Groups urge Bush: make aviation capacity tops

 - May 7, 2008, 6:20 AM

In a show of solidarity that even FAA Administrator Jane Garvey acknowledged would have been “hard to imagine” two or three years ago, 13 aviation groups ranging from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca) to AOPA urged the Bush Administration to make aviation capacity improvements a top national priority.

Following a day-long 2001 Aviation Capacity Summit hosted by Natca and the Air Transport Association (ATA) in late July in Washington, representatives of the baker’s dozen of aviation associations held a ceremonial signing of a letter that asked Bush to work with the aviation community to ensure that the country has the airport capacity, modern air traffic management and procedures and long-term investment necessary to “foster the maintenance of a safe and efficient air transportation system.”

The groups said that the Bush Administration and Congress should ensure that the environmental review process “identifies real concerns, but is not used as a tool to unreasonably delay new runways and other vital capacity enhancements.”

Recalling that it took only eight years from the time President Kennedy pledged to go to the moon until Apollo 11 landed, the associations told Bush that today’s bureaucracy and regulatory red tape can delay more modest yet crucial runway construction projects at airports for up to 15 years.

“Given that the top 25 airports represent 90 percent of the delays in the system, measures to expedite these projects promise to offer the single greatest benefit to travelers and system performance,” they wrote, adding that these airports are also supported by a “robust system” of secondary and reliever airports. Warning Bush that many of these reliever facilities are under threat of closure, and need protections for better land-use laws, they suggested that both the FAA and the Transportation Department should become more vocal in their advocacy of new runway capacity where it is needed most.

This was echoed by Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), the ranking minority member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who asserted that it takes “political will” to build these airport projects.

“Airport authorities have to go out into the community and sell to the public the benefits of an airport,” the former aviation subcommittee chairman said. “And the next thing they have to do is to get to the zoning authorities and tell them not to allow people to move into the noise footprint of the airport.”

Get-tough Policy
Continuing, Oberstar said, “I think maybe we need some tough language in the next authorization of the FAA to bring penalties down on those communities that allow creep into the noise footprint of the airport. Don’t wake up one day and be surprised that an airplane is flying overhead and you’ve [already] bought the house.”

Noise is a capacity issue, parallel runways are a capacity issue and creep in the neighborhood of airports is a capacity issue, he said, and the FAA doesn’t deal with that. “The FAA is not a zoning authority, airlines are not zoning authorities and airports themselves are not zoning authorities,” Oberstar observed. “But counties and cities are, and states as a para-political organization are. If they want the economic benefits of aviation, if they want the mobility and the capacity to move their economy, then they’ve got to take ownership of those issues and move ahead and deal with them–not point their finger at the federal government and say, ‘Fix this for us.’”

The 13 associations also told the President that modernization programs that increase capacity and reduce delays should be given “high priority over a five-year timetable,” including the full-scale implementation of GPS navigation, en route software and hardware (host computer) upgrades, airspace redesign, choke-point initiatives that continue access by all system users, wake-turbulence detection at major airports, controller-pilot datalink communication, other Free Flight Phase I and Phase II technologies, continued development and deployment of Safe Flight 21 initiatives–such as ADS-B–and proper staffing of air traffic controllers.

In her luncheon keynote, Garvey told the group that new technology is already playing a role, with the departure spacing program helping with the heavy traffic in the middle Atlantic region. “This technology meters the flow out of the New York city area and Philadelphia airports,” she said. “Before, we lost opportunities to flow-in traffic. Now we know where the opportunities are and we’re getting more airplanes in the air more efficiently. We’re adding this program to Boston and Washington this fall so you can expect more improvements.”

Garvey said that benefits are being realized from a procedural change that allows commercial aircraft to fly at lower altitudes, such as 22,000 ft between Newark, N.J., and Syracuse, N.Y. Even lower altitudes are available, such as 10,000 ft between Newark and Dulles. In addition, her agency continues to work with Nav Canada and the military on routings through their airspace during convective weather.

“And we’ve made a conscious reduction in groundstops,” Garvey said. “This is now a tool of last resort, when the weather really goes south. We’re emphasizing the ground delay program. Instead of an indefinite delay, which had been the case with groundstops, we’re giving pilots an estimated departure time.”

While she said this gives flight crews a more informed idea about when they’ll leave so they can plan accordingly, she admitted that “we must bridge the gap” between these two strategies. “We are focused on developing a new methodology to continue our progress next year,” Garvey said.

Show Me the Money
The 13 aviation groups also called on the Bush White House and Congress to continue the FAA funding levels contained in the Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR-21) passed last year.

“The continuation of AIR-21 funding levels is imperative,” they told Bush. “This funding, the vast majority of which derives directly from aviation system users, is what supports the addition of airport infrastructure and air traffic modernization.” They also asked the Administration to ensure “adequate” funding of the NASA aeronautics programs, “which will ensure ongoing technological innovation and capacity building in the areas of noise and emissions reductions and evolution of the air traffic system.”

The letter was signed by the leaders of a diverse group of aviation organizations, including John Carr, president of Natca; Carol Hallett, president and CEO of ATA; Jack Olcott, president of NBAA; Ed Bolen, president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association; James Coyne, president of the National Air Transportation Association; Phil Boyer, president of AOPA; Deborah McElroy, president of the Regional Airline Association; Henry Ogrodzinski, president and CEO of the National Association of State Aviation Officials; David Plavin, president of the Airports Council International–North America; Charles Barclay, president of the American Association of Airport Executives; John Douglass, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association; Duane Woerth, president of the Air Line Pilots Association; and Stephen Alterman, president of the Cargo Airline Association.

But Garvey cautioned that in cases where capacity cannot be expanded to meet demand– notably at New York La Guardia (LGA)–“demand management” is being used to deal with three public policy issues, addressing congestion and reducing delays, access to small communities and competition.

ACI-NA’s Plavin said, “I think we are kidding ourselves if we don’t think that at some point we aren’t going to have to ration demand.”

According to Barclay of AAAE, “We really don’t have a lack of capacity…we have a lack of capacity at choke points.” He estimated that adding a single two-mile-long runway at 25 delay-prone airports would take care of virtually all of the delays.

But without demand management, he argued, it would take 10 new airports the size of Dallas/Fort Worth International to be built in the next 10 years to meet capacity needs, even though most of the airports that are congested have other airports nearby. “I look at demand management as a necessary evil,” he said. “We can’t just build ourselves out of this.”

But Pete West, NBAA senior v-p of government and public affairs, countered that capacity restraints also are affecting business aviation, even though general aviation is not the problem at LGA. “We are affected both directly and indirectly by constraints in the system,” he said. “We think that artificial constraint of capacity is not the way to go.”

He said that increasing capacity “has to be an economic imperative,” adding that six slots per hour at LGA for non-airline traffic are not a “significant” impact. “We would rather go elsewhere,” he said.

Andy Cebula, AOPA senior v-p of government and technical affairs, and several others suggested that the FAA should be an advocate for airports. “We have seen just incredible efforts to close airports,” he said. “With general aviation it’s not airport development, it’s life or death.”

Natca’s Carr concurred. Referring to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s plan to close Meigs Field, he predicted that “the aircraft using Meigs are not going to stop flying, they are going to join the conga line at O’Hare.”

“Demand management is an admission that we have failed to raise the capacity of the system,” concluded RAA’s McElroy. “We need to focus on the overall system.”