Who is to Blame – and Who Can Fix – the Impacts Around U.S. Hub Airports?

A recent news article out of Phoenix [KPHX] shows that both FAA and local officials are again ‘collaborating’ to screw over residents impacted by NextGen routes. Click here to view an archived copy with aiReform comments.

What I find most distressing about this article is it shows the real intent of the so-called settlement between FAA and local officials. FAA plainly lost when their case was finally heard at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit (USCADC). A responsible federal agency, actually serving the public (instead of just industry), would have accepted the court decision and promptly acted to correct their errors. Instead, FAA lawyers pressed local officials to compromise, to effectively defang the court decision … thus rendering the court meaningless. They crafted a deal that only perpetuates and expands the root problem: real people impacted by aviation have been shut out from having any voice, any local control, to protect their homes and communities.

An Analysis

When neighborhoods (and health) are being ruined by excessive airport scheduling, who is to blame? And, who can fix the problems?

With or without legal action,[1] there is always a small collection of ‘parties’ involved, including:

  • Elected officials (local, and federal)
  • FAA – the federal ‘regulator’ created to serve the public, funded by the public, but inordinately serving industry
  • Local/state administrative officials
  • Airlines (and other industry players)
  • Real people: impacted neighbors/residents, as well as locals who use aviation services

What role does each party play, and how are these parties interconnected? At the federal level, our elected officials have been lobbied by industry to create laws – including fee/tax systems – that shift the balance of power amongst parties. FAA, a captured regulator serving industry, then processes these laws into regulations, always with a bias that benefits the airlines. At the heart of these laws and regulations, Congress and FAA are stealing away local control. The effect is that the airlines, along with FAA, have evolved into a sovereign alien, occupying not just the sprawling airport lands but also the air above our homes. Real people – in homes, in city halls, and even in the governor’s mansion – have no meaningful powers to mitigate these absentee landlords who are indifferent about how their decisions trend their status toward ‘slumlord’.

That’s the core of it: No local control. Congress and FAA have created administrative sovereignty for an invasive and metastasizing aviation industry.

The situation is worsened today by the extent to which human greed is being played. Even our best officials are compromised by the lobbyists who now run the show.

Increasingly, it is an extremely rare official who, after winning an election or spending decades climbing to a high level administrative position, still maintains an ability to serve people, and not money. Corporations know what they want, and lobbyists (many of whom are also earning FAA retirement pensions!) know how to spin and maneuver to achieve what the corporations want. Money makes a great hearing aid; officials who seem tone deaf to constituent concerns ALWAYS come through to serve money. Some officials go totally rogue, accepting payouts, kickbacks, and jobs for the spouse. Most bought officials are careful to remain subtle. In all cases, though, nearly all officials find it easiest to bend to the lobbyist pressures; they drink their koolaid and trust their hype, without any critical assessment. Thinking and leadership are hard work; bending is far more convenient, especially if there is personal financial gain attached. In effect, and in time, many local/state officials become captured as industry servants.

Let’s be very clear on one other thing. When a new commercial airline impact appears and/or grows, it always does so because the one or two airlines who dominate that airport are tweaking the daily flight schedule, in pursuit of profits. Those profits do NOT come from adding more air travel for local residents; no, the profits come from more intense use of the local airport as a hub for more flights. The airline tallies more ‘through-passengers’ who pass through the airport as a passenger-sorting facility; the airport authority scores more PFC taxes, to pay off more accumulated airport capital improvement debt and fund more future airport growth projects. The airport sprawls larger and noise and pollutant impacts increase, yet the aviation service benefits to local residents show no meaningful gain.

Since the airlines are profit-seeking corporations, they do everything they can to minimize the costs (including labor) when implementing these changes. Thus, the fewest possible jobs are created; in other words, while noise/health impacts may soar, the real local economic benefits are held to a minimum. The marginal costs of growing a hub schedule typically always far exceed the marginal benefits to the local economy … which is why we see so much FAA/industry collaborated propaganda, spinning the illusion of airports as massive economic engines (while conveniently ignoring the massive subsidies involved).

A Short Data Example, from San Diego:

Here’s a table with enplanement data, extracted from the 2008 airport master plan for the crowded on-runway airport in San Diego [KSAN]. Operations data has been added, from FAA’s ATADS database. Also, the year-to-year change has been calculated.

  enplanements Yr-to-Yr change Operations (ATADS) Yr-to-Yr change
2002 7,471,644 206,605
2003 7,637,193 2.2% 204,713 -0.9%
2004 8,200,687 7.4% 215,211 5.1%
2005 8,692,694 6.0% 229,192 6.5%
2006 8,759,669 0.8% 230,798 0.7%
2007 9,172,966 4.7% 237,574 2.9%

Did local demand for aviation services grow 7.4% during 2004 and another 6.0% during 2005? No. If the local population had grown at such rates than, yes, it would be reasonable to expect such large annual increases. But, in fact, the enplanements grew far in excess of population growth. So, the enplanements grew due to shifts in airline scheduling. Those shifts massively increased the number of people from elsewhere, who became counted as enplanements when they changed planes or occupied a through-seat.

San Diego is a good example to study this because it is remotely located, in a corner of the nation, and close enough to the major hub at LAX. As such, it does not have the geographically central location needed to function well as an energy-efficient hub for through-passengers, at least not for domestic trips. In fact, if you study the airport’s Competition Plan,[2] you will see that all three legacy airlines (American, Delta, and United) offer very limited flights, primarily feeding only to their major U.S. hubs. The two airlines that use KSAN for hubbing are Southwest and Alaska. Southwest is the dominant airline and feeds many passengers through KSAN with origins or destinations along the West Coast. Alaska does the same thing, but Alaska’s hubbing is mostly to serve passengers vacationing at numerous Mexican destinations. If FAA wanted to minimize impacts on the local community at this very congested airport, they would remove the current incentives to use KSAN as a through-hub. If congressional officials wanted to help, they too would remove the current incentives, by pushing for changes in the laws that have defined the current problematic fee and tax system. If local officials wanted to serve impacted local residents, they would at least advocate, demanding FAA and Congress take these actions.

Some might suggest these growth figures do not reflect airline scheduling strategies, but instead reflect a recovery from 9/11. This is not the case. It is absolutely true that, across the U.S., enplanements and operations dropped after 9/11. But, two other truths also exist: (1) at all but the biggest hub airports, airline activity growth rates were already starting to decline in 2000;[3] and (2) the bulk of the recovery was completed in 2003. In other words, if FAA applied its resources to objectively study the data and report it to the public, FAA itself would prove that, by the end of 2003, the real people residing in and near San Diego had fully resumed their local consumption of aviation services. An uncaptured federal regulator writing such a report would confirm: the growth in impacts upon the local community are solely due to FAA’s accommodation of airline scheduling; more through-passengers means more profits … and more impacts.

What does this analysis mean, for resolving aviation impacts?

It all comes down to airline schedule changes for which marginal impacts increase far more than marginal benefits.[4] The impacts are increasing because the Av-Gov Complex is a machine that has airlines, FAA, and various local/state officials ‘collaborating’ to feed benefits to corporations … and this very same machine is screwing over the people. There is no local control. Instead, we have predictable choreography, with Av-Gov Complex players finger-pointing and claiming they are powerless, with zero accountability as impacts continue to worsen.

People want aviation services, but they also want (and need!) local control.

Since 2012, when Delta announced a new hub expansion at Sea-Tac [KSEA], all airport metrics have grown enormously (annual operations, enplanements, fuel consumption, air cargo tonnage). But so too have grown the many problems that both FAA and Port of Seattle take no action to fix: noise impacts, air pollutant impacts, arrival congestion forcing delays even at cruise altitude, road congestion for Seattle-area access to the airport terminal, even lengthy tarmac delays simply because the airlines are allowed to schedule in excess of existing gate capacity. The ongoing non-performance by FAA and Port of Seattle, and their bias toward accommodating airline greed, is shameful.

If O’Hare [KORD] scaled back to half its operations, would the Chicago area still be amply served with excellent service across the globe? Absolutely. And, at the same time, would impacts upon neighborhoods to the east and west be reduced? Yes, and to an astonishingly positive degree (as would national system delays).

