A Gatwick Missed Approach Reveals Why the Proposed U.S. ATC Privatization is a Big Fail

Summer is upon us, and Yanks love to fly on distant vacations, oblivious to the enormous carbon cost associated with that privilege. Shall we take a quick trip to Europe? Maybe lunch in London and zip back to LA for dinner?

We could fly through Gatwick. Or, maybe, let’s not. A recent tweet, with a very telling graphic, suggests Gatwick is a bad idea:

EasyJet 8222, from Valencia to Gatwick on 6/9/2017. Weather was not the issue: it was near perfect that day. On the first pass, the flight went around after descending to approx. 900-ft. This missed approach appears to have been caused solely by NATS’ refusal to properly manage capacity; i.e., too many arrivals in too small a time window. (click on image to view source Tweet)

It turns out, if you study the arrivals to Gatwick, you learn an awful lot, including:

  1. that lots of privatization has happened in the UK, both to the ATC system, and to the airports … and it is broadly failing to deliver promised ‘benefits’ used to sell the privatization scheme;
  2. that the UK ATC system, NATS, is grossly inefficient on Gatwick arrivals, even 25-years after it was privatized in 1992;
  3. that FAA’s NextGen and Europe’s SESAR (the satellite-based ATC automation systems being oversold on both sides of the Atlantic) are both very similar, in how they intensify impacts while accommodating airline profits.

Here’s a PDF compilation of the ten arrivals to Gatwick, preceding the eventual landing of EasyJet 8222. The inefficiencies are astounding. Notice that for all flights, the bulk of the trip is very direct, but the compression for landing at Gatwick is being managed by holding stacks and other arrival delays, all controlled by ATC. This is precisely the same pattern we see in the U.S. At the key hub airports, where FAA refuses to manage capacity while accommodating airline desires to schedule far too many flights, FAA imposes both enroute delays and lots of delay turns to arrivals. This is the case at all the worst NextGen-impacted airports: Boston [KBOS], LaGuardia [KLGA], Kennedy [KJFK],  Baltimore-Washington [KBWI], Reagan-National [KDCA], Charlotte [KCLT], Chicago O’Hare [KORD], Phoenix [KPHX], Seattle [KSEA], and San Francisco [KSFO].

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

Why is Gatwick Such an Inefficient Mess?

Gatwick [EGKK] is the second-busiest commercial passenger airport in the UK, after London Heathrow [EGLL]. Both of these airports are infamous for the enormous noise and air pollutant impacts they place upon residential communities – not just near the runways, but far away as well. Just like with FAA’s NextGen, arrivals are dumped low, slow, and loud, and circuitous delay patterns (like the Arc of Doom) are flown, maximizing impacts.

A key feature of Gatwick is that, although it has two parallel runways, a local environmental agreement disallows use of both runways at the same time; i.e., the main runway (08R/26L) is to be used alone, and the backup runway (08L/26R) is only to be used when the main runway is out of service (for maintenance, etc.).

So, with Gatwick, we have a classic example of limited runway capacity but no thoughtful constraints to ensure profit-seeking airlines do not schedule too many flights. And, every one of these arrival delays stands a high probability of triggering delays on all subsequent flights using the delayed aircraft, for the remainder of the day. In other words, if NATS would address the Gatwick arrival compression issue, they would make huge progress in reducing flight delays across the UK.

What Causes Missed Approaches & Go-Arounds, and are They Problematic?

In a well-managed air traffic world, missed approaches and go-arounds are very rare. Flight crews and ATC both hate go-arounds, as they are a LOT more work. And, they can be dangerous; i.e., in a system built around repetitive and predictable processes, sudden changes inject a lot of risk.

These should not be happening as often as they do for Gatwick. They would not happen there, too, if NATS would impose restrictions against excessive flight scheduling.

Will the U.S. ATC Privatization Proposal Do Better?

Probably not. Given what we have seen so far, in FAA’s fraudulent sales pitches, the botched implementation, and the growing and unresolved impacts, etc., there is a near absolute certainty that privatization of U.S. ATC would be an unmitigated disaster. No efficiency improvements. No cost savings. Reduced transparency. No accountability. Just one more sell-out to industry money, to enable the few airlines and others to do whatever the hell they want.

Just say ‘NO!’ to ATC Privatization: this is Corporatocracy run amok.

U.S. Aviation Impact Activists Can Learn a Lot by Looking at London’s Gatwick Hub

One of the oldest activist groups fighting to manage aviation impacts and preserve their local community is the Gatwick Area Conservation Campaign (GACC.org.uk).  This group has been around since 1968. The website for GACC.org.uk is impressive, and well worth a look … especially for anyone near a U.S. airport searching for ways to reduce hub-related NextGen impacts.

A significant detail about Gatwick is that this airport operates using a single runway; thus, it’s closest stateside equivalent would be the San Diego International Airport [KSAN].

Gatwick is the second-busiest airport in the UK, behind Heathrow. And, as discussed in an earlier aiREFORM Post about Heathrow, the traffic intensity is amplified by airline hubbing, nearly all related to international and transatlantic flights. Management of environmental impacts is made worse by the fact that both Gatwick and Heathrow have been ‘privatized’, in schemes where private equity firms and other financial interests acquire the airports. This is problematic because it appears to further insulate all the stakeholders (airlines, airport authorities, and national regulators) from accountability, as they can now hide behind the idea that ‘investors abroad must be protected’. And so it is that in the UK, too, schemes such as the narrow repetitive NextGen-related routes are destroying neighborhoods while enhancing airline profits. [NOTE: the European equivalent of FAA’s ‘NextGen’ program is SESAR, which stands for Single European Sky ATM Research; click here to view a copy of the 152-page SESAR plan dated 3/30/2009, or click here to read a comparison of NextGen & SESAR in a 10/18/2011 presentation]

A frequent argument against expansion of both Gatwick [EGKK] and Heathrow [EGLL] is that the addition of any new runway(s) will only exacerbate a pre-existing economic disparity across regions of the UK. The conflict is between the ‘north’ and the ‘southeast’. Specifically, because the two largest UK airports are in the southeast, the potential job and economic benefits that airports allegedly create are not shared with regions to the north. Effectively, aviation is a parasitic form of economic development, advantaging one region while disadvantaging another region.

This is a problem in the U.S., too. That is to say, for every superHub airport being expanded even further beyond manageable traffic levels ([KATL], [KCLT], [KORD] are three examples), there are numerous other airports in decline, with billions in development costs going unused. All it takes is for the dominant airline to abandon a hub and, within a few years, the entire airport begins to look like an unmarketable brownfield. In the U.S., the most notable examples include: United at Cleveland [KCLE], American at St. Louis [KSTL], USAir at Pittsburgh [KPIT], and Delta at Cincinnati [KCVG] or Detroit [KDTW].

It is notable that aviation regulators such as FAA and NATS have a huge opportunity to resolve these problems. All it takes is the establishment of sound national policies that disincentivize hub overdevelopment. A more evenly distributed aviation system, imposed in the U.S. or UK (or both!), would yield these three substantial benefits:

  1. it would broaden dispersal of economic benefits;
  2. it would reduce and even eliminate noise and pollutant impacts by repetitive flights; and…
  3. it would greatly improve the so-called ‘customer experience’ that airline CEOs and A4A are increasingly talking about; i.e., it would reduce or eliminate connection hassles while also reducing total flight times for passengers!

For an indexed compilation of some key Gatwick-related documents, as copied from the GACC website, please see page two of this Post: