Happening this Week: the Aviation Noise & Emissions Symposium

This week, aiREFORM is attending a series of presentations about aviation impacts, at the 2021 Aviation Noise & Emissions Symposium. In recent years, the annual symposium sponsored by UC Davis has been held in southern California and Florida, in late winter. This year, due to the pandemic, it was transitioned into an online symposium, using the Pheedloop virtual event platform. Organizers did a great thing: they opened registration to activists everywhere, to participate at a reasonable $25 price. As a consequence, many of the U.S. aviation impact activists are participating.

In the first two days we’ve heard four presentations. While some presenters have seemed to lack an ability to see outside the culture that delivers their industry-sourced paycheck, a few have offered great comments. Steve Alterman and Nick Miller (retired principal from HMMH) come to mind.

Those activists who did not register can still benefit. Check out the ANES-UCD website and, under the ‘About’ menu bar, open up the webpages for the 2019 and 2020 Symposia; you can then view or even download numerous PDFs with material used in the earlier events. And, the same should be posted soon after this year’s event is finished.

Some Context on ‘Noise & Emissions’

It is not clear from a cursory online investigation precisely when and how UC Davis began this series of events (we hope to add those details in the near future). But, research does show that ‘Noise & Emissions’ are at the thematic heart of what FAA was working with, as NextGen evolved nearly twenty years ago.

It starts in December 2003. That’s when Congress passed Public Law 108-176, the Vision 100–Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act. At Section 321, FAA was directed to work with NASA and others to “…conduct a study of ways to reduce aircraft noise and emissions and to increase aircraft fuel efficiency.” Noise and Emissions.

The Reauthorization included language ordering a report back to Congress, for delivery within a year. That report, authored by Ian Waitz et al at MIT, was delivered in December 2004, and at three points (p.7, p.31, and p.42) it identifies the name for the new program: Next Generation Air Transportation System, aka NGATS. It was early 2006 when FAA Administrator Marion Blakey started using the ‘NextGen’ brandname, in FAA’s 2005 Annual Performance Report.

Hard to believe, nearly 18-years later, that FAA was supposed to do good, environmentally, with the NextGen implementation. Instead, we have a program serving only industry, destroying decades-old noise abatement procedures, and imposing hugely impactful concentrated computer-flown tracks over new noise-ghettos below. Bad for community, bad for health, but good for industry, so FAA ensures it flies.

In a nutshell, NextGen is not about ‘noise and emissions’ as Congress ordered, nor is it about ‘safety or efficiency’; it is about automation, replacing human controls (pilots and controllers) with computer controls, all to accommodate heavier hub scheduling (and slightly tweaked profit margins) by the few remaining U.S. airlines. Airlines that typically operate near-monopolies at most of the U.S. commercial service airports.

For a deeper dive into how NextGen evolved and why it is failing these environmental goals, download this 2017 aiREFORM presentation (42 slide PDF, 4Mb), delivered at a Quiet Skies Puget Sound forum.

COVID’s Impact on U.S. Airports, Through December 2020

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.

Click here to view or download the analysis.

Airline Consolidation: Just Like the Banks?

A friend shared an article that included a variation of this diagram about bank consolidation.
Notice the pattern: banks consolidated from 37 in 1994, to 19 in 2001, to 11 in 2005, and to only 4 in 2009. Banks became less accountable and more inclined to gouge customers for absurdly high ‘fees’ (e.g., stuff like $31 for each ‘overdraft’ debit card usage, even for $1 or $5 purchases … they offered so many conveniences, but not the easy service of automatically alerting customers and rejecting the debit request at the point of sale). The greed-driven policies at the consolidated banks eventually created a financial meltdown. They were labeled ‘too big to fail’, so as to justify the enormous bailout by federal officials, using public funds. Our public funds, used to reward the overpaid bank greedsters.

It struck me that the diagram looks just like what has happened with U.S. airlines, where today the vast majority of passengers are ‘served’ by only six airlines and the so-called ‘regional’ feeders they contract with. Our final six are American, Delta, Southwest, United, Alaska and JetBlue.

If there is one big trend that we can all agree is happening in the U.S. and across the planet, it is industry consolidation and globalization. The gap between big and small, and the fraction controlled by big, just keeps growing. We now have fewer (but larger) banks, grocers, hospitals and immediate-care chains, gas stations, telecom providers, etc. It is also reflected in the widening wealth gap between the 1% and the 99% … and, again, not just in the U.S., but also in corrupt banana republics and across the globe.

We only hope that this trend is not driven by corruption even in nations like the U.S. We only hope that, if in fact this trend is as unsustainable as it appears to be, the ‘market correction’ will be peaceful and not too painful. Are we becoming the biggest Banana Republic in the history of the world? We only hope not.

Yesterday’s SkyJustice Phone Conference

The featured speaker at the 9/29/2018 Sky Justice National Network monthly phone conference was Jim Spensley. Airline and airport consolidation was front and center. A few of the many interesting points discussed included:

  1. The ‘final-6’ airlines are consolidating their schedules into fewer (but larger) hubs; i.e., while a few airports are seeing growth in annual operations counts, most airports have declined substantially for decades now. [for data, see the aiREFORM analysis at this 1/17/2018 Post (1990 vs 2005 vs 2016 Operations: Exposing FAA’s Inaccurate Forecasts), and see also this 10/23/2017 aiREFORM Post (NAS Annual Ops Have Declined for Decades Now, And NextGen Is Just Hype)]
  2. Most commercial service airports within the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS) offer monopoly or near-monopoly service; i.e., the predominant pattern is either only one airline offers direct service between two airports, or one airline has strong dominance on that airport-pair. This pattern appears to be an antitrust collusion between airlines; it also appears that federal regulators, including DoT, DoJ and FAA, are willingly not acting to end this antitrust collusion. [see this 2014 aiREFORM analysis (A Table Showing the ASPM-77 Airports – (Peak Years, Traffic Declines, and Trends Toward Airline Monopolies)]
  3. While the general public assumes there is an economy of scale that lowers unit costs and thus causes ticket prices to go down at larger hub airports, the opposite appears to be happening. Two key reasons are:
    1. the monopoly power held by the hub-dominant airline enables them to get away with setting much higher prices; this is especially true on those feeder routes to/from cities served by no other airlines.
    2. the airport authority accumulates an enormous debt burden for massive airport infrastructure expansion, all of which is predicated on continued unsustainable growth rates. In other words, a balloon is inflated, catalyzed by FAA grant funding and laws that incentivize hub concentration, and the balloon becomes primed to burst. The sudden popping of an airport hub balloon can be triggered by a general economic downturn, or it can happen if/when the hub-dominant airline arbitrarily decides to move to another airport; a prime example is the former Delta hub near Cincinnati [KCVG].
  4. There are other, environmental costs associated with these consolidated hubs, borne by residents and other ‘non-airport stakeholders’, but both FAA and airport authorities work hard to ignore and even deny these costs. The consolidation of flights into fewer but larger hubs causes more noise impacts (both persistent and repetitive noise patterns), more air pollution (thus more health costs), more destruction of residential neighborhoods and communities due to ‘land-grabbing’ by the airport authority, etc.
  5. One of Jim’s key points was that the airport authority has considerable power to set policies, to choose to NOT expand excessively … but the airport authorities tend to be beholden to the airlines, especially the hub-dominant airline. Why would someone like the Port of Seattle, PANYNJ, or Massport be so subservient to the hub-dominent airlines? It all comes down to money, needed to expand plans (and annual bonuses, in some cases), and also needed to pay off past and future development debt. The fear of an abrupt airline departure – like Delta did at KCVG, American did at KSTL, and United is now doing at KCLE – creates a peonage, rendered on a massive scale.