Is the same true at other major hub airports? Yes. All of the communities where summer barbeques are destroyed (the food just doesn’t smell right, when the air smells like jet fuel), where incessant and repetitive noise patterns deny the restorative powers of nature or enjoying backyard play, where sleep is lost to accommodate loud early-morning cargo flights … all of these communities want their local airport to provide local services. But, these residents also want (and need!) local control, so that the scale of airport development and airline scheduling does not end up destroying health and quality of life.

The problems are not just at Phoenix, San Diego, Seattle and Chicago. While most U.S. airports continue to scale back (this is a shrinking industry), there is a small handful of other airports where one or two airlines want to grow more hubbing profits. To enable this, FAA’s NextGen implementation is plowing down residential quality of ([KBOS], [KJFK], [KLGA], [KBWI], [KDCA], [KCLT], and [KSFO] are all on that list).

Solutions will not happen, so long as the co-conspirators continue to conspire. The problems are local, and the best people to define and resolve the problems are the local residents. We are long overdue for the restoration of REAL LOCAL CONTROL, even (and especially!) at our largest hub airports.

— <> <[]> <> —


footnotes:

[1] It is also important to understand: the legal actions, such as the case heard when Phoenix sued FAA, are not full-fledged lawsuits where a plaintiff can force corrections and payment of damages; these are practically administrative hearings, as they are directed (by Congress) to be filed under a very short time limit, to the USCADC, which has a long history of bias favoring corporations, federal agencies, and other status quo powers. If Congress cared to protect citizen rights, we would be granted far more latitude, to pick more favorable court venues.

[2] One of the more interesting details within this Competition Plan is at pages 11-12; it is there noted that KSAN offers direct scheduled passenger flights to 56 destinations, but 47 of those are served by only ONE airline. Routes are thus 84% monopoly-flown.

[3] FAA ATADS data shows that KSAN commercial operations peaked in 1995 (219K), then dropped every year, bottoming out at 191K ops in 2000. In 2001, when airports were totally shut down for days, KSAN commercial ops actually INCREASED to 192K. Fifteen years later, the 2016 commercial ops had retreated 2.9%, to 186K; also, between 2001 and 2016, declines in TOTAL airport ops were even steeper, down 4.8%.

[4] Significantly, too, while the benefits accrue solely to the non-resident airline corporation, the costs accrue to the local residents. This cost-shift is a taking.

Is Arctic ice melting faster than expected?

There was a news article late last month, discussing the rapid decline of Arctic Sea ice. I researched a bit further and found the charts and interpretations at the National Snow & Ice Data Center. It all indicates Arctic ice is melting faster than was expected. Of course, a great fear related to polar ice melting is that, based on the enormous amount of ice at the Earth’s poles and on Greenland, this rapid melting may raise the world’s oceans by 20-25′.

Arctic lowest ice extent hit a record low in September, and reduced to just a fraction more than 50% of the average minimal ice extent for the years 1979-2000. The ice is also thinning.

I then looked at some airport data and realized, we have a bunch of major US airports at risk of being flooded, because they sit on flat land close to sea level. These are all around or below 20′ mean sea level (MSL). I put together a quick list:

  • The three major airports in the New York area are;
    • Kennedy Airport [KJFK], at 14ft MSL
    • Newark Airport [KEWR], at 18ft MSL
    • and LaGuardia Airport [KLGA], at 21ft MSL
    • note also, Boston’s major airport [KBOS] is at 20ft MSL, while Washington’s Reagan National Airport [KDCA] is at 15ft MSL.
  • On the West Coast, San Diego [KSAN] is at 13ft MSL, while San Francisco [KSFO] is at 17ft MSL, and Oakland [KOAK] is at 9ft MSL. If commercial aviation is to continue to grow, San Jose [KSJC] will feel pressure to expand its operations.
  • In the southern U.S., Miami International [KMIA] is 8ft MSL, while Fort Lauderdale [KFLL] is at 9ft MSL, and both are on FAA’s short list of 35 OEP Airports. New Orleans is still recovering from Katrina, but its two airports ([KMSY] & [KNEW]) are at 7ft and 4ft MSL.
  • Vacation flying to Hawaii will be impacted; the Honolulu Airport [PHNL] is at 13ft MSL.

The takeaway may be this: if we do not get serious about managing and minimizing the rate of carbon consumption, we will see a time come soon when the environment is biting back, not just flooding low Pacific islands, but also taking away key parts of our aviation infrastructure.