Operations and Maintenance Forum: Avoiding Another ‘Summer From Hell’

 - October 9, 2007, 5:34 AM

The operations and maintenance forum on the second day of the RAA convention crossed a broad range of subjects, from a discussion of the FAA’s operational evolution plan (OEP) and line operational safety audits (LOSA) to an overview of the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) and an update on retrofit requirements for reinforced cockpit doors.

The session that caught the most attention was that of FAA associate administrator Charlie Keegan.

Keegan is also the director of the agency’s OEP, a project designed to increase the capacity of the National Airspace System over the next decade.

He described NAS capacity as a funnel into which the demands of the nation’s air operators were squeezed by such factors as increasing arrival/departure rates, en route congestion, airport weather conditions and severe en route weather conditions.
Keegan warned that this summer might be another “summer from hell,” not unlike that of 2000, which saw unprecedented flight cancellations and delays and aroused the anger of travelers across the country.

This year, he said, the airline industry is experiencing “the fastest rebound from a national disaster in the last 40 years,” and despite the post-September 11 slump, passenger loads this summer “should be close to those of last year.”
The OEP, explained Keegan, focuses on “increasing capacity, managing delays and maintaining the excellent safety record of the system.” At the same time “it integrates and aligns the agency’s activities with those of the aviation industry and users of the system.”

Keegan cited a number of recent and near-term improvements, including a new runway at Detroit Metropolitan Airport that is expected to increase arrival/departure capacity by 15- to 25 percent; New York terminal choke-point sector changes implemented in December; traffic-management advisors to support arrival metering and merge planning at seven sites (TMAs at Minneapolis have produced a 3-percent capacity gain); and 40 new and overlay routes expected to be operational by September.

To relieve en route congestion, the OEP established 11 choke-point sectors in the Great Lakes corridor. Meanwhile, the user request evaluation tool (URET), which is capable of a strategic view across multiple sectors, is now operational in six air route traffic control centers. Another step in the OEP effort comes in the form of a notice of proposed rulemaking on domestic reduced vertical separation minimums that appeared in the Federal Register last month.

Improvements in limited precision runway monitoring, he explained, would increase arrivals by four or five per hour. At San Francisco International, he said, the use of SOIA (simultaneous offset instrument approach) will increase the arrival rate by 15 operations per hour. Also expected to help pilots deal with deteriorating airport weather conditions, the new integrated terminal weather system production unit will go into operation in Atlanta this summer.

To improve en route weather reporting, Keegan said runway visual range data dissemination via the collaborative decision-making network (CDMnet) is now available for more than 42 airports. In addition, combined convective forecasts are now available on the command center Web site, and the “playbook” has been expanded to 126 plays to provide more options in severe-weather management.
The OEP is critical, concluded Keegan, who noted that the FAA forecasts an annual increase in regional aviation capacity of 6.5 percent through 2013. By then regional aviation is expected to transport 16.6 percent of all passengers in scheduled domestic air service, up from 12.7 percent last year.

Noting that the real loss for the aviation industry last year totaled about $12 billion, he advised that ATC be considered as a business with one customer–the airlines. “When you start thinking about the industry as your customer, you have to ask not ‘what do I want to build’ but rather ‘what can my customers afford to buy.’”

On a related subject, the FAA’s John Burks addressed efforts to streamline the NAS, led by the use of the emerging controller pilot datalink communications (CPDLC). The system is designed to provide an instant message link for routine and non-emergency ground/air communication. Reducing the amount of non-vital voice communication traffic between the pilot and air traffic controller, said Burks, makes for a system that is not only more efficent, but one that saves the airlines money and enhances safety. He said a test conducted in Atlanta reduced departure delays by 60 percent and arrival delays by 25 percent.