May 3, 2013
In the U.S. we have a federal Highway Trust Fund that takes money collected from fuel taxes and uses it for road improvements. And people are pretty comfortable with that. Every time you fill up with gas, 18.3 cents per gallon (or 24.4 cents for diesel) goes into the fund. Once the trust fund began to accumulate serious money, the temptation to raid it for other agendas became irresistible, so now it pays for mass transit and other stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with roads and bridges.
Partly because there are more highway drivers than users of the nation’s airspace, nobody’s objecting so far to a move by government to very quietly steal money from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund to pay for air traffic controllers’ salaries and avoid furloughs brought on by the recent sequester of federal funds. In fact, the relief at the fact that furloughs are being cancelled seems to have completely fogged the vision of those who would ordinarily be most alert to this kind of money grab.
The AATF is supposed to pay for improvements to airports and airways, to make both safer. The original intention of legislators was to create a mechanism to pay for needed improvements in such areas as navigation aids and airports. A ticket tax, fuel tax, and other excise taxes would provide for greater revenues as usage rose. For years, government officials looking for ways to patch over budget shortfalls have tried to tap the fund to pay for operations, which was not the intent of the law.
But furloughs and flight delays, regardless of the arguments over whether they are necessary or justified, have one clear result: they inconvenience people. Principles tend to go out the window when people can’t get where they want, when they want to get there. And these days, a short-term Band-Aid often looks better to politicians than a long-term solution that requires negotiation and compromise.
March 27, 2013
On March 22, an FAA press release announced the agency’s decision to close 149 control towers following the cutoff of funding more commonly known as “sequestration.” Outgoing transportation secretary Ray LaHood said the selection of towers for closing — all of them operating under contract — involved “tough decisions.” But in the aftermath of the announcement, there’s been little information about what effect the closings will have on flight operations.
Airports that have operating towers are designated as “controlled” fields. Those without towers are, simply, “uncontrolled fields.” Typically these are small rural airports, but they range in size from a single runway to former military bases with miles of paving.
FAA employees staff most airports that serve airlines and the traveling public, and those will remain open, although some may close at night when traffic tends to decline. The towers targeted for closing are staffed by non-federal controllers who work for private companies under contract to the FAA. In some cases, airports or local governments fund all or part of such a tower’s operation, and these towers too should be relatively unaffected.
How much of an effect will the closures have? Pilots of all stripes already follow established procedures for flying into uncontrolled fields. These procedures are spelled out in the Aeronautical Information Manual (formerly the Airman’s Information Manual) and are usually learned in the first few days of flight training, when the student pilot practices pattern flying and landings. If a tower is closed, inbound pilots would still tune in the tower frequency, transmit their position and intention to land, then follow that with continuing updates of position in the landing pattern; example: “States Air 43 is downwind for runway two-two, Metro Regional [Airport].”
At uncontrolled fields, pilots use a designated frequency — commonly called “Unicom” — to transmit advisories and monitor other nearby flights. An FAA spokesperson confirms that these established procedures will continue unchanged if the tower closures proceed with the first phase on April 7; the third and final phase is in May. Many airports are equipped with automatic weather monitoring and repeating transmissions that give pilots current conditions, and some also allow a pilot to illuminate the runway lights by keying the radio mike a set number of times.
Flight service facilities known as fixed base operators at some small airports voluntarily monitor Unicom and may even reply to incoming pilots with information about other aircraft known to be in the area. There are no plans to expand this service to actually control a field with a closed tower, however, probably due to questions about liability.
To sum up, the traveling public and operators of general aviation aircraft should notice little impact if the closures take effect. Pilots value the additional level of safety that tower controllers provide, but most will exercise additional caution and make good use of their radios.
January 15, 2013
The people who manage airline companies are torn between two opposing ideas, both driven by cost concerns: having the very latest technologies in their aircraft, on the one hand, and sticking with the time-tested and proven on the other. If you don’t think airlines are a capital-heavy industry, just take a look at what’s parked on the ramp at any terminal airport. Even at a smaller regional airport, the airplanes and hardware have a total value in the millions. And that’s where the cost concerns come from. It takes a steady stream of revenue from passenger and freight operations to service the debt on all that stuff.
When fares were regulated, the numbers were stable and predictable, but deregulation arrived in 1978. Before that, airlines marketed mainly on their images as reliable or glamorous — or even hip (Braniff’s “the end of the plain plane”). With competition, the only marketing tool an airline had was the price of a ticket, and fares fell. Throughout the 80s, 90s — and even into the new century — major airline companies collapsed by the dozens, leaving merged giants that dominated in certain regions to survive.
Price competition will inevitably drive cost cutting, and airlines have turned to the suppliers of their aircraft for help. The manufacturers have to attack not the list price of the aircraft but the life-cycle cost of the airplane’s operation, which will total many times its purchase price by the time it is retired from service.
So when Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner makes headlines because of an equipment bay fire, as it has recently, it should hardly be surprising. In order to produce an airplane that would save its customers on the order of 20 percent in cost of operation, the company had to turn to completely new technologies in materials, propulsion and electronics. When you promise that kind of savings to a customer, you do one thing: you reduce the airplane’s weight. Which helps to explain why the 787 has a completely new type of battery that uses lithium instead of lead and acid or nickel-cadmium in an electrochemical closed system that produces a direct-current voltage. The battery is lighter, and it’s the same type that invaded the laptop computer market for the same reason — and occasionally with the same result: Sony made some laptop batteries back in 2006 that overheated and had to be recalled. There’s little difference between what happened to some unlucky laptops and what occurred in the battery of a 787 parked at Boston.
Airlines and their suppliers expect some birthing problems when any new type enters service. If there are new technologies aboard, those problems are almost guaranteed. The Boeing 747 had new large-fan engines, and after some time in service, their internal housings distorted from perfect circles to ovals, causing catastrophic wear. For a time, Pan Am’s global fleet carried spare engines in pods that were added near the fuselages of the jumbos. The airborne “pool” of replacements minimized the schedule delays when an airliner went out of service.
The introduction of so many new technologies at once in the 787 is almost unprecedented, and prospective passengers can take comfort in the fact that the problems have everyone’s attention. After all, these changes have the ultimate goal of keeping the price of a ticket low.
November 13, 2012
There was a time when a trip of more than 300 miles had you reaching for the Official Airline Guide (remember those?) for the winged alternative to driving, but times have changed. The high fares and the hassle of airline travel have conspired to move more folks onto the roads and out of the airways.
How do I know this? I don’t. But I drive a lot in my travels, and I see a lot of license plates from faraway places. I’ve also noticed that traffic moves along at about 75 to 80 mph on roads that are posted for speeds that would have had my mom screaming for my father to slow down. And it’s amazing how fast you cover ground on the Interstates.
Having been through the air-travel crunch one too many times, including nights on airport floors when they cancel flights and there are no hotel vouchers (or hotel rooms), I’m now an inveterate driver.
Look at the advantages of driving: You get to take along as much as your car can hold — and there’s no additional fee. You can even pack a nice lunch to savor at a rest stop along the highway. Instead of high anxiety and stress during security check-ins, you’re cocooned in a capsule served by a high-end stereo and all your favorite music. If you’re like me, you look at what you’ve saved in air fares and spend it instead on an overnight stop at a hotel (I’m partial to Hampton Inns and their free breakfast). And you get to see the country–which is absolutely beautiful–close up.
Mind you, if I absolutely, positively had to be there for something on the West Coast, I’d swallow hard and buy a ticket, but a trip of 1,000 miles on the road is no longer out of the question.
August 1, 2012
Right after September 11, 2001, when terrorists used the U.S. airlines to achieve their ends, the creation of a government entity responsible for securing air travel seemed right and prudent. In the aftermath of the attack, a new cabinet-level department (Homeland Security) was created that incorporated numerous agencies, some of which had already existed. The Transportation Security Administration was entirely new, an entity created solely in response to 9/11.
The TSA would ensure that aircraft, ramps and boarding areas would be screened to be free of devices or substances (and, it was hoped, people) that could cause harm. At the same time, the sky marshal program, originally launched under President Richard Nixon, was resurrected to place armed undercover federal officers aboard random flights — the theory being that if someone managed to get past the TSA, the airplane cabin would be covered. Some airline pilots were trained and armed, but cockpit entrances were reinforced to bar entry, which was the first line of defense for the front office.
A lot of people probably thought at the time that these measures would be temporary. After all, the original sky marshals were disbanded in 1973, only to be revived again later, and largely forgotten again even later than that. We got used to that on-again, off-again pattern, and figured that, you know, let 10 or 15 years slide by without any incidents, and the TSA would slowly fade away, just as before.
Only now it’s looking like what you see is what you’re gonna get — forever. Yes, forever is a long time, but currently, if one looks for a rationale that might allow the money and resources consumed by air security to be spent on something else, it’s hard to make the argument. In a way, the decision to give the federal government sole responsibility for secure air travel was a line which, once crossed, couldn’t be traversed again.
It’s not just that a huge bureaucracy has been created — it has — and that once created, bureaucracies endure — they do — it’s the simple logic that abandoning air security and re-opening air travel to people who would perpetrate violent acts is unthinkable. Why? Because it practically invites anybody who harbors the idea to go ahead and carry it out.
Try to imagine that you’re a member of Congress who thinks it would be good for the country to gradually reduce air security in the name of traveler convenience (I mean, everybody hates the check-in, right?) or cost savings (TSA costs just under $8 billion a year, DHS just under $40 billion). Where would you start to try to sell the idea?
Food for thought. So what do you think?