Lies, Damned Lies, & FAA Overselling of NextGen: Houston Metroplex

It’s not a secret among pilots, mechanics and most FAA employees: when an FAA official says ‘A’, you will do well to think ‘B’. Not just when FAA dodges revealing details of the latest birdstrike or controller error, or when they deny trashing a safety Whistleblower, but also when FAA is in their frequent PR/spin mode. Like when they are trying to sell the Public and Congress to (PickOne: waste/spend/invest) billions on programs like NextGen and Metroplexes.

NextGen is the collection of ‘new’ satellite-based technologies (though ‘new’ is inaccurate, because most of these technologies have been in use for decades). Metroplexes are the application of these technologies to alter flight paths and airspace design near the nation’s busiest commercial airports. In the big picture, FAA is seeking to award $Billions$ in contracts to firms and contractors within the aviation-industrial complex, which also happens to employ many retired FAA officials. And, as has almost always happened in FAA’s 55-year existence, the agency is over budget and behind deadlines in their latest ‘upgrade’ scheme. So, they bring in the spin squad.

20140618.. KIAH NextGen MetroPlex celebration speech pic, Huerta (Foxx, Rinaldi, et al)

June 18, 2014

A June article at Wired.com helped push along FAA’s spin. The article happened because, on June 18, 2014, a PR event was staged, ‘celebrating’ the Houston Metroplex. FAA Adminstrator Huerta, DoT Secretary Foxx, and NATCA President Rinaldi all flew down to Houston, to join airline and airport officials for a staged presentation with set speeches. This was all tightly managed and coordinated, too; for this PR event, there was an FAA Press Release and a DoT Press Release, plus a set of videos uploaded to YouTube (here is one: a 2-minute explanation of airspace design changes, with an upbeat musical jingle):

What was FAA Selling?

The two key improvements proposed for the Houston Metroplex had to do with arriving aircraft. The sales pitch claimed that arriving flights would fly shorter routes; in fact, the diagram below (from a 7/22/2013 article) shows a proposed NextGen arrival (green arrow) angling in over Interstate-69 to a short final approach. This was shown to improve upon a conventional long downwind to a 35-mile final (red box pattern).20130722.. screencap from GCN article on NextGen, KIAH graphic by FAA (pic only, no text)Here is a closer look. Conventional downwinds have typically been turned onto a base leg as far east as Dayton (around 30-miles out). A more efficient base turn over Lake Houston (around 13-miles out) can happen, if traffic allows. But, the problem is that United-Continental, the major airline at KIAH, schedules their flights (and small feeders) in surges. This forces ATC to use the long downwind legs as a tool for spacing and sequencing. No NextGen technology can fix this traffic saturation problem. Nonetheless, that does not stop FAA from promoting NextGen spending.

20141003.. KIAH west flow satellite view (east to Dayton)

A longer view: From Dayton to the Airport.

20141003.. KIAH west flow satellite view (east to Lake Houston)

A closer view: From Lake Houston to the airport.

The sales pitch also claimed the descents would reduce fuel burns by using steeper approaches, without ‘level-offs’. The ‘before’ (in orange) shows many level sections, while the ‘after’ (in green) shows steady and steeper descents from 100 miles out.20130619.. KIAH before-after descent profiles, from DoT-news release

FAA produced sharp graphics (and even videos), and they claimed that we will see some significant changes, which would substantially reduce overall fuel burn. Both changes were fine goals, but a goal is not worth much if little progress is made toward achieving it. And, so far, at Houston, there have been no substantial changes in the arrival patterns for the biggest airport, KIAH.

In Reality, the ‘Improvements’ Did Not Happen

FAA spearheaded the celebration and many attended. Were they celebrating a change and delivering improvements, or were they just cheerleading and deceiving the Public with yet one more fabricated sales pitch?

The proof is available online. All you have to do is use the available websites like Flightaware.com or FlightRadar24.com and look at real arrivals (and arrival descent profiles) for real flights, even those landing right now. Just go to either site and select any flight, randomly. Chances are, when you open the views showing the flight route and descent profile, you will see conventional long finals with on average two- or three- level-offs. No changes.

