments and reviews to aiReform, which may be included in Updates to this Post.

See also:

Did a ‘Vendor Error’ Reveal FAA Arbitrariness on NextGen?

Jondi Gumz’s article in the Monterey Herald, does a very good job explaining the problems people are having with FAA NextGen, not just under south approaches to KSFO, but at major hub airports nationwide. (‘Santa Cruz, San Lorenzo Valley residents surprised by new flight path noise’; click here for the online version, click here for an archived PDF with aiReform analysis).

Here are some points from an analysis of the article:

  1. RE: how FAA’s latest action shows they CAN immediately revert to pre-NextGen routes: Think about it … if FAA is able to immediately respond to a vendor error, shifting away from the problematic and impactful NextGen SERFR arrival and back to the legacy Big Sur arrival, why is it taking so long to revert to less impactful pre-NextGen routes at other locations, such as Phoenix? Indeed, out of one side of the mouth FAA has been saying ‘it is impossible to go back’, yet here, they are proving it is absolutely possible, and being done … but only at FAA’s arbitrary discretion.
  2. RE: the explosion of complaints nationwide: It is important to understand, the flood of complaints was not so much due to the application of GPS technologies (which, in fact, have been applied for more than two decades now), but is a consequence of FAA ignoring impacts while using these technologies to increase airport capacity. In a nutshell, FAA is serving the airlines, at the expense of communities. The airlines want increased ‘runway throughput’ at selected hubs, which enables them to densely pack more arrivals into smaller time slots, which can enhance profits. FAA is reducing separation between these arrives, partially by jamming some of the flights lower, to set up parallel streams of closely-spaced arrivals. On the ground, homeowners are being inundated with near non-stop noise.
  3. RE: FAA’s mishandling of the complaints: FAA is just delaying, as that best serves the airlines. This timeline could be expedited, but even if ordered to do so by a court, FAA has shown it will delay, delay, delay. This is one of the main reasons people are so upset about both NextGen and FAA: an indifferent and arrogant bureaucracy, captured by the industry it is supposed to regulate, refuses to even acknowledge the impacts by NextGen, and then refuses to serve the people (instead of just industry). Making matters worse, we lack a functioning Congress to demand FAA clean up its act.
  4. RE: the suggestion that NextGen is ‘new’: FAA has been ‘adopting NextGen’ since roughly 2003, and has been applying the same GPS technologies since the mid-1990s;
  5. RE: the oversold alleged benefits of NextGen: three points to clarify what is quickly summarized at one paragraph of the article:
  • FAA claims that NextGen ‘shortens routes’ and ‘saves time and fuel’, but NextGen actually offers very little improvements, since ATC has been granting long direct routes for many decades now, even back to the early 1970s.
  • FAA claims that NextGen ‘allows planes to fly closer together’, and it is absolutely true that ATC is jamming flights closer together, but the NextGen technologies have little to do with this change. The change is driven instead by FAA’s willingness to accommodate airlines, by reducing spacing (while simultaneously ignoring the impacts on residents below)
  • FAA claims that NextGen ‘avoids delays caused by airport stacking as planes wait for an open runway’. Well actually, NextGen is increasing delays; FAA is overly accommodating the airlines, allowing TOO MANY FLIGHTS in small time windows via tighter spacing, which in turn is forcing ATC to impose delays during the cruise portion of the flight, upstream from the final approach.