The Incredible Shrinking NAS (…that FAA & the Av-Gov Complex Don’t Talk About)

A new year is upon us and it is clear that forces in Washington, DC are carefully applying pressure. The current deadline for renewing FAA’s budget authorization is in March. So, the lobbyists, many of whom receive FAA paychecks every two weeks, are coordinating their daily efforts, with two goals in clear focus:

  1. they hope to aid the airlines in achieving even higher profits by accelerating and expanding their ongoing NextGen implementation debacle; and,
  2. they hope to further insulate FAA – and the industry – from accountability.

They are aiming to accomplish these two goals by getting elected officials to remove ATC from FAA (creating a sort-of privatized entity run largely by the so-called ‘stakeholders’), and by getting Congressional authorization to spend more on NextGen. The lies and misstatements used to justify their targets are many and frequent … and increasingly egregious. For example, out of one side of the mouth, they boast how incredibly safe the U.S. commercial aviation system is; then, out of the other side of the same mouth, the cry about how absolutely critical it is that we invest billions in Public money to ‘modernize’ the ATC system.

As another example, the NextGen-&-Privatization ‘collaborators’ are repeatedly shouting a false claim that our National Airspace System (NAS) is limited by serious ‘capacity issues’. Here are four snippets from online articles:20160109scp.. four samples of propaganda on Capacity need for NextGen

These snippets hammer home the idea we are maxing out, needing to extend capacity. But, the data shows a very different reality: that air traffic operations peaked in the late 1990s and have since declined substantially. Frankly, the ONE REAL capacity issue impacting the system of U.S. airports is that FAA refuses to impose rational capacity management controls. Instead, FAA sits back and lets the airlines routinely over-schedule at even the most capacity-sensitive airports. FAA does this because airlines want to maximize profits, and this captured agency does everything it can to not impede that airline objective. And the controllers union (NATCA) goes along with this charade, because the flight proceduralization being imposed via NextGen means they do much less real work while continuing to collect some of the highest paychecks in all of Federal civil service.

So, here is some hard data…

The PDF file below was compiled using FAA’s own data from their ATADS/OPSNET webpage. Annual totals for each year from 1990 through 2014 were compiled, for all 516 airports that submitted data into the 2014 ATADS database. The ‘Peak Year’ was identified for each airport. Data for both the Peak Year and Calendar Year 2014 was then refined into the presentation, and statistics were added to show key change parameters: changes in total annual operations, as well as itinerant air carrier (ITIN-AC) and itinerant air taxi (ITIN-AT) operations. (NOTE: this pair of parameters accurately reflects passenger flights, and also reflects how the airlines changed their mix of aircraft sizes between the larger AC fleet and the smaller AT fleet). Additional parameters include local operations (primarily flight training), and VFR operations (primarily general aviation). Some color-coding has been added, to aid in identifying trends (mostly downward) and airport types (three types stand out: primarily commercial air passenger airports, vs. primarily instructional airports, vs. primarily GA airports).

One of the most shocking realities illuminated by this 64-page spreadsheet is how far downward the aviation industry has declined, in terms of the need for ATC services. Specifically, of the 504 airports in this PDF file for which ATADS data shows a ‘change’ in annual operations (i.e., takeoffs and landings), the trend is overwhelming downward:

  • the average 2014 traffic for all 504 airports is 45% below Peak Year.
  • even the strongest performers, the current top-ten airports in terms of daily traffic counts, had declines in 2014 that measured 12% below Peak Year.
  • the average 2014 traffic for the top 30 airports (an accurate indicator of traffic demands by the commercial passenger aviation sector) is 21% below Peak Year.
  • the average 2014 traffic for the top 100 airports (the busiest 3% of airports on FAA’s list of 3,300+ NPIAS airports) is 31% below Peak Year. Please note, this list of the top 100 airports is a very accurate indicator of traffic demands by the entire aviation system, as these airports produce nearly all commercial passenger flights and enplanements.
  • the average 2014 traffic for the top half of the 504 airports is 38% below Peak Year.
  • the average 2014 traffic for the bottom half of the 504 airports is 52% below Peak Year.
This pop-out view is scrollable, and the PDF copy may be downloaded.

Not only is there no pressing need for NextGen to alleviate capacity issues, but, in fact, the data shows an industry in a steep and prolonged decline. Put it this way: if the U.S. commercial aviation sector was to make a truthful presentation seeking venture capital, they would have zero success, because the charts show steady decline and no reliable growth. Given other major trends (downsizing of the U.S. middle class, growing wealth inequality, and fossil-fuel-related Climate Change impacts, for example) it appears increasingly improbable that commercial passenger aviation will change into a ‘growth’ industry.