GIGO: Lessons Learned from FAA’s Bad NextGen Deployment at Phoenix

GIGO: Garbage in, Garbage out. Here is the quick definition from Wikipedia:

“…in the field of computer science or information and communications technology refers to the fact that computers, since they operate by logical processes, will unquestioningly process unintended, even nonsensical, input data (“garbage in”) and produce undesired, often nonsensical, output (“garbage out”)….”

GIGO is a very old principle in computer programming. In fact, it is so old that the concept was first discussed even before the Civil War ended! Charles Babbage, considered the father of the computer, created mechanical systems to crunch numbers and automate the textile industry, as far back as the 1820’s.

Two centuries later, in 2015, our technologies have advanced considerably, but the validity of the GIGO principle has not changed. In fact, it is becoming even more meaningful today, as ‘experts’ use GIGO to manipulate outcomes. GIGO explains how we end up with NextGen implementation debacles like the one that has destroyed quality of life in Phoenix neighborhoods for the past nine months.

FAA’s Manipulation of Phoenix NextGen

When faced with a desire to implement new NextGen departure and arrival procedures at Phoenix, FAA had a problem. The noise abatement procedures, which had evolved over many decades, called for straight-out departures over the Salt River during the predominant west flow. But, a very large number of Phoenix departures were heading for destinations to the north and east, and FAA and the two primary airlines at the airport, Southwest and USAirways, wanted earlier turns. So, to save a couple miles per flight during initial climb, FAA built a campaign around NextGen, making grandiose pro-environmental declarations when their real goal was just to bypass the environmental rules.

When exaggerated, the benefits of NextGen could be used to justify early turns, but FAA was still stuck with a time-consuming environmental review process. Following the financial collapse of 2008, there was intense pressure to find ways to stimulate the economy. Thus was created an opportunity for FAA to manipulate Congress into approving a waiver from environmental review. After a couple years of crying to Congress that ‘gosh, we are sure trying, but we just cannot speed things up’, FAA was able to slip some ambiguous language past Congress; starting in 2012, the Categorical Exclusion was allowed.

(click on image to view article online)

(click on image to view article online)

To finish setting the stage, FAA’s last important step was to ‘buy’ a support program, by hiring a cadre of ‘experts’. These are the people who hopefully would appear credible when they signed off on the FONSI’s and CATEX’s. For this, FAA tapped their deepest revenue source – the airline passenger taxes that we all pay to fly – and applied them toward a series of large NextGen implementation contracts. One of those contracts, worth $106 Million, went to SAIC, who then hired a collection of ‘Yes Men’ who would do whatever was needed to implement NextGen.

Garbage in, Garbage Out: the Phoenix CATEX Sign-Off

On June 23, 2015, Skyharbor Airport officials announced completion of an investigation into how the Phoenix NextGen departures became implemented. The officials also posted a collection of 25 supporting exhibits. One of these, Exhibit 21, measures a whopping 121Mb to present a 255-page PDF. The first 20-pages is presented below. This is the document in which Caroline Poyurs, a SAIC contractor who later hired on as an FAA ‘Environmental Protection Specialist’, signed off on a Categorical Exclusion for the PHX NextGen Departures and Arrivals. With her signature, Ms. Poyurs was essentially declaring that the impacts were not significant. Read it for yourself and just try to make sense of it.

This pop-out view is scrollable, and the PDF copy may be downloaded.

Imagine you have the job as the representative for Phoenix. You are the one and only person FAA is showing this garbage to. There are well over a dozen people in the room, and they all represent the airlines, FAA (management and union personnel from both the tower and the radar room), and FAA’s hired contractor, MITRE. They all seem to know what the plan is, and you really feel like an odd man out. Everyone else acts like the 255-page CATEX sign-off report is crystal clear, but your head is screaming, “This is garbage!” You survive the surreal meeting, take the garbage back to your cubicle, and shake your head wondering, “Do I have ANYTHING substantial to share with my supervisor?”

You don’t; FAA gave you nothing but indecipherable garbage. So, it sits on your desk, time marches on and then, one day, the shit hits the fan when FAA starts flying these impactful departures. And eventually, the blame gets pinned on you. Are you having fun, yet?

Fix this Problem now, FAA

This has gone on long enough. Southwest and USAir need to immediately reject the flawed NextGen Departures and exercise their final authority by demanding straight-out departures like they used to get. File the Silow Four, the St Johns Eight, or other non-RNAV departures, and REFUSE to fly the MAYSA Three, LALUZ Three, and other RNAV procedures.

With the next charting cycle, FAA needs to replace the flawed NextGen Departures with new procedures that use NextGen constructively, procedures that continue westbound to an appropriate distance and altitude to minimize noise impact on Phoenix residents (hint: 9DME has worked well for years). On top of that, FAA needs to become fully transparent by creating REAL documents that ensure anyone can understand their proposal, and posting these documents online, well in advance of implementation. If they had done this in the first place, we would not have this mess to clean up today.