FAA’s Latest Controller Workforce Plan Shows U.S. Air Traffic Remains Seriously Depressed

People under NextGen routes may be suffering depression due to repetitive airplane noise (and an agency that keeps them powerless to fix the impacts!), but there is another ‘depression’ that is worth looking at. Specifically, the number of takeoffs and landings in the U.S. is substantially below peak years, and showing no evidence of any major recovery.

Here’s a statistic to ponder: for the 504 control towers currently tracked by FAA, annual operations in 2014 were down 45% from the peak year. Further, an analysis of all 516 towers for which FAA offers ATADS data 1990-present shows that the average peak for towers was in early 1998 … more than 18-years ago.

In April, FAA released their latest ‘Controller Workforce Plan’ (CWP). This 60-page document includes a graph, showing both past and projected ATC workload and ATC staffing. Here is a copy of the graph, from the 2016 CWP:

20150919.. Traffic & ATC Staffing graph (from pg.7 of 2016 CWP)

ATC staffing figures as of September 2015 (source: 2016 CWP)

And, for comparison, here are two earlier graphs, from the 2012 CWP and 2009 CWP:

20110924.. Traffic & ATC Staffing graph (from pg.7 of 2012 CWP)

ATC staffing figures as of September 2011 (source: 2012 CWP)

20080927.. Traffic & ATC Staffing graph (from pg.6 of 2009 CWP)

ATC staffing figures as of September 2008 (source: 2009 CWP)

Yellow lines were added to each graph to identify the break point between actual past data and FAA’s future projections. Note that all graphs are indexed to the year 2000. Look closely at these graphs and you will see that:

  • in the 2009 CWP (the oldest of the graphs, at the bottom), traffic had fallen to 87% of Index.
  • in the 2012 CWP, traffic had fallen further, to 77% of Index.
  • in the 2016 CWP, traffic was still at 77% of Index.
  • in the 2009 CWP, FAA properly projected a decline for the first year (we were deep into the economic meltdown related to mortgage scams and the housing bubble), but FAA also projected a robust turnaround after 2009.
  • the robust turnaround never happened. While FAA had projected traffic to grow back to 94% of Index by 2015, the actual data for 2015 remained flat, at 77% of Index.
  • now, in 2016, FAA is being a bit more realistic (projecting a recovery to 85% of Index by the year 2026). But, FAA remains stuck on growth as a given …. with zero regard to history and to other major factors such as fossil-fuel related Climate Change.

So, what we have is a system that is not growing and an agency in denial about that stagnation. Meanwhile, FAA and other players in the Av-Gov Complex are insisting we must spend more money upgrading from World War II technologies, to accommodate record traffic levels.

Hey, Michael Huerta and Anthony Foxx, give us all a break; demand accountability within your rogue agency, and immediately revert to pre-NextGen departures and arrivals, so residents can recover from their sleep loss!


See also:
  • As a resource, aiREFORM has archived copies of all FAA’s CWPs that were found online. To view/download, click here.

FAA’s NextGen Hydra: Breathing Hellish Noise-Fire Upon Charlotte, NC

Source: tabletophell.com

Source: tabletophell.com

When the noise seems to never go away, in areas where only months before there just wasn’t any airport noise, people tend to get worn out. The noise becomes an occupying force, a controlling presence. Perhaps it was after nights of enduring NextGen sleep deprivation that a retiree near Charlotte, NC began to see FAA’s NextGen as a mythical, multi-headed hydra, breathing noise-fire from Hell.

The heads of this monster are the many newly designed routes, wherein FAA is effectively mandating pilots to let the autopilot fly the airplane as soon as they lift off. In FAA’s current NextGen implementation, these automated routes are being focused by the navigational precision of new GPS technologies. The result, being ignored by FAA, is the creation of intense noise impact areas. People are speaking up, but FAA won’t listen; instead, agency spokespersons just try to drown out the popular concerns by repeating their mantra, “NextGen is needed for ‘safety and efficiency’.”

