The COVID pandemic has deeply impacted the passenger aviation industry. Despite enormous (and repeated) payroll subsidies from the federal government, many people remain highly resistant to the pay-to-fly experience, most likely due to the crowding, shared air, and other dangerous conditions. This Post uses FAA’s latest ATADS data to show how the ASPM77 airports have been impacted since March 2020. The analysis goes a step further to look at the FAA’s 35 biggest commercial airports (OEP35), showing how far they had declined BEFORE the pandemic, as well as how they further declined due to COVID.
Who’s idea was it, anyway, to use a helicopter to fly over tailgating crowds ‘to make crowd announcements’?
Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded.
OK, let’s suppose a nearby nuclear reactor is melting down, say Three Mile Island (though I understand, yes, it is not actually near the stadium Lot 23 area for Penn State football games!). But, just to put this in perspective, would it be a good idea for a helicopter pilot with an announcement system to swoop down very low over a crowd to issue an urgent message aimed at triggering an immediate orderly evacuation? Well, yes and no. First, how likely is it the announcement will not be heard over the ‘whop whop’ roar of the helicopter? And, second, how smart is it to apply this level of intervention, this form of technology, to potentially trigger a stampede? If there is an urgent need for people to vacate an area, sending in a helicopter at tree-top level or even lower is like throwing gas onto a fire. Not a good idea.
Now, is it surprising that this pilot flew so low, endangering so many people? No, not at all. FAA’s regulations for Minimum Safe Altitude (officially known as FAR 91.119) are carefully worded so as to exempt helicopters from the ‘1,000-ft above’ requirement that all fixed wing aircraft have to comply with. Well, sort of. The ambiguity within FAR 91.119 creates a barn door wide enough to fly a helicopter through … or, at least, it creates opportunities for FAA to justify taking no enforcement actions. The key phrase within FAA 91.119 is this:
“(Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below) … an altitude allowing, if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface.”
Check out the videos online, by tailgaters at this Penn State incident. How was this helicopter going to safely execute an emergency landing without actually crushing or chopping people and ‘property’ below in the congested, open air assembly of tailgaters? And, when the impact causes fuel to burst out and ignite, how does the PA State Police mitigate the ‘undue hazards’ of being burnt to death?
Let’s put this in FAA’s perspective: aviation is good, people are dumb, and we, as the federal ‘regulator’ with sovereign authority for all things U.S. aviation, do everything we can to grow aviation commerce and allow even stupid aviation activities.
From FAA’s perspective, why not allow the use of helicopters swooping low and back-and-forth to herd wild horses or cattle … or PEOPLE?
From FAA’s perspective, why not ignore the obvious hazard and imprudence of using helicopters for drying cherries, or suspending enormous brush-trimming devices? Why not also ignore the ‘candy drops’ and ‘turkey drops’? After all, candy drops help sell aviation to kids, the same way turkey drops and heli-hunting sell aviation to, well, redneck yahoos … so, both are best ignored, right? [Check out this Heli-hunting video. with two shooters on the left side of a low-flying Robinson R44. Try to estimate the altitude, but try not to ponder too hard the possibility that any human or animal (a dog or livestock?) might be within the aerial hunt zone.]
From FAA’s perspective, why not pretend to care about safety – better yet, make ‘safety’ our most over-used word – by creating rules such as FAR 91.119 but carefully including enough ambiguity to ensure every errant pilot can walk away from enforcement – that is, so long as they are not killed by their own stupidity? Did you know: the FAR 91.119 language protects persons and property ‘ON THE SURFACE’, but the pilot (a person) and aircraft (a form of property) are NOT‘on the surface’, and are therefore disposable?
From FAA’s perspective, why not perpetuate a convenient privilege for those people who choose aviation as their hobby or profession? Why not continue FAA’s ongoing failure to meaningfully investigate and enforce violations of FAR 91.119 and other FARs? After all, we wouldn’t want to dampen demand for flying, would we?
It amazes me that FAR 91.119 is so riddled with ambiguity, almost as much as it amazes me that FAA does not really give a damn about enforcing safe practices … at least not when they interfere with the expansion of air commerce. In this context, I suspect FAA will do nothing to correct the excesses that happened with the state police helicopter, at the Penn State tailgate last Saturday.
So, too, do the intense politics and greed associated with the aviation industry. Even more so when industry ‘collaborates’ with faux-regulators like FAA, to spew out mountains of GWBS (a new acronym, standing for ‘greenwash BS’). But, we all endure; we learn, we share, we activate, we demand change.
There is a lot happening this summer. Not just the continued drive for more over-expansion at hub airports worldwide, but also as regards smaller airports. Miki Barnes at Oregon Aviation Watch has been one of the biggest activists in the U.S., seeking changes at FAA, Port of Portland, and the Hillsboro Airport [KHIO]. OAW recently sent out an email about the ongoing health impacts associated with lead, which remains in the common aviation fuel ‘100LL’ (the LL stands for ‘low lead’). Miki notes:
“The aviation industry is the largest source of airborne lead pollution in the country. The Port of Portland owned and operated Hillsboro Airport (HIO) is a prime example. The majority of the users of this facility are student pilots recruited from overseas and out of state to engage in flight training over the local community.”
So, at Hillsboro, an airport authority (PoP) was created long ago and collects local taxes, but PoP operates with no obligation towards accountability and transparency; furthermore, PoP has predictably evolved into a servant for industry, helping to gin up industry profits by blocking citizens seeking to moderate aviation impacts while also ignoring growing citizen concerns.
Airport officials at Santa Monica are in the process of creating ‘Minimum Standards for Commercial Aeronautical Service Providers. These standards can ensure that all potential operators are fairly treated when and if the airport authority denies certain operations. Last week, Airport Director Stelios Makrides issued a statement that the deadline for comments has been extended to June 21st. (click here for an archived copy)
Santa Monica is a very unique airport. It should have been allowed to close down years ago, but FAA has obstructed the will of the local community, solely to protect aviation interests who insist on using this deficient airport facility. How is it deficient? Just take a look at the satellite images and airport map, and note how closely the nearby homes and yards stand, relative to the runway. At Santa Monica, people have had their lawn furniture blown over by the blast from departing jets; REALLY!!
The runway was shortened last year, but now the City is failing to impose needed standards that block unsafe operations by jets and commercial operators. Aviation money appears to be impeding their judgment.
Santa Monica is also notable as an airport where FAA lawyers managed to convince the local elected officials to ‘settle’ legal differences with an inexplicable agreement to extend the life of the airport. Money talks, and rumor has it the elected officials were tired of spending so much money on legal services, trying to exercise their rights against FAA’s industry-serving will. You got it: our money, collected by FAA from we the taxpayers, and spent as FAA sees fit, is arbitrarily used to impede meaningful LOCAL CONTROL by compelling our own elected officials to use our money (local taxes, this time) to fight FAA in the courts.
Below is a copy of a recent letter by Gavin Scott, posted at NoJetsSMO. He summarizes what he observed at the June 5th Airport Commissioner’s Meeting. He also advocates – strongly – for people to submit their own comments right away, before the chance is gone.
Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded.
Here is a quick example of how FAA protects aviation industry players from accountability, and how the mainstream media gives FAA a pass on accountability.
WKYT is a CBS-affiliated TV station in the Lexington, Kentucky area. Residents recently became concerned about a low-flying aircraft. The TV station investigated and was able to extract from FAA that an aerial survey was being conducted. But, FAA would offer no further details. This news story then gets packaged as ‘FAA Explains why low-flying plane was spotted in multiple counties” Oh, really? That’s an ‘explanation’?
What gives here? This airspace is owned by the public. We are impacted by those who use it, and we all pay for the services of FAA, who is supposed to manage and regulate that use. More often than not, an aerial survey is nothing more than a specially rigged airplane with a vertically oriented camera capturing images while flying a tight grid pattern. The peace of those on the ground was impacted substantially, and people have a right to knowledge that far exceeds a corporate right to privacy. So, why does FAA not tell us who the aircraft operator was?
On roads everywhere, we have to have a legible license plate connected to a registered owner. In communities everywhere, commercial operators of motor vehicles are required to identify their vehicles – and they benefit by doing so, as their services are advertised ‘on the road’. This all needs to change. FAA needs to start serving THE PEOPLE – all of us, not just those ‘people’ who are LLCs and Corporations. And it all starts with transparency.
It is that time of year, when FAA again parades out a 20-year forecast to prop up agency spending. These forecasts are notorious for being routinely exaggerated, i.e., robustly unrealistic, but the pro-spending bias keeps happening, since the exaggerations work well to dupe the public.
The opening line is revealing; compare this statement (“…All indicators show that air travel in the United States is strong…”) with FAA’s own data, which has been compiled into the table below.
This table shows combined total tower operations for all of the 500+ FAA and contract control towers, as documented in ATADS. Note that total operations peaked in 1999, and have fallen 26% since. The decline has gone on for decades, and has been steady; there is no concrete sign of a reversal.
Note also a paragraph deep in the FAA news release, justifying further expansion of infrastructural spending, on the weak FAA assumption that total airport operations will rise 19% in the next 20 years (from 51.0 million in 2018 to 60.5 million in 2038). Think about it; airport operations cannot even keep up with the positive growth rate of our national population. The data is clear: this industry has been declining. And, yes, the new forecast truly is based on FAA’s ‘assumption’, that a downward-flat trend for two decades will suddenly inflect upward.
The RPM metric is not a valid metric for industry growth. As the few remaining airlines continue to adjust schedules with increased hub concentration, passengers end up flying LONGER flights with added legs (origin-to-hub-to-destination, and even origin-hub1-hub2-destination, instead of origin-direct-destination). This increases RPM totals. If a routing via the Atlanta hub adds 24% to the total flight distance, RPMs also increase by 24%. The fastest growing hub right now is Seattle; when Delta sells tickets for passengers between California and the Midwest or East Coast, more and more itineraries end up flying via KSEA. Likewise, as FAA continues to over-accommodate airline excessive hubbing on the East Coast, we will see RPM increases on trips to the West Coast out of Boston, the NYC airports, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Reagan National.
Here’s another piece of spin, from the fifth paragraph of the News Release: “Air Traffic Modernization is rapidly moving towards satellite navigation technologies and procedures which will continue to allow enhanced navigation for more aircraft….”The truth is, there has been no rapid modernization because most of the GPS system was implemented in the mid-1990s! Also, the so-called ‘enhanced navigation’ is potentially a valuable improvement, but it is consistently rendered worthless by FAA’s failure to manage capacity, such as by imposing hourly flow limits. In other words, so long as FAA continues to allow airlines to over-schedule at a handful of airline-chosen hubs, ATC will have to continue to issue delays … as we routinely see at KBOS, KJFK, KLGA, KDCA, KSEA, and elsewhere. Using online flight tracking programs, we see thousands of delays everyday, in the form of gate holds, long taxi-out times due to congestion, turns and loops during the enroute/cruise segment, extended patterns to sequence arrivals via radar vectors, and long taxi-in times due to congestion. If FAA does not change their strategy, these delays will only grow.
The news release notes that there were 840.8 million domestic enplanements in 2017. If we fly a nonstop ticket from our origin to an airport destination, it will count as one enplanement, but ONLY if it is a direct nonstop flight. If we fly via a hub, or a series of stops, the number of enplanements increases (one enplanement per takeoff segment). Thus, a figure of 840.8 million enplanements in 2017 sounds like a big number, but actually means no more than 420.4 out-and-back ‘trips’. With more data, we could establish an estimate that is likely even fewer than 300 million actual full ‘trips’ per year, once we factor out extra trip legs (such as via hubs).
The news release also cites a 1.7% annual growth rate estimate for domestic enplanements, but how much of this will be due to increased hubbing? Even the simplest hub-related flights (e.g., outbound routed origin-HUB-destination, and return trip routed destination-HUB-origin) tallies four enplanements, which is roughly double the national annual average. If Delta, JetBlue, and others intensify hubbing, we can end up with an annual growth rate far exceeding the national population growth rate. But, with more hubbing, this would actually be less energy-efficient; lengthened flight distances and more stops would INCREASE fossil fuel consumption, having an even higher impact on climate and communities.
