We Need more ‘Accountability Journalism’ …

…and less of the prevailing ‘Access Journalism’.

An article by Robert Jensen analyzes a book written about how our journalists failed to cover the financial crisis. Mr. Jensen is a professor at the School of Journalism, University of Texas at Austin. He covered the book The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark, as written by Dean Starkman, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and current editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.

There is a lot to think about in this piece, and much of it overlaps with how (and why) FAA continues to fail. Here’s an excerpt, with a few minor changes (highlights, color) by aiREFORM…

…the core mission of journalism is built around the Great Story “that holds power to account and explains complex problems to a mass audience, connects one segment of society to another.” This kind of journalism, he (Starkman) writes, “is also the one reliable, indispensable barometer for the health of the news, the great bullshit detector.”

Holding power to account and detecting bullshit are certainly admirable goals, and Starkman correctly points out that journalists who practice what he calls “access journalism” are unlikely to achieve them. Access journalists, as the label suggests, play the insider game and cultivate access to powerful sources. At best, access journalism can give ordinary people a glimpse of what happens behind closed doors, but on terms set by those who close the doors.

Starkman makes the case for the necessity of “accountability journalism” in the muckraking mode that is confrontational and accusatory, and that “provokes the enmity of the rich and powerful as a matter of course.” The access and accountability schools, he writes, “represent radically [emphasis added] different understandings of what journalism is [emphasis in the text] and whom it should serve.”

The book’s thesis, simply put, is that the news media’s poor performance during the financial crisis can be explained by the prominence of Access Journalism and the lack of hard-hitting Accountability Journalism. Here’s Starkman’s summary of these two styles:

Access Reporting tends to talk to elites. Accountability Reporting tends to talk to dissidents.
Access writes about specialized topics for a niche audience. Accountability writes about general topics for a mass audience.
Access tends to transmit
orthodox views.
Accountability tends to transmit heterodox views.
Access reporting is functional. Accountability Reporting is moralistic.
In business news, Access Reporting focuses on investor interests. In business news, Accountability Reporting focuses on the public interest.

Aviation vs. Railroads: Why is FAA so much slower than FRA to address personal electronics distractions?

Last week, FAA posted in the Federal Register their Final Rule, Prohibition on Personal Use of Electronic Devices on the Flight Deck. Essentially, the new rule declares the obvious … that texting (or computer games or sharing pictures of your cute kids or porn files or whatever) is dangerous, distracting, and must cease immediately …or at least once the rule goes into effect on 4/14/14.

A discussion then developed at FlightAware.com. While most of the discussion participants were pilots and all had a keen interest in aviation, some of the participants were U.S. railroad professionals. They made a very interesting point: specifically, that very similar accident histories have produced very different outcomes by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) vs. the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

In short, here is the comparison:

Rescue workers in front of the Metrolink locomotive lying on its side after penetrating the lead passenger car (left). (photo from Wiki)

FRA: On 9/12/08, a head-on collision at Chatsworth, CA killed 25, injured 135, and caused $7.1 Million in damages. The NTSB investigation revealed the locomotive engineer was texting and missed a safety signal. Twenty months later, on 5/18/10, FRA issued an NPRM rule proposal via the Federal Register. Fifteen comments were received. The Final Rule was posted to the Federal Register on 9/27/10, and went into effect on 3/27/11.

Thus, for an FRA rail safety failure related to a major accident, it took thirty months from accident to effective rule change.

FAA: On 8/27/06, Comair Flight 5191 took off from the wrong runway at Lexington, KY, then crashed, killing 49. The tower controller had failed to specify the runway and the pilots, evidently fatigued from a short night’s sleep, failed to notice they were on the wrong runway. The controller had nearly a full minute to look out the window and see the problem and ‘save’ the situation with a timely radio transmission. The tower controller failed and the accident happened. Seventy-seven months later (!!), on 1/15/13, FAA issued an NPRM rule proposal via the Federal Register. Sixty-three comments were received. The Final Rule was posted to the Federal Register on 2/12/14, and will go into effect on 4/14/14.

Thus, for an FAA aviation safety failure related to a major accident, it took ninety-two months from accident to effective rule change. Ninety-two months; yes, nearly eight years!

So, in summary, a railroad safety rule by FRA takes 30-months, while an essentially identical aviation safety rule by FAA takes 92-months.

Why does it take FAA so much longer to pass the new safety rules? Most likely, the delay is directly related to FAA (and industry) efforts to protect their financial bottom line: mistakes happen, people die, and those who might have saved the tragedy feel compelled to obscure their culpability, to protect their own interests. So, they maneuver to maximize distance from any risk/liability exposure. In other words, a conscious effort is made by aviation professionals — including some very highly paid FAA officials — to guarantee no accountability for system failures.

How Secure is the U.S. National Airspace System?

Put differently, what is more dangerous: two sticks of sugarless gum, or a Canadian Cessna 172 rented for personal flying? Evidently, to the authorities we employ to ensure a safe and secure U.S. National Airspace System (NAS), the answer is those two sticks of gum.
Here’s the story…

An image of the human x-ray vault scanner, as found online.

It was the day after Thanksgiving, and this pair of air travelers was stuffed from a very nice vacation — a family visit with a week spent in snowy Vermont. We were heading home. Our itinerary had us departing out of Burlington, first on a short flight to JFK to layover almost five hours, then a long flight back to Portland, Oregon. After goodbye hugs and a short walk, we arrived at Security. As we were doing the shoes-off routine, the agent reminded us all to take everything out of our pockets. I thought I had complied, when he steered me into a booth, which I assumed was some sort of full-body x-ray scanner. There, I had to stand in my socks on two yellow marks, and hold my hands over my head — elbows out, hands in, — sort of a variation of the Burning Man pose.

The test results were mixed: I failed miserably, but the machine sure passed. I forgot that I had stuff in the pockets of my flannel shirt, but the machine detected my cellphone in the left breast pocket. The agent kindly handed me a bowl so I could walk my cellphone back to the entrance of the carry-on x-ray tunnel. Then, when I stepped back into the human x-ray vault, he asked if I had anything else in my pockets. I started to answer ‘no’ but felt something in my right pocket; “Oh, yeah, this packet of Trident, though it is nearly empty.” I was a little surprised when, just a little less kindly then the first time, he handed me another bowl and pointed me back toward the entrance of the carry-on x-ray tunnel. The more focused part of my mind was yelling at me to not crack any jokes — just stay quiet and move along. But, the deeper part of my mind was circling over Nashville, stacking the details I knew about what likely will be this year’s biggest aviation security breach (more about that below). Of course, I complied, but we also snapped a cellphone photo of the x-ray bowl, because it just seemed so damned funny that they needed to x-ray two sticks of Trident in a crushed paper package.

This ‘scan-the-gum’ incident happened on 11/29/13, a Friday afternoon in the middle of the busiest air travel week for the whole year. So, what was it that had me thinking about Nashville? Well, that happened just one month earlier, on 10/29/13, and it happened during a very slow travel period (the overnight hours from Tuesday into Wednesday). Basically, a Cessna with four seats was rented in Windsor, Ontario (across the border from Detroit); the pilot then flew it half way across the U.S. and crashed it … AND NOBODY NOTICED!

Well, eventually somebody noticed. The aircraft had not crashed in the middle of nowhere; no, it had crashed right in the middle of the major airport at Nashville, Tennessee, and then exploded and burned, but it was not until hours later that a pilot taxiing on the Nashville Airport made a radio comment to ATC about the burned debris; or, then again, maybe he commented that he saw what looked like a pilot’s body still in the char. By the end of the day, enough information was gathered to conclude that the flight had entered the U.S. near Detroit, passed through multiple sectors of at least three FAA-staffed enroute centers (first Cleveland, then Indianapolis and finally Memphis), then flew to the very center of the Nashville TRACON airspace (adjacent to Runway 2C, very near the control tower) and crashed. In defense of the controller in the Nashville FAA tower, which is open 24/7, it was very foggy that night, so if he/she heard the explosion, there was an excuse to not see the fire. And, maybe in those early morning hours, the controller was able to imagine they heard no explosion. In any event, not one of a dozen or more FAA controllers on duty — all the way from Detroit to Nashville! — detected this intrusion into the U.S. National Airspace System. In past domestic terrorist incidents, U.S. citizens have crashed similar planes in Florida and Texas. Lucky for us, this Canadian Cessna was carrying only a non-terrorist pilot and was nearly out of fuel when it crashed and burned at Nashville.

Aviation Security Implications

Two years ago, we all were shocked to learn that a controller at Cleveland Center working on the overnight shift had been watching a movie DVD on his laptop computer. His shoe had fallen over onto the floor switch activating his ATC transmitter, and for a few minutes his hot microphone transmitted the sound portion of the action movie he was watching. Up late that night, a ham radio operator (and taxpayer) intercepted the hot microphone transmissions and thought it was some sort of ‘radio interference’; he reasoned that this would be an aviation hazard and he was concerned, so he called FAA’s Regional Duty Officer, hoping to help. link to aiR PDF This happened just days after Hank Krakowski, the head of FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, had submitted his resignation under pressure from a rash of ‘sleeping controller’ incidents (he was replaced by David Grizzle, who served two years then announced his plans to retire). But the interesting details were behind the scenes, within FAA’s damage-control mission internal investigation. Reports and emails produced controller statements that the viewing of movie DVD’s while working overnight air traffic was a common practice, that management was fully aware of this practice, and that it had been going on for decades. link to aiR PDF Even more, a FOIA request (and subsequent FOIA Appeal records) produced FAA statements indicating no disciplinary actions were ever taken for the Cleveland Center DVD hot mic incident.

That Cleveland Center incident was an eye-opener for the Public, but this latest Nashville incident is even more disturbing. In 2011, FAA’s top officials acted alarmed and created the appearance that they were ‘taking action’ to fix the problem, but what change has really happened? And, just as importantly, how healthy is the Whistleblower culture within FAA? Is it still the case that FAA Whistleblowers can expect retaliation if they feel compelled to speak up? Really, think about it. There are likely thousands of FAA employees who could share a general (or specific) safety concern relevant to the Nashville incident, but what if they all choose to stay quiet? How can we have any kind of REAL safety culture where employees are afraid to speak up, where doing so brands them as a ‘Whistleblower’ and thus makes them a ripe target for unaccountable retaliation, even firing? Ask Richard Wyeroski, Gabe Bruno, Peter Nesbitt, Anne Whiteman — or dozens of others — who were fired or forced out when they spoke up….

The bottom-line is simple: a Cessna flying from Ontario to Nashville, was fully ignored by dozens of FAA controllers, and this recent incident proves we have no functional airspace security. Our obsession with TSA’s installing expensive scanning machines and extensive screening procedures is all for image, but fails to accomplish the real goal of true security. And, until we truly improve the FAA/TSA culture so that Whistleblowers are valued and even rewarded, this failure will only persist.

Can FAA save money by reducing administrative overhead?

Today is Day 10 of ‘Shutstorm 2013!’  The drifts just keep piling higher, with no sign of warming.

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Have you ever wondered how much the controllers are paid at a particular tower or TRACON? Or, how much FAA pays its Regional Counsel, the Federal Air Surgeon, or the thousands of ‘program analysts’ and managers at dozens of big glass boxes, like the one near your hometown?

When the FAA made us all play along last spring in their new reality show, ATC Sequester Threat, did you ever wonder just how much FAA was spending elsewhere? Did you wonder if maybe FAA had other personnel expenses that they were staying very quiet about, while loudly furloughing controllers? I did, and then I spent a few hours doing research online, and compiling some FAA pay data.

That data is presented here, via four links to PDF files. Each PDF file provides the top 200 pay recipients at four key FAA locations:

…click on the four links below to see color PDF copies…

Why These Four Locations?

These four locations cover the administrative centers at the two highest levels of FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO). While FAA Headquarters is in Washington, DC, the entire nation is divided into three parts, called ‘Service Areas’. These three Service Area offices fall within pay zones in Atlanta (ESA), Fort Worth (CSA), and Seattle (WSA). Though not included here, FAA has other high-level administrative facilities located in Atlantic City (the tech center) and in Oklahoma City (facilities for training and aerospace medicine).

