Much of the gains of FAA’s NextGen program, as being oversold to the people and to Congress, are actually false and will never be realized. History may eventually reveal that FAA’s NextGen program was just a fraud, used to ratchet up federal funding.
The technologies in NextGen were mostly developed in the mid-1990s, when FAA began to create satellite-based routes and procedures. But, as we entered the new millennium, air traffic volume topped out. It has declined steadily since. Commercial operations at the OEP-35 airports peaked in 2005; by the end of 2014, total operations had declined by 14%. Thus, ATC operations averaged a nearly 2% annual decline, well behind the U.S. population change, which was averaging roughly 1% annual growth. Why the decline? Probably due to numerous factors: the use of larger aircraft, a declining U.S. middle class, growing concerns about climate change, and the many changes in airports and airline fees that have followed after 9/11. Here is the data, in a table:
- Annual Total Airport Operations for the 35 busiest U.S. Commercial airports (OEP-35), peak years marked in yellow, declines from peak shown in red text. (Data source: FAA ATADS)
That’s the ‘whole-picture’ view; the view at individual airports is even worse.
The vast majority of OEP-35 airports have declined sharply from their peaks, some down by 60-75%. In nearly every case, the extreme declines were airline-induced: Delta moving out of their hub near Cincinnati [KCVG]; USAirways abandoning their Pittsburgh hub [KPIT]; American absorbing TWA and then all but shutting down the St. Louis hub [KSTL]; and many, many more. Hubs where billions had been invested over many decades – adding runways and parking and facilities – today, these facilities go severely underused. Some have even been mothballed.
The numbers do not lie and the fact is, while lots of money continues to be thrown at airports and the ATC system, the demand for ATC services by U.S. commercial aviation has been in a strong and steady decline. And so it was that, in the middle of the George W. Bush administration, FAA did like all mature agencies do: they formulated a ‘new program’ aimed at generating deep funding by Congress. FAA’s ‘new’ program, a repackaging of what they had already been doing for ten years, eventually became known as ‘NextGen’.
FAA’s Main Aim: Shortest Routes for the Airlines
In time, the biggest selling point of NextGen became the concept that fuel consumption (and thus pollution) could be reduced by using technology: computer power and satellite navigation would enable ATC to make all flights as direct as possible. There are three features of an optimized ‘direct route’:
- upon takeoff, turn toward the destination airport as soon as possible (even before the runway end);
- make the enroute portion as close to a straight line as possible;
- and, shorten the approach to land ASAP (with minimal pattern flying and sequencing among other arrivals).
These are the core design elements FAA is imposing with each new NextGen implementation, and their implementation means eliminating hundreds of noise abatement procedures. This is the main ‘carrot’ FAA offered the airlines, to ensure they would not oppose FAA’s NextGen program. In early 2012, FAA got Congress to waive the requirement to conduct detailed environmental reviews, so long as FAA itself declared they thought there would be no impacts. (Attention chickens … please meet your new superintendent, Mr. Fox!)
FAA has since been proceeding through a series of shows, sharing some proposal details, choosing not to answer critical questions, and overall being tone deaf while pretending to hear community concerns. All that matters is the right boxes are checked; slog through the process and then, like clockwork, announce that the proposals are being implemented. Net result: many or all previous noise abatement procedures get wiped out. Who cares (between FAA and the so-called ‘stakeholders’, all of whom have money-interests in aviation growth) that many of the abandoned procedures, particularly those close in to the airports, involved years of community work to define optimal noise abatement flight corridors? Who cares in 2015…?
An additional important fuel-savings strategy is what FAA is calling the Optimized Profile Descent (OPD). Essentially, the goal is to set up the string of arrivals so that they can slide down the approach corridor at a steady speed and descent rate, with low engine power settings. This is a good idea, and is what pilots aim to do when they are free to make their own approaches (without ATC shoehorning them to fit within a ‘bank’ of American or United arrivals). Unfortunately, the OPD concept fails quickly, if there is too much other arriving traffic, or if just one plane in the arrival sequence fails to lock into the proper speeds and descent rates.
Contrails that Bend in the Sky
I live in Oregon, under the flight route that feeds California departures into the SeaTac Airport [KSEA] in the Seattle area. These arrivals are generally at cruise altitude, 7- or 8-miles straight up. They are seen, and almost never heard. The flights leave a series of contrails on most days. Up until a couple years ago, nearly every contrail was straight; the flights were all just passing over. But in recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of times where one or two contrails include big turns. As a retired ATC, I know that these turns most often are delay vectors, issued by center controllers to get that selected flight to eat up a minute or a few minutes. This is done when the TRACON anticipates a large arrival flow and a request is made back to the feeding center, asking them to help level out problematic arrival surges.
Any one of us can be outside and see these bent contrails. And each of us now has the online resources, such as FlightAware and FlightRadar24, to do a little research and get some answers. Once you know the routes near your home, it is not hard to establish the actual arrival sequence that flew over at an approximate time. And with a little effort, you can make a screen-capture and collect the data that shows who was delayed, to what extent, and why.
Here is an example. Yesterday, on a brilliant Fall day, while I was cleaning the grape rows in my garden, I saw some bent contours. I then spent a few hours creating this scrollable PDF, showing the two bent flights (one from San Francisco, the other from Sacramento) and three other flights – a surge of five arrivals in four minutes – all inbound to SeaTac’s north-south runways. The two flights I was watching were on the HAWKZ arrival. The three other flights were all inbound from an entry gate southeast of SeaTac; these flights originated in Albuquerque, Denver, and Boise.
This pop-out view is scrollable, and the PDF copy may be downloaded.
Interestingly, the analysis shows that all five flights were issued delay vectors – turns designed to eat up time, to aid the TRACON controller in delivering the smooth arrival flow and OPDs we were all promised in the NextGen sales pitches. And for each of the five flights, those delay vectors would completely eliminate any fuel-savings benefit that might have been temporarily gained by taking an immediate turn after takeoff. The result, therefore, is a program that achieves no actual fuel-savings, while using the unrealized ‘potential fuel savings’ to justify the wholesale abandonment of decades-old procedures that mitigated local aviation noise impacts.
FAA Should Sell Us the REAL NextGen, NOT Their Spun Version
So here is where this becomes borderline fraudulent. FAA talks up all the good that they claim NextGen can do, but FAA says nothing about any other elements of the larger ‘NextGen plan’ that diminish these potential gains. Imagine a factory-owner claiming to be ‘green’, showing us the healthy trout pond he had built near the front entrance, but saying nothing about the river of toxins and filth being dumped out back. This is akin to the fraud it feels like FAA is committing.
Like a magician, they direct our eyes to the departures (early turns) and arrivals (with optimized descent profiles), while being careful to ensure we do not see that, with their other hand, ATC is bending arrivals at altitude to make the OPDs possible. The gains and the losses are offsetting, but the accountants are careful to not talk about the losses.
Like a carnival barker, FAA’s pitchmen focus on one sense while trying to help us forget about our other senses. We cannot help but to SEE their NextGen sales pitch; they only hope we will not HEAR the NextGen reality as it is happening over our homes in Phoenix, Flushing, Charlotte, Palo Alto and elsewhere.
Noise ghettoes are emerging wherever FAA goes, and proud – even historic – communities are being destroyed. The only benefits are seen on the airline profit sheets and in the pensions earned by the FAA personnel who got Congress to fund a program that enables lots of idle people to briefly look busy.