When Viewed Through Cash-Colored Glasses, ‘Clouds Cause Delays’

Everyday, FAA creates a traffic report, then uses social media to report expected air traffic delays.

(click on image to view source tweet)

(click on image to view source tweet)

Cute little graphics are intuitive: the cloud image means delays related to cloud layers (here listing the DC area to NYC area), and the lightning image means delays related to thunderstorms (here listing all major hubs from Charlotte to Houston).

Mindlessly, we absorb this report and feel a bit more ‘aware’ of the system managed by FAA. But, if we are a bit more mindful, and actually THINK about what FAA tweets, we have to ask: are clouds really a valid reason for delays?

The answer is obviously NO. These delays are happening routinely, triggered only by clouds. Not severe weather … just puffy, calm, benign layers and pockets of water vapor. These delays continue to happen – and at the same few hub airports everyday – but it is not due to ‘clouds’; they happen because of unmanaged capacity. I.e., FAA continues to allow too many planes in time slots that are too short.

Take a look at the weather maps for this day. In the first image, clouds are white and precipitation is green. Note the existence of both clouds and precipitation in many other parts of the nation… yet, no delays are reported/expected at most locations. Again, the delays are all happening at a select few hub airports, where FAA refuses to impose needed capacity management. All FAA has to do is impose sufficiently reduced hourly flow rates, but FAA refuses. And the consequences are significant: flights are delayed, passengers lose billions of dollars worth of their time, and communities are inundated with excessive aviation noise and air pollution, all to accommodate more flights than are needed to serve each specific community.

(click on image to view current image at ClimateReanalyzer; select the 'Precipitation & Clouds' view)

(click on image to view current image at ClimateReanalyzer; select the ‘Precipitation & Clouds’ view)

(click on image to view current CONUS infrared image at NOAA.gov)

(click on image to view current CONUS infrared image at NOAA.gov)

Although it conflicts with Congress’ original intent, the fact is that FAA serves the airlines, not the people. FAA, beholden to industry profit-interests (of the final-four major U.S. airlines, and of manufacturers, too), refuses to manage airport capacity by imposing reasonable flow-rate restrictions. Instead, FAA collaborates with their industry partners (aka, ‘stakeholders’) and creates manipulative spin/propaganda, trying to sell us on NextGen spending that creates greater impacts while producing little benefits.

FAA works to feed more money to the same industry partners who hire FAA officials when they retire. Just like the rigged U.S. political campaigns, where the system is manipulated by the duopoly parties. We suffer increasing impacts from failures that will never go away until we demand overdue reforms.

¡¿Happy Earth Day, Mr. Huerta?!

20150422scp.. FAA's 'Happy Earth Day' FB text20150422.. FAA sunset pic, poster image from their Earth Day 2015 Facebook PostThis is what FAA posted on the FAA Facebook site, on Wednesday morning. And they clearly want ALL OF US to celebrate with them, from Phoenix to Flushing, and from Charlotte to Chicago. Take a close look at the small text above, in the glorious picture with no airplanes (hence, the glory); FAA wants everyone to believe, “NextGen routes ease aviation’s burden on the environment….”

NextGen and EarthDay2015. Like two peas in a pod…

…¡¡¿¿Are you kidding me??!!

Hey, I forgot, too. The world has been looking a lot less beautiful in recent years. In fact, on that morning, my distraction was studying noise impacts created by focused NextGen tracks, trying to figure out how to get a certain three-letter aviation authority to clean up their mess. It was only when FAA sent out their disingenuous propaganda-piece that I remembered, ‘…hey, today is the 45th anniversary of Earth Day!’

Some of us might easily have been distracted watching the new record levels of atmospheric CO2 or the accelerating polar ice melt that appears to be closely tied to our weird winter weather. And, no doubt, if we live in one of the NextGen launch communities, perhaps we were too busy testifying (again!) before our local City Council, hoping – even praying – we could get relief from NextGen noise.

A lot of us probably forgot. But, thank you FAA, for reminding us. Oh, and by the way, we posted many comments onto your Facebook page (a copy has been saved at page two of this aiREFORM Post). Here is one of the comments:

“What a farce NextGen is: Lies and deceit; Environmental “reviews” with no basis in facts; The ruination of quiet neighborhoods; Destruction of property values without any compensation.
It’s Federal government bullying at its worst, and they claim to be celebrating Earth Day? George Orwell could not have written such a scenario.”


<< <> <<>> <> >>

Administrator Huerta, your agency’s PR branch will likely tell you the comments are all ‘thank you notes’, but you might want to read them yourself. They are overwhelmingly opposed to what your agency is doing. And they find your NextGen greenwashing to be absolutely despicable. Why? Well, put it all into perspective.

Earth Day started in 1970 because people were fed up with the trends toward environmental destruction, largely accelerated by greed and indifference. And it wasn’t about aesthetics; it was about health. Essentially, the people demanded effective regulations, and they also demanded to be meaningfully involved in a transparent democratic process.

What FAA did in 2014, with the CATEX applications and refusals to mitigate bad NextGen launches, is EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE of what Earth Day represents. In early 2012, under pressure to move past years of legislative gridlock, our Congress punted; they put the decision solely on YOU. At Section 213 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, they codified that you were to make the determination as to whether or not ‘extraordinary circumstances’ would void filing of a Categorical Exclusion. Here is a screen-capture of the relevant section (with markups by aiREFORM):20120214scp.. 'expedited review' portion of Section 213, H.R. 658, 112th Congress, FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, re CATEXMost of the FAA Administrators who preceded you expended enormous effort trying to balance the profit goals of the airlines with the quality-of-life needs of the larger public. Under your helm, and particularly with your NextGen launches, this balance has been completely discarded. You (and your subordinate Regional Administrators) have failed to see the ‘extraordinary circumstances’ of the noise impacts you have imposed upon families in places like Phoenix and Flushing. FAA is failing and has become YOUR agency, because it sure as hell isn’t serving the people anymore.

Sure, the Cuyahoga River is no longer igniting, like it was before the first Earth Day in 1970, but YOU are putting the fire in our skies with your NextGen noise. YOU are destroying our quality of life, and allowing your employees to delay producing records and correcting FAA’s cronyistic actions.

Mr. Huerta, your agency appears to have lost sight of an important fact:

Aviation and the NAS should be an asset

for the whole country, not just a way for

‘the final four major airlines’

to make a profit.

Too many in your organization are failing to serve the whole public. Our aviation system needs to be deliberately and equitably managed.

A year from now, if you (or your successor) want to make a similar ‘Happy Earth Day!’ post, you may want to show that you mean it. Starting today, you might want to put the environment and quality-of-life front and center, to reform your agency and serve the larger public.

¡¡Happy Earth Day, Mr. Huerta!!

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.

ANALYSIS: Controller Error & NMAC at Houston [KIAH], on 5/8/2014

A small error by an FAA controller at Houston Intercontinental Airport caused two United departures to converge in low clouds, producing a near-midair collision. The USAtoday news video below gives a good overview, with some audio.

…for the ATC analysis, please see page two of this aiR Post…