So, who can solve the growing impact problems caused by airline consolidation and hub concentration? If both FAA and airport authorities are effectively captured, serving industry, we can expect they will continue to play a good-cop-bad-cop game, passing citizens back-and-forth to each other while offering no answers and no solutions. This is where we are today. It is why we depend even more on our elected officials. Especially in Congress, we need them to change the laws; take back what was taken from the people in the 1990 passage of ANCA [see this 6/9/2015 aiREFORM Post (Wendell Ford’s Edsel: Many of FAA’s NextGen Dirty Tricks were Also Used in the 1990 Passage of ANCA)]; restore local control, to include ensuring local residents have power over their airport authority; even, impose a steep carbon tax on aviation fuel, so that excessive airline hubbing is disincentivized.

See also:

Who is to Blame – and Who Can Fix – the Impacts Around U.S. Hub Airports?

Are the SAMP Open Houses Really Just ‘Propaganda Events’?

I attended a ‘Sustainable Airport Master Plan (SAMP) scoping Open House last night, for one of the fastest-growing commercial airports in the U.S.: Sea-Tac, serving the Seattle and Puget Sound [KSEA]. There is a lot to report, but even more, a lot to think about, especially this: what can I say to empower other impacted citizens so they can be as effective as possible when attending these events?

As a retired FAA employee (an air traffic control whistleblower, no less) who spent a full career working within the FAA culture and then embarked on a decade of research on how the FAA work culture has performed while implementing NextGen, I may have some insights to share. One of those insights is simply this: from what I saw at Highline Community College, on September 10th, these Port of Seattle (aka, POS) scoping Open Houses are not even a dog-and-pony-show; they are just occasions for industry players to check off a list pretending to engage citizens, while also spewing out their pro-aviation propaganda. And, just to be clear, this is not an aberration; this is par for the course, as it has been for at least a decade; at nearly all of our airports, when public forums related to environmental impacts and master plans and such are held, they have generally devolved into just a gamed process, a charade … which is why lots of people choose not to attend. [NOTE: they want more of us to not attend, which is itself the imperative defining why YOU MUST ATTEND, if you care about your home and health!]

What To Expect When You Attend

A common event design is to set up a signup area and feed the ‘signed-in guests’ into the next room, where they can sequentially (or randomly) view a series of whiteboards. Each whiteboard represents an element of the review process, such as ‘noise’ or ‘air quality’ or ‘water quality’. Now, ideally, each whiteboard actually displays some valuable information – perhaps a design, a satellite view, a table, a list of project elements, etc. Well, that is the ideal. At the POS Open House last night, more than half the whiteboards were, well, just empty white boards. Nada. Zilch. In fact, the only area where they had consistently replaced the blank whiteboards was at the front end: the first half dozen were a blatant effort to dupe us into thinking the Seattle economy and the Seattle population were ‘demanding’ the growth in air travel. The very first whiteboard had some words laying out this spiel, and included a list of prominent Seattle-area businesses, including Costco, PACCAR, Amazon, etc. So, we are supposed to start to see, ‘gee, if Sea-Tac does not expand, maybe these big companies will leave town’. (hint: they likely will not and in fact, if things decline and they do, most of us will applaud their riddance) Two whiteboards later was a very deceptive graph with a green line and a blue, showing population growth as well as airport passenger growth. More about that graph later in this Post.

Another thing you will notice is there are LOTS of smiley-faced people wearing event badges and standing in front of the display boards. As you talk to them and ask questions, you will start to establish that most of them are employed by the Port of Seattle, but that also, quite a few are either FAA or contractors. Everyone of these people owe their income (and eventual retirement) to this industry, and as such it is not surprising that they come across as ‘all for expansion and just plain unable to understand how bad the impacts are on residents under the new concentrated flight paths. I also noticed that, by 7:30pm (2-hours into the 3-hour event), there were practically no residents left, but maybe 30- or even 40+ badge-wearing staffers standing around in front of all the whiteboards.

I found it disturbing, trying to communicate with these people on a human-to-human level. They come across as machines, rigidly focused on the industry-serving goal, which in this case is to spend billions of dollars expanding Sea-Tac’s airport facilities, to serve the demand generated by two dominant airlines, Alaska and Delta. Ask any of these people a hard question and their pat answer is to remind you, they are only here tonight to help you formulate your question so that you can submit it to the ‘scoping process’. Well, that in itself is bullshit, and here is why. For each of these people (some would accurately note they are in fact parasites feeding off the power and money of the aviation-government complex), their first and foremost reason for getting paid to stand in front of the display boards and greet you is to ease your acceptance of the fact they are going to ram this expansion project onto you and your home. They are there to help you believe the distortions behind the expansions.

These staffers were sized up perfectly with this famous quote:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

This quote was by Upton Sinclair, back in the 1930s. Click here for a Post showing an example of how FAA, all the way to the top, could not understand an obvious controller safety error at a California airport … and know, too, these things happen surprisingly frequently.

One of Their Distortions is the So-Called ‘Demand’ Myth

OK, here is a copy of the graph mentioned earlier, at the front end of the area filled with whiteboards and staffers:

This is the demand graph POS displayed last night, although this is an online copy as displayed at a POS event in July. Interestingly, POS decided to remove the headline last night, perhaps because they know it is utterly false; just look at how passenger growth vastly outstrips population growth, with the green line CROSSING the blue line. So, although the headline was not displayed last night, nonetheless staffers were using this graphic and making comments, over and over again, to push the false perception that ‘demand’ at Sea-Tac is driven by Puget Sound area population growth. Such is not the case; AIRLINES DEFINE DEMAND, by scheduling in pursuit of higher profit margins.

You are supposed to believe that all of this Sea-Tac expansion is driven by market demand. This is false. The true demand is from the two major hub operators at Sea-Tac, Delta and Alaska. Each impacted citizen needs to understand the passenger airline business model. They make profits best when they route as many people as possible through the hub airports, where those people may never even leave the plane, or may exit one plane only to board another. The airport becomes a Grand Central Station for airline passengers, and the surrounding communities must bear an extremely intensified impact in added noise, added air pollutants, and overall diminished health and quality of life. This is what accounts for the bulk of the enormous growth at Sea-Tac since Delta announced a new business plan in 2012, with a new hub at Sea-Tac (operations grew 31% from 2012 to 2017, and have climbed 5.6% so far this calendar year). And, this is what is trashing lives under intensified and concentrated NextGen routes feeding in/out of KBOS, KDCA, KORD, KCLT, KSAN, KPHX, KSFO, and elsewhere.

Here’s another ponderous point on this graph, and something I asked to a few staffers last night (BTW, I never got a good answer): where did they get their population numbers? Using their numbers, for the 2017-2027 decade, the average annual growth is just 0.6%; umm, the entire U.S. averages closer to 1% annual population growth, and Seattle is bragged about (by people at POS, FAA, etc., no less!) as being a booming place (for population as well as economics). So, they created this graphic using data that does not come close to tracking the reality as measured right now. Indeed, Puget Sound Resource Council (PSRC) published a report ‘way back in August’ noting Puget Sound’s population is growing at a 1.5% annual rate. IMHO, the lack of diligence behind these graphics is shameful.

Frankly, if the Port of Seattle was sincere in defining this demand, they would do the hard work of accurately assessing precisely how many users of this airport are actually THROUGH-PASSENGERS, who fly in but then fly out, never even leaving the airport terminal. The best these connecting passengers will do to ‘boost’ the Puget Sound economy is waste away a few hours between flights, perhaps buying coffee or some fish and chips. Yet, because these two major airlines make substantial profits by offering these flight connections at Sea-Tac, there is much pressure on Port of Seattle (and FAA) to accommodate this airline demand. This is spun to us as ‘market demand’, which clearly it is not.

Let’s be clear: airline demand is not the same as market demand. The display boards referencing market demand are implicitly stating that you and I, as customers, define ‘demand’ for commercial aviation useage at Sea-Tac. We do not. The airlines define demand, and both the airport authority (POS) and the federal regulator (FAA) expend great effort to accommodate whatever air commerce asks for. Sadly, they do so while increasingly ignoring the real and growing impacts upon actual human lives.

Why is This Demand Myth Important?

It is extremely important, simply because the entire SAMP proposal is anchored on the idea their is real ‘demand’ creating a dire need to invest in these expansion proposals. Generally, where there is a desire to expand an airport (and, always, this expansion is simply to give more capacity to the dominant airline), there is a tendency for the data to be exaggerated to justify that investment. Thus, if and when any of us actually does the deeper research to see what FAA has forecast, we see an astonishing pattern of forecasts WAAYYYY over what history subsequently produces in real data. And, at events like the Open House last night, staffers are conveniently overlooking a shocking reality that they seem incapable of digesting: that, in the U.S., with the sole exception of a handful of airports where FAA and airport authorities are overly accommodating to enable the creation of ‘super-Hubs’ for near-monopoly airlines, operations have been flat and declining for decades.

The Demand Myth needs to be exposed and crushed. Read more at these earlier Posts:

What We Each Need to Do at These Open Houses

Yes, absolutely, you should submit comments (though you should also make your own copy or get POS to let you have a copy, so you have more tools to hold POS accountable with the comments you have provided). But, there is a lot more that can and should happen at each community event. Here are some suggestions:

  1. From the git-go, understand it is OK that you are not an expert, just an impacted citizen. As such, it is THEIR responsibility to help with the technical heavy-lifting.
  2. With the first note in mind, ask questions and DEMAND real answers. Then, ask harder questions. Follow through. Make these staffers serve you; after all, per NEPA, that is precisely what they are supposed to be doing at each such event, when they field your questions.
  3. With your questions, try altering your approach. For example, try to appeal to this aviation professional (the staffer there to talk with you) human-to-human; try to establish if they have the capacity to actually recognize the impacts their work is having upon you and your neighbors; try to see if they might possibly have the strength of character to speak up against the prevailing current within a culture that is biased toward commerce and against people.
  4. Think outside the box. For example, last night, it fit well to ask them if they agree that Sea-Tac is operating beyond its design capacity (they all felt it was not … tell that to those being delayed on arrivals, and those waiting for long periods after landing, needing a gate to open up). Ask them, would it help if Delta and Alaska voluntarily reduced their schedules by say 20% during certain peak hours? Ask them who has the authority to manage capacity at Sea-Tac … what can POS do, what can FAA do? Ask them, especially if they are a POS employee, have they ever advocated on behalf of impacted citizens, and will they serve the people (not just the airlines) by advocating for people in the future? Think national-scale and ask them, if Sea-Tac were to impose real capacity management, would these constraints really have an adverse impact on the entire national airspace system, or would they actually just nudge airlines like Delta and Alaska to increase schedules elsewhere, and not abuse Seattle with far too many flights?
  5. Always, ALWAYS, keep it clearly in your focus: the staffer you are speaking with works for you (in theory) and at that precious moment while you are chatting, you are the most powerful representative of humanity to assist him/her in learning their need to advocate for people first, ahead of industry players. Help them to see beyond the corrupted culture in which they are trapped solely for a paycheck.

A Letter They Would Never Send

There is a recent big push by industry players to get the U.S. Senate to hurriedly pass reauthorization legislation without needed environmental impact amendments. This push is reflected in two ‘coalition letters’, sent on July 26th and August 15th (click on the dates to view aiRchived copies).

Both letters are disingenuous and packed with disinformation. This is incredibly insulting to the thousands across this nation whose homes and health are being destroyed by NextGen, Wake Recat, OAPM, and other FAA programs. We are seeing our Democracy hijacked by slick collaborated propaganda. And, we are seeing our elected officials corrupted by their obsession with reelection funding; they express concerns to the little people, but their actions and their histories expose their true bipartisan loyalty is to corporate power. These elected officials are owned.

What if this ‘coalition’, these groups, dipped their cups in a koolaid bowl filled with temporary truth serum? Might their letter look like this?

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

Obviously, this is NOT the letter sent by A4A, NBAA, and other groups. No, this letter is what these groups should be writing, what they would now send to Senators McConnell and Schumer, if they cared to clean up their mess. But they don’t care about anything beyond industry profits to fatten their own annual benefits and bonuses.

Some are suggesting that we activists need to work together, send OUR LETTER to these Senators, and get them to serve OUR INTERESTS. Time to get to work.

Airport Reference Materials: Annual Enplanements, ATADS Operations, Tonnage, AIP Grants, and NPIAS Lists

There is now a newly-completed and extensive collection of searchable/downloadable PDFs with valuable information on U.S. airports. All data was collected from online sources, either FAA or vendors who do outsource work for FAA.

Many of the tables are grouped by state and ranked by a factor such as enplanements. Alaska is top of the list, and a huge aviation state, so be sure to scroll down a few pages to see Alabama and the other states where NextGen abuses are causing so many problems (Massachusetts, Maryland, New York and Washington are good studies).

Here is a short index, with links:

Much more will follow, as these resources make it easier to expose how deeply FAA is captured, in service of industry players. Readers are encouraged to spend some time studying parts of this data collection; if you see something that really jumps out (for waste, abuse of authority or outright fraud by FAA) please share it on.

UPDATE, 4/13/2018: — correction to original posting… ATC staffing data was inadvertently not included. The Consolidated Airport Data for 844 Airports table has been updated, and one more table has been added (the more extensive data table showing annual ATC staffing for 263 FAA-staffed towers).

First StART Meeting at KSEA: Great Write-up by David Goebel

The first StART Meeting was held at KSEA, on February 28th. Vashon Island activist David Goebel posted a great write-up at the NORNP.org website (click here for aiRchived copy). It also is clear that Sheila Brush asked some great questions, to try and help Port of Seattle (PoS … perfect acronym, no?!?) officials drill down into the real impacts of this major airport, which appears stuck in a mode of selling out to profit-seeking by Alaska and Delta airlines.

As I understand his story, it was around two decades ago that David purchased land near the north end of Vashon Island, hoping to enjoy the bucolic setting a ferry ride away from the city. Those dreams crashed when FAA implemented the HAWKZ arrival and accommodated Delta’s hub development, creating nearly nonstop arrival streams at lower altitudes. There are many nice places to call home, around Seattle, but sadly airline over-accommodation is destroying them.

David offered this closing comment:

“…something that struck me as sadly ironic is that it was really quiet in the conference room; I didn’t hear any planes. This is in stark contrast to my cabin on Vashon Island, where as often as every two or three minutes they drown out all the sounds of nature, destroying the reason I moved there 20 years ago…..”

See also:
  • PoS StART webpage – link
  • 2/28/2018 – POS’ Agenda for StART meeting (link for archived copy)
  • 2/28/2018 – Lance Lyttle’s 22-pg slideshow for StART meeting (link for archived copy)

Did a ‘Vendor Error’ Reveal FAA Arbitrariness on NextGen?

Jondi Gumz’s article in the Monterey Herald, does a very good job explaining the problems people are having with FAA NextGen, not just under south approaches to KSFO, but at major hub airports nationwide. (‘Santa Cruz, San Lorenzo Valley residents surprised by new flight path noise’; click here for the online version, click here for an archived PDF with aiReform analysis).

Here are some points from an analysis of the article:

  1. RE: how FAA’s latest action shows they CAN immediately revert to pre-NextGen routes: Think about it … if FAA is able to immediately respond to a vendor error, shifting away from the problematic and impactful NextGen SERFR arrival and back to the legacy Big Sur arrival, why is it taking so long to revert to less impactful pre-NextGen routes at other locations, such as Phoenix? Indeed, out of one side of the mouth FAA has been saying ‘it is impossible to go back’, yet here, they are proving it is absolutely possible, and being done … but only at FAA’s arbitrary discretion.
  2. RE: the explosion of complaints nationwide: It is important to understand, the flood of complaints was not so much due to the application of GPS technologies (which, in fact, have been applied for more than two decades now), but is a consequence of FAA ignoring impacts while using these technologies to increase airport capacity. In a nutshell, FAA is serving the airlines, at the expense of communities. The airlines want increased ‘runway throughput’ at selected hubs, which enables them to densely pack more arrivals into smaller time slots, which can enhance profits. FAA is reducing separation between these arrives, partially by jamming some of the flights lower, to set up parallel streams of closely-spaced arrivals. On the ground, homeowners are being inundated with near non-stop noise.
  3. RE: FAA’s mishandling of the complaints: FAA is just delaying, as that best serves the airlines. This timeline could be expedited, but even if ordered to do so by a court, FAA has shown it will delay, delay, delay. This is one of the main reasons people are so upset about both NextGen and FAA: an indifferent and arrogant bureaucracy, captured by the industry it is supposed to regulate, refuses to even acknowledge the impacts by NextGen, and then refuses to serve the people (instead of just industry). Making matters worse, we lack a functioning Congress to demand FAA clean up its act.
  4. RE: the suggestion that NextGen is ‘new’: FAA has been ‘adopting NextGen’ since roughly 2003, and has been applying the same GPS technologies since the mid-1990s;
  5. RE: the oversold alleged benefits of NextGen: three points to clarify what is quickly summarized at one paragraph of the article:
  • FAA claims that NextGen ‘shortens routes’ and ‘saves time and fuel’, but NextGen actually offers very little improvements, since ATC has been granting long direct routes for many decades now, even back to the early 1970s.
  • FAA claims that NextGen ‘allows planes to fly closer together’, and it is absolutely true that ATC is jamming flights closer together, but the NextGen technologies have little to do with this change. The change is driven instead by FAA’s willingness to accommodate airlines, by reducing spacing (while simultaneously ignoring the impacts on residents below)
  • FAA claims that NextGen ‘avoids delays caused by airport stacking as planes wait for an open runway’. Well actually, NextGen is increasing delays; FAA is overly accommodating the airlines, allowing TOO MANY FLIGHTS in small time windows via tighter spacing, which in turn is forcing ATC to impose delays during the cruise portion of the flight, upstream from the final approach.

JFK: Evidence of FAA & PANYNJ Failure to Manage Capacity & Delays

The two screencaps below look at the ten most congested airports in 2000, as well as the airports for which the most money was spent expanding infrastructure between 1988 and 2002. They are screencaps from slides #17 and #19 of A Historical and Legislative Perspective on Airport Planning & Management, a January 2002 presentation by Alexander T. Wells & Seth B. Young.

In a normal economic environment, actions are taken to mitigate problems. Delays are one such problem. If the aviation sector behaved rationally, regulators (in this case, FAA) and operators (both airports and airlines) would make adjustments to reduce delays, even more so because the delays at the largest hub airports cascade into more delays at other airports.

The data in this January 2002 presentation shows that FAA and airport authorities are not acting rationally to reduce delays and are, in fact, doing exactly the opposite of what they need to do. That is, instead of scaling back excessive operations at the most congested airports, they are doubling down, spending even more money to enable even more over-scheduling (and congestion/delays) by the major airlines.

A look at the major airports serving the NYC-Philadelphia area is revealing. The four main airports all rank in the top-10 delay airports for 2000:

  • Newark (EWR, United hub): ranked #1
  • LaGuardia (LGA): ranked #2
  • Kennedy (JFK, major hub for American/Delta/JetBlue): ranked #5
  • Philadelphia (PHL, American hub being scaled down): ranked #7

The worst-case example is JFK. The role of this airport has always including serving as a major international hub, but, with the formation of JetBlue, a substantial amount of domestic hub traffic has been added. The airlines make higher profits when they increase hub through-traffic, but airline pursuit of higher profits is supposed to be balanced against impacts such as more noise pollution, more air pollution, and more surface road congestion. The airport authority (PANYNJ) and federal regulator (FAA) are supposed to ensure this balance, but they fail; unfortunately, both FAA and PANYNJ are instead focused solely on serving airline profits, and are thus blinded from seeing the impacts, such as under the JFK Arc of Doom.

