Hoping to stave off aviation gridlock this summer, the FAA last month summoned 60 participants from major and regional airlines, pilot and employee representatives, industry associations and other organizations to develop a strategy to reduce system delays.
“From my perch at the FAA command center, I’m girding for another round of significant delays this summer,” warned Jack Kies, director of system operations at the FAA’s Air Traffic System Command Center. “I believe we’re facing a crisis, unless Mother Nature is forgiving to us.”
The FAA called the brainstorming session in Northern Virginia “Growth without Gridlock,” and said air travel is predicted to rebound and possibly return to the congested levels of four years ago. Severe weather expected this summer, combined with renewed public confidence in air travel, suggests that delays could peak without a quick and effective solution.
While exploring the past and present, the agency said, participants came to the realization that they are all part of an interdependent system, in which actions in one area have consequences for users in other parts of the system. They also acknowledged that the upcoming summer is likely to confront customers with significant congestion and subsequent delays if the current mode of independent decision-making and action continues as it has in the past.
“We’ve got to make decisions today to manage our way out of this rapidly growing situation,” said FAA Air Traffic Organization (ATO) COO Russell Chew. And while the discussion ranged from candid to contentious, the FAA said participants reached common ground when they agreed that everyone must share the load within the system.
In the near term, the agency will use a new “system access plan.” This means that when airport taxi-out times of 90 minutes or more are experienced anywhere in the country, airlines will use alternative routes and accept delays elsewhere. They will handle system delays like “virtual” thunderstorms, a method used to relieve significant backups during real weather-related delays.
The FAA contended that should help reduce the long airport waits that are most distressing to passengers. In return, the FAA vowed to do its best to keep individual delays throughout the NAS to less than 90 minutes. But some general aviation interests were unhappy with a plan for designated express routes to move aircraft out of and around congested areas, fearing it would be tilted in favor of the airlines.
The airlines agreed to try to improve data integrity in the flight-schedule monitor system used to plan their daily flight schedules. By improving the data, both the FAA and the airlines will have a better understanding of the existing airspace capacity.
The entire group will also make improvements to other existing flight-management tools and software. They also found common ground on several long-term strategies that will require more future discussions.
“We can use the knowledge of how many trips are taken and where they are within the system to better plan improvements to the [National Airspace System] infrastructure,” said Chew. “Given the FAA’s expected revenue over the next several years, improvements must focus on a limited number of things we can achieve.”
Participants committed themselves and the organizations they represent to the implementation of several common-ground action steps.
“We represent such a broad customer base,” said Peter Challan, v-p of ATO transition, “yet we were able to find some common ground for doing things differently and developing an action plan that can work.”
But looking ahead, the agency said, it also came to understand that demand continues to exceed capacity, and that the interventions that have been used over the past 30 years will no longer suffice to address the challenges the industry will be facing over the next 30 years.
Chew used charts to explain how costs are expected to exceed aviation trust-fund revenues over the next several years. Since the FAA is financed partly by the trust fund, airlines’ operating decisions affect the FAA’s future revenues and costs.