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.

Is FlightAware Collaborating with FAA to Misinform the Public?

Here’s a JPEG compilation showing a classic example of misinformation by the flight tracking website, FlightAware; this shows Seattle [KSEA] flights, on a nice summer Sunday morning:

Note the substantial enroute delays issued by ATC, to the stream inbound over Oregon, and the trans-Pacific arrivals over Olympic National Park.

Of course, this screencap also shows the massive failure that NextGen is, in terms of reducing delays. Simply: no technologies, no new systems, can correct the delays that happen, when FAA refuses/fails to stop the commercial airlines from scheduling too many flights.

For context, please understand that these websites (another is FlightRadar24) get their data from FAA and process it. They produce a great product, that helps us all to see when various flights will arrive (so we can pick up a loved one), but also help us to view how the whole ATC system works. What they should NOT do, though, is help FAA pass on false information. In this example, with a 1,500ft cloud layer, FlightAware is passing on the false claim that departures are being delayed. Ponder these facts:

  1. The arrivals were also being delayed, and quite substantially … look at those turns over Oregon and the Olympic Peninsula! So, why did FlightAware fail to mention arrival delays in their alert, too? Is it because FAA pretends these enroute delays do not matter?
  2. These delay alerts appear to be triggered by FAA reports; i.e., it would make no sense for websites to post a delay, if it had not been officially declared and defined by an FAA source.
  3. Notice the delay alert adds departure delays are ‘increasing’. This implies the low clouds are changing, yet they are not really changing… if anything, the clouds are rising higher, as the fair-weather summer day advances. So, is the cause of these delays the clouds, or simply TOO MANY DEPARTURES SCHEDULED?
  4. When KSEA is in a north flow, the departures would quickly be climbing into clouds as they approach Boeing Field. So, in a north flow, the departure flow rate could be reduced significantly, by a 1,500ft cloud deck. But, this is south flow, so the departures are all far from Boeing Field, no potential conflict.

It is bad enough that FAA is a captured agency, serving aviation money with no real concern for impacts upon people. But, the situation is made worse by false information – propaganda if you will: when FAA feeds erroneous delay causes to the online flight tracking sites, they then pass this misinformation onward, to further deceive the public.

This type of ‘collaboration’ needs to end. FAA needs to reform, to become an accountable, transparent, and truthful servant TO THE PEOPLE, and truly regulating the industry. To achieve this, Congress needs to dump the bad idea of ATC Privatization, and our elected reps need to DEMAND FAA clean up its act!

A Tutorial: How You Can Use Online Resources to Identify and Study Flights Impacting Your Home

Many of us are too keenly aware of the destruction being done to residential neighborhoods, by excessive flight scheduling at the few U.S. airports where airlines are expanding their hubs. To protect homes and health, more of us are now forced to fight with FAA and airport authorities, asking for information and filing our concerns and complaints. This fight is generally made more difficult by one of FAA’s ugliest habits: their tendency to impede real education of citizens who are impacted by aviation.

Sadly, FAA et al tend to bury us with acronyms that cause eyes to glaze over. They try to dazzle us with vague technical references, hoping we become so overwhelmed by the details that we just have to step back and let the experts work this all out. They do not want us to know, of course, that the experts are routinely being compensated by FAA and/or industry, which of course biases their ‘expertise’ with a pro-aviation slant.

And so, there is a need for us to cultivate our own expertise. Fortunately, the internet offers very many resources, not just for research but also for helping one another. 

Here’s a tool that can help. The scrollable PDF below can be downloaded and shared, and it can be viewed offline. It presents an example of how one online flight tracking website (in this case, FlightAware) can be used to gather more information about impacting flights. The links within the PDF are all active.

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

Please use this tutorial. Learn, research, and share, so others can benefit from your research; so we can precisely present the data needed to compel FAA and your local airport authority to end the excessive impacts. Airports need to serve the local community first, not the airlines and their failed regulator.

A Good Example of NextGen Propaganda Being Pushed by Mainstream Media

In Seattle, KOMO reporter Joel Moreno is using social media to promote a demonstrably disinformational news video. His latest is about NextGen and the Greener Skies program pushed by both FAA and Port of Seattle (POS). Click here to view Mr. Moreno’s online post, where you can click through to view the news video, as well as his tweets.

As happens so frequently these days, the reporting is superficial and pro-aviation; i.e., the reporter just pushes along the selling points they are fed by FAA and industry (airport authorities, airlines, lobbyists, etc.), while doing NOTHING to probe the accuracy of what they are telling the public. Airtime gets filled, and people get fed what the status quo wants them to think. It seems like that is all we get, these days: Propaganda, from lazy, non-reporting reporters.

Here’s one example. At the heart of his news story, Mr. Moreno states: “Implemented in 2013, Greener Skies uses satellite technology so jets make a continuous descent at low power instead of the stair-step approach used before. However, on a typical cloudy day, three out of four arriving planes go right over Beacon Hill.”

What Mr. Moreno fails to investigate are these critical questions (and answers):

  1. is this declared use of satellite technology something new, that offers any substantial improvements in efficiency? (ANSWER: no … commercial airlines have been using direct flights for nearly five decades; in fact, ATC always prefers to issue direct routes, and will do so unless there are too many flights. The only route shortening happening here is within 10-miles of the airports, via the wholesale disposal of decades-old noise mitigation agreements … and the environmental/health cost is extraordinary.)
  2. are the jets making these continuous descents at low power? (ANSWER: only in some cases … but in most cases, due to FAA allowing airlines to schedule too many arrivals, ATC is levelling off the flights … and this is intensifying impacts on neighborhoods below.)
  3. Have the so-called ‘stair-step’ approaches been reduced? (ANSWER: no …  there is no evidence that these have been reduced and, in fact, there is ample evidence they are increasing, due to too many arrivals. Bear in mind, ATC does not issue level-offs just for fun; a level-off is the easiest way for ATC to safely separate aircraft, keeping them the required 1,000-ft above the traffic below.)
  4. Has efficiency improved at SeaTac? (ANSWER: no … not if you look at the arrival ‘parking lots’ and other substantial delays ATC is imposing many times every day, often for hours on end, to try and manage the rampant airline overscheduling. Large turns, loops, and even multiple loops are issued to one flight after another, and at all four arrival gates (east of Mt. Rainier, near Glacier Peak, over Oregon, and over the Olympic Peninsula), so as to slow the arrival flows.)
  5. Was Greener Skies implemented in 2013? (ANSWER: actually, no … a lot of money and effort was expended to sell the concepts via an environmental review, but nothing was implemented. Instead, FAA and POS are using the Greener Skies ‘concept’ as cover, to implement lower/louder procedures, with turns closer to the airport, solely to accomodate schedule expansions – and increased profits – by Delta and Alaska.)

One more note, well worth emphasizing: the stair-step approaches are an absolute travesty of disinformation. FAA et al are pushing the idea that, somehow, applying what are implied as ‘new whiz-bang NextGen technologies’, ATC has discovered they no longer have to issue level-offs to arrivals. FAA and industry are collaborating to pitch this disinformation, and too many people in the general public are vulnerable to buying this pitch as fact. It is not. Looking at this graphic (included in Mr. Moreno’s article), notice the so-called ‘conventional’ approach, done in yellow. Look closely and notice there are four short level-offs on the yellow line, all well south of the stadiums, implying a quick and frantic series of crazy short level-offs then descents. Nothing like this happens, nor has it ever happened. It is shameful that FAA itself is not vehemently protesting Mr. Moreno’s use of this graphic (oh, wait, FAA helped to create that false graphic … no wonder they do not protest!).

Here’s an archived PDF copy of the news story:

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

A Closer Look at Massport’s Latest News Release

Here’s a good example of a typical news release by an airport authority: long on emphasizing ‘positives’, while totally ignoring impacts and other ‘negatives’.

Due to a runway closure for maintenance work, some residents in Randolph, Quincy, Milton, and Dorchester have seen a few weeks of temporary relief from the NextGen-related approaches to runways 4L and 4R. Their short reprieve will end soon. Of course, at any hub airport, where one or two airlines schedule lots of extra flights to sort out passengers who never even leave the terminal (as do JetBlue and American, the two main airlines hubbing at Logan), relief for one community becomes intensified hell for another community; the too-many-flights just get shifted elsewhere. See this local news article about Medford, Somerville, and Malden.