On average, U.S. citizens fly less than one commercial passenger air trip per year. And, importantly, some of us travel a whole bunch, many times per week. So, in this annual forecast, we really need FAA to go deeper with the data and attempt to accurately define just how elite air travel is. What percentage of our national population did not fly at all in 2017? And what is the trend year to year; are more people responding to climate change concerns by electing to travel less, or not at all? It could actually be that airlines serve an elite few U.S. citizens, more so than the larger ‘general public’. Considering the intensive fuel consumption (and impacts, upon climate change as well as health and neighborhood quality of life), it would be an appropriate national policy to stop subsidizing this industry and shift costs away from communities and onto the airlines and passengers; it would also be an appropriate national policy to impose a fee structure that discourages excessive flying by one passenger (e.g., no tax on the first two roundtrips per year, a steep tax for the third thru fifth roundtrip each year, and a very steep tax for subsequent roundtrips).
Aviation is the most intensive fuel-consumption activity in our modern lifestyle. It has enormous negative impacts, not only upon climate change, but also upon public health and neighborhood quality of life. Efforts to increase airport capacity do not reduce these impacts; they INCREASE these impacts.
Near the bottom of the news release, a paragraph glows about how this annual forecast is the ‘industry-wide standard’. More accurately, this annual forecast is a propaganda tool issued by a captured regulator, in collaboration with industry players and their lobbyists. It is disinformational, an improper use of public monies.
This past week, numerous local citizens met with city airport officials, to discuss the DRAFT Minimum Standards for Commercial Aeronautical Services. This 41-page document (archived here) may be well worth reading … not just for those who fear continued air charter operations at the shortened KSMO runway, but also for people at other U.S. airports, seeking to clarify who is to be held accountable for the airport impacts.
Some of the content is mere boilerplate, but other details make it clear that the two key airport regulatory parties (FAA and airport authorities) both tend to ignore area residents while serving only commercial operators. And how is this done? Well, if and when a citizen raises a concern, the airport regulatory party is quick to pretend they are not accountable while also directing all concerned citizens ‘to the other party’. The result is regulatory failure; where safety and environment demand real and timely accountability, instead we find an accountability vacuum.
At Santa Monica, the impacts continue. Although the runway was substantially shortened, jets and charter operations still fly. Area residents remain fearful that the City will allow – or even encourage – the development of increased air charter operations.
‘Minimum standards’ should exist, especially as related to safety and environmental impact. Given how marginally unsafe the shortened runway is for larger, fuel-laden commercial flights, it is absolutely appropriate for the city to refine their minimum standards in a way that shuts down commercial charter operations. But, will they do so?
Submitting suggestions or comments on this Draft
Ben Wang, at the ‘SMO Future’ Facebook group, submitted a table with his suggestions (click here to view the aiReform archived copy).
Readers who wish to may submit their own suggestions. The two key airport officials to contact are:
Something Else to Think About: Who pays for these airport officials?
Mr. Markos is Airport Manager, a position he has held since 2013 (per this news release). After a quick online search, it was not yet clear what his annual salary is. But, that same search revealed that Ms. Lowenthal, as the Senior Advisor to the City Manager on Airport Affairs, earns a $162,036 annual salary. (click here to view the City’s 9/28/2017 press release)
Here’s something to think about. In good form, to justify a high salary, the city’s press release proceeded to identify Ms. Suwenthal’s substantial background, both educationally and professionally. But, that point aside, if senior assistants earn this large a salary, it suggests that the costs to manage KSMO, which frankly caters to just a small group of charter operators, are quite substantial. And these costs have to be born by someone.
These high costs beg a few more critical questions:
what exactly is the full extent of city subsidy for this airport?
if the city subsidies ended, would area residents finally obtain relief from air pollutant, noise, and safety impacts, especially those caused by charter operators and leaded-fuel local flights? In other words, is this subsidy pattern actually perpetuating impacts that destroy health and residential quality of life?
if the city continues the pattern of impact upon nearby residents (both in Santa Monica and in adjacent neighborhoods, such as West LA), where is the money coming from to pay these subsidies?
Interesting discussion about community impacts and port authority overdevelopment at Sea-Tac [KSEA], in this Quiet Skies Puget Sound Facebook Post.
(click on image to view source Facebook discussion)
Here, one of the area residents being victimized by Sea-Tac overexpansion suggests what really is the easiest solution: spread the flights out, so people are served locally, by their own local airport.