Here is example one, from June 28th, an American Airlines MD82 inbound from KDFW. The base turn is near Dayton, and the final leg is more than 25-miles long. As a matter of practice, the controller normally directs a downwind flight to maintain a set altitude, typically 3,000- or 4,000-feet; in the screen-cap below, this MD82 is at 2,900-feet. Months later, on October 2nd, this same flight was turned to a final at more than twenty miles out, after two level-offs, at 7,000′ and 5,000′ altitude.20140628.. AAL2435 KDFW to KIAH, map showing long base turn
And here is another example, the October 2nd arrival of United Flight #1555, a Boeing 737 from Phoenix [KPHX]. In this case, a long downwind leg is flown, and the turn to final is east of Lake Houston, at nearly 20-miles out. Note the two level-offs, at 6,000′ and 4,000′ altitudes.20141003.. KIAH map view for UAL1555, B738 from KPHX20141003.. KIAH descent profile for UAL1555, B738 from KPHX

How to Study the KIAH Arrivals

Air traffic controllers are averse to work; they are normal people that way. So, they will set up direct routes and minimize the number of level-offs as much as they can. At a large airport like KIAH, if the majority of arrivals are inbound from the east, ATC will tend to bring the arrivals straight-in, landing to the west. So, if there is steady arrival traffic from the east, arrivals from the west will have to be sequenced into the downwind. However, during slow periods, such as in the early morning hours, ATC may use timing to bring in arrivals from both directions (east and west) and land them at opposite ends of the same runway. Always, the objective for ATC is to minimize time spent working each flight, while applying set rules to ensure the flights remain properly separated. This strategy for working air traffic pre-dates the sales pitch by FAA last June; there was no significant change after FAA officials gave that sales pitch.

You can study these arrivals yourself. Here’s how:

  1. select KIAH as your airport at Flightaware.com (here is a link).
  2. Study the list of arrivals by selecting the ‘More’ link. Look for arrivals that are against the flow; for example, from the west when most arrivals are from the east.
  3. Select one of those flights and a list appears for the same flight number, with links to weeks worth of previous flights. Click on any of these links and look for downwind arrivals.
  4. Click on link in the data box, under ‘Status’, where it says ‘Track Info & Graph’; this produces the vertical profile, as well as flight parameters, from which you can quickly identify level-off altitudes.

FAA’s Culture of Unaccountability: The PIX11 Investigative Series, by Mario Diaz

20140730.. Still No Answers, Whitaker (PIX11 Investigates, by Mario Diaz)One of the few journalists today pressing FAA with hard questions is Mario Diaz, at Pix11 TV in the New York market. Mr. Diaz has been investigating a pattern within FAA where air traffic controllers found partially responsible for fatal accidents are put right back to work and are not held accountable.

The fifth in a series of investigative reports aired in the New York market on July 30th. It includes an interview of FAA’s Deputy Administrator, Michael Whitaker, after he had spoken at a U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Aviation hearing.

Click here for links to the other investigative reports in this series.

NEWSCLIP-2014-07-27: Buffalo News Op/Ed About FAA’s Regulatory Capture

And, again, the Federal Aviation Administration looks to be trying to weaken the new flight safety rules enacted by Congress in the aftermath of the deadly 2009 crash in Clarence Center. It’s becoming routine, and the FAA is beginning to show what appear to be its true colors – more concerned with satisfying the airline industry than it is in ensuring air safety.

Let’s be clear: Fifty people died here because of poor pilot training. Flight Capt. Marvin D. Renslow took the exact opposite action the situation required when Continental Connection Flight 3407 stalled due to dangerously slow air speed. That’s why the Families of Flight 3407 campaigned and, with the muscular help of Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., fought for legislation increasing training requirements for new pilots.

The law was passed and virtually since that day, the airlines, the FAA and even some in Congress have sought to subvert it. Schumer has helped to fight back against those efforts and we presume he will monitor this latest maneuver to ensure that the law is fully implemented.

Industry leaders are shedding crocodile tears about a lack of pilots because of the new training requirements. Basically, they want to continue, as much as possible, operating in the same way: underpaying and overworking pilots whose training doesn’t cost too much. It’s a cynical game whose consequence played out in Clarence Center five years ago.

