Monday, October 01, 2007

Battle of the Airways: How to Fix the FAA

Ladies and gentlemen! Your attention please! The Battle of the Airways is about to begin!

In this corner, we have The System. Hailed as a marvel of modern engineering when he debuted in the 1960s, The System has seen better days. Last week (Sept. 25, to be exact), he suffered a defeat at the hands of a failure in a telephone switch in Memphis, Tennessee. The scene was fantastic: air traffic controllers desperately punching numbers into their personal cellphones to call their cohorts in adjacent airspace control centers, because their radios went out and a good number of radar screens went blank, too. All flights were grounded within a 250-mile radius of Memphis, and it took the rest of the day for air traffic on the Eastern Seaboard to get back to what we call normal these days.

In this corner, we have ATA, the Air Transport Association. This airline trade association is ready to come out swinging, because they pay nearly all the taxes and fees that go to support The System. But a one-engine plane flying from Astabula, Ohio to a landing strip in an Iowa corn field takes as much or more resources from The System as a 747 pilot carrying over a hundred passengers, while paying hardly anything compared to the commercial flight.

In this corner, we have NATCA, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. They're ready to punch somebody out before it's too late, because they've slimmed down way below weight—they've lost 10% of their numbers since 9/11/01, but air traffic's increased since then. NATCA, like The System its members operate, is getting older, smaller, and more poorly paid every day, if you believe what it tells you. And why would a fighter lie about a thing like that?

And last but not least, in this corner, we have John Q. Flying Public. Bigger than ever (individually and collectively), he's not happy about sitting in planes for hours on end and having flights canceled. Something's not right, he's pretty sure of that, but he doesn't even know who to go beat up on to fix the problem.

Waiting in the wings are the referees and the bookmakers: POTUS and Congress making the rules, and politicians and lobbyists betting on the outcome (metaphorically, we hope). The once-a-decade renewal of the FAA funding law that expired on Sept. 30, 2007 is a great opportunity for all the fighters to show their stuff. The only question is, who'll be the last man standing?

. . . Fighting is not a generally recognized way to solve complex technical disputes, but it looks like that may be how the FAA gets fixed—or doesn't, as the case may be. It may not have been a coincidence that in one week, we had a serious communications breakdown in the Memphis regional air traffic center, a Presidential statement about how the airlines had better get their act together or else, and the expiration of the current funding system for the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA.

The technical problems are pretty clear. The present system was designed when the only way to track air traffic efficiently was with centralized radar systems that treated a 707 or a flock of birds the same way: a passive microwave-reflecting object. Identification, location, and tracking were all done either by hand or eventually by computer, but the ultimate channel through which information passed was the human air traffic controller.

That system worked great through the 70s and 80s, but as traffic has increased and newer technologies such as satellite-enabled global positioning systems (GPS) have become available, the old way of doing things has become increasingly cumbersome, unreliable, and even dangerous. Near-misses in the air are not an uncommon occurrence, and it was only by quick action on the part of already over-stressed air traffic controllers that the Memphis breakdown didn't result in a major tragedy.

Okay, we need to replace the system with a satellite-GPS-based automated one. Who's going to pay? Presently, most of the money that pays for the FAA's technology and staff (in good years, anyway) comes from ticket taxes, fees, and other sources which have little directly to do with the workload that each user represents. The Air Transport Association points out that the FAA is basically a utility, and like a water or electric company, most utilities should charge by the amount of services provided. But this is not what happens. As a result, the disconnect between funding sources and funding needs has given rise to a typical situation that often develops in government-provided services: lack of infrastructure investment and long-term planning.

How to fix it? Well, there's the good, sensible way—and the other way. The good, sensible way is for all parties involved—folks from all five or seven corners of our boxing ring, however many there are—to sit down, look at the system's needs for the next twenty years or so, figure out a big road map of how to get from here to there, and then find the money and resources to do it. This kind of thing happens all the time in private industry—the semiconductor industry, for example, has hewed closely to a roadmap of theirs that basically insures that Moore's "Law" keeps running year after year, and integrated circuits keep getting more and more complex. Airplanes aren't computer chips, but I'm talking about a planning process, not a technology.

That's the good way. The other way is to wait for a super-Memphis: something like the entire system freezing up and planes falling out of the sky, or flight delays all over the country that take a solid week to straighten out, or something equally as damaging to the airline industry as 9/11. It is my fond wish that something like this does not happen, and that the parties involved will get together and fix the problem the good way. But in a democracy, sometimes it takes a crisis to knock everybody's heads together enough to overcome differences and get things done.

Sources: A report on the Memphis breakdown can be found at the CNN website A report of President Bush's comments on Sept. 27 about the airline industry is at The Air Transport Association explains its view of FAA funding at, and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association explain some of their troubles at

No comments:

Post a Comment