Lies, Damned Lies, & FAA Overselling of NextGen: Houston Metroplex

It’s not a secret among pilots, mechanics and most FAA employees: when an FAA official says ‘A’, you will do well to think ‘B’. Not just when FAA dodges revealing details of the latest birdstrike or controller error, or when they deny trashing a safety Whistleblower, but also when FAA is in their frequent PR/spin mode. Like when they are trying to sell the Public and Congress to (PickOne: waste/spend/invest) billions on programs like NextGen and Metroplexes.

NextGen is the collection of ‘new’ satellite-based technologies (though ‘new’ is inaccurate, because most of these technologies have been in use for decades). Metroplexes are the application of these technologies to alter flight paths and airspace design near the nation’s busiest commercial airports. In the big picture, FAA is seeking to award $Billions$ in contracts to firms and contractors within the aviation-industrial complex, which also happens to employ many retired FAA officials. And, as has almost always happened in FAA’s 55-year existence, the agency is over budget and behind deadlines in their latest ‘upgrade’ scheme. So, they bring in the spin squad.

20140618.. KIAH NextGen MetroPlex celebration speech pic, Huerta (Foxx, Rinaldi, et al)

June 18, 2014

A June article at Wired.com helped push along FAA’s spin. The article happened because, on June 18, 2014, a PR event was staged, ‘celebrating’ the Houston Metroplex. FAA Adminstrator Huerta, DoT Secretary Foxx, and NATCA President Rinaldi all flew down to Houston, to join airline and airport officials for a staged presentation with set speeches. This was all tightly managed and coordinated, too; for this PR event, there was an FAA Press Release and a DoT Press Release, plus a set of videos uploaded to YouTube (here is one: a 2-minute explanation of airspace design changes, with an upbeat musical jingle):

What was FAA Selling?

The two key improvements proposed for the Houston Metroplex had to do with arriving aircraft. The sales pitch claimed that arriving flights would fly shorter routes; in fact, the diagram below (from a 7/22/2013 article) shows a proposed NextGen arrival (green arrow) angling in over Interstate-69 to a short final approach. This was shown to improve upon a conventional long downwind to a 35-mile final (red box pattern).20130722.. screencap from GCN article on NextGen, KIAH graphic by FAA (pic only, no text)Here is a closer look. Conventional downwinds have typically been turned onto a base leg as far east as Dayton (around 30-miles out). A more efficient base turn over Lake Houston (around 13-miles out) can happen, if traffic allows. But, the problem is that United-Continental, the major airline at KIAH, schedules their flights (and small feeders) in surges. This forces ATC to use the long downwind legs as a tool for spacing and sequencing. No NextGen technology can fix this traffic saturation problem. Nonetheless, that does not stop FAA from promoting NextGen spending.

20141003.. KIAH west flow satellite view (east to Dayton)

A longer view: From Dayton to the Airport.

20141003.. KIAH west flow satellite view (east to Lake Houston)

A closer view: From Lake Houston to the airport.

The sales pitch also claimed the descents would reduce fuel burns by using steeper approaches, without ‘level-offs’. The ‘before’ (in orange) shows many level sections, while the ‘after’ (in green) shows steady and steeper descents from 100 miles out.20130619.. KIAH before-after descent profiles, from DoT-news release

FAA produced sharp graphics (and even videos), and they claimed that we will see some significant changes, which would substantially reduce overall fuel burn. Both changes were fine goals, but a goal is not worth much if little progress is made toward achieving it. And, so far, at Houston, there have been no substantial changes in the arrival patterns for the biggest airport, KIAH.

In Reality, the ‘Improvements’ Did Not Happen

FAA spearheaded the celebration and many attended. Were they celebrating a change and delivering improvements, or were they just cheerleading and deceiving the Public with yet one more fabricated sales pitch?

The proof is available online. All you have to do is use the available websites like Flightaware.com or FlightRadar24.com and look at real arrivals (and arrival descent profiles) for real flights, even those landing right now. Just go to either site and select any flight, randomly. Chances are, when you open the views showing the flight route and descent profile, you will see conventional long finals with on average two- or three- level-offs. No changes.

Here is example one, from June 28th, an American Airlines MD82 inbound from KDFW. The base turn is near Dayton, and the final leg is more than 25-miles long. As a matter of practice, the controller normally directs a downwind flight to maintain a set altitude, typically 3,000- or 4,000-feet; in the screen-cap below, this MD82 is at 2,900-feet. Months later, on October 2nd, this same flight was turned to a final at more than twenty miles out, after two level-offs, at 7,000′ and 5,000′ altitude.20140628.. AAL2435 KDFW to KIAH, map showing long base turn
And here is another example, the October 2nd arrival of United Flight #1555, a Boeing 737 from Phoenix [KPHX]. In this case, a long downwind leg is flown, and the turn to final is east of Lake Houston, at nearly 20-miles out. Note the two level-offs, at 6,000′ and 4,000′ altitudes.20141003.. KIAH map view for UAL1555, B738 from KPHX20141003.. KIAH descent profile for UAL1555, B738 from KPHX

How to Study the KIAH Arrivals

Air traffic controllers are averse to work; they are normal people that way. So, they will set up direct routes and minimize the number of level-offs as much as they can. At a large airport like KIAH, if the majority of arrivals are inbound from the east, ATC will tend to bring the arrivals straight-in, landing to the west. So, if there is steady arrival traffic from the east, arrivals from the west will have to be sequenced into the downwind. However, during slow periods, such as in the early morning hours, ATC may use timing to bring in arrivals from both directions (east and west) and land them at opposite ends of the same runway. Always, the objective for ATC is to minimize time spent working each flight, while applying set rules to ensure the flights remain properly separated. This strategy for working air traffic pre-dates the sales pitch by FAA last June; there was no significant change after FAA officials gave that sales pitch.

You can study these arrivals yourself. Here’s how:

  1. select KIAH as your airport at Flightaware.com (here is a link).
  2. Study the list of arrivals; if needed, view more by clicking on the ‘(Next 40)’ link. Look for arrivals that are against the flow; for example, from the west when most arrivals are from the east.
  3. Select one of those flights and a list appears for the same flight number, with links to weeks worth of previous flights. Click on any of these links and look for downwind arrivals.
  4. Click on link in the data box, under ‘Status’, where it says ‘Track Info & Graph’; this produces the vertical profile, as well as flight parameters, from which you can quickly identify level-off altitudes.