[AAL]: Alaskan Region (AK)
[ACE]: Central Region (IA, KS, MO, NE)
[AEA]: Eastern Region (DC, DE, MD, NJ, NY, PA, VA, WV)
[AGL]: Great Lakes Region (IL, IN, MI, MN, ND, OH, SD, WI)
[ANE]: New England Region (CT, ME, MA, NH, RI, VT)
[ANM]: Northwest Mountain Region (CO, ID, MT, OR, UT, WA, WY)
[ASO]: Southern Region (AL, FL, GA, KY, MS, NC, PR, SC, TN, VI)
[ASW]: Southwest Region (AR, LA, NM, OK, TX)
[AWP]: Western-Pacific Region (AZ, CA, HI, NV)

For most of it’s history, FAA has maintained an administrative structure with nine Regional Offices, each with its own Regional Administrator, Regional Air Traffic Director, Regional HR Director, Regional Flight Surgeon, Regional Counsel, etc. During the Clinton Administration, FAA and Congress experimented with ‘Personnel Reform’, much of which was focused on streamlining, eliminating redundancy, and bringing FAA to ‘business-like’ performance. Or, at least, that was the sales pitch: ‘gosh, FAA could serve the Public so much better if Congress would only approve (and fund!) a transition to a new, more business-like organizational structure’. The two decades since have seen no improvements attributable to FAA’s restructuring.

These efforts eventually included the formation of a so-called ‘Performance-Based Organization’. Thus, one of the final acts by President Clinton was his signing of Executive Order #13180 on 12/7/00. It took only a few years for us to see what happened next. FAA took full advantage of the fact that the new organizational structure blurred all accountability. It was no longer clear who was responsible for what, plus the transition created a grand opportunity to counter any questions (from concerned employees and citizens, or even from Congress) with ‘oh, we are still in transition on that new guideline’. At the front line, when a work culture blurs accountability, you end up with sleeping controllers, ‘working’ controllers watching DVD movies on laptops, and rampant retaliation against Whistleblowers.

So, that’s some of the history. Here is a list with a few takeaway points for this pay data (…one person’s observations…):

  • The top-200 payees at each of the three FAA ‘Service Areas’ are strongly dominated by Air Traffic, including:
    • Dallas-Ft. Worth: Air Traffic employees represented 76% of the top-200, with pay/bonuses averaging $168,000/yr;
    • Seattle: Air Traffic employees represented 61% of the top-200, with pay/bonuses averaging $162,000/yr;
    • Atlanta: Air Traffic employees represented 33% of the top-200, with pay/bonuses averaging $153,000/yr;
  • At FAA Headquarters in Washington, DC: Air Traffic employees represented only 7% of the top-200, but averaged $182,000/yr; the dominant group here is ‘Program Management’, with 52% of the top-200, averaging $193,000/yr.
  • Consistently, Air Traffic pay levels far outpace pay levels for engineers, computer specialists, and other technical occupations. The interesting thing about this is that these technical occupations are quite specialized and require extensive (and expensive) schooling, while most of the Air Traffic positions require nothing beyond a high school diploma. In fact, a substantial number of controllers are hired with no or minimal college, and based almost entirely on their two- to six-years learning ATC in the military.
  • Administrative pay levels at FAA appear to be ratcheted up by ATC pay levels. That is to say, FAA and the unions representing FAA employees have a long history of campaigning on the high-profile ATC job, securing Congressional approval to raise ATC pay, then quickly floating all other boats to the new water level.
  • Cash bonuses are quite generous for the small circle of top managers, who consistently are maxed out on the federal pay scale. It appears that 10%+ annual cash bonuses are a way to elevate pay so that these bonus recipients effectively exceed the federal pay limits.
  • A curious detail … pay levels in Atlanta are consistently lower than in the other studied localities. Perhaps this is due to lower local cost of living, or perhaps the leadership in that region (ASO, FAA’s Southern Region) is more fiscally conservative.
  • Lastly, these analyses do not account for FAA contract employees. There are thousands of FAA employees who retire, begin to collect their pensions, and immediately supplement that income with contract ‘support’ positions, paid by FAA. These positions are nearly always at the same location or at a preferred retirement location; and, they are not just at Headquarters and the Service Areas, but also at hundreds of FAA field facilities.

