Debunking the A4A Op/Ed Letter at TimesLedger

Airlines for America is the largest lobbyist for U.S. airlines – and the main force behind years of coordinated spin seeking to dupe Congress and the Public. With added intensity these past few years, Airlines for America has been pressing to both privatize ATC and waste billions to ‘transform ATC’ by supposedly adding satellite-based NextGen technologies (while ignoring the fact these technologies are already widely used). Airlines for America is also known as ‘A4A’, and formerly known as the trade group, ‘Air Transport Association (ATA)’.

Doubtless, with possible rare exceptions, the people who work at Airlines for America are all good people:  hard-working, protective of their families, civic-minded and loyal to our nation, and careful to optimize quality-of-life in their home communities. And, when they don their most expensive outfits, they are Washington DC lobbyists.

Here is a picture of three of A4A’s lobbyists: Rubino, Calio, and Pinkerton:

(click on image to view bios for all A4A executives, at airlines.org)

(click on image to view bios for all A4A executives, at airlines.org)

The online bio for CEO Nick Calio notes his professional background. He co-founded a DC law firm, worked for Citigroup, and also worked within the presidential administrations of both George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush. All that before he became A4A’s CEO, in early 2011. The Wikipedia entry for A4A notes that “…Calio was hired after the Republicans made big gains in the 2010 midterm elections….”

One of the A4A VP’s has been reported to be dating House Transportation & Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, of Pennsylvania. That would be Shelley Rubino, and her official title is ‘VP, Global Government Affairs‘ (perhaps this is more acceptable than ‘VP of government relations‘?). For what it is worth, Mr. Shuster has offered assurances that his relationship with this A4A VP does not have any bearing on his tenacious advocacy of privatizing ATC and accelerating NextGen.

Another A4A executive is Sharon Pinkerton, Senior Vice President for Legislative and Regulatory Policy. It appears that Sharon’s in-basket receives occasional directives to produce public relations material. One recent result was a letter with Sharon’s name, published in the TimesLedger, an old newspaper serving the borough of Queens, New York. Queens is highly significant here, because this is a densely populated area impacted by not just one but TWO major U.S. airports – both Kennedy and LaGuardia. As heavily covered in the news, Queens is one of those places where FAA’s NextGen implementation is destroying quality-of-life, and creating noise-ghettoes out of historic neighborhoods. Oh, and just like those executives at A4A, the residents of these impacted Queens neighborhoods consist largely of good people: hard-working, protective of their families, civic-minded and loyal to our nation, and careful to optimize quality-of-life in their home communities. And, all the more to their credit, very few of the Queens residents are lobbyists.

So, for your reading pleasure, here is a copy of the A4A letter, as published in the March 3rd edition of TimesLedger. Highlights and footnotes have been added, to rebut the misinformation being pushed by A4A. Following the letter is a compilation of graphics from the online flight-tracking website, FlightAware. This compilation shows all factual data (routes, times, speeds, etc.) needed to ascertain the efficiency of all 29 commercial airline flights, from LaGuardia to Reagan National, as flown on March 3rd, the day of the TimesLedger Op/Ed by A4A.

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

A key line within the A4A letter says: “…twenty years ago, a flight from LaGuardia to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport took less than an hour. Today the same flight takes 90 minutes, as airlines have to account for ATC delays.” This is not a casual slip, though, as the letter reinforces the delay concept by referring to ‘our Nation’s antiquated air traffic control system’ and citing ‘WWII-era radar technology’.

The facts prove the A4A line is totally false. Instead, the real data shows:

  1. On Thursday, March 3, 2016, there were 29 airline departures from LaGuardia to Reagan National.
  2. This route segment (KLGA-KDCA) is a duopoly, between two airlines pretending to compete, each offering hourly flights on the top of the hour, from 6AM until 8PM. American offers 15 daily flights, and Delta offers 14 daily flights.
  3. American schedules their flights at 84-minutes long, but the flights averaged 50-minutes; this means that, while airborne and under ATC control (using the present blend of radar and satellite technologies), each American flight ‘made up’ an average 34-minutes against their advertised schedule.
  4. Delta schedules their flights at 86-minutes long, but the flights averaged 49-minutes; this means that, while airborne and under ATC control (using the present blend of radar and satellite technologies), each Delta flight ‘made up’ an average 37-minutes against their advertised schedule. Also, Delta does not actually fly these flights; instead, they use a contract regional feeder, Shuttle America, a very common practice (used by United and Delta as well, and at nearly every major U.S. airline hub).
  5. In the A4A letter, it was claimed that “…twenty years ago, a flight from LaGuardia to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport took less than an hour….” Well, the same is true today: 50-minutes is comfortably under an hour.
  6. Looking closely at the screen-captured routes, it is clear they are VERY direct. In fact, the only significant route adjustments are all related to fitting the flight into the arrival sequence at Reagan National, and thus has NOTHING to do with LaGuardia. [NOTE: the primary route adjustments are a slight delay vector frequently applied near the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, and the extension of the downwind leg (those sometimes-long U-shapes prior to landing), to accomplish spacing in the landing sequence]
  7. Both airlines are using small commuter-sized aircraft on essentially all flights: 69-seats for Delta (using the E175), and 100-seats for American (using the E190). Only American’s first flight of the day has higher capacity: a 128-seat Airbus 319 … which makes sense, since lots of people fly to DC to see their dealer elected representative.
  8. The small aircraft size points to an interesting possibility: if FAA and the airlines wanted to reduce delays and noise impacts, they could agree to fewer LGA-DCA trips per day, using larger aircraft (130-seat to 160-seats or more) that have essentially identical flight profiles (thus no greater noise impact per flight).
  9. Chances are high this same reduction strategy would apply on other route segments to major hubs (O’Hare, Atlanta, Charlotte, DFW and Boston, for example). That is to say, if use of many small planes was disincentivized but use of fewer large planes was incentivized, between LaGuardia and other hubs, we could easily reduce the number of flights using LaGuardia; huge improvements could be realized – and virtually overnight – in both local noise impacts and national airspace system delays.

About this data compilation:

The PDF below is a compilation of screen captures, showing all 29 airline flights from LaGuardia to Reagan National, on March 3, 2016. For each screen capture, the map on the left side clearly shows New Jersey and adjoining states, depicting shores, highways, etc. Notice how the flights consistently pass over the same locations, one flight after another.

On the right side of each screen capture is a datablock about each flight. It shows flight number, scheduled times, actual times, airspeed, filed altitude, aircraft type, and route of flight. Be sure to pop-out the graphic, so you can read the finer details. Pay attention to the actual departure times, actual arrival times, and compare them with the ‘official’ times scheduled by the airlines.

One important thought to keep in mind while studying these flights: controllers are like regular people, in that they try to do as little as possible. They try to keep things simple and easy. So, if other air traffic was not an issue, every one of these 29 flights would have been cleared to fly a beeline from off the departure runway to land on the arrival runway. Every variation from a direct route is solely to adjust the flight, to keep it out of conflict and to finesse it into a safe arrival flow. A tiny tweak, turning the flight to the left or right, while passing north of Baltimore, is generally all that is needed to add a minute of delay to the overall flight, enabling a smooth arrival flow. Alternatively, a speed adjustment ordered by ATC can accomplish the same end result. Look closely at the thin green line and you can see these route adjustments.

Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded. You can also click on the pop-out feature (dwell over the upper right corner and it will appear) and the magnifier to view the finer details of the maps and data/times for the 29 flights.

The flight data, as well as the maps, shows all 29 commercial flights from LaGuardia to Reagan National on March 3rd. These facts, when juxtaposed with the A4A letter, present a compelling case: A4A is in the business of making money by lobbying, and as with all examples of lobbying today, their methods sadly include the manipulation of facts and perceptions. In wartime, their methods would be called propaganda. In peacetime, too, A4A’s methods are destructive. Not just to local quality of life, but also to the larger issue: functional and effective democratic process, with empowered citizens, knowledgeable and responsibly engaged.

So, A4A, if you are sincerely committed to hearing concerns and finding solutions, please cease your attack on our ears, our homes, and our democracy. Start serving the nation, not just your ‘lobby base’.