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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Background:

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

The similarities are in two troubling areas:

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

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

Is FAA Failing in Their Safety Oversight of Allegiant Air?

On May 11th this year, we were deeply embroiled in the election primaries, with growing evidence that the U.S. election system is in a flat-line failure mode. So, it is not surprising that the 20-year anniversary of the ValuJet crash in the Everglades might have gone unnoticed, at least by some of us.

The crash took 110 lives, and deeply scarred thousands more. The investigation of the crash exposed cultural failures at FAA, and led DoT Inspector General Mary Schiavo to abruptly resign in July of that year (she was THAT disgusted with the inside politics and cover-up, not just by FAA but by the White House, too). The crash and victims were recalled in a Miami Herald article. Subsequent news articles this year have looked at Allegiant Air, noting its many connections back to ValuJet, and presenting evidence that FAA is AGAIN being lax in safety oversight.

Below is a recent news article, critical of both Allegiant and FAA. In the pages that follow, aiREFORM provides an archived collection of articles and other documents related to Allegiant Air. The records are presented in chronological order on the following pages, mostly as scrollable PDF files.

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

Citizen’s Noise Monitoring (website)

There’s a new website of great value to Nextgen victims and others suffering from aviation noise impacts: Citizen’s Noise Monitoring. It appears to be based in the San Francisco Bay Area, created by a tech-savvy impacted citizen trying to find relief from noise impacts such as the SERFR arrivals to KSFO over the Santa Cruz, Palo Alto, and Portola Valley areas. (NOTE: for a graphic image showing the absurdly low SERFR arrivals, click this link; this is not just a noise issue, but also a SAFETY ISSUE!)

Here is a screen-capture showing the homepage, packed with information. Be sure to click through and spend some time studying what has been posted in just the past two months. Some truly amazing work!

(click on image to view original at Skyote.com)
(click on image to view original at Skyote.com)

 

The gist of this website appears to be to facilitate a workaround to a serious aviation noise problem. Specifically, FAA, Airports and the Airlines are effectively conspiring to shut out citizen-involvement in aviation impact decisions, such as the implementation of new NextGen routes that are consistently lower over our communities.

It can be said that truth comes from data, and he who controls the data thus defines the truth. Well, we simply can no longer allow the intensifying spin of this evolving troika, aka the Av-Gov Complex (an unfortunate consequence of FAA’s regulatory capture, wherein the regulator caters to the regulated industry), to define and frame aviation noise issues. Thus, we go beyond their spin and create our own REAL data.

More information about Citizen’s Noise Monitoring will be added soon…

NextGen in Phoenix: ‘And the Beat Goes On’

Readers can judge for themselves, just how unwilling FAA is to fix the mess they made when they flipped the switch on NextGen departure procedures, nearly eight months ago, on September 18th.

Take a little time and read this pair of letters, presented as PDF files in two scrollable windows. The first is FAA’s 4/14/2015 letter to leaders of Phoenix, signed by FAA’s Regional Administrator Glen Martin. The second is the City’s 4/24/2015 response letter, responding to Mr. Martin, and also summarizing the difficult history of this mess, signed by City Manager Ed Zuercher.

¡¿Happy Earth Day, Mr. Huerta?!

20150422scp.. FAA's 'Happy Earth Day' FB text20150422.. FAA sunset pic, poster image from their Earth Day 2015 Facebook PostThis is what FAA posted on the FAA Facebook site, on Wednesday morning. And they clearly want ALL OF US to celebrate with them, from Phoenix to Flushing, and from Charlotte to Chicago. Take a close look at the small text above, in the glorious picture with no airplanes (hence, the glory); FAA wants everyone to believe, “NextGen routes ease aviation’s burden on the environment….”

NextGen and EarthDay2015. Like two peas in a pod…

…¡¡¿¿Are you kidding me??!!

Hey, I forgot, too. The world has been looking a lot less beautiful in recent years. In fact, on that morning, my distraction was studying noise impacts created by focused NextGen tracks, trying to figure out how to get a certain three-letter aviation authority to clean up their mess. It was only when FAA sent out their disingenuous propaganda-piece that I remembered, ‘…hey, today is the 45th anniversary of Earth Day!’

Some of us might easily have been distracted watching the new record levels of atmospheric CO2 or the accelerating polar ice melt that appears to be closely tied to our weird winter weather. And, no doubt, if we live in one of the NextGen launch communities, perhaps we were too busy testifying (again!) before our local City Council, hoping – even praying – we could get relief from NextGen noise.

A lot of us probably forgot. But, thank you FAA, for reminding us. Oh, and by the way, we posted many comments onto your Facebook page (a copy has been saved at page two of this aiREFORM Post). Here is one of the comments:

“What a farce NextGen is: Lies and deceit; Environmental “reviews” with no basis in facts; The ruination of quiet neighborhoods; Destruction of property values without any compensation.
It’s Federal government bullying at its worst, and they claim to be celebrating Earth Day? George Orwell could not have written such a scenario.”

 

<< <> <<>> <> >>

Administrator Huerta, your agency’s PR branch will likely tell you the comments are all ‘thank you notes’, but you might want to read them yourself. They are overwhelmingly opposed to what your agency is doing. And they find your NextGen greenwashing to be absolutely despicable. Why? Well, put it all into perspective.

Earth Day started in 1970 because people were fed up with the trends toward environmental destruction, largely accelerated by greed and indifference. And it wasn’t about aesthetics; it was about health. Essentially, the people demanded effective regulations, and they also demanded to be meaningfully involved in a transparent democratic process.

What FAA did in 2014, with the CATEX applications and refusals to mitigate bad NextGen launches, is EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE of what Earth Day represents. In early 2012, under pressure to move past years of legislative gridlock, our Congress punted; they put the decision solely on YOU. At Section 213 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, they codified that you were to make the determination as to whether or not ‘extraordinary circumstances’ would void filing of a Categorical Exclusion. Here is a screen-capture of the relevant section (with markups by aiREFORM):20120214scp.. 'expedited review' portion of Section 213, H.R. 658, 112th Congress, FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, re CATEXMost of the FAA Administrators who preceded you expended enormous effort trying to balance the profit goals of the airlines with the quality-of-life needs of the larger public. Under your helm, and particularly with your NextGen launches, this balance has been completely discarded. You (and your subordinate Regional Administrators) have failed to see the ‘extraordinary circumstances’ of the noise impacts you have imposed upon families in places like Phoenix and Flushing. FAA is failing and has become YOUR agency, because it sure as hell isn’t serving the people anymore.

Sure, the Cuyahoga River is no longer igniting, like it was before the first Earth Day in 1970, but YOU are putting the fire in our skies with your NextGen noise. YOU are destroying our quality of life, and allowing your employees to delay producing records and correcting FAA’s cronyistic actions.

Mr. Huerta, your agency appears to have lost sight of an important fact:

Aviation and the NAS should be an asset

for the whole country, not just a way for

‘the final four major airlines’

to make a profit.

Too many in your organization are failing to serve the whole public. Our aviation system needs to be deliberately and equitably managed.

A year from now, if you (or your successor) want to make a similar ‘Happy Earth Day!’ post, you may want to show that you mean it. Starting today, you might want to put the environment and quality-of-life front and center, to reform your agency and serve the larger public.

¡¡Happy Earth Day, Mr. Huerta!!

Real time tracking, FDR transmission needs to happen now

Scott Hamilton at Leehamnet nails it again: aviation regulators need to get off their butts and implement effective tracking and transmission of flight data, to support timely search and rescue after remote crashes.

The failure to mandate what should be a relatively cheap system installation and operation cost only encourages the news media to spin off wild misinformation, seeking to fill the news information void. In a recent post, Mr. Hamilton noted that this “… is to the great disservice and most likely distress of the families and friends of the victims on the flight….” It also substantially undermines the public’s perception of the safety of today’s passenger aviation program. Mr. Hamilton goes on to note, “…for the industry, it all comes down to costs and in this context, dead people don’t matter, only cost matters. It’s the infamous tombstone mentality that enough people have to die before there is enough of an outcry to force regulators to do the right thing and force the airlines to follow….”

A Simple & Inexpensive System

The solution is a simple combination of technology and regulation. FAA and other regulators would simply require that all commercial passenger flights operating beyond continuous radar coverage must install a system that would transmit a basic data bundle in the event of a potential emergency.

Essentially, the system would track (each second) the flight’s basic data, including latitude & longitude, altitude, indicated airspeed, pitch angle, bank angle, and heading. The system would also apply logic to identify substantial heading/speed/altitude changes within the previous 15-seconds.

A transmission of data bundles would be triggered by odd parameters, such as excessive pitch angle and/or bank angle, abnormal speeds and/or altitudes, or substantial heading/speed/altitude changes. Once triggered, data bundles would be transmitted each second.

Each data bundle would require only three basic parameters: position (lat/long), altitude, and indicated airspeed. A few additional parameters would be added to the data bundle, as appropriate; for example, if the system noted excessive pitch angle or bank angle, or substantial heading/speed/altitude changes within the previous 15-seconds, these parameters would be included in the data bundle. On the assumption that this is a flight emergency, the transmissions would continue indefinitely.

For security purposes, if the transmission was triggered during a flight, the shutoff/override authority would NOT be in the aircraft. Instead, it would be by the ground dispatch/monitor personnel, who would need to communicate with the crew via radio, satellite, ACARS etc., to ensure the transmission is an anomaly, not a real emergency.

ANALYSIS: Apparent Wake Turbulence Accident near St. Cloud, MN [KSTC]

20140620.. KSTC, house hit by aircraft called in at 2026Two died when a small airplane likely passed too close under an arriving Allegiant jet, causing a loss of control and a fiery crash into a house below. The accident location was approximately 6-miles northwest of the St.Cloud Airport [KSTC]. The one person in the house was not injured when he jumped from the second floor to escape the fire. A news article in the Minneapolis StarTribune reports the small plane was doing a sightseeing flight. The photos show it was a sunny evening with pleasant flying conditions.

Wake Turbulence is one of the greatest hazards in Air Traffic Control. Wikipedia offers a good explanation, including links to some accident histories. Controllers are trained to be attentive to the reality that they may contribute to an accident if they put a small plane into the air vortices that tend to spin off of the wingtips of larger aircraft. These vortices dissipate slowly, and tend to fall to the ground, so controllers know it is much safer to pass the smaller aircraft above the larger one, and NEVER close-in underneath or behind. This short video shows these vortices are like small, horizontal tornados. Awareness of the hazards of wake turbulence began nearly fifty years ago, and coincided with the use of jets. With FAA, rules happen slowly and normally only as a reaction to accidents. Wake Turbulence rules were implemented, but there seems always to be a resistance to impose any more rules than are necessary. Pressures cause the hazards to be diminished and the rule proposals to be pared down. In the long run, though, more accident/incident data shows the folly of these deficient rules, and the rules keep changing every few years, becoming more and more restrictive. This is precisely the rule history FAA has followed on the wake turbulence issue, for nearly fifty years.

…please click on page two for data and analysis…
…additional notes are being compiled on page three

FAA’s OPSNET data .. graph, 1990-2013

Here is a graph constructed using FAA’s OPSNET data. It shows the total number of operations (takeoffs and landings) per year, from 1990 through 2013. The trend is clearly and strongly downward.

Combined FAA & Contract Tower Ops, 1990-2013

The Military component has been steady (see the red line, at bottom).

The Operations Network (OPSNET) is the official source of NAS air traffic operations and delay data. The data collected through OPSNET is used to analyze the performance of the FAA’s air traffic control facilities.

The data sent daily to OPSNET can be viewed on the FAA Operations & Performance Data Web site.

The Commercial component has been in decline (see the three blue lines). Note that there was a surge in smaller commuter planes (Air Taxi) peaking around 2004-05, with the explosion of feeders doing contract flying for the airlines. Since those peak years, though, the smaller planes are in decline, and commercial flights are being taken over by larger planes (Air Carriers).

The General Aviation component has seen a sharp and steady decline. Likely, an in depth analysis would reveal that high-end business/corporate flying and helicopter activity are increasing, while all other GA activities are simply dying. The reasons for the decline in recreational GA? Likely, due to high fuel costs and lower per capita discretionary income, and due to reduced interest (pilots are finding other, non-aviation activities to pursue). Also, it may be due to lack of aggressive promotion by FAA and others; i.e., whereas FAA and NASA did a lot to artificially promote GA in the 1990’s, we are now at the bottom of that promotional cycle.

Airline Jobs Continue to Decline

Click on the graph to view the full report webpage at the DoT Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS).

This graph indicates that the number of employees working at U.S. passenger airlines has been steadily declining for decades (with the exception of the bubble in the late 1990’s). Within the report, data shows impacts are heaviest on regional commuter airlines, while the low-cost carriers are doing the best.

Allegiant’s MD80’s: ancient, noisy, … and a maintenance mess?

On Friday, September 20th, Allegiant Travel Co canceled 18 of its 121 scheduled flights. The action was taken when FAA discovered that the airline had failed to follow a 2007 directive increasing the frequency for inspections of the four inflatable emergency slides from once every three years to once each year.