The aiREPORT: [2013Q3, week-13]

aiREPORT is a weekly collection of notes and links to news items relevant to aviation impacts and FAA reform. It is provided as a research tool…

Third Quarter, Week #13: September 22 — September 28, 2013

summary:

Top AvNews Story: a composite of two diverging realities … FAA faces an imminent and substantial budget shortfall with the new Fiscal Year, yet continues to throw money to contractors and airports, for projects of questionable merit. A father seeing this behavior in his kid would be concerned that the kid needs to break out of this bad habit of ‘buying friends’…

QUICKlooks:

  • 9/26/13: DoT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics released a report showing that the number of passenger airline jobs dropped 2.6% from July 2012 to July 2013. [PDF], [BTS Post]
  • …A 63-yr-old captain on a United flight from Houston to Seattle became incapacitated, and the first officer took over. The flight was diverted to a landing at Boise, and the Captain died shortly after arriving at the local hospital. [article]
  • 9/27/13: Nearly all FAA news stories focused on the panel recommendation that use of electronics on airline flights should be relaxed.
  • 9/28/13: a Minnesota Public Radio article about UAV development/testing at Grand Forks. It reports that the Grand Forks County sheriff’s department is expanding its unmanned aircraft operations to include night flights. [article]

Airports in the News:

  • Wilmington, NC [KILM]: a U.S. Senator announced FAA had awarded $5.4M for runway improvements. The grant follows a $1M grant announced a week earlier, to acquire more land. This 1,800 acre airport has an FAA tower, 118 based aircraft and averages 124 operations/day; operations have declined 39% since 2007. [article]
  • Wickenburg, AZ [E25]: FAA funding has been approved for a $2.4M project, to build a midfield apron area next to the single 6,100′ x 75′ runway. The airport is just 100 acres and sits on scrub land west of town. It is home base to 34 small aircraft, and averages 99 operations/day. [article]

Links to Articles:

9-27-2013DoT’s Plan for FAA Staffing during FY2014 Appropriations Lapse
Due to the Congressional budget impasse, and in preparation for unfunded activities in the new Fiscal Year, DoT’s Acting CFO, Sylvia Garcia, compiled a report that identifies which positions will work, and which will be furloughed. It notes that 15,514 of FAA’s 46,070 employees are subject to furlough, though 2,490 furloughs from within the Office of Aviation Safety would be ‘recalled incrementally over a two week period’. The Office of Audit & Evaluation is subject to furlough, too.
9-24-2013FAA Furloughs, Tower Closures, ATC Privatization Back On The Table
With the new Fiscal Year, FAA faces the challenge of mending a $700M budget gap. EXCERPT: “There are conversations taking place among the stakeholders [about privatizing ATC],” Gerald Dillingham, civil aviation director of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, told Bloomberg. Paul Rinaldi, president of NATCA, said he would be open to such a discussion. “I don’t have the answers, but I do know the current system is broken,” he said. Legislation now under consideration in Washington, however, could extend the current government budget levels through mid-December, delaying any new cuts until next year.
9-24-2013Press Release – FAA Awards $17 Million in Environmental Grants to Airports
DoT Secretary Foxx announced $17M in grants to eight large airports, part of the VALE program. “This program supports President’s Obama’s efforts to combat climate change and reduce aviation’s carbon footprint,” said Secretary Foxx. “These funds will help airports around the country make the necessary investments that will reduce fuel costs and help protect the environment.” The funds will mostly go towards charging systems, alternative fuels vehicles, and more efficient climate control systems. “The FAA encourages airlines and airports to find creative ways to reduce aviation’s impact on the environment,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “We applaud these airports for their efforts to make their facilities environmentally friendly members of the community.” The Press Release also notes that VALE grants since 2005 have aided 33 airports with projects worth $161M.
9-22-2013FAA Consent, Money Needed for ‘Virtual Tower’
A system is under development to create unmanned control towers. This article discusses a recent test applied to an airport near a national Boy Scout Jamboree (evidently, scout leaders like to fly in?). The system is estimated to cost $3M, according to developer Quadrex Aviation in Melbourne, FL. Two key requirements to move forward are FAA approval, and FAA money.
9-22-2013Talks on Private Air-Traffic Control Turn Serious in U.S.
EXCERPT: Discussions about removing government management of the U.S. air-traffic control system are the most serious in two decades, prompted by budget cuts and uncertain funding for converting to satellite navigation.

