The Real Impacts of NextGen

A short article by a TV station in Minnesota helps illustrate the problem with FAA’s huge (and very costly) NextGen program. Simply put, NextGen is designed to narrow the flight paths, which will intensify noise impacts under those thin flight paths. In this story, a local citizen pointed out that this would be problematic to those living under the narrower flight paths; FAA’s response was to do nothing, and just play dumb. Here’s the article:

Minneapolis Man Takes On Feds Over Proposed Flight Path

The Federal Government has not disclosed how many airplanes could soon fly over Southwest Minneapolis and Edina, if a newly proposed flight path change is approved. But, one man who has crunched numbers and analyzed data for the CIA and the Defense Department’s Intelligence Division says he has a pretty good idea how many planes will be over his neighborhood all the way to Edina every day, if the change is adopted. Kevin Terrell says he’s dissected data of the Federal Aviation Administration and he estimates Southwest Minneapolis and Edina could have as many as 135 flights overhead every day. Right now, he says, there are about 20 to 30 daily flights near his home departing from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Terrell says he’s shared his research with FAA officials in Washington, D.C., but he says they have not acknowledged his data. Terrell says he is also frustrated that public officials in Minneapolis have not asked for more environmental impact studies on the newly proposed flight routes. He tells 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that the “people of Minneapolis and Edina deserve a definitive number of proposed flights that will be heard overhead every day, from the FAA.”

We contacted the FAA and asked for an on-camera interview, but they declined. They did not endorse Terrell’s research, but they did not criticize it either. They would only say they “commend Terrell for his work on this issue, but it is too early to predict how many flights would be re-directed if this new proposal is approved.” An FAA spokesperson told us they do not not have a timetable for completing their review of the proposal, however, if the change is approved, it would take effect next year.

To put this into context, consider the evolving technologies used by air traffic controllers, and how those technologies change the flow of traffic.

Fundamentally, a controller’s job is all about ensuring two flights remain properly separated. This requires that the controller be able to accurately define the position of each flight. Decades ago, before the application of radar, controllers had to apply time separation, which typically meant separating two flights by at least 15-minutes time (based on pilot reported and estimated times). Once radar was introduced, controllers could start to ‘see’ the picture, and they began applying a 5-mile separation standard. As radar became more precise and reliable, separation standards were gradually reduced to even less than 3-miles.

As a rule of thumb, when today’s commercial aircraft are in sequence to use the same runway (for takeoff or for landing), they need to be roughly one minute apart. Today’s controllers have an extraordinary array of tools that enable them to reduce most air traffic situations into a string of speed-matched flights. This is true for the pilots, too, who have much better control via advancements in flight automation systems.

Although we hear stories about how incredibly primitive U.S. ATC technologies are, those stories are bunk. The real purpose of those stories is two-fold: they serve to maximize the funding of new technologies (which translates to billions paid each year to the industry), and they serve to elevate pay for controllers and all others at FAA. ATC automation has made huge progress beyond the early radar presentations of the 1960’s, when midair collisions peaked.* Today, computer sophistication allows the controller to place a precise ‘bubble’ (typically a 3-mile ring) around the radar target – and it allows the computer to alert the controller in advance of a projected loss of separation. There are also technologies that warn pilots to avoid*For the record, midairs peaked with the rapid growth of commercial jet service, starting around 1960. It took FAA a full decade to recognize and finally correct the problem, with new airspace and speed rules. collision – and these technologies have been effective for nearly four decades (TCAS was the major technical fix created in response to the rash of 1960’s midair collisions).

In the NextGen concept, digital technology is essentially being applied to tightly model flights, with so much time precision that the computers end up doing the separation. In other words, NextGen transitions the role of the air traffic controller away from active control, and makes him or her more of a ‘systems monitor’. This is a main reason why NATCA was initially opposed to FAA’s NextGen.

In the present system (as we start to implement NextGen), when controllers work arrival and departure flows, they often use vectors (assigned headings) to fan out flights, producing a more random distribution over a larger area. More people encounter noise impacts, but the impacts are shared, and tend not to be intense and repetitive. With NextGen, this will change. The key change in NextGen is to create very precise routes, which are designed with minimal lateral separation. Because the objective is to condense all of the fanned traffic into those defined routes, residents under those thin routes WILL SEE HUGE INCREASES in air traffic, and it will be intense and repetitive.

This problem has been reported recently in news stories out of Seattle, Boston, New York City (and who knows how many other cities), and now this problem is being accurately defined in Minnesota. But, FAA and others choose to ignore it. Instead, they cheer-lead for more NextGen spending. Nobody holds them accountable when they throw out figures that claim huge fuel savings, all the while ‘greenwashing’ NextGen to be environment-friendly … which it is not.

Do We Even Need NextGen?

Nearly everyone continues to look past an important fact: the number of commercial aviation operations has been steadily declining for roughly a decade. As such, there is no pressing ‘need’ to deploy NextGen. And, in fact, we could dramatically reduce the number of flights, if we managed this system so as to get the airlines to use larger aircraft with reduced flight frequencies. For example, today there will be approximately 30 flights from PDX to Seattle on small commuter aircraft. This is a frequency of roughly one flight every thirty minutes, and similar to the frequency flown between many busy city-pairs (JFK–Boston, SFO–LAX, ATL–DFW, etc.). These high-frequency flights create congestion and delays and relentless impacts on airport neighbors. Does FAA even know (or care?) how many of these are hauling passengers to/from a hub airport, when that passenger might be better served with more direct flights to real (non-hub) destinations?

Clearly, the same technologies that give us a decade of mega-investment into NextGen can also be used far more effectively to re-frame the entire air traffic system to become smarter and more efficient. Why do we still rely so heavily on the massive hub-and-spoke system, which requires passengers to make hub stops enroute, sometimes far off the direct route (e.g., Portland to Boston via DFW or Atlanta)? Why not use this same incredible number-crunching capacity to start to fully manage the larger system, to design the number of direct flights each day to fit real passenger demand for that city-pair? Should we start to recognize that U.S. airline deregulation is failing, and that the hub-and-spoke system is only intensifying aviation’s impact on CO2?

If we want to, we can have a far more efficient system, based primarily on direct-flights. And, it would be much better for the environment we need to preserve for our grandchildren.