An emergency on Monday, September 16th, involved use of the evacuation slides at the airport in Las Vegas, after smoke was observed. FAA investigated and directed Allegiant to report on the status of the slides. “The FAA this week became aware that Allegiant Air may not have inspected some emergency evacuation slides on its MD-80 fleet at required intervals,” Ian Gregor, public affairs manager with the FAA Pacific Division, said in a statement. The airline promptly ‘discovered’ that it had not been complying with a 2007 recommendation by the manufacturer of the slides, Zodiac Aerospace, to overhaul all four inflatable chutes annually on aircraft older than 15 years. Then, the airline began flight cancellations, to immediately conduct the inspections. [article]

Why is Allegiant using MD80’s?

For the simple reason that they are cheap. This is an old plane that sold well forty years ago, because it was more efficient to operate than the Boeing 727. But when compared with today’s newer jet models, the MD80 (and its many variants) is a gas guzzler. And, the MD80 is notoriously noisy, thus far more impactful on people within forty miles of airports, during the approach and climbout phases of flight. For example, this noise is a huge part of the opposition to Allegiant at the airport in Bellingham, WA [KBLI].

The MD80 is very much like a large sedan at a used car lot. A buyer can spend a lot less on equipment that gets the job done, but at a tradeoff in much more gas consumed, as well as other discomforts such as noise and that ‘old car smell’. But, in the aviation industry, an airline can make money by leasing old equipment, especially if they are careful to market value (and turn the focus away from the negatives). The most infamous example of a U.S. airline following this model was Valujet, a low-cost airline that grew too fast in the mid-1990’s, accumulated a disturbing maintenance record, and then abruptly ceased operations in their fourth year. Valujet’s logo included a cute, smiling airplane.

The safety record of the MD80 is also not stellar, though this may have more to do with maintenance cost-cutting than with aircraft design. Two of the most horrific U.S. airline accidents, in which passengers endured minutes of shear terror before being disintegrated upon impact, were the Valujet Flight 592 crash (Everglades, May 1996) and the Alaska Flight 261 crash (near Santa Barbara, January 2000). Both of these accident investigations uncovered serious maintenance deficiencies, one involving the jack screw that controls the horizontal stabilizer, and the other involving fire hazards with a defective relay switch.

As for passenger comfort, the MD80 is a mixed bag. The ride inside is pleasantly quiet in the front, far from the rear-mounted engines. But, if you happen to have a seat in the back rows, the noise and vibration is terribly unpleasant, because you are effectively sitting between the two engines.

How does Allegiant save money flying the MD80?

This is not that clear. The aircraft reportedly costs a tenth of what a Boeing 737 costs, so there is that initial cost savings. But, the operational cost is much higher. The most successful U.S. airline today is Southwest, and they use a fleet of 554 Boeing 737’s. Southwest pays more for newer and far more efficient aircraft, and averages more than six flights per day for each aircraft. In contrast, Allegiant averages just two or three flights per day for their MD80 fleet. Perhaps the real savings is in the fact that Allegiant can buy these ‘MD80 used car units’ outright, and the airline is thus not saddled with leasing costs. [article]

Does FAA do anything to discourage use of the MD80?

In a word, ‘No’. In fact, quite the opposite. FAA (as well as DoT Secretary Federico Pena) was a huge cheerleader for Valujet, and it appears FAA is still overly supportive of low-cost, cut-rate airlines.

For example, FAA puts pressure on airport authorities to accommodate the airlines using the MD80. In 2008, Allegiant approached the airport authority at Paine Field in Everett, WA, to discuss starting two roundtrips per week between Everett and Las Vegas. Local officials quickly rejected the proposal. “We’re still very opposed to commercial air service,” said Christopher Schwarzen, spokesman for County Executive Aaron Reardon. “We don’t think it fits with the surrounding community.” FAA then issued a letter warning that the airport authority must negotiate with Allegiant, because of the $57 Million in airport grants received since 1945. In that letter to airport director David Waggoner, Seattle Airports District Office Manager Carol Key said, “Failure to negotiate in good faith may subject the County to an enforcement action” and could put continued receipt of federal funding at risk.

Nor is FAA doing anything to discourage use of the MD80 at small airports near the Canadian border, such as Bellingham, WA, Niagara, NY, and Plattsburgh, NY. As a consequence, passengers who would more efficiently catch flights out of Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal, save some money by spending time and gas on long commutes across the border. The environment suffers (in CO2 from the MD80’s, as well as from the excessive airport commute distances), and the Canadian aviation system has its operating funds siphoned away.

So, in the big picture, the MD80 is a gas-hog and the worst performing aircraft today, in U.S. passenger aviation. And, FAA has a great opportunity here, to help the environment, as well as airport neighbors.