This issue cries out not just for our congressional delegation and the Families of Flight 3407 to stand firm on this issue, but for Congress to evaluate the function and performance of the FAA. If it has been so badly infiltrated by the airline industry that it cannot reliably implement safety laws passed by Congress and supported by Americans, then perhaps its mission and organizational structure – including its lines of accountability – need to be re-evaluated.

The crash of Flight 3407 was a watershed moment. Too many Americans are being flown on regional carriers, profiting the large airlines at the expense of passengers whose safety has been placed in the hands of inadequately trained, poorly compensated cockpit crews.

That changed with the ensuing legislation. It needs to stay changed.

This content is a copy of a BuffaloNews.com Op/Ed, copied from: http://www.buffalonews.com/opinion/buffalo-news-editorials/stand-firm-on-air-safety-foolhardy-faa-again-seems-willing-to-weaken-vital-pilot-training-rules-20140727.
Minor text modifications (and annotations) may have been made by aiREFORM.com.

 

Oregon Aviation Watch discusses Hillsboro Airport Lead Impact

On Friday June 6, 2014, a workshop was held at PCC, on the link between air quality and risks to public health. The forum was sponsored by two Oregon legislators: Rep. Mitch Greenlick (Chair of the House Health Care Committee), and Senator Mike Dembrow (Chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee).

The forum focused on two air quality problems:

  1. Aviation lead emissions at Hillsboro Airport, and
  2. Industrial emissions of hydrogen fluoride and other hazardous gasses.

Hillsboro Aviation has been recruiting student pilots from China and elsewhere; they then provide flight training (mostly helicopters) and burn leaded aviation fuel while intensively flying around airport practice areas. Miki Barnes and Dr. Jim Lubischer of Oregon Aviation Watch (OAW) offered a presentation about the lead impact at Hillsboro Airport. The Port of Portland is currently working to start construction of a new parallel runway at Hillsboro, using FAA funds. Hillsboro is an unusual airport, in that the majority of its traffic is for the flight training of imported students. OAW’s position is that the Port and FAA are effectively subsidizing this flight training at the expense of local community health. And, the principle beneficiary is the one business with the large fleet of training helicopters: Hillsboro Aviation.

Intel and other semiconductor manufacturers use a variety of gasses in their industrial processes. Some of these are released into the atmosphere in a controlled process, and occasionally they escape uncontrolled. There has been a long history of failures to disclose details of hazardous gas emissions.

For both air quality issues, the emissions problem is greatly magnified by the attitudes of the key parties (the sources, as well the regulators). Intel, FAA, the Port, and others continue to fail to ensure full transparency to the Public.

Luke Hammill covered the event with a news-blog at OregonLive.com, which generated the usual polarized comments.
20140606.. OAW forum presentation, PB, KHIO, OregonLive

FAA’s Priorities: Are Drones More Important than People?

Easter Sunday this year produced two aviation news stories in the Rocky Mountains: one was the use of a tiny drone-camera, the other was a paraglider fatality.

In Denver, two young men were flying a drone over the pro-cannabis 420 Rally, where a crowd of 80,000 people (and a cloud of smoke) was expected. The drone pilots set up atop the Civic Center roof, to remotely control their low-altitude flight. Per FAA’s regulations, the nearest real aircraft would be far higher than the nearby skyscrapers, much more than a thousand feet above the tiny drone. Nobody was hurt, but news photos show at least seven police arrived and stood around on the Civic Center roof. No tickets were issued, and the two men complied with a request to shut down and leave. The police also filed no incident report.

Meanwhile, at essentially the same time, a 31-yr-old male (who was a contestant on the TV show ‘Bachelorette’) launched his paraglider in the hills south of Salt Lake City. Witnesses saw the chute collapse while he was 10-15 feet above the ground. He was then slammed into the ground, rendered unconscious, and hospitalized. He died three days later. [article]

Which one did FAA get excited about?

The drone, of course.

Two days after the rally, FAA announced they were investigating the drone incident. FAA spokesperson Allen Kenitzer had this to say about the Denver drone story: “Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft — manned or unmanned — in U.S. airspace needs some level of authorization from the FAA.”

FAA ignored the paragliding accident, despite the fact that it was manned and produced a fatality. Contrary to Mr. Kenitzer’s statement, after decades of similar accidents, FAA still does not require any ‘level of authorization’ for a person to be killed in a paragliding accident.

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…