The aiReport …a link to the full report…

The aiREPORT: [2013Q3, week-7]

aiREPORT is a weekly collection of notes and links to news items relevant to aviation impacts and FAA reform. It is provided as a research tool…

Third Quarter, Week #7: August 11 — August 17, 2013

summary:

Top AvNews story: the fatal UPS crash at KBHM. Almost as big was the filing by DoJ, seeking to stop the American – US Airways merger … which led the Judge for the American bankruptcy to say ‘whoa!’.  Background noise from the ‘aviation-equals-jobs’ contingent, perhaps timed to coincide with congressional officials back home on recess (great time to shake hands with constituents at late summer fairs).

QUICKlooks:

  • The Governor of Arkansas declared that August is ‘General Aviation Appreciation Month’. This is the latest in a series of state proclamations being generated by an NBAA.org PR campaign that provides pre-fab text used to generate photo-opportunities for elected officials.
  • GAMA organized a ‘rally’ in Albuquerque, in which aviation manufacturers are touting their contributions to the economy.
  • 8/13/13: The U.S. DoJ filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the proposed merger of American and US Airways.
  • 8/14/13: On the same day the world news was reporting hundreds killed when Egyptian officials cracked down on protesters, a commercial accident in Birmingham, AL: UPS Flight 1354 crashed at 4:49AM, one mile before the start of the runway, and two pilots died.
  • 8/16/13: a financial analyst critical of DoJ’s lawsuit against the American-USAirways merger notes that Southwest controls 93% or more of passenger flights at Chicago-Midway, Dallas-Love, and Houston-Hobby airports.
  • 8/17/13: Harris Corp. announced FAA has awarded it $150M for an ATC communications contract. The larger half of the $481M contract was issued a year ago.

Airports in the News:

  • Belmont, MS (Tishomingo County Airport, [01M]) has been awarded a $468K FAA grant to buy four parcels of land, needed to eventually extend the runway to 5,000′. The airport averages 13 takeoffs/day and is home to eleven airplanes.
  • Rogers, AR (Rogers Municipal Airport, [KROG]) is the home base for twenty corporate aircraft used by Wal-Mart. A Bloomberg article assesses the extent of public subsidy at this airport.
  • Scotts Bluff, NE (Western Nebraska Regional Airport, [KBFF]) announces FAA AIP funds will cover 90% of $1.6M in terminal and airport improvements.
  • Hudson, NY (Columbia County Airport, [1B1]) received an 8/6/13 letter from FAA advising they need to condemn part of a golf course and cut down six acres of trees adjacent to the airport. The rural airport 25-miles southeast of Albany has 29 based aircraft and a single runway that averages 27 takeoffs/day.
  • Connellsville, PA (Connellsville Airport, [KVVS]) also received a letter from FAA airport officials for non-compliance. The airport authority is working to clean up a problem of tenants using airport facilities to store trailers, rolls of artificial lawn, and other non-aviation items … which violates FAA’s rules. Non-compliant airport authorities fear legal action by FAA.

Links to Articles:

8-15-2013Aviation Experts Question Whether Culture Had Role in Asiana Crash
The problem of subservience within airline flight crews came up with the deadly KAL accident in Guam. This article analyzes that angle, and includes comments by former NTSB Chair Jim Hall.
8-15-2013Judge postpones decision on American Airlines bankruptcy exit plan
The American Airlines bankruptcy proceedings may be on hold. Judge Sean Lane listened to five hours of hearings on Thursday, but based on the DoJ lawsuit challenging the propoed merger with US Airways, he is postponing any decisions. All parties have until the end of next week to produce pleadings as to why he should not postpone. One of the isues discussed today was the propriety of giving $19.65M to American CEO Tom Horton as a golden parachute when the merger is closed. Other creditors feel this is not fair, in view of their losses.
8-13-2013American’s Horton: Court battle ‘will likely take a few months’
The American Airlines CEO is due to receive a $20M golden parachute as part of the merger with USAirways. Problem is, the airline is going through bankruptcy, and some believe this $20M payment is improper. Also, the merger is being challenged, including a DoJ lawsuit. This blog includes a copy of Mr. Horton’s ‘jetwire’ message sent to the ‘American Team’.
8-12-2013Cylinder-removal AD would increase costs, decrease safety
AOPA news article expressing opposition to FAA’s proposed AD; includes links to the proposal as listed in the Federal Register, and to the NTSB recommendations behind the AD.
ARCHIVES: 11-3-2012Lab releases global aviation emissions dataset
A global emissions dataset for civil aviation emissions is now available. The dataset contains three-dimensional gridded emissions for (scheduled) civil aviation for 2005. This dataset represents the most current estimate of global aviation emissions that is publicly available. It is intended to be of use to researchers in areas including atmospheric modeling and aviation and the environment. For example, it is currently being incorporated into the standard release of the community atmospheric chemistry-transport model GEOS-Chem. Includes a color global map showing routes, impacts. (Seed for an article?)
ARCHIVES: 3-1-2012Study released on the costs and benefits of desulfurizing jet fuel
MIT led the study, funded by FAA. Includes a world map projecting the amount of aviation impact.

The aiReport …a link to the full report…

FAA Grounds Low-Altitude, Radio Control Aerial Photographer in Minnesota

On March 14th, FAA ordered a Minnesota business to cease the commercial use of drones in their low-altitude, radio-controlled aerial photography business. The immediate question to any thinking person is: WHY?

Here are some questions and answers, compiled from quick research…

What is a typical radio-controlled, aerial photography unit today?

The technologies that have evolved in recent years enable a person to attach a digital SLR camera to a platform, and use radio control (RC) to go airborne, maneuver within a reception-distance of the RC unit, align a shot while looking at a video image transmitted from the camera, and thus capture HD DJI Spreading Wings S-800aerial photos. A common platform is a helicopter format, using six 15″ diameter carbon-fiber rotors attached to tiny (5-ounce) electric motors. The entire unit, with camera attached, typically weighs 6-15 pounds. A system such as this is all but silent, uses virtually no energy, and eliminates the need to fly a large aircraft burning leaded fuel and endangering lives. The heaviest solid component of these radio-controlledDJI S800 4114-11 320Kv Motor aerial photographic systems is the camera, which weighs in at under a pound (for comparison, a typical goose weighs 7-20 pounds). Online research indicates that a professional-quality, 6-rotor aerial photography platform and camera requires an investment of $5,000 to $10,000.

Are these drones a hazard to aircraft?

Not at all. These aerial photography platforms are necessarily light and minimally constructed, hence relatively fragile. When Captain Sullenberger force-landed an Airbus on the Hudson River, both engines had been taken out by impacting at least one goose, each with a weight of feathers and flesh comparable to the total weight of carbon and plastic in the heaviest aerial photography platforms. If commercial aircraft flew at altitudes under 500′ above the ground level, there might be a hazard. But, air regulations do not allow such low-altitude flying, not even by small General Aviation aircraft, and for a variety of reasons: the obvious larger safety hazard posed by buildings, antennas, wildlife, etc., as well as the enormous impact on people having to hear flight activity and breathe aviation fumes so close to their homes.

How about the Privacy Impact of ‘Drones’?

Two points to consider:

  1. Hopefully, we will soon sharpen our definitions and quit referring to this type of unmanned SWAT-drone-heloaerial photography platform as a ‘drone’. The public has come (quite reasonably) to associate ‘drones’ with aerial assassinations and other military or law enforcement purposes. Real ‘drones’ are much larger unmanned vehicles (in this photo, the SWAT unit helicopter is on a full-scale helipad, and appears to be roughly quarter-scale). And, real drones shoot to kill, not simply to capture an image.
  2. Privacy is an important consideration, and an impact of aviation often overlooked. These silent RC aerial photography platforms can be misused by citizens or corporations, but they have also been very powerfully used to identify environmental hazards and violations such as the piping of slaughterhouse blood into a Texas creek, or factories causing massive fish kills in a Chinese river. And, the technology exists and will be used, with or without regulation. So, to best protect privacy, we need solid regulations and an effective regulatory body to apply and enforce. This can happen, but it requires that the authority must have a clear, uncorrupted heart, and must not be captured by narrow, cronyistic interests.

What is the story with this business?

Eidecom is in the Minneapolis area, and grew out of two childhood hobbies enjoyed by owner Charles Eide, merging radio control flying with professional photography. Common products of his business include aerial video of events (such as parades or marathons), residential real estate photography (to enhance marketing), and industrial/manufacturing sites (such as a recent shoot of the Swiss Miss Cocoa factory in Menominee, WI). As a hobbyist, Eide could fly his radio controlled airplanes up to 400′ above ground level (AGL), but as a commercial aerial photographer, FAA now says he is not allowed to fly to 50′, 100′, or 200′ AGL, typically the highest altitude at which he shoots his aerial photos. Oh, wait, he IS allowed to fly the same object for ‘non-commercial’ use (such as to recreationally spy on somebody – FAA will ignore that), but he IS NOT allowed to do valuable work that helps sell houses and eliminates old-fashioned aviation impacts. Hmmmmm.edited swiss miss production facility

So, Why is FAA Grounding this Commercial Activity?

It clearly is NOT for safety reasons. Nor for privacy reasons. In fact, it appears to be solely for commercial reasons. In yet one more example of regulatory capture, FAA is again misusing its authority to benefit a few established aviation interests (the tiny few actually making money in aviation) while destroying new competition that is clearly superior — less impactful, far more efficient, and indisputably safer. If this were happening a hundred years ago, we would be watching the FAA protecting the powerful horse-and-buggy industry by shutting down the use of newfangled motorcars on roads, on the basis that a Model T might hit a cow in the stall of a dairy barn. I.e., there was and is no real probability of collision, and no real hazard, yet ‘safety’ is today being used to ground the superior new method of capturing aerial photography.

A Proposed Solution…

Just a thought: maybe FAA should relinquish their regulatory authority at altitudes below say 2,000′ AGL (with the obvious exception of necessary transitional flying to climb and descend through these lower altitudes). The authority that FAA seems unable to handle today, could be reassigned to a new entity, with an emphasis on managing and limiting the aviation impact on people. This better-focused authority would then be responsible for telling Mr. Eide whether he can or cannot do RC commercial aerial photography, and would specify the rules he must comply with to minimize his noise, air quality, and privacy impacts.

How might this solution mitigate other aviation impacts? Here are two quick examples …

Air Tour impacts at Grand Canyon: The National Park Service (NPS) would be solely in charge of developing a plan appropriate to their ‘parks’ goals, which tends to focus on quality of the environment and the visitor experience. NPS would work with the new authority, which would have no conflict of interest (no connnection to the air tour industry) and thus would not improperly delay and deny restrictions at Grand Canyon, as the FAA has done for decades. FAA would still have an important role, but it would be reduced to simply signing off on the safety aspects (and only the safety aspects) of the proposed air tour management plan. FAA would NOT advocate on behalf of air tour operators, and would NOT press for more aviation access.

Intensive Flight School Airports: The training of new pilots can cause activity in the local flight pattern to skyrocket, which can mean much greater adverse impact on airport neighbors. One of the most common flight training activities is to fly touch-and-go operations, ’round and round the pattern’, normally at altitudes of 1,000′ AGL or less. There are a few airports around the country where one flight school on the airport (or, sometimes a few) is aggressively recruiting students from throughout the world. They seek to profit from the fact that many other countries have much higher fuel prices and greater restrictions to protect airport neighbors. So, when foreign students are well-recruited, an otherwise quiet airport in a U.S. community can become an impactful, noisy beehive. The local citizens must endure much more noise and air pollution, while the benefits are narrowly gained by a single flight school owner. And, current FAA regulations support this, while blocking any effective expression of citizen concern; that is, the neighbors can complain, but the FAA and the airport owner will just shrug their shoulders and say, ‘sorry, we are not allowed to put limits on air commerce’. This is clearly unacceptable.

The same new authority formed to regulate low-altitude RC aerial photography should reasonably be in charge of ALL low-altitude, non-essential aviation activities. This would include air tours, and it would include ’excessive/nonessential’ local pattern flying. Air Tours are going to happen, and they should be allowed when not overly impactful, but they should be a managed program, with clearly defined limits. As for airports with intensive flight training, obviously aircraft owners and a few local students are going to fly the pattern for proficiency, and this new authority would not work to curtail such normal and limited activity. But, when a flight school starts to recruit widely, it becomes appropriate for an authority to mediate the conflicting goals and values between airport neighbors and airport operators. A properly functioning authority would effectively advocate on behalf of airport neighbors, and ensure that excessive local training flights are balanced against quality of life in the airport neighborhood.

An authority such as this would be VERY helpful at HIO, the airport in Hillsboro, OR, dominated by the flight-training of foreign students.

Just a thought….