The Charlotte NextGen Hydra Looks Like This

Here’s a map showing actual flight tracks during a North Flow at Charlotte. Green lines are departures, red lines are arrivals. The pink ellipses mark the areas heavily impacted by crossing compressed routes. The airport runways are identifiable in the small area where the green lines butt into the ends of the red lines, midway between the bottom edges of the two upper pink ellipses.[KCLT] N Flow, route compilation map with pink markups

20150531cpy.. portion of Munch's 'The Scream'

(click on image to view painting in a larger window)

It is uncanny, how much this plot of FAA’s NextGen impact on Charlotte resembles the tormented subject in Munch’s priceless painting, ‘The Scream’. Priceless.

Actually, not just Priceless. Pointless too, because FAA doesn’t need NextGen to continue to manage what FAA has been telling Congress for decades is the safest and most efficient aviation system ever. So, the only valid justification for spending tens of billions to ‘upgrade’ would be to handle higher traffic levels.

Which brings us to exactly what is wrong with FAA’s NextGen (other than the wasted money): there is no capacity demand justifying NextGen.

In fact, air traffic has declined sharply in the past two decades, and FAA has produced no evidence that traffic levels will be going up any time soon. The Av-Gov Complex (FAA and their ‘collaborators’) knows this, but they remain careful not to talk about it. So, while people are upset, losing sleep, and speaking up more, FAA just continues with their mantra that NextGen is ‘critically needed for safety and efficiency’.

How Far Has U.S. Air Traffic Declined?

The key metric for assessing both airport noise impact and ATC workload is the number of airport operations (i.e., how many airport takeoffs and landings in a year). FAA’s ATADS database is maintained specifically to track this metric. According to FAA’s ATADS data for all towered airports, total U.S. airport operations peaked way back in 1999; since then, there has been a steady decline, and in 2014 total operations at ALL TOWERS were DOWN 28% from the 1999 peak.

Another way to assess growth or decline to try to justify a need for NextGen is to look at commercial operations at a subset of the largest commercial airports. FAA says that 70% of all passengers enplane at the ‘OEP-35 airports’. At these 35 major airports, ANNUAL OPERATIONS PEAKED IN 2000, AND BY 2014 HAD DECLINED 19%. [see: OEP-35 Airports (list & links) which shows trends for each OEP-35 airport]

During the 2000 to 2014 timeframe, nearly half (16) of the U.S. OEP-35 airports, declined by 21% or more. During this same time period, the U.S. population grew by 13%. Seemingly, any healthy service industry should at least keep pace with population growth. Well, of the 35 marker airports on the OEP list, only TWO beat population growth: operations at New York JFK was one (up 20%), and Charlotte was the other (up 18%).

All other of FAA’s busiest airports declined versus population, most of them substantially. The five worst case declines (and these numbers would be still lower if population growth was factored in!) happened at:

  • Cincinnati Northern Kentucky [KCVG]: down 72%
  • Pittsburgh [KPIT]: down 70%
  • St Louis [KSTL]: down 62%
  • Cleveland [KCLE]: down 61%
  • Memphis [KMEM]: down 43%

The Significance of KCLT

As noted, between 2000 and 2014 the hub airport in Charlotte, NC was one of only two major U.S. airports to grow faster than population (though it did peak in 2013, and showed a 2% decline in 2014). How did Charlotte do this? By becoming a larger hub airport, and with lots of federal subsidy. Charlotte is now a Super-Hub for US Airways, which is just now finishing its merger with American Airlines.

The [KCLT] super-hub is to American/USAirways as the Atlanta [KATL] super-hub is to Delta. Both are positioned with multiple parallel runways, and between two key major passenger markets: the north/northeastern U.S. market, and the Florida market. Their business model is simple: bring passengers in from both markets, have them ‘self-sort’ in the KCLT terminal, and send them out to their destinations. Interestingly, both the KATL and the KCLT model rely on extreme monopoly. The merged American/US Airways (and it’s subordinate feeder airlines) handled 96% of the KCLT commercial passenger operations in December 2013; that same reference month, Delta dominated KATL with 91% of all operations. [see: A Table Showing the ASPM-77 Airports (Peak Years, Traffic Declines, and Trends Toward Airline Monopolies)]

A huge environmental problem with this type of ‘Passenger Sort Facility’ is the out-scaled impact on airport neighbors. In particular, these airports have many more flights per local resident, simply because most of the flights are not scheduled to serve locals, they are scheduled to serve non-residents ‘just-passing-through’.

