Operators to ‘share the pain’ in gridlock plan

 - March 22, 2007, 8:27 AM

After meeting with industry representatives over several days in early March, the FAA launched a new ATC plan designed to head
off gridlock by “sharing the pain” around choke points such as New York, Chicago and Atlanta.

A basic tenet of the plan is to spread shorter delays around a wider area so that longer delays of 90 minutes or more do not build up at highly congested airports, sending ripples through the entire National Airspace System (NAS).

“These [enforced delays] are not silver bullets,” cautioned FAA Administrator Marion Blakey. “We had to compromise. When demand exceeds capacity the FAA will step in.” These delays will include gate holds and ground stops.

The FAA unveiled the plan during a press briefing at its ATC system command center near Washington Dulles International Airport. Joining Blakey was Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who said this year’s peak summer demand is expected to mark the rebound in passenger travel.

A ‘New Era of Cooperation’ Among Airspace Users
Referring to the early March meeting, Mineta said it inaugurated “a new era of cooperation among users of our NAS.” Included in the sessions were more than 60 participants from the airlines, pilot and employee representatives, aviation associations and other resource organizations. A centerpiece of the new plan will
be the creation of “express lanes,” which the DOT boss said will speed departures as ATC reroutes aircraft around congested, delayed airports.

But when delays at an airport reach 90 minutes, controllers will order less busy, outlying airports to institute ground delays. Thus, when a perennially clogged airport such as La Guardia reaches that delay threshold, other airports in the vicinity– such as business aviation hotspots Teterboro (TEB) and Westchester County (HPN)–will be told to accept a ground hold.

If the system works as advertised, at some point traffic would be held or slowed at busy airports (Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark) to allow an airport such as Teterboro to “flush” its delayed aircraft.

The idea of an “express lane” was proposed by NBAA as an alternative to what could be likened to an HOV lane for a highway. Instead of having aircraft remain on the ground in South Florida because of congestion in New York, aircraft bound for other destinations in the Northeast could be routed around the area entirely.

Bob Blouin, NBAA senior v-p of operations, and Bob Lamond, NBAA director of air traffic services and infrastructure, suggested “express lanes” as an alternative to airline proposals to give priority to aircraft with the largest number of passengers. In theory, clearance to fly an express lane is not supposed to be determined by the FAR part under which the aircraft is operating. Other criteria in lieu of occupancy could be aircraft equipage, such as Rnav routing and RNP.

Lamond explained that “express lanes” are really Swap (severe weather action plan) routes, developed as part of a daily “playbook” molded by weather and traffic forecasts.

A third prong in the plan is for the airlines and other NAS users to file flight plans in enough time to allow better airspace planning and by eliminating “first come, first served” when congestion develops. With more current data, the FAA said it can improve ATC capacity. The airlines have agreed to do this, and are already working together to reduce the numbers and scheduling of flights. Mineta said the agreement is similar to one reached by American Airlines and United Airlines at Chicago O’Hare several weeks ago.

Reducing the Gridlock
“As the economy improves and passengers return to our skies, the federal government is acting to reduce the gridlock we saw before 9/11,” said Mineta. “These new tools for managing congestion in bad weather and during peak travel periods demonstrate a new era of cooperation between the federal government and all users of the system to improve customer service and maintain a strong aviation industry.”

The majority of aviation delays are caused by weather, he said, and managing these delays is particularly challenging during the spring and summer months. But unlike past summers, when weather-delayed airplanes at congested airports waited to be scheduled into the normal air traffic flow, the FAA said this new “system operating plan” will help it adjust aircraft routes throughout the airspace system and hold airplanes “briefly” on the ground to act as a decongestant for vital air traffic routes.

Mineta said the plan also includes combining–for the first time– Canadian and FAA weather radar to provide more accurate and current information that permits faster aircraft rerouting. And the collaborative convective forecast product (CCFP), developed jointly by the National Weather Service and the airlines, will also improve aircraft rerouting and planning in advance of disruptive weather.