So, how do we make this change? The key to getting there includes changing the current system of fees/taxes to economically disincentivize hubs. For example, the U.S. Congress and FAA need to do three things:
end ticket charges (especially the PFCs) that incentivize airport over-development. With airport PFCs, FAA/DoT collects billions of dollars each year, which are then reallocated into airport development projects. Much of this money goes to rural airports with nearly zero traffic (such as the recent debacle at Mora, MN), and the funds are generously doled out with near-zero local matches required. Airports like Sea-Tac are thus motivated to develop far beyond what the actual airport property and surrounding neighborhoods can stand.
impose a steep carbon tax with at least half of revenues going away from aviation, such as to high speed rail. Indeed, the aviation sector provides an excellent opportunity to trial such a tax, while also funding new programs that are far more energy-efficient.
establish a user fee system based on two key factors: direct-miles (between origin airport and destination airport), and aircraft seating capacity. Apply this fee system to all commercial flights (passenger and air cargo) as well as to all higher performance aircraft (e.g., bizjets, and flights by fractionally-owned aircraft). Thus:
for any origin-destination pair, a 200-passenger jet would pay twice the fee as a 100-passenger jet, and a 400-passenger jet would pay 4-times as much.
a 30-passenger bizjet would pay the same aviation user fee, whether it is chartering one elite passenger of 28, whether it is flying IFR (in the ATC system) or just out on a high-performance VFR hop.
passenger ticket fees/taxes would be proportional to itinerary distance. E.g., a passenger ticket from Seattle to Boston via Atlanta would pay 25% higher fees due to 25% higher distance (2,712 NM through ATL versus 2,161 NM direct SEA-BOS); likewise, a SEA-LAX-BOS itinerary would pay 43% higher fees than a direct SEA-BOS itinerary (hubbing via LAX, in this example, increases distance flown from 2,161 NM to 3,091 NM).
and, of course, this all would apply to commercial helicopters, too. A helicopter doing an urban air tour, or a helicopter charter hop from KSMO to Staples Center, would pay the fee, subject to a hefty minimum user fee per operation.
similarly, it would apply to commercial skydive operators, whose noisy aircraft would also be subject to a hefty minimum user fee per operation.
This simple set of proposed fees/taxes would not only reduce hub pressure at places like KSEA, KJFK, KCLT, KPHX, and KBOS; it would also all but eliminate system delays, and reduce environmental impacts. Plus, this system would strongly incentivize the airlines to offer more direct flights. This would mean less travel time for the consumers who fund this system, and would be a Win-Win for nearly everyone. The only losers would be the airlines and airport authorities who have gone too long, abusing too many, under the current flawed fee/tax system that maximizes consumption.
Just one thing is required: an elected Congress willing to work together, to order FAA reform: to totally revamp the fee/tax system, replacing it with only a carbon tax and a direct-miles fee.
Good to see that, after a year of horrible missteps, the City of Santa Monica appears to be setting up an environmental study, to be done during the 10-day airport closure in mid-December. Here is an archived copy of the news article (or click here to view the source article):
Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded.
In the past, assessments done during airport closures have shown dramatic air quality improvements, suggesting clearly that local resident concerns go WAY BEYOND ‘annoyance’ (that was the word used by FAA’s community liaison person, in dismissing concerns by long-time residents of western Long Island). And, Marty Rubin looks to be wise to reserve judgment; too often, these studies get hijacked and watered down, so let’s hope Paulson is involved and credible data is collected.
In the U.S., one of our greatest advocates for resolving aviation impacts is Marty Rubin. Marty has been fighting the right fight for decades now, against a city (Santa Monica) whose elected officials appear to be corrupt to no end (…well, most of them; a few have been great!). His website, CRAAP, recently forwarded the posting below, which is a blogpost by staff at Mike Bonin’s website.
For those not in the LA area, here’s the deal: this airport is run by the City of Santa Monica, but has HUGE impacts upon people who reside in homes outside the City’s boundaries … in old and very established residential communities like West LA. In a just world, a higher level regulator, such as FAA, would guard against gains for some with uncompensated losses for others. But, here in West LA, FAA is failing their role. In these neighborhoods, even beautiful homes are subjected to aviation fumes and jet blast, with homeowner’s having no evident right to fix these impacts. Why? Because of FAA’s refusal to serve EVERYONE, not just the aviation industry! But, then again, this is what we expect from a captured regulator.
Here is a copy of the blog and Councilmember Bonin’s letter to the Santa Monica City Council. (click here to view the source)
Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded.