Monday Update – March 19, 2019

The Air Traffic Control Mirage

August, 1994.

Congressional hearings were held regarding the challenges facing the nation’s air traffic control system.

They were prompted by a study issued by what are now Boyd Group International and the ATH Group – Free Flight – which outlined how such a system could be implemented safely, using existing technology, materially increasing air transportation efficiency.

The FAA was there in full force to defend its stellar record of botched ATC upgrade programs, replete with impressive video demonstrations of their great progress and planning – not to mention the expectation that a new ATC system would be in place by year 2000.

Right. That was a quarter of a century ago.

Today the FAA is saying several more years before the system will be completely ready.

Wow Them With Technology… Skip The Track Record. The amazing part of this is that the FAA still has credibility in regard to ATC modernization.

They have friends in the media. A couple times a year, there’s usually a big article in some paper or outlet, about how the FAA’s NextGen program is moving our air transportation system into the future. They outline all the supposed alphabet-soup whiz-bang systems, and typically rely on the public to accept that it’s going to be satellite-based, instead of radar-based.

‘Course, what that by itself actually means in regard to improving efficiency isn’t mentioned.

It’s a simple PR approach. Some journalist gets invited to the FAA’s facilities, and, voila!, walks out with all the latest glowing news about how the agency is fighting hard to deal with all burgeoning increase in flight volumes across the nation. The reporter has the true skinny, no further information or fact-checking is needed. He’s now a mouthpiece for the FAA.

And not a scintilla of any attempt to check the source, which historically is about as reliable as Baghdad Bob on a bad news day.

Here are a couple of facts to consider:

Point: NextGen is a multi-decade re-named wallow in shifting goals, changing deadlines, and more delays than the Italian railroad system. Any journalist covering the program should be ashamed if this track record is not included in the coverage. It usually is left out, and if not, it’s whitewashed with the nonsense that it’s been lack of consistent funding that’s been the cause.

This despite GAO report after GAO report pointing to failures at the FAA – and not primarily funding – as the cause. Naturally, that’s background that is usually not pursued.

Point: The rate of airline flights arriving off-schedule has not materially improved, even in light of billions spent on NextGen. Understand – they are more than just “delayed” – because airlines already plan their schedules based on the limitations of the ATC system to start with. In effect, most flights are “delayed” from the schedule they could attain if the ATC system was properly modernized.

Point: And, the usual fodder in these stories – that air traffic is growing – is a key part of the nonsense. Reporters may compare 2017 to 2018, but what they leave out  is that US airlines today are still operating 1.2 million fewer annual departures than in 2007. Figure about 3,300 fewer flights to manage each day.

That’s about 12% less, and even in light of all the money and hype around NextGen, the rate of off-schedule flights hasn’t markedly improved.

This is the real message regarding the FAA’s perpetually delayed yet always on-schedule “NextGen” program.

Sure, lots of new equipment is in use. Lots of planned upgrades coming. But no accountability for real results – improving the efficiency of the management of the sky. Sure, the FAA and its media groupies will claim that lots has been done… but don’t question them about the track record of false deadlines and non-results of the FAA over the past 30 years.

Reform? That’s Just Changing The Name on The Door. During the budget debates, there was lots of babble about privatizing – “reforming” – the air traffic control system. The unfortunate part of this was it was engineered to preserve the very non-progress seen currently. All of the “reformistas” swore allegiance to NextGen, instead of demanding results.

Going forward, we can confidently predict that this silly and expensive Kabuki Theater of non-performance will continue. And we can confidently predict, that as long as they are promised access to, and a b-roll session with, the Secretary of Transportation, a lot of the media will continue to be cheerleaders for the NextGen party line.

And consumers will continue to absorb billions in extra air travel expense.

Join Us At The IAFS – And Get A Clear Picture, Without Official Hype.. It’s time the airline industry took back control of their production line. Fire-and-forget departure systems (i.e., let the FAA manage it) departure systems are safe, but woefully inefficient.

To be sure, this is not consistent with accepted consensus thinking… nor with the official Washington party line. And to read some of the drivel being published about NextGen, it’s flat-out heresy. But we deal in facts, not political correctness.

We’ve covered this annually at the International Aviation Forecast Summit – and we can point out that our predictions that the FAA’s programs are not improving on-time metrics have been right on for the last ten years. Other conferences have welcomed FAA officials to come and share the official party line – which educates nobody.

If you are planning for the future, you must question the status-quo. it’s important to understand the past and the emerging trends that will shape aviation. That’s what the IAFS is all about.