The airport authority for Boston Logan [KBOS] is Massport. They sent out an email, updating everyone (see archived PDF copy, below). Reading this as an impacted citizen, you may have these thoughts/questions:

  1. Tom Glynn declares, “Safety is Massport’s top priority,” but is this just a platitude/mantra? Would reducing the hourly operations level enhance safety, while also potentially eliminating all flight delays?
  2. Glynn also states, “We appreciate the patience of our neighboring communities and the travelling public as flight patterns have changed….” Would a reduced flight schedule not only improve safety and reduce delays, but also bring relief to the thousands impacted by repetitive flights that are low and slow and loud?
  3. The projects are called routine and essential for safety. Again, is safety enhanced by managing capacity, such as by imposing restrictions on hourly arrivals that ensure all arrivals are as direct as possible via routes critically designed to minimize community impacts?
  4. A portion of the project is to replace a wooden pier with a concrete pier that is designed to last 75 years. But, will the airport face closure even sooner, due to global sea-rise?

This last point deserves some elaboration. All KBOS runways are close to mean sea level (MSL), with lowest points ranging from 14-feet to 19-feet above MSL. Atmospheric CO2 is increasing at rates that are astonishing, when compared with billions of years of Earth geological history. Polar ice is disappearing (feeding more water into the oceans and atmosphere), oceans are warming (thus the water is expanding), and storms are getting stronger (accelerating erosion, especially at locations that are built on old landfills and estuaries, like Logan). All of this climate change is a result of excessive fossil fuel consumption (our insane carbon addiction, as a society, intensifying after WWII), and aviation remains the fastest way to consume fossil fuels … often for arbitrary purposes, such as air vacations and air freight. So, if FAA and airport authorities continue to refuse to manage airport capacity, their failure enhances the aviation impact on climate change.

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

FAA Forms Workgroups to solve their ‘People Problems’

FAA has a problem, and like any over-matured and sclerotic agency, they have their solutions. Not clean solutions that actually FIX THE PROBLEM, but dirty solutions to serve the agency/industry interests while disempowering people.

FAA’s failing NextGen implementations are destroying long-established residential communities across the nation. People are standing up, speaking louder and louder, and connecting and organizing. So, how does FAA propose to deal with this problem?

Form workgroups.

Just to be clear, the ‘problem’ FAA wants to ‘deal with’ is not the NextGen failures but the PEOPLE who are organizing. If their message gains traction, the People might actually get a few in Congress off their butts, demanding (and I mean REALLY DEMANDING!) that FAA fix this mess. The right steps are obvious:

  • demand Huerta step down (he has disserved the larger Public under two administrations, and is clearly just an industry hack);
  • revert the problematic NextGen implementations to pre-NextGen routes;
  • legislate a robust local democratic voice so that local citizens are able to decide what curfews and operational restrictions are needed to best serve their local community (i.e., the airport should be THEIR LOCAL AIRPORT, not a fortress for a major airline);
  • legislate reforms that disincentivize hubbing, so the airlines will instead offer more direct routes and a better/fairer distribution of airport impacts, equitably using hundreds and thousands of under-utilized airports instead of just a dozen evolving superHubs.

Why does FAA like to form workgroups? Simply because they are ‘manageable’. Each workgroup first creates an illusion of citizen involvement. But, the membership consistently includes industry ‘stakeholders’, who dutifully steer the work process – and infuse delays when the work product is going in the wrong direction. Plus, even the most ardent and effective aviation impact activists are human, thus susceptible to feeling a lot more accepting of the impacts because they are now an elite citizen representative.

Here’s an example of a new workgroup related to Baltimore [KBWI]. They appear to be very well focused on fixing the problems, but are running into an intransigent FAA. The Facebook group, Save Milton Skies, shared a link to this article, which is archived below. Rebuttal comments have been added by aiREFORM. It is a good article, overall, though it again demonstrates how FAA’s salespitch elements are readily incorporated into the final news article.

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

See also:

Queens Quiet Skies: Latest Newsletter Offers Great Insight into FAA’s NextGen Failures

Janet McEneaney is President of Queens Quiet Skies, a group advocating for relief from aviation noise impacts related to both the LaGuardia [KLGA] and Kennedy [KJFK] airports. These are two of the three major airports that serve the NYC area. FAA’s full capitulation to the airlines, to expand flight schedules beyond what these airports can accommodate, has not only created terrible impacts that are destroying communities, but is also the root cause of nearly all delays in the U.S. ATC system. In other words, if FAA simply chose to apply rational capacity discipline on the NYC airports, system delays would be massively reduced.