How bad is the failure by FAA/PANYNJ regarding JFK? Well, notice the last column in the table below.Of the top-ten delay hubs in 2000, only two have seen positive average annual growth in operations, from 2000 to 2017. By far, the largest average growth is at JFK, averaging 1.5% annual growth in operations. Compare that with Philadelphia, which has averaged a 1.3% annual decline in operations. Is the Philadelphia population shrinking while the NYC-area population is exploding, to explain these two trends? No. These trends – and the subsequent impacts – are due to airline scheduling, motivated by airline profits. Philadelphia is scaling down because American absorbed US Airways, and since then, American has been shifting schedule capacity AWAY from PHL and TOWARD JFK, LGA, and DCA (yet another high-impact airport).

Clearly, if FAA wanted to take a decisive action in 2018, to reduce delays, that action would focus on managing capacity, such as by imposing flow rate reductions at JFK, EWR, and LGA. It would also focus on encouraging airlines to shift capacity back to PHL, DTW, PIT, CVG, CLE and other airports that are operating far below what they were designed to serve.

Ponder this fact, too: how is it that when we look at a top-ten list of delay airports from 18-years ago, we see that 80% of those airports have since scaled down while most populations have grown? How is it we are told by FAA and industry that airports and aviation are economic gold-mines, and yet this alleged booming industry is declining nearly everywhere? How much of the FAA/industry sales pitch is hot air and propaganda? Is there anything we are told by these players that reflects reality and nurtures an informed public process, serving everyone and not just corporate interests?

Hubbing Strategies Increase Impacts, But Do Not Create Sustainable Airline Profits

Airline stocks have been tanking lately, in no small part due to strategy shifts by United. In a nutshell, United is trying to design a broad restructuring of its three domestic-focused hubs in Chicago, Denver and Houston. Why? Because this trio of domestic hubs “…has profit margins that are 10 percent below the inland domestic hubs operated by American Airlines Group Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc….”

The situation is discussed in this Bloomberg article (click here to view source, or view the archived PDF copy below).

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

What is the most consequential quote in the article?

“As part of its strategy, United is boosting connections in its three mid-continent hubs by an average of 17 percent by adjusting its flight schedules, a process it’s completed in Houston and will commence in Chicago next month.”

In this one quote, United is making it clear that, for all major U.S. hubs, traffic growth is NOT about customer demand; it is airline schedule tweaking, to increase profits, that is causing the huge impact increases at major hubs, especially at KBOS, KJFK, KDCA, and KSEA.

Which airports/hubs are most monopolized?

Here are the main hubs for the four largest airlines:

  • American: Charlotte [KCLT], Dallas-Ft Worth [KDFW], Miami [KMIA], and Philadelphia [KPHL]
  • Delta: Atlanta [KATL], Minneapolis St Paul [KMSP], and Salt Lake City [KSLC]
  • United: Cleveland [KCLE], Washington-Dulles [KIAD], and Houston [KIAH]
  • Southwest: Baltimore [KBWI], Dallas-Love [KDAL], and Chicago-Midway [KMDW]

Most other major airports are either smaller market and dominated by Southwest, or they are duopoly hubs. Four duopoly hubs that stand out are:

  1. Denver [KDEN] – Southwest and United
  2. Chicago O’Hare [KORD] – American and United
  3. Phoenix [KPHX] – American and Southwest
  4. Sea-Tac [KSEA] – Alaska and Delta

Will hub concentration reduce over time?

No, not likely at all. The level of industry scheduling collusion, and the absence of real regulatory oversight, ensure this trend toward hub concentration will continue to intensify. As an example, look at the hub concentrations for 2013 data, at this aiReform Post. Note that nothing has changed: at the bulk of these 77 airports, monopolies and duopolies have only strengthened in the past four years.