What Is FAA Hiding from the Public? And Why??

FAA, like many federal agencies, has a nasty habit of expending lots of time and money working to keep the people in the dark. They are supposed to comply with FOIA laws, but instead they redact the hell out of what should be disclosed. Making matters worse, in recent decades it seems as though most in Congress are ‘too busy’ and/or ‘too inert’ to force FAA to follow the FOIA laws.

Every once in a while, we get a great chance to look past these barriers. Sometimes, FAA’s redactions become unmasked. When that happens, it is like sitting down with the devil, and sharing tea and a candid conversation. So much can be learned….

In this Post, a 27-page FAA memo is offered in two forms, redacted and unredacted. This memo documents how a safety investigation produced copious details and a strong recommendation for corrective action … which was then nixed by a higher FAA official. The heavily redacted copy was provided to an investigative report team. Seeing that so much data was hidden, they filed an appeal. An appeal response letter was eventually sent, rejecting the appeal, but somehow a copy of the unredacted 27-page was included in the appeal response letter.

Here are the two versions, presented as scrollable/downloadable/searchable PDFs. View them side-by-side. See for yourself what FAA chose to redact, when a reporter team tried to help the public understand how FAA was handling a dangerous safety failure involving commercial aircraft maintenance.

Click on the image below for a scrollable view. This is the heavily unredacted version, as initially sent by FAA (and after extensive review by numerous FAA managers). Click here to download the PDF file.

Click on the image below for a scrollable view. This is the full, unredacted version. Click here to download the PDF file.

The Background:

A few days ago, an aiREFORM Post encouraged readers to read the excellent investigative series done by the Tampa Bay Times. In the third article of the series, Nathaniel Lash showed how higher level FAA managers were over-riding the conclusions and recommendations of their field inspectors. The inspectors were investigating how a nut had detached causing an elevator jam, forcing an Allegiant MD80 to do a high-speed aborted takeoff at Las Vegas. This was an extremely serious situation that would have assuredly killed everyone on board, if the nut had failed while actually airborne. A similar failure caused the 1/31/2000 crash of Alaska 261, an MD83 that lost flight control near Santa Barbara and plunged into the Pacific, killing all 88 on board.

The similarities are in two troubling areas:

  1. the casual failure by maintenance crews to properly execute their tasks and to follow needed steps that would identify and fix failures (so as to ensure nuts do not fall off leading to catastrophic crashes); and,
  2. FAA’s gross failure at safety oversight, where key FAA officials knowingly allow maintenance crews to sidestep required procedures.

The latest Times article showed that FAA was found to be covering up dangerous maintenance failures performed by AAR on the Allegiant passenger jet. Note that AAR is a Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) operation; over the past decade, airlines have been reducing labor costs related to employing their own mechanics by increasingly outsourcing aircraft maintenance to MRO contractors. Costs may go down, but so do safety margins.

An Outstanding Investigative Series on Allegiant Failures and FAA Hiding Those Safety Issues From the Public

If you are increasingly concerned that FAA appears to be just a hack, a faux-regulator that does not really serve the people but instead enables the industry … you need to read these articles.

If you have felt yourself doubting the veracity of an FAA high official, as they spew glowing pro-NextGen claims while dodging the enormous failures and impacts (like David Suomi, at the Port of Seattle on 4/25/2016; to see the video, click here, then select the April ‘video’ tab, and ‘Item 3c – Briefing’ under the 4/25 meeting) … well, you need to take a look at these articles.

This is where agency corruption goes beyond being an annoyance, to become downright dangerous.

When the Nut is Not Secured…

This photo was shot during an investigation after an Allegiant MD80 was forced to do a high speed aborted takeoff. The castellated nut at the center of the photo has a twisted safety wire, to prevent the nut from detaching. The near-accident was caused by failure to secure the nut, creating a jammed elevator.

Despite FAA and industry efforts to confuse us all, this is not rocket science.

Given the speed and power in aviation, it is absolutely critical that parts not ‘come apart’ while operating.

So, what happens when aircraft mechanics fail to include a cotter pin or safety wire, as in the photo at right? Well, in this example, a hundred or so aircraft occupants are damned lucky they did not end up dead in a post-impact fire in Las Vegas. What exactly happened? While accelerating for takeoff, the nose lifted up on its own and the crew suddenly discovered they had zero elevator control. They cut the power to bring the nose back down and, luckily, had enough runway remaining to come to a safe stop and taxi back to the gate.

…Safety Eventually Breaks Down

This particular incident has far bigger repercussions. It was one of many incidents that caught the attention of Nathaniel Lash and other reporters, who did an outstanding investigative series, published by the Tampa Bay Times. Here are links to archived PDF copies of the three articles:

The third piece just came out, and it includes an interesting twist. It appears that FOIA was used, and that FAA heavily redacted their response documents. A formal appeal was filed and, eventually, an appeal response letter was sent back by FAA, denying the request to reveal the redactions. BUT… a fully unredacted copy was enclosed with the appeal response! So, now we can see what FAA chose to initially redact (which itself can be extremely revealing).

Was the fully unredacted report enclosed by accident? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps it was enclosed by someone who had seen too much. FAA employees are real people, often feeling trapped in a corrupt and soulless bureaucracy, and silenced by the fear of losing their paycheck. Sometimes real people become sick and tired of all the lying and propaganda, and feel it is their duty to bypass the corrupt intentions of higher FAA officials; sometimes they make little ‘mistakes’ with big consequences. Lucky for all of us, not all FAA employees are afraid of the agency’s ‘culture of fear’. Some really do blow the whistle, and sometimes they do this in very subtle ways.

Also, for those who really want to dive deep, check out the 27-page unredacted report.

Maryland Governor’s Great Letter Demands FAA Revert to Ease NextGen Impacts

This is a great letter. It precisely defines the NextGen problems, points out FAA’s casual indifference that only delays while sustaining these impacts, and all but demands that FAA revert to pre-NextGen procedures until the problems are corrected. The Governor and his Chief of Staff should be proud to post this, as it shows a proper focus, serving real people ahead of corporations.

(click on image to view source and video at Baltimore Sun)

The only thing that will improve this letter is the follow through. I.e., at some point, when FAA continues to fail, requests must become demands. Concern must morph into outrage. Not just in Maryland, but everywhere, and for every instance of FAA impacts upon local communities: from Boston to San Diego, and at places like Santa Monica and Longmont, too.

If our leaders continue their general aversion to showing outrage and demanding reform, we will only continue to slide deeper into the new realm: a corporatocracy that produces profits, narrowly enjoyed by an elite few, while growing negative impacts – the diminishment of health and loss of quality of life – are born by a wide swath of citizens.

Thank you, Governor Hogan, for recognizing this is unacceptable, and demanding FAA reform NextGen.

[ai-RCHIVE] 1997-02: Sea-Tac International Airport Impact Mitigation Study, Initial Assessment & Recommendations (347p)

Take a close look at this impact study done more than two decades ago, which includes these opening paragraphs:

(click on image to view a downloadable copy of the report)

Twenty years later, how well have the Port of Seattle (POS) and local elected officials applied the content in this study, to protect and serve the local residents and taxpayers?

Is the proper BALANCE in place, so that the airport serves the local community rather than destroy it?

Is KSEA becoming yet one more case of an over-expanded airport creating benefits for airlines and the industry, at great costs in destroyed communities and lost quality of life?

KSEA: ‘Fight the Flight 101’ Community Forum, Tonight

One of the only major U.S. airports growing right now serves the Seattle area, Sea-Tac [KSEA]. While most other U.S. airports remain flat or in decline, Sea-Tac is growing simply because Delta Airlines chose to build up a new hub there in 2012. Time will show other Delta hubs (KSLC, KMSP, KDTW) will diminish to feed the excess of flights to KSEA, where areas even 20-miles from the runway are now getting far more noise and pollutant impact.

Here is the announcement by Quiet Skies Puget Sound, a group of impacted residents who have had enough and are coming together, activating to fix this mess at Sea-Tac, pressing elected officials to serve, and FAA and other authorities to become transparent and accountable:

(click on image to view event announcement and learn more)

And, here are two slides from the conclusion of the aiREFORM presentation, to be given tonight at this community forum:

The problem is a broken and corrupted culture at FAA, enabling abuses upon people by money-interests in the aviation industry. This is a widespread problem, extending far beyond Sea-Tac’s impact zone. The entire aiREFORM presentation will be posted online in the near future.

 

NextGen Impacts Continue to Expand – Terrorism/Torturism?

Here’s a letter-to-editor that concisely summarizes the impacts NextGen is causing upon residents of Milton, under the arrival paths into Boston’s Logan Airport [KBOS]:

(click on image to view source Facebook post)

The problems around Boston are repeated across the nation, and they are expanding as FAA continues to push NextGen. The alleged benefits of NextGen are fraudulently overstated, while the costs are cautiously hidden. And the entire reason for FAA’s pushing NextGen?

It is not about helping the environment; that’s just a cynical façade. NextGen is solely about increasing ‘runway throughput’, by eliminating any and all barriers that reduce airport capacity as measured in arrivals per hour.

FAA is failing to serve the public because they serve only the industry. FAA refuses to manage capacity, and has stolen away the rights of local officials to mitigate impacts with curfews, flow rate restrictions, and other measures. The airlines get profits; the residents get the shaft – sleep loss, stress, and many other health impacts.

Today’s FAA: Serving only Aviation Money by Perpetuating Environmental Impacts

Three current satellite views that illustrate how different nations balance aviation commerce with residential quality of life. The images also show how backwards the U.S. FAA has become, with the widening failures to protect people from aviation impacts.

The first image shows Austria’s largest airport, Vienna International Airport, which serves a metropolitan area with a population of 2.6 million. The airport is 11-miles southeast of the urban center, and surrounding by farmland. This airport was a recent news splash, when a federal court ruled against the addition of a third runway, on the grounds it would prevent Austria from achieving carbon-reduction goals associated with the Paris climate agreement.

The second image shows Portland International Airport [KPDX], in Oregon, which serves a metropolitan area quite comparable to Vienna (with an estimated 2.4 million residents). The airport is 6-miles northeast of the urban core; the land was formerly agricultural but has generally been industrialized and commercialized, often after the regional port authority uses federal funds to buy up adjacent properties.
The third image shows what may be the worst example of FAA obstructing local control, forcing noise and air pollution upon a densely developed residential community: Santa Monica, California [KSMO]. No farmland, and no other buffers to protect residents, with houses literally just past the runway ends. People have had fences and lawn furniture knocked down by the blast of private jets, and even charter jets carrying just one VIP passenger. The noise and the exposure to toxic lead and carbon soot is far beyond what is found at even much busier hub airports. FAA has allowed the airport to continue to operate despite effectively having no safety buffers, to protect both aircraft occupants and aircraft neighbors. The fiery crash that killed four in September 2013 is an example of how critical it is for jets to have ample clear space, to keep everyone safe.

Operationally, Portland and Vienna are quite similar. The Vienna airport website includes a news release noting there were 226K operations in CY-2016.FAA’s ATADS-OPSNET database notes that Portland International had 228K operations in CY-2016. One distinct difference, though, is that the Viennese traffic is stable, while the Portland traffic has steadily declined for two decades, and is now down 31% from peak year 1997.

Santa Monica is most famous as the airport where Harrison Ford hangars his toys; his playtime, even when it involves forced landings on golf courses and nearly hitting a commercial jet while failing to land on the Orange County runway, is more important than the health and happiness of thousands of residents. So, the same federal regulator that expends thousands of hours impeding local control and a safer SMO airport, would never even dream of clipping the wings of Mr. Ford.

This is a no-brainer: FAA needs to let local officials close KSMO, or at least disallow jets. The main impediment to cleaning this up is Michael Huerta’s FAA. If he cannot get his captured employees to do their jobs, he needs to leave.

KDCA NextGen Impacts May Trigger Yet One More Legal Action Against FAA

FAA is presently being sued by groups across the nation, due to their botched NextGen implementation. It looks like another lawsuit may be initiated, seeking relief for residents in Bethesda, MD. See the Bethesda Magazine article (archived copy below, in a scrollable PDF).

Essentially, what is happening is FAA is tweaking upward the number of operations handled at Washington National Airport [KDCA], to enable four airlines (American, Delta, JetBlue and Southwest) to schedule heavier arrival and departure pushes. To facilitate this, FAA got Congress to pass legislation in early 2012 that eliminated the requirement to do real environmental assessments (this is the infamous ‘CATEX’ issue; click here to see documentation of a CATEX example impacting residents near LaGuardia).

Using CATEX to approve and implement NextGen procedures has turned out to be a huge failure. The root failure is that FAA’s DNL noise metric does not capture the very real and damaging noise impacts caused by repetitive flights passing one after another at low altitudes, using automation to track the same narrow path. This narrow route concentration is very clearly indicated in the graphics, within the article below. The repetitive noises go on for days and even weeks on end; people suffer sleep loss and elevated blood pressure, and some may be going crazy, but their problems are all dismissed by FAA. Oddly, FAA insists that by averaging those weeks over the entire calendar year, no damages are done ‘on average’. This is sort of a variation of a bad strategy for abating pollution: “the solution to pollution is dilution.”

The graphics in this article appear to depict the pre-NextGen and post-NextGen departure tracks. Montgomery County is concerned about the intense concentration for north flow departures heading northeast to NYC and Boston, etc.; the NextGen RNAV departure begins a right turn over the RNAV fix named ALEEX (Cabin John Parkway and I-495), then passes DOGUE (roughly 2-miles NW of the Mormon Temple), inundating North Bethesda. Similarly, residents in the Fort Hunt neighborhoods of Virginia are impacted, because the new RNAV departure procedure in south flow turns west at lower altitudes, roughly two miles north of Mt. Vernon … instead of climbing another couple miles southbound over the Potomac River. Again, all to save the airlines a smidgeon of money, while shifting a heavier noise and pollutant cost onto previously peaceful residential communities. The people below are frustrated not just because the noise pattern persists for hours on end (and can repeat each day for weeks on end), but also because they are trying to squeeze accountability out of one of the most intransigent and insensitive federal bureaucracies ever to exist: today’s FAA.

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

The Larger Picture

On a national scale, FAA is facilitating hub concentration (see this aiReform Post). Each of the hub-growth airports is also not just seeing a larger number of flights, but the flights are serving a higher percentage of through-passengers, who never even leave the airport terminal. And, for each of these few growing hub airports, other airports are in sharp decline. So, as KDCA grows, there is a shift of flights away from Washington-Dulles [KIAD] and Baltimore-Washington [KBWI]; Dulles is now down 47% from peak traffic year (2005), and BWI is now down 23% from peak traffic year (2001). This is precisely the problem that is growing at a tiny few other major U.S. hub airports, such as Seattle [KSEA] (where Delta is rapidly expanding its schedule) and at both Kennedy [KJFK] and LaGuardia [KLGA] in the New York City area. The KSEA hub expansion is diminishing Portland [KPDX] (down 31% from peak traffic year 1997) and Salt Lake City [KSLC] (down 30% from peak traffic year 2005). In the NYC area, Southwest is expanding while gutting service at Islip [KISP] (down 48% from peak traffic year 2000) American expansion has all but eliminated the use of Pittsburgh [KPIT] as a hub (down 69% from peak traffic year 1997); Delta expansion has all but eliminated the use of Cincinnati [KCVG] as a major airline hub (down 73% from peak traffic year 2004).

NextGen route concentration, caused by autopilot use of RNAV routes, is a serious impact that FAA chooses to totally ignore. Think about it: wherever you live, chances are that any aircraft flying through is not noticeable so long as it is roughly 2-miles or more away from directly overhead. In the case of Bethesda, the pre-NextGen dispersal of departures meant each resident below was subjected to randomized and irregular noise events; but, post-NextGen, the noise events are concentrated and repetitive, like a Chinese dripping water torture.

An 1860 photograph of an actual water torture, used by prison authorities to drive Sing Sing prisoners insane. (source: The Burns Archive, via Wikipedia)

Of course, this picture reflects the attitudes and values of our nation in 1860. Today, we have technologies that can benefit us, enhancing quality of life … but only if we manage them intelligently.


See also:

The Need for Night-time Curfews near SuperHubs, so People can Sleep

The Heathrow Airport west of London is hands-down the busiest UK hub for transatlantic commercial passenger flights. Just as we see in the U.S., where NextGen is creating health problems and destroying communities, hundreds of thousands of residents are severely impacted by the long conga lines of low, slow and loud arrivals. Plus, the noise and fumes from nonstop departure streams deny sleep and increase stress, too. Some of the worst examples in the U.S. include: Boston, NYC-JFK, NYC-LGA, DC-Reagan, Chicago-O’Hare, Charlotte, Phoenix, and Seattle.

A recent article notes a Conservative minister calling for a strong ban on all flights for the 7-hour block, from 11PM to 6AM. This would be a very good first step toward reducing Heathrow impacts. Indeed, it not only should be done, but the curfew should extend further. Given the tendency of airlines to overschedule at the main superHub airports, we commonly end up with delays cascading at the end of the day; thus, 11PM arrivals actually land at midnight or even later. This has been a huge problem at LaGuardia [KLGA], for example. So, to ensure that these arrivals actually land before the 11PM curfew, CAA (and FAA, in the U.S.) should require:

  1. the airlines need to schedule the arrivals long enough before 11PM so that, if delayed by the end of the day, they can still land before 11PM; and,
  2. substantial penalties need to be imposed – and rigidly enforced – to incentivize airlines to clean up their schedules, so that slippage past 11PM never happens.

Here’s an archived copy of the article:

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

Kudos to Mr. Hands for pressing forward on this proposed curfew at Heathrow. FAA should give serious consideration to imposing similar curfews at the busiest U.S. commercial hubs. If FAA refuses to do this, at the least FAA should pass the authority on, so that local officials and the communities can impose these restrictions.