Myths and facts enshrouding the FAA’s STMP slot program

 - October 17, 2006, 6:30 AM

“We use the standard slot system like everyone else,” said a NetJets official in response to an AIN inquiry about how the frax operator gets slots under the FAA’s Special Traffic Management Program (STMP). One pilot, when hearing of the response, asked, “What did you expect them to say? ‘We cheat and get all the reservations we want?’”

It has been clear for quite a while that corporate operators have strong feelings about the STMP in general and specifically about how fractional providers and large fleet operators use the system. In an August issue of AINalerts, AIN asked for operators’ response to the following question:

“Special Traffic Management Programs (STMPs) are implemented for special events that attract thousands of people and non-scheduled aircraft to participating airports. The FAA developed the first-come, first-served program to manage the flow of arrivals and departures for these events by requiring users to make arrival and departure reservations to and from select airports. Do you feel STMPs are effective and fair?”

The majority of responses indicated at least a supposition that fractional providers and large fleet operators manipulate the system, and almost no one thought the system was fair.

The FAA says it uses the STMP to control traffic at high-demand venues. Colorado ski country was an early focus. Today, the STMP covers many major events, including the Olympics, Nascar races, pheasant hunting season in South Dakota, Penn State home football games and major airshows.

According to the FAA, it is a long-range strategic initiative designed to balance capacity with demand and operates on a first-come, first-served basis. The primary problem with the system is the very reason the system exists: demand exceeds capacity and there may be thousands of users vying for a limited number of slots. In the case of some of the ski resorts there might be as few as four slots per hour.

Bill Wagner, chief pilot for Townsend Engineering and a past member of NBAA’s board of directors, has also talked to a lot of disgruntled pilots who feel the fractionals are taking advantage of the system.

Wagner told AIN he’s not really sure what to think about how the fractionals are using the system but he understands the concern of smaller operators. “I’ve heard endless stories about the fractionals having dispatchers with speed dial capturing multiple slots at will. There are stories about aircraft settling for off-hour reservations to ski country, because that was the only slot available, only to sit all day without any other aircraft landing.

“And there are stories about the fractionals grabbing multiple slots under one N-number just in case one of the owners wants to go,” he said. “I don’t know if any of these stories are true but I really believe at the very least the FAA should establish a three-point program for STMP: audit, enhance and oversee.

“I talked with NBAA about nine months ago, but it seemed evasive on the subject at the time. I think in reality it may have been gathering information about that time. In any event I think now everyone is doing a good job of monitoring and improving the program, but I really believe the role of NBAA is critical.”

Wagner suggested that NBAA might do a better job of informing its members about its level of engagement on this issue. “It is true it has this on the Web site but the association is probably missing 75 percent of the membership,” he said. “It should be talking about this during Reachbac and at the conventions.” The FAA will be giving a presentation on STMP from 10 a.m. to noon, Friday, November 11 at the NBAA Convention in Orange County Orlando Convention Center Room S-320GH.

Stakeholder Input

James Buckner, business development manager for Honeywell’s global data center, in 2002 and 2003 was an industry leader for the CDM STMP work group. Jeff Evans, a regional service specialist also at Honeywell, followed Buckner in the position. Honeywell has underwritten 20 percent of their time to support the committee.

Buckner and Evans explained the FAA’s collaborated decision-making work group (CDM), consisting of representatives from the FAA, the military, airlines and the general aviation community. “Better information leads to better decisions on operating in the national airspace,” Buckner said. “CDMs are information-sharing groups. New ideas generated by those who use the system are presented in a formal way within the various work groups to make suggestions to the FAA.”

The FAA has established a number of work groups based on specific aspects of the national airspace, including a domestic RVSM group, an air traffic group and the STMP group. According to Buckner, the STMP group was formed in October 2002 and meets three or four times a year to make recommendations to the FAA.

Evans explained that STMP Internet access was introduced about four years ago to add more flexibility to the system than calling the airport reservation office at the FAA Command Center or using the automated telephone system provided.

Garth Collins, director of operations for Aero Charter of Chesterfield, Mo., recalled how in anticipation of heavy competition for a reservation he opened several browser windows simultaneously. “I was online ready to apply for a slot right at the exact moment. I had several browser windows with all the data filled out and ready to send,” he said.

“As the hour approached and I sent the first request, the eSTMP system informed me that I was too early. I immediately went to the next window and sent it, same thing. Third try the response was ‘sorry, no slots available.’ Only seconds had passed between ‘too early’ and ‘not available.’ How can that happen if the whole thing isn’t a sham?”

Buckner sympathized with the observation and suggested that the perception is due in part, at least, to the failure of the FAA to explain in detail how the system works. “The Denver traffic management unit makes the call on how many slots to open for a given airport based on historical data and the forecast weather. At the exact moment the slots are to be made available, they begin releasing reservations into the system.

“What people don’t understand is that due to technical limitations the traffic management unit never dumps all the slots into the system at the same time. They are downloaded in small groups, so it takes several minutes to download them all. If you call at exactly the correct moment and get a message saying there are no more reservation slots, what you’re not being told is that there may be more coming in the next minute or so. That’s what started the perception of hoarding.”

John Rosa, lead dispatcher for KaiserAir of Oakland, Calif., told AIN the company has four dispatchers to schedule about 20 aircraft. “When the clock strikes zero we all go online simultaneously and there’s nothing available,” he said.

“We’d have to manually phone Denver Center and try to find a slot going into places like Aspen, Vail, Montrose and Rifle. When our crew would get to the airport the ramp would be empty. Obviously some users were grabbing a bunch of slots, not using them and not canceling them. They weren’t even using N-numbers that were available to make a trip. Later on, if they wanted to make the trip they’d just change the N-number to the aircraft they were going to use.” Evans explained that occasionally some slots do open up and it is worth making a call to the phone number designated in the STMP Notam.

Fractionals and the STMP

In most cases crews are convinced the fractionals are responsible for the ills of the system. “They developed software that initiates the second the system opens for reservations and floods it with requests, taking up everything before anyone else gets a chance,” one Gulfstream pilot said bitterly. “You can’t compete with them and it should be illegal.”

Buckner shed some light on Rosa’s belief that fractional providers had developed a type of killer software. “Some large fleet users, including some of the fractionals, do have automated software,” he said. “The first day they put it in use they crashed the FAA server. It was clearly robust and shut down the entire system. The FAA responded the very same day by requiring that automated systems be timed equally to the average time it takes a person to make a reservation on the Web site–about a two- to three-second interval.

“What this means is that using the software does not give the user an upper hand in terms of access. It takes as long to get a reservation using software as it does doing it by hand and, most important, it gives another caller the opportunity to get online and make a reservation. We have observed data being captured by the software at the FAA Command Center Reservations Desk and software absolutely does not provide any greater success in obtaining slots than if you do it by hand.”

“This is democracy and capitalism in action,” said Bob Lamond, NBAA director for air traffic services and infrastructure. “If you have the resources to put 100 people at phones you can do it, or you can write software that emulates 100 people dialing the phone. The important point is that software doesn’t give an unfair advantage to the user other than eliminating the need for human interaction. So, yes, there’s an advantage to having software from a human perspective, but it doesn’t put anyone else at a disadvantage.

“It’s a bad rumor about fractionals dominating the system; however, you have to remember that a fractional provider represents hundreds of owners who choose to pay the provider to take care of these things rather than do it themselves. That’s capitalism.”

Lamond went on to say that operators need to put the entire system into perspective. “If you look at the mountain slots it’s like having a five-pound bag of flour and trying to get 45 pounds of flour into it, and every year we try to put more flour into the same bag. In ski country when the STMP is in effect we have 800 to 1,000 people vying for four slots an hour. No matter how you slice it we’re going to have hundreds of disappointed people every hour. It isn’t anyone’s fault. You can either build a lot more concrete up the side of mountains or level the mountain.”

Toward a More User-friendly STMP

According to Lamond, NBAA has been working with the FAA and the STMP group for three years to try to incorporate technology to free up those 50 percent non-cancellations. “The problem is that the FAA currently has no authority to do anything about non-cancellers, and they recognize that fact,” he said. “We are developing a proposal we will be presenting to the FAA shortly that outlines a program of slot enforcement. That is the one place where the system can be made more efficient.”

This year’s dates for the STMP in ski country are December 14 to January 4, February 16 to 21; March 15 to April 4 and June 29 to July 6 for Aspen and Eagle. “We see the demand for these airports increasing annually and spreading out over the entire year as they also offer such opportunities as golf, mountain biking and other year-round activities,” said Randy Carlson, traffic management officer with the FAA’s Denver Center traffic management unit. “We ran as many aircraft during that period last year as we did over Christmas.

“Generally the weather is pretty good but we want to allow for the eventuality of bad weather, so we’re putting that period under STMP just in case. All in all, we’ve drastically reduced the number of required dates due to the implementation of playbook routes for ski country. We used to implement STMP on Thanksgiving weekend.”

The FAA is now asking operators to use the playbooks (routes precoordinated by the FAA) to enhance the flow of traffic. For example, if you’re coming from the Northeast the playbook might instruct you to enter a waypoint somewhere around the Chicago area to follow a specified route into ski country. Playbooks can be found at www.fly.faa.gov.

Last year the system began allowing operators to select a secondary airport on the initial reservation. If you chose Aspen, for example, you could stipulate that if it wasn’t available you wanted Rifle instead. According to Carlson, that helped significantly reduce the interactions operators had to make with the system to get a single reservation. Another change that helped operators was the end of the 24-hour system that opened slots exactly 24 hours before the proposed landing time.

“We were seeing 5,000 hits to the server in the first 30 seconds with only 400 or so slots available,” he said. “The enhancements of moving it out to the 72-hour mark and allowing a secondary airport have spread things out a bit, making it a little less hectic.”

Another area of misunderstanding relates to the graphic presentation of slot availability. Operators were going online, and when looking at available slots they would see that some slots had apparently already been allocated before the 72-hour mark. The rumor quickly spread that some operators were getting reservations in advance. “That’s simply not the case,” Carlson asserted.

“Unfortunately, operators weren’t being told how the system works and it gave the appearance of favoritism,” he explained. “In reality, Denver Center was merely adjusting the arrival rate for the airport based on up-to-the-minute weather forecasts and other factors that might indicate a reduction in the allowable volume. What was happening was that the FAA was closing some of the slots; unfortunately, it visually appeared the same way it would if an operator had taken the slot. It was nothing more than a misunderstanding of how the system works.”

The STMP group is constantly reviewing the ski country situation and offering recommendations to the FAA. “This year there will also be a second step in the reservation process. Between 24 hours and eight hours before departure you will have to go back into the reservation system and confirm you are going to use it.

“In the past the reservation number didn’t really indicate anything so we’ve changed the system. Now at Aspen, for example, the code would be something like ASE then a four-digit time code when you will arrive, plus or minus 10 minutes, followed by a five-digit random code,” Evans explained. “Then, when you reconfirm, you will be given three additional characters on the end of your reservation number. It will be the letter ‘C’ (confirmed) and two random numbers.”

If an operator does not call to reconfirm by 7 hours and 59 minutes before the landing time, the reservation will automatically cancel and be open to the public.”

Another improvement this year is the installation of new servers in the FAA Command Center. They provide a larger bandwidth, allowing a higher user rate per minute and a reduced failure rate. The system will also prevent duplicate reservations. A given N-number will not be allowed more than one reservation within a window of plus or minus 30 minutes. It will also ask for identification information–something that has not been required in the past–so FAA personnel will be able to contact an operator if there are any questions.

Evans said plans are already being made for the 2005-06 season. “Funds permitting, we’re looking at tying the FAA electronic traffic management system computer into the STMP reservation system. It would then automatically check at the appropriate time to see if you’ve filed a flight plan for the reservation airport.

“If not, it will automatically cancel your reservation. Currently if you don’t physically go in and confirm your reservation it will cancel, but if we can add this option you won’t have to call in to reconfirm; just file your flight plan. It will make the system easier to use for pilots and more effective at purging reservations that won’t be used.”

Evans emphasized that the STMP group is independent of both the FAA and special interests. “Our group is composed of two members from each of the following: Part 91 operators, Part 135 operators, flight plan service providers, fractional operators, Part 121 operators, the FAA, a representative of NBAA and a few other groups,” he said. “I know what everyone thinks, but you have to remember the fractionals just have a lot of recognizable aircraft.”

Evans went on to say it has been his experience that fractionals have been compliant about slot reservations by explaining to the owners about the STMP process and telling them they must know their intentions at least 72 hours in advance. “NetJets, for example, will submit a schedule that matches its reservations with a physical trip usually 48 hours before the trip date and send it directly to FAA. They do that voluntarily,” Evans said.

“There is no formal process to do that, since this is essentially an honor system, though we do now have a formal process for verifying questionable reservations such as duplicates. Despite all the rumors, any given fractional aircraft does not have an advantage over anyone else.”

Analyze This

An analysis of the 2004-2005 Denver Ski Season Special Traffic Management Program collected data from two sources– the performance data analysis and reporting systems and the Web interface (www.atc scc.faa.gov/estmp) for the STMP–and told a different story.

Forty-five percent of the total STMP reservations available in ski country between November 2004 and February 2005 went unused, presumably because they were of no use to operators due to the specific hour of availability (either too early or too late) conflicting with operators’ own limitations or restrictions. Of the remaining slots, 25 percent went to “others” (military, freight operators and general aviation aircraft), 19 percent went to the airlines and 11 percent went to fractional operators.

The one legitimate complaint against the system is that during that period 56 percent of the reservations made by fractionals went unused (a total of 324 obtained reservations went unused; Rifle was the lowest, with only 33 percent of all reservations obtained actually being used). However, the fractionals were not the only offenders, since the “other” group failed to use 55 percent of their reservations (a total of 818 obtained reservations went unused; Rifle again was the lowest, with only 24 percent of all reservations obtained actually being used).