Janet makes some excellent points in her latest update email to QQS members. A PDF copy has been created, with active links to the referenced materials. Hopefully this will help other aviation impact activists to learn about what FAA/industry are doing, why NextGen is failing, how workgroups tend to become coopted/steered by FAA/industry, and more.

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

BTW, Janet has been a great activist on this issue, for years. Read more here.

Also, archived copies of the documents linked within the QQS update may be accessed via these links:

MHFC: The 8PM Arrivals to Boston were ‘Quite an Airshow’ on May 24th

An incredible airshow: Michael Huerta’s Flying Circus.

20160408.. Michael Huerta's Flying CircusIn service to the airlines, FAA has carefully worked to bypass environmental review procedures while also embarking on a scheme to abandon wholesale decades worth of noise mitigation procedures. In their effort to increase ‘throughput’, turns are being made lower and closer to the airports, for both departures and arrivals. This would reduce fuel consumption by a small amount, but the savings are routinely more than lost when excessive airline scheduling necessitates that ATC must issue delay turns (even entire delay loops) during the enroute/cruise portion of the flight.

It is really a circus. Controllers work harder, and pilots also work harder. Airline profits tweak slightly higher while many airports downsize and more flights become concentrated into a handful of superHubs. More delays are incurred, and repetitive-noise-pattern impacts increasingly damage neighborhoods that previously had no aviation noise issues. And what do FAA regulators do about it? Nothing. They just retire, take their pension, and sign up to work for the industry and as lobbyists.

A FlightAware screencap, showing a gaggle of arrivals to KBOS; flight tags added by aiREFORM (click on image to view original Facebook post)

This Analysis looks at a series of arrivals to Logan [KBOS], the commercial hub airport in Boston. A Milton resident had posted the above image at Save Milton Skies on Facebook, so aiREFORM went to FlightAware and compiled a collection of screen captures for this unusually messed up arrival flow. The images are presented in a scrollable PDF.

There are 16 arrivals in 27 minutes; that equates to 9 arrivals per 15-minutes, or an average spacing of 1.7-minutes between flights. This is a rate that should be easily achieved, even if all flights were being routed to a single runway. All arrivals (except one) landed on Runway 4L; the one exception was a Boeing 787-900 arriving from London, that apparently needed a longer runway. Runway 4R was unavailable – NOTAM’d closed for a month of maintenance work.

Between this and other MHFC examples, and the many lawsuits against FAA precipitated by NextGen implementation, sometimes it feels as though FAA is intentionally doing a poor job. If FAA fails enough, do they increase the likelihood of Shuster pushing through legislation that takes ATC out of FAA and makes it a private corporate entity? Would ATC privatization actually reward FAA personnel, who would still collect the federal pensions they earned, but would also be able to operate with even more opacity and without Congressional oversight?

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

How can FAA prevent such inefficiencies?

  1. Spend more effort managing arrival flows, and implement lower arrival rates.
  2. Encourage airport authorities to impose airport fees that disincentivize hubbing.
  3. Pressure the airlines to schedule fewer flights and user larger seat capacities; the nostalgia value of 10-seaters to/from Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Hagerstown are not worth the environmental costs they help create.

Each of these proposals would improve both safety and efficiency.

Dissecting Nextgen: a Presentation at the ‘Fight the Flight 101’ Community Forum

The forum, at the Mt. Rainier High School in Des Moines, was well attended, with at least double the number who attended the Port of Seattle Commission meeting a day earlier. Toward the end of the event we learned that 1,600 were online watching the livestream video!

The energy of the QSPS members was excellent, as was their organization. The one aspect that fell short was there was simply not enough time to cover the material we were all prepared to present, but then again, we did not want to make people sit for hours. So, at the presentation, it was noted that online copies of the presentations would be posted. Here is a copy of the 42-slides by aiREFORM. Roughly half were covered to some extent, but very many were not even addressed … just not enough time.

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

Thanks to Steve, Sheila, Debi, Larry and many others, whose hard work will help to educate people, so we can get back the quality of life being taken by the aviation industry at the overexpanded Sea-Tac airport.


UPDATE, 4/29/2017:Working to Solve the Problems Created by NextGen This earlier project, an aiREFORM Post to create a short document summarizing the problems of NextGen and how to solve them, offers a text version of the 42-slide PDF above. Just click on the blue link title to view and/or download your own copy.