The Third Head of the NextGen Hydra: How FAA is Jamming Arrivals Closer Together

Three months ago, the ‘Dissecting NextGen’ presentation was made in Des Moines, to help people better understand the impacts of NextGen around Sea-Tac International Airport [KSEA]. Included within that presentation was discussion of ‘Hub Concentration’ and ‘Route Concentration’, as two of the main changes that are causing NextGen impacts. Well, continued research in the past months has revealed a third head to this monster: efforts by FAA to alter rules, to reduce spacing between arrivals, even setting up side-by-side arrivals to closely-spaced parallel runways.

FAA is using two main strategies to reduce arrival spacing:

  • Wake Recat: short for ‘wake recategorization’, this is the reduction of minimum safe distances behind larger aircraft that create wakes. Without getting into too much detail, a series of fatal accidents decades ago forced FAA to impose longer distances between successive flights on the same route, called ‘wake turbulence separation’. But, in time, with pressure to remove capacity limitations, the rules are being modified to shorter distances.
  • Simultaneous Dependent Approaches to Closely Spaced Parallel Runways (CSPR): many of the main hub airports rely on use of parallel runways that are spaced even less than half a mile apart. ATC can accommodate a lot of flights on/off parallel runways, primarily by using one runway to land and the other to takeoff. But, when weather deteriorates, especially if visibility is reduced or the ceiling (altitude of lowest cloud layer) gets to be too low, capacity plummets. So, FAA has been working with airlines to develop new ATC procedures that allow flights to be spaced much closer together when set up for landing on two or more parallel runways. [click here to view archived copies showing the evolution of FAA Order JO7110.308B since 2008]

What’s Bugging People?

Although most airports continue to be far below historic traffic levels, there are a dozen or so main hub airports where the ‘Final Four’ airlines (American, Delta, Southwest and United) schedule excessively. These are the airports where people are upset. They are seeing more flights, and they are seeing/hearing flights that are lower, often slower, seemingly louder (which is a given, for lower flights), and often turning closer to the airport than ever before. They are also seeing surges of flights — both departures and arrivals, in rapid succession, sometimes even side-by-side. It is scary to some, and deeply disturbing to many. Even retired air traffic controllers cannot believe what they are seeing. It is as if these few airports have acquired a meth or steroid addiction.

Authorities insist nothing has changed, but they are totally wrong. Well, not just wrong: they are lying, and they know it. At these few hub airports (Sea-Tac is the one growing the most in recent years, due to Delta’s 2012 decision to create a new hub), traffic volume is up, especially during the surges that happen in relation to expanded hubbing. But, there are also forces that are pushing arrivals closer to the ground. For example, with wake recat, the key thing to understand about aircraft wakes is they descend; i.e., the hazard that can flip a smaller airplane slowly drifts downward toward the ground, so ATC works hard to keep the trailing aircraft at least slightly above the leading aircraft. But, if ATC is trying to bring both aircraft in to land, on parallel runways, than ATC needs to push the lead aircraft down lower ASAP. Why? Because, if the lead aircraft is not descended low enough, the trailing aircraft will end up too high, unable to finish the approach. This results in a go-around, which carries higher risks and makes both flight crews and ATC do a lot more work.

An Example: A 13-hr Arrival Stream to Runways 4L & 4R at Boston

Boston offers an example of how badly communities are being impacted. Here, we have densely populated communities and a dominant regional airport, [KBOS], that effectively monopolizes commercial aviation.  Three airlines schedule excessively at KBOS: JetBlue, American, and Delta. JetBlue is the dominant hub airline with a schedule that generates a large number of through-passengers (thus imposing much larger impacts on the area, to accommodate the added flights).

To gain airline support for NextGen, or at least to ensure the airlines will not oppose NextGen (which would kill FAA’s chances of getting Congressional funding), FAA has sold out on their responsibilities to protect communities and the environment. FAA has apparently told the airlines that they can expect increased runway throughput, which FAA will achieve by abolishing all noise mitigation procedures and creating new flight procedures that turn lower and as close as possible to the runways. NextGen is being used as a decoy or cover; by claiming NextGen is all new and fancy, FAA tricks everyone – including Congress – into not noticing that what is REALLY happening is simply the wholesale abandonment of FAA’s past responsibilities to protect the environment and community health. And, by the way, NextGen is NOT all new and fancy; most of it has existed and been used for decades; the alleged benefits are just a fraudulent sales pitch.

Clearly, when you study what FAA has imposed at ALL NextGen airports, the game plan is to maximize runway throughput. This accommodates the ideal all airlines want: unrestricted scheduling to tweak profits higher using expanded hub operations. So, with this in mind, at an airport like Boston, FAA focuses on using the combination of runways with the highest capacity per hour, which at Boston is to have arrivals land on the parallel runways 4L and 4R. Just like happens when new freeway lanes are added, the airlines are quick to eat up the increased capacity; supply defines and expands demand. At Boston, FAA is now heavily relying on 4R and 4L to ‘accommodate’ the expansion by JetBlue, Delta and American. So much for quality of life under the intensified approach corridor. Milton does not really need to get sleep, do they???

A recent 13-hr arrival stream to Boston’s 4L and 4R

And, of course, FAA applies the same strategy at all airports where airlines want to expand hub-related profits: they use runway combinations that maximize capacity, even if wind and other factors might argue against these decisions. It’s called ‘choosing runways to traffic’, and it’s a way to be overly accommodative to airlines.

The result is streaming arrivals: nearly nonstop impacts on the ground, one arrival after another after another, sometimes even paired arrivals that are nearly side-by-side. As shown in this table, summarizing arrivals per hour on the intensified approaches to Boston’s runway 4L and 4R, the impact is relentless. Note the busiest hours are non-stop, averaging as little as 1.2-minutes between flights. [click here to view the entire stream in a data table]

And, adding insult to injury, when people notice and ask what has changed, both FAA and the airport authority (Massport, in this example) play with them: they say nothing has changed.

How Do We Kill This Monster?

FAA is simply out of control. And, Congress is doing squat to correct this problem. We need leaders in Congress to:

  1. demand that FAA serve the people ahead of the corporations, and this requires an emphasis on both transparency and accountability;
  2. demand that FAA cease spending our money to propagandize for the industry; this regulatory capture has gone on far too long;
  3. pass legislation that strongly disincentivizes airline hubbing – one of the simplest changes would be to formulate a new set of fees and taxes, the heart of which should be a very steep aviation fuel tax;
  4. and, pass legislation that restores local control, so that local communities have a real voice, and can impose reasonable curfews and capacity limits, and can say ‘NO!’ to airport over-expansion.