The impacts are intensified by airline practices. When an airline like American ‘banks’ its KCLT schedule with heavy inflows and outflows, it is going to create congestion. ATC will manage that congestion by designing routes, to proceduralize the flow, and these route designs will include holding departures to lower altitudes to avoid arrivals at higher altitudes. In some critical locations, especially where focused routes cross, neighbors have to endure nearly continuous noise for hours – or even days – at a time.

Overflights. Over and over and over again. Near constant noise. After a while, residents may start to see a Hydra.

So, Charlotte is Just One More Example, showing NextGen is Really all About CAPACITY

(Foxx, Huerta, and Calio: the program is even more off balance than the photo)

(Foxx, Huerta, and Calio: the program is even more off balance than the photo)

What it all distills down to is a reality many have recognized for a very long time. FAA is a politicized beast that extracts billions every year and has to spend that money. Furthermore, our Presidents have nearly always demonstrated a bipartisan appetite for encouraging FAA spending, often seeking to prop up local economies. Both agencies and Presidents are inclined to spend for political advantage. In these times, political advantage rests with money. So, the role of Administrator Huerta and Secretary Foxx is reduced down to being just a pair of very well-paid cheerleaders, a Congressionally-appointed lobbyist duo.

In other words, FAA is working FOR the airlines, with false cover from the RTCA committees who make ‘NextGen recommendations (and who are dominated by the airlines) to essentially eliminate all environmental restrictions that we (the people) have needed to impose on the airlines.

In Charlotte and elsewhere, NextGen is a workaround to environmental regulation. It is a wholesale discarding of decades worth of environmental balance, implemented to protect neighborhoods from commercial aviation noise. With NextGen, FAA is essentially allowing departures to immediately turn, no longer requiring straight-out climbs to altitude before turning toward their destination. And the local residents, who never had a voice in the change process, are forced to endure the NextGen Noise-Hell.

FAA Still Failing on Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)

“What are they smoking at the FAA???
“When is the FAA (and their indifferent parent, the DOT) going to fire their current crop of idiot regs-makers, and replace them with sober, competent, responsible adults?”

The above are valid questions, raised by a commenter in an online article at AW&ST’s AviationDaily, FAA Urged To Act Fast On Final Small-UAS Rule. The article and the comments are well worth reading.

FAA is way behind schedule, but they are also failing to address the real issues. In fact, for the smaller and wildly popular hobby drones, the key issue is less about safety (since even small manned aircraft should not be flying so low to the ground), but more about the invasion of personal privacy. FAA is proceeding through a formal rulemaking process (NPRM) right now, and hearing these concerns from citizens. Here is a portion of a citizen comment that focuses on personal privacy and the use of drones to monitor and arrest people, as submitted to the NPRM (by Christopher Booth, in Concord, NH):

“Addressing the issue of privacy is paramount. You can operate a UAV for private use, but can not obtain imagery which would violate any person’s expectation of privacy, and no imagery or information may be obtained for public use without regard for the requirement that a warrant must be obtained before such collection if it is going to be admissible in any court proceeding or may be used for the purpose of obtaining the arrest of any person. In other words you can not randomly fly a UAV over a city looking for someone to arrest, or to observe whether anyone is obeying or disobeying any law. You have to get a warrant for that, and it has to have probable cause that the person should be arrested, and must specify where you can look for them and who you are looking for to obtain that warrant – from a judge in open court, in the presence of a public defender arguing why the warrant should not be issued.”

Everyone would be better served if FAA simply punted. Perhaps FAA should relinquish regulatory authority for low altitude (?below 500-feet AGL and clear of all actual airport traffic patterns?) and light-weight (?under ten pounds?) drone uses?

Also, FAA could reduce noise impacts by helicopters AND increase safety margins, if they would simultaneously tighten the FAR 91.119 ‘Minimum Safe Altitude’ flight restrictions. It would be a ‘win-win’ if FAA would require that all manned aircraft (fixed wing and helicopters) cruise at altitudes at least 2,000-feet AGL, and transition to/from these cruise altitudes within reasonable short distances of takeoff/landing locations. Skies would be quieter AND safer.


See also: