September 11

September 11, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Air Traffic Control, Aircraft Development, Airline News, Airports, security | 1 Comment

There are quite a few blog posts showing up in the past few days memorializing or offering recollections on what September 11, 2001 was like for them.  I frequently struggle on anniversaries like this because I find myself out of sync with many others and with respect to this event in particular.

Make no mistake, it was a very bad day and I felt the trauma as much as anyone.  However, I tend to want to see us move on and do better as opposed to continue to only reflect back on what happened.  That said, I do think some reflection and observation on this particular anniversary is, perhaps, in order.

My day was absolutely normal when it started.  I woke up cranky as I often do, made coffee and drove to work.  I was just a few minutes later to work than perhaps normal but for no other reason than I was tired.

It was my custom to listen to the NPR news broadcast in the mornings (and still is) and I was doing so as I drove into the parking lot of my company around 8:30 or so in the morning.  As I did so, the news broadcaster, Carl Kassell, interrupted his news reading, hesitated and then said that there was a fresh news report that a small aircraft had hit the World Trade Center.

I was a bit surprised to hear that but immediately concluded that New York must be experiencing very low cloud cover and/or fog and someone must have finally done something badly wrong in that airspace. 

But it didn’t stop me at all.  I went into my office, closed my door and began reading emails and doing work.  I generally don’t like to talk in the earliest part of my mornings and my staff was accustomed to me doing those things behind a closed door.  Sometime after 9am, one of my staff opened my door and asked if I did not know that the world was on fire. (or words to that effect.)

I was surprised at her distress, started asking questions and got news going on my computer.  It took just a couple of minutes to learn that one hijacked aircraft had gone into the World Trade Center, not a small civil aircraft and that other aircraft were known to be hjacked as well. 

Then we learned of the second aircraft and things just seemed to get blurry for a while.  Our news feed slowed to a crawl because the internet was overwhelmed.  We were able to get a portable TV going and got some news from that.  I went to my car a couple of times to listen to the radio as well. 

After a couple of hours, there was news that parents were pulling their kids from school and I announced that those who wanted to leave and do the same, could.  I also offered that it might be best for us to stay where we were for a while longer until we knew that someone had a handle on something.  We stayed for a bit longer but it became clear that no work would get done and I let everyone go home.

I went home as well. 

I worked near Addison Airport in the Dallas area.  I lived under one of the normal approach paths for Love Field and DFW airports.  It was immediately striking just how quiet things grew both in the air and on the streets.  Like most of everyone, I watched the news, talked to some family on the phone and felt punched by the events most of all.

I made some calls to business friends in the New York City area to check on them and didn’t reach many but some were answering.  One friend, a jewelry manufacturer, holed up in his facility in lower Manhattan and stood guard over his business for days.  His wife witnessed a man get beaten in their Queens neighborhood for being nothing other than of Middle Eastern descent. 

In the evening, I started to get calls and emails from friends around the world asking if I was OK.   They knew me to be a frequent traveler and from their vantage point, it would be perfectly logical for me to be in New York or Boston or Washington, D.C. 

I sat on my back patio for a good part of the evening and just marveled at how quiet it was.  It was still like an early sunday morning.  No sound of cars, people or airplanes.   When my telephone rang, it sounded abnormally loud every time.

I was as shocked as anyone and probably a bit more upset than some given what I knew of the airline industry.  I deduced what had happened very quickly and never learned anything that truly contradicted my guess that hijackers had taken control of airplanes and most passengers had cooperated in the idea that doing so would get the airplane on the ground.  But the hijackers had broken the model and done the unthinkable. 

I was bitterly proud that those on UA 93 had learned what was going on and had fought back.  When I heard that, I knew that never again would passengers be passive in such circumstances.  I haven’t been proven wrong in 10 years either.

I’m genuinely sorry for those who suffered direct losses that day.  I’m also fairly bitter about where we are 10 years later.

It upsets me that we haven’t raised a bolder building in the World Trade Center’s place yet.  If it had been up to me, we would have finished that long ago. 

I am very disappointed at the losses of personal freedom in the last 10 years.  I’m extremely upset that people went along with it so passively and I’m very upset that Congress continues to cower in political fear rather than eliminate those losses.  I think the Patriot Act was one of the worst things ever done in terms of legislation.

I hate that our airline transportation security is still theater rather than real.  Consider that in 10 years, the TSA hasn’t once thwarted a terrorist threat.  But they have allowed numerous breaches in that time and under circumstances that leave me wondering if anyone is actually doing their job.

It infuriates me that the TSA is more of a problem for us all than a solution.  That the TSA is a source of theft and insult rather than a professional corps of security people doing their job well.  It angers me that the solution to security 10 years later is to invade their bodies with scanners or sexually asssault them with pat downs.  The United States should be a better place than that.

It’s been a horrific decade for the airline industry.  September 11 was the start and the heavy hits have kept coming ever since.  Consider that American Airlines has lost more than $1billion a year in the last 10 years.  Several major airlines have had to declare bankruptcy.  Many others had to merge or die. 

And every time they think they’ve got  a handle on things, another punch comes. 

There have been other disappointments.  The only truly new mainline airplane to be built and delivered in the last 10 years has been the Airbus A380.  In the 1960s, we saw tens of new ones designed and built.  What’s worse, while we’ll see 2 more in the next 10 years, that’s about it.   What happened to innovation in building new airliners?

It’s been a bad 10 years for the United States.  I would like to suggest that we consider just how much we’ve all taken and how we all are still standing today.  I would like to see the next 10 years in the United States to be a decade to rebuilding, growth and facing up to our problems and challenges. 

I would like to have some pride in my government.  It’s been too long now. 

I would like to see my fellow citizens be just a bit less selfish, a bit less political and a bit more focused on cooperating with each and achieving things.  It’s time to get back to achieving success and overcoming challenges presented to us.  It’s time to be leaders again rather than bitter isolationists.  It’s time to wake up and get back to competing. 

It is definitely time to find new leaders.  I want to see people who understand what it means to represent the whole rather than the special interest.  I want to see leaders who work hard, play hard and set sterling examples of looking forward to the future.  I want people who ask us to stretch rather than wait passively. 

Today should be a day to reflect not only on our losses but on how we need to get going with our lives and our country and do much, much better.

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Scapegoats

April 15, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Air Traffic Control | 2 Comments

For the past two weeks, we have learned of a number of incidents involving sleeping on the job by air traffic controllers. Congress is outraged, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood is outraged and now we see people resigning over this as well.

It’s definitely a problem and it is definitely disappointing that so many incidents can be identified as happening so recently. Outrageous? Not necessarily. Anyone who knows the life of an air traffic controller in the tower is likely unsurprised.

It’s a hard job. It’s stressful, demanding and one mistake can put your entire career at risk. Duty time in this role takes a toll on people in ways that most experience rarely. These people experience it every time they go on the job.

What I find so distressing is that no one is asking the question: “Why are all those air traffic controllers so exhausted?”

Trust me when I say that these sleep events aren’t sheer laziness. It comes from odd schedules that leave controllers sleep deprived to such a degree that if they were truck drivers, we would pull them off the road. If they were pilots, they wouldn’t be allowed to fly. But since they are air traffic controllers, we just keep pushing them.

No one should be regularly experiencing this kind of fatigue in their job and certainly no one who is in position to affect hundreds of lives. And, by the way, NextGen air traffic systems aren’t going to solve this problem.

These controllers work very odd schedules that change day to day. They have no regularity and if you think a pilot’s life is irregular, just shadow an air traffic controller for a week. Rather than villifying them and firing them, we should be investigating these incidents in a manner similar to how the NTSB investigates a transportation disaster.

We need to ask for an unbiased, non-political, solutions based investigation that addresses all the problems with firm recommendations.

Instead, we’re trying to fire people and look good in the press.

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Hello? Anyone there?

March 24, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Air Traffic Control, Airline News | No Comments

A few days ago, Washington Reagan National Airport was uncontrolled by an air traffic controller for about 30 minutes.  During that time, 2 aircraft had to manage themselves into the airspace and land at an uncontrolled airport. 

Believe it or not, this isn’t all that uncommon at certain regional / out of the way airports and there are procedures for it.  However, aircraft in Washington DC’s airspace should probably not go uncontrolled . . . ever.

There was a case of a person locking themselves out of the tower about a year ago.  This time, speculation is that the air traffic controller fell asleep.  An investigation is going on and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has ordered that 2 controllers man the “midnight to 6am” shift at Washington Reagan National. 

For more information, read HERE.

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Weather Cancellations, Profit and the 3 Hour Rule

February 14, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Air Traffic Control, Airline News, Airports | No Comments

This winter season we’ve seen record cancellations due to major weather events and by all appearances, this isn’t over yet.  These cancellations will cost airlines their 1st quarter profitability in many cases and exacerbate the losses of other airlines as well.

One trend I’ve noticed is a number of flight crew blaming the 3 Hour Rule for creating these cancellations citing their opinion that their company won’t risk a 3 Hour Rule violation.   No doubt that at least some of these cancellations were in fact influenced by the rule. 

However, I’m not sure you can point to the 3 Hour Rule as the cause for losses.  Not yet anyway.  The weather events that have caused these massive cancellations would have no doubt caused them regardless of the rule.  It’s difficult to send an airplane out on a flight if the airport is closed due to blizzard conditions.  In other cases, while there may not have been a blizzard, there have been several airports dealing with unusual conditions (for their area) that have caused airport closing and/or reduced operations.  DFW and Dallas Love Field are two excellent examples.

I expect that sometime later this year, we’ll see airlines push for either a straight out repeal 0f the 3 Hour Rule (unlikely) or some modification for weather events (much more likely.)  I remain unsure if that would be justified because despite these huge cancellation numbers, I’m just not seeing any giant outcry over it either.  If anything, I suspect that the 3 Hour Rule is causing airlines to think earlier and be more proactive in their cancellation strategy and that is resulting in people being able to plan better and plan around these weather events. 

In addition, one winter’s weather does not make a trend.  It’s been a bad one so far and I continue to believe that we need 2 or more full year’s data to really determine the potential negative effects of the 3 Hour Rule.  And the real critical area is determining when and for what reason airlines are cancelling flights when the weather events are not so clear cut.  For instance, who is cancelling when strong winds impact runway choices at NYC airports and thereby reducing the hourly rate at which flights can land and take-off?

However the rest of this winter plays out, I expect to see the industry renew its efforts to modify the rule some time after the 1st Quarter financial results are in for our major airlines.  I do think there should be a debate on this subject and it should balance cancellations, the rule and what the passengers may be asked to put up with.  It’s quite possible that relaxing these rules to 4 hours may satisfy most parties in this fight.

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NextGen and jetBlue get a helping hand

February 10, 2011 on 1:00 am | In Air Traffic Control | No Comments

The FAA is hoping to give its NextGen air traffic system a boost by paying jetBlue over $4million to equip 35 jetBlue aircraft with new navigation systems.  It’s hoped that by giving this push, the rest of the industry will embrace adopting these systems quicker and in greater quantity.

So far, many airlines have argued that the FAA should pay them to install these systems.  I think the airline industry has had enough government support for the last decade and its time to get going on investing in their business.  (Not for nothing, this is what happens when you continually save airlines from liquidation via government loans and liberal bankruptcy laws.)

The FAA’s NextGen GPS based system will have a system of ground stations covering the country by 2013 and all airlines will be required to use the system by 2020.  But the FAA also recognizes that if it can get airlines to buy into the improvements sooner than later, it can pull its schedule forward and realize some real gains now rather than later.

Here’s the best reason to adopt these new systems:  they pay for themselves.  Southwest is already making use of this kind of system to better orchestrate its own operations and now expects annual savings of up to $60 million / year.  You can equip a lot of aircraft for $60 million in found money.

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Well Done Mexico

December 9, 2010 on 1:00 am | In Air Traffic Control, Airline News | No Comments

Four months ago, Mexico got its air traffic system downgraded from a Category 1 to a Category 2 rating by the US FAA.  This came at the same time that Mexicana was melting down in a great fury and both events were an economic and psychological blow to Mexico.

Well, they just got upgraded back to Category 1 after just four months (nearly unprecedented) and with strong assistance from the FAA in the United States.  In fact, the FAA will continue providing assistance to ensure that Mexico maintains the changes it made and maintains it status, more importantly.

This is great for Mexico and it is a well executed response to this problem.  It’s also great for US airlines because when that status got downgraded, US airlines were suddenly no longer able to codeshare with Mexican airlines and that probably accelerated Mexicana’s demise, to tell the truth.  Now, airlines on both sides can engage in codesharing again (Hello Southwest and Volaris)  and the world airline alliances can get busy in Mexico once more. 

Mexico shouldn’t have let itself get lumped into the ranks of countries like Croatia and Nigeria and their lapse in oversight was a bad thing.  But instead of acting outraged, they got busy and to their credit, they fixed the problems with lightning speed.  Give them credit.

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Fines and complaints

October 11, 2010 on 1:00 am | In Air Traffic Control, Aircraft Development, Airline Service, Airports | No Comments

It’s been noted that fines levied against airlines by the FAA have risen sharply over the past 2 years and they show no signs of leveling off either.  USA Today in the Sky reports that Airtran was fined $20,000 for advertising $39 fares instead of the $44 they actually were.  Delta was fined for improperly displaying taxes and fees on some fares.  Other airlines are now getting fined for blatantly violating their own policies on lost luggage or for treating handicapped people inappropriately. 

Many see these fines as draconian and I see them as an example of what largely has been wrong w/ the Federal Aviation Administration for decades.  They are just way too close to the industry that they are supposed to regulate and govern.  That doesn’t mean that I advocate an adversarial position on the part of the FAA  towards airlines.  And it doesn’t mean that the FAA needs to make hay with the public by portraying itself as “tough” either. 

It means that the FAA lost its objectivity long ago and while I do applaud the reversal of that direction in many cases, I”m unhappy to suddenly seeing the FAA treat airlines like they are rats now.  The truth is, we, the people, created the monster (FAA) and we, the people, allowed the airline industry to grossly influence that agency for far too long.  Of course the airlines used all the influence they could to move the agency that governs their operations in the direction they preferred.  It’s an exercise in self preservation and no one should be surprised by it.

What we do need is a reorganization of that federal agency so that it can become less political and less influence by airlines.  While airlines *should* have some input on regulations that will govern them, they should not get to write the rules and hand them over to the FAA.  The FAA shouldn’t be bobbing and weaving to the political tunes written by Congress and/or the Executive either. 

It really should be operating much more independently like the Federal Reserve.  It needs to be a bit more above the fray and a independent enough to hold airlines to a tough standard when it comes to safety and fair play.  In fact, the FAA has been so unduly influenced and, at many times, unaccountable for its decisions and actions, we’ve exacerbate the problem by demanding more accountability via Congress and the Secretary of the Department of Transportation.  The FAA now simply reacts.

But the FAA needs to plan.  It needs to plan for the long term and it needs to be able to meet demands for qualified staff and it needs to govern airlines independently, fairly and appropriate to the times.  By operating independently, I also mean that its budget needs to come out from under Congressional whimsy (at least its administrative budget) and it needs to become stable and self-supporting for the long term. 

It needs to focus on providing better systems and great excellence when it comes to air traffic control.  We, as a country, are woefully behind the curve when it comes to these systems and we’re following, not leading.  This isn’t a corrupt government agency but it’s one that is pulled in too many directions all too often and it is far too frequently subject to conflicting influences and opinions.  It is an agency that needs to be a bit more above the fray and able to do the right thing.

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Mexico’s Downgrade

August 10, 2010 on 1:00 am | In Air Traffic Control, Airline News, Airlines Alliances, Airports, security | No Comments

When the Federal Aviation Administration downgraded Mexico’s aviation safety from Category 1 to Category 2, people took notice and, no doubt, so did Mexico’s airlines.  Does this reflect on Mexico’s airlines?  Yes, I think so. 

Mexico has joined the ranks of countries such as Haiti, Congo and Serbia & Montenegro.  In fact, the only nation listed as Category 2 that surprises me is Israel and I suspect that has to do more with execution and very specific circumstances than it does with technical quality.  Nonetheless, when you join those ranks, it speaks poorly of your country *and* your airlines.

Is a nation’s aviation infrastructure always indicative of the airlines?  No, of course not.  There are plenty of Category 1 nations who have had airlines that had unsafe operations over the years including the United States.  However, I can’t think of a particularly outstanding airline coming from a Category 2 nation except El Al.   You don’t really hear of the operational excellence of airlines from Honduras, Paraguay or the Phillipines, do you? 

This is bad for both Mexico and Mexico’s airlines.  And with Mexicana trying desperately to leap off a cliff and kill itself, it looks even worse. 

Suddenly, Mexican airlines can no longer codeshare with US airlines because of this.  That means participation in alliances is going to mean very little in terms of revenue. That is going to hurt.  And, let’s face it, Mexico doesn’t have a great reputation for fixing its problems quickly.  The Mexican Way is to bicker about it for as much as a decade before doing something.

It would be in the best interest of airlines in Mexico to start safety audits with IATA immediately and to put political pressure on the government to fix this asap.  Sadly, I think this is going to get much worse before it gets much better. 

I am a huge fan of Mexico.  I genuinely enjoy its people and much of its culture and I want them to succeed every day.  That said, success isn’t going to happen until its current government and, more importantly, its businesses and citizens come together to insist on excellence.  They have, quite literally, a major conflict going on in their drug war and a crumbling financial infrastructure and waning exports to countries like the US and Canada.  This development in aviation puts them at a further disadvantage with its partner trading countries and it needs to get fixed fast.

Mexico needs to ask for help from the US and other countries fast.  Or they can contact Swaziland or the Ukraine and ask for advice on how to dig one’s grave even deeper.

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GPS and Air Traffic

August 5, 2010 on 1:00 am | In Air Traffic Control, Airports, security | 1 Comment

Over the past year and particularly over the past 6 months we have heard a great deal about NextGen Air Traffic Control Systems using GPS for guidance.  GPS will allow aircraft to fly more precise routes and permit distances between aircraft to be reduced which should allow more “capacity” into our system.

Increased precision should permit a “redesign” of approaches to airports that will allow aircraft to enter a “pattern” earlier and perform continuous descent approaches that will save fuel and even reduce the workload on pilots.

On flights over oceans, aircraft could use GPS to precisely locate  themselves and then automatically report back their position(s) to traffic control centers which could then “tighten up” routes across those oceans and allow more aircraft to follow an optimal route. 

There is no doubt that GPS is overdue in this game but it isn’t necessarily the “no downside” solution to our problems either. 

GPS signals are provided by satellites and things can happen to those satellites to either block or severely degrade the signals.  Sunspot activity can affect their signals,  for instance.  It’s also not unheard of to suddenly find satellites decommissioned because they were hit by space debris or such intense solar storms.   Suddenly loss of those signals could result in a very intense situation where we find tightly space aircraft without the ability to precisely locate themselves.  The chances for this are, admittedly, statistically very low.  It’s worth an acceptable risk provided aircraft retain guidance redundancy with other systems not dependent on satellites.

Indeed, not all GPS signals are actually emitted from satellites.  There are ground based augmentation systems that permit a finer degree of precision in certain areas.  In fact, one such use is in Instrument Landing Systems being designed for the future.

But there is a security problem with GPS.  First, it is possible to “spoof” GPS signals.  In fact, it’s relatively easy to “spoof” these signals and a reason why the military doesn’t rely completely on GPS signals for guiding munitions and why they’re developing other systems that are not satellite based but which do provide accurate relative navigation.  

Signals by which aircraft would navigate are encrypted but that encryption is somewhat out of date for this era.  While a terrorist wouldn’t necessarily be able to spoof the signal, a foreign country could conceivably do so.  And you can do such “spoofing” by sending a signal from the ground, air or space with equipment that isn’t very costly and not very hard to engineer. 

While aircraft aren’t necessarily going to experience their guidance being impacted by pranksters or terrorists, the risk for it being a target of a foreign nation who decides its at war with the United States or some other country does exist.   Any country capable of doing the math and engineering technology from the 1980′s can potentially engage in this.   That might include countries such as North Korea or Iran.

In addition and quite unfortunately, China has shown its willingness to strike at satellites with missiles.  Again, any country capable of building an intercontinental ballastic missile is now capable of striking at GPS satellites in space.  And don’t think that those won’t be targets in a conflict, they will be.

While we have some safeguards and the United States Air Force works very hard at securing and protecting the existing satellite system, we really need a global commercial navigation system that is secured by a larger, more redundant grid of satellites.  A system that is owned and maintained by responsible nations of the world and one that is designed for air and sea navigation.  A system that is encrypted with modern encryption and upgradeable for the future.   And a system that can be “turned off” selectively for certain regions or countries in times of conflict. 

I’m thrilled we seem to be moving forward with a new generation of navigation systems.  It’s long overdue but I do wish that we would consider the security risks inherent with these systems just a bit more.

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Mid-Summer and the 3 Hour Rule

July 15, 2010 on 1:00 am | In Air Traffic Control, Airline News, Airline Service, Deregulation, Frequent Flier | 1 Comment

A number of airline and aviation bloggers have been writing posts about the 3 Hour Rule since statistics for on-time departures, arrivals, cancellations and delays came out for the first full month under this rule.   The Cranky Flier feels certain that this rule is inconveniencing more people now.  Dan Webb writing Things In The Sky thinks it might be too early to make a final call on the rule.   PlaneBuzz speculates on whether or not the FAA will send a fine to the airlines who exceeded the 3 Hour Rule in that first full month (There were five 3 Hour Rule “violations” in May). 

For readers of this or any other blog on airlines, there are a few things to keep in mind about this rule and the statistics.  First, this rule wasn’t put into place because of statistics.  If statistics had driven the rule making, we wouldn’t have a rule.   The rule was driven by egregious delays that far exceeded 3 hours and it was far more political than fact driven. 

Second, the first month of statistics on this mean absolutely nothing.  Frankly, if you were going to use statistics to judge this rule, I think you would need, at minimum, 24 months of contiguous data at the least.  A 5 year data set would be far better.   It isn’t just airline decisions driving these statistics.  It’s weather, passenger trends, disrupted airport operations (for non-weather related reasons) and other factors.  The variables in play here are far too many to make a judgement based on statistics. 

Third, airline fans tend to favor airlines or, rather, they favor airline operations.  And that subset of airline fans we know as frequent flier freaks are even more favorably disposed to airline operations.  We’re a biased group because we see things from both the inside and outside and we tend to excuse events that appear to occur because of one-time conditions.  We tend to excuse what isn’t in the norm because of conditions that are outside of an airlines’ control.  While we may think we have far more than average knowledge and therefore better equipped to make that judgement on a 3 hour rule, we really aren’t.  We have the same bias that airlines as a whole have.

A politically driven rule generally occurs because of a general public perception, not statistics.  The general public perception, whether its based on fact or fiction, is really the controlling factor and the public perception of these delays is *bad*.   It’s bad because airlines have done nothing to change that perception and its bad because those who are trying to explain these delays are coming off as apologists for airlines rather than as subject matter experts.  There is a disconnect between the airline industry and the public consumer in that industry. 

In many ways, this problem of delays could have been solved by some saavy marketing.  The defensive posture airlines have taken during these events has done them no good and apologizing profusely and promising to “fix it” going forward now sounds hollow because these events continue to happen and airlines continue to often appear to have no clue about the passengers being affected by it.  

Airlines have received a lot of bounty from the public over the past several years.  Special considerations have been granted to the industry over and over, particularly since the tragedy of September 11th, 2001, and the airline industry has not acted very grateful nor very responsive in that same time period.  To the contrary, airlines have generally responded with acts that, to the public, appear overtly hostile to the customer.  The general public, right or wrong on its facts, is now entirely resentful of the entire industry. 

This is much more an airline marketing and PR problem than it is an airline operations problem. 

The rule isn’t going to go away and anyone who thinks there is a chance that it will is enjoying a nice fantasy.  The rule is a consequence of airlines doing a poor job to fix an admittedly tiny problem and then acting officious with anyone challenging their behaviour.  Failure to self regulate and respond *and* communicate during these problems created the rule.  There is a lack of public trust when it comes to airlines and that will take a decade or more to fix.  The best any airline or the industry itself can ever hope to accomplish is to hold off even more restrictive rules in the future and that will only be done by being better public citizens themselves.

Do I think the 3 Hour Rule is a success or failure?  I have no idea.  I would note that, anecdotally, the public isn’t crying out to the news media about being delayed an extra 12 hours because of a 3 Hour Rule cancellation.  Until they do, I am extremely hesitant to declare the 3 Hour Rule a failure.

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Is the airline industry for the public good?

July 12, 2010 on 1:43 pm | In Air Traffic Control, Airline Service, Airports | No Comments

I found a column in the Philadelphia Inquirer today that discusses whether the airline should or should not be considered for heavier regulation.  You can read it in its entirety HERE

We regulate the airline industry on safety matters (but not without a lot of groaning from the industry at times) and we definitely have found that it is appropriate to regulate interstate commerce on some level.  However, a return to the days of pre-1978 deregulation would, in my opinion, be a mistake. 

People often long for those days in the perception that things were better all the way around and that really isn’t true.  Today, we really do have more choice in most cases when it comes to travel on a particular route.  In the so-called golden years, the CAB decided who got to fly what routes and at what price.  We often forget that those prices were regulated as well and an airlines profit was determined on their costs.  However, so was the price.  Airlines often made a justification for raising prices on routes based on their costs and an appropriate profit level.  Not unlike how many electrical utilities are still regulated today.

Airlines are, if anything, far more safe today than 30 years ago as well.  That’s despite the drum beating going on about airlines sacrificing safety for profit and it is a product of our regulation in that area and its influence on both manufacturers as well as airlines themselves.  I do also believe that safety remains a top concern with airlines today despite the competitive environment because of how much impact on profit there can be as a result of a crash or safety incident. 

But airlines do use a variety of public assets and as a result of that, they should, in my opinion, be subject to some regulation.  For instance, airports are a public asset and, yet, we allow airlines to dominate airports by leasing/purchasing terminal space and holding on to underutilized assets.  In a sense, we allow airlines to bully both airports and other airlines who would make use of those public assets.  I wouldn’t propose that we tightly regulate terminal space but I would propose that these assets should periodically be subject to some sort of competitive bid for them.  That shriek you just heard is the airlines.

The airways are a public asset as well.  How much traffic a particular part of our airspace can withstand is determined by our infrastructure and our airports both of which are public assets as well.  There is, in my opinion, a duty on the part of the government(s) to see that these assets are used as efficiently as possible.  Where airports are slot controlled, those slots should also be subject to a periodic competitive bid for use.  When airlines find it “profitable” in a competitive sense to hold on to those slots by using them for high frequency and/or small regional jet routes, they are potentially being underutilized. 

That means that when there are 20+ frequencies between two cities among 2 or more airlines, there is some indication that those assets (i.e. slots) are being underutilized and with just a few less frequencies, slots could be opened up to provide new or improved service to other destinations and also improve competition on routes being “dominated” by a couple of airlines who are controlling prices via frequency.  If you think this doesn’t happen, just look into how major airlines respond to new competition by “small” competitors on these and non-slot routes.  They add capacity via larger aircraft and or additional flights to “buy” the business.

But does the consumer really benefit from that?  In short term spurts, yes they may benefit.  In the long term, no, they don’t.  If you control the route, you have some influence on the price and losing control of that route could quite possibly mean it turns unprofitable very quickly. 

In pre-deregulation days, it was thought that the nation’s infrastructure couldn’t withstand the loss of a trunk airline via bankruptcy and/or strikes.   So the government regulated price on their behalf and assured a stable system.  During that time, that made sense since those trunk airlines held much more regional segments of the United States.  For instance, in those days Delta might have been perceived as “essential” to the south east and its removal from the system might have meant a major economic loss to the area. 

We think there are fewer airlines and to some extent that is true.  However, our system is also vastly more flexibile today than it was 30 years ago.  A loss of a major legacy airline doesn’t mean the nation’s airline infrastructure becomes paralyzed.  We have enough airlines who are already serving those routes and who already have the flexibility to either serve them with more frequency or more capacity or both.  A correction via the remaining airlines would take days in some cases and mere weeks in others.  Not months and years.   Deregulation has provided that flexibility.

One argument many legacy airlines make for being allowed more dominance at hubs is that they serve the public good with flights to small, outlying areas in regions that no one else would serve if they were gone.  In a few cases, they’re telling the truth.  In most cases, they serve those areas with very high prices and very low frequency and they do little to stimulate commerce in those areas.  This is because those airlines serve those areas inefficiently with the wrong aircraft and schedules so that they may “feed” their hub systems.  Hub systems have to grow to remain profitable.  They are the animal that simply grows hungrier every year.

Should a place like Abilene, Texas have 3 or 4 direct flights to hubs like Dallas or Houston?  I’d argue that it isn’t really justified.  However, you could justify it as a whistle stop on a multi-city route being served by a turboprop as opposed to a regional jet.   Does service suffer as a result of that?  In most cases, no.  Airlines would earn more profit, service the same number of passengers or possibly more due to lower prices and the cities themselves wouldn’t suffer any economic impact.  

Abilene, Texas is served by no less than 7 flights a day to DFW all on ERJ-140 aircraft.  2 pair of those flights have departure times that separate them by less than an hour.   Does an isolated city in West Texas with a population of 120, 000 really justify that kind of frequency?  Probably not.  There are larger city pairs that don’t have that kind of frequency.  Could the 5:50am and 6:35am departures be combined into a single 6:00am flight?  Absolutely.   Would those passengers be impacted if the flight originated in Midland-Odessa at 5:50am and made a simple whistle stop in Abilene on its way to DFW?  No, not at all.  Would the Midland-Odessa passengers be impacted by a flight that was, at best, 20 minutes longer?  No, they wouldn’t.

We hurt the public by not regulating the industry for more competition and by the public, I mean the greater good for all, not just the 2 bankers in Abilene who get in a snit if they don’t have 4 morning flight choices.  Promoting competition by regulating access to our public assets isn’t a bad thing and there are decades of evidence to show that this is an area where the government can regulate very successfully and profitably. 

Do I think the airlines service levels should be regulated?  Let’s take a look at that tomorrow.

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A Second Word on the Virgin Atlantic Diversion

July 3, 2010 on 1:00 am | In Air Traffic Control, Airline News, Airline Service, Airports, security | No Comments

Now that more than a week has passed, I want to revisit my first post about the Virgin Atlantic flight diversion to Bradley International Airport last week.  You can read my original post HERE.

First, I think both Congressional and administration officials have grossly overreacted to this event.  This was not a 6 or 7 hour event.  It was a 4 hour event.   And the primary cause of keeping people contained on the aircraft was weather and then no available customs and immigrations officers to process passengers.  You see, it might be called Bradley *International* Airport but it’s “international” aspect derives from relatively short flights to Canada.

Now we have Senators and Secretaries demanding that we impose a 3 Hour rule on international carriers and decrying the inhumanity of what those poor people experienced.   Indeed, the more these people pound desktops, the more they reveal their ignorance.

Folks, I’ve sat in an aircraft waiting 4 hours to take off a number of times.  It’s boring.  It’s tedious but it isn’t inhumane.  The same is true of a flight that likely took about 7 hours from London to the NYC area.  

The real issue here is what we allow when it comes to a diversion and the reason for that diversion.  I said it in my first post and I’ll say it again:  Virgin Atlantic’s chief mistake was in putting themselves into a position to have to use Bradley or choosing Bradley for its relatively low cost to land, refuel and take-off again.  There were plenty of better alternatives and VA didn’t choose one. 

If we presume a 200 nautical mile diversion capability, let’s look at what was in range from Newark (EWR).  Click THIS MAP to see what was available.

This flight could have made Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, any of the NYC airports, Washington Dulles and maybe even Pittsburg.  Short of a real fuel emergency, this flight should have made for one of those major airports that has full facilities for a widebody jet carry international passengers. 

The fact that we don’t distinguish what is and isn’t a legal diversion in a non-emergency event is a bigger part of the problem for international flights.  We make any airport that has the ability to land the aircraft a legal airport for diversion and I’m not so sure we should.  Perhaps a better rule would be to insist on the ability to divert (for non-emergency reasons and weather ain’t an emergency in most cases) to a *capable* airport designated as such for an international flight. 

Regardless, one of the reasons given for the delays was lack of customs officials.  The airport would not dis-embark the passengers until they had staff.  I may be wrong but I believe they could have allowed them off the aircraft *if* they were kept in a sterile area until customs officials arrived.  Whether or not they had a sterile area large enough is another question but also reinforces the need for diverting to airports that are properly equipped for these events. 

Who is at fault?  Virgin!  Bradley!  The FAA!  The passengers! No one!

The better question is how do we fix this so that passengers can reasonable expect reasonable treatment in a reasonable time period in non-emergency diversions.  And reasonable really is probably some amount of time between 3 and 4 hours.  

Look, no reasonable passenger is going to be outraged by many hours of delay when the aircraft engine shuts down and the flight has to divert to the first and best available airport during a real emergency.   Sure, there is always the chance of a crank or arrogant passenger being outraged no matter what but in those events, they just don’t count and virtually all passengers understand the nature of a real emergency.

The real failures are in events like these where the pilots gambled (on circling and hoping they could land too long), the airline and pilots choosing a poor airport, the FAA not distinguishing what is and isn’t an appropriate diversion airport in an event like this (and the FAA has no right to be “outraged” at VA since they themselves make an airport like Bradley legal for this kind of diversion) and where airlines continue to be ill prepared to respond to passenger needs during such events.  Might I point out that I would find it extremely hard to believe that someone couldn’t deliver a little food or attach ground air conditioning (if that airport has it) or a ground power unit (which I’m sure they have) to help provide power for air conditioning?

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EasyJet Has Volcanic Ash Detector

June 7, 2010 on 8:00 am | In Air Traffic Control, Airline News, Airports | 2 Comments

It’s being reported that EasyJet will be testing a new volcanic ash detector that will be mounted in the tail wings of its aircraft.  Reported similar to weather radar, this uses infrared cameras to detect ash.  It’s being called the “silver bullet” to Europe’s volcanic ash problem and reportedly is supported by the CAA.

And I think this is a big mistake.  I would be very surprised that this could be invented and then installed for test on aircraft in this short of a period and be effective enough to be a “silver bullet” for anything.  It’s this kind of reaction to the kind of problem ash has caused in Europe that leads to false confidence.

And that false confidence can lead to crashes and fatalities.  There has been too much effort on the part of Europe’s airlines to diminish the risk and denigrate the aviation authorities.  We are, after all, talking about something that has been known to shut down multiple engines on large aircraft although, so far, we haven’t lost a modern airframe to it. 

Nonetheless, something that takes out 4 modern jet engines almost simultaneously is nothing to be trifled with.  I agree that the  wholesale shutdowns in Europe were likely overdone.  However, acting as if ash can be detected (when it never really has been before and world authorities were really unable to do so as recently as 2 months ago) and avoided with a simple system conceived of and installed on test aircraft in just 2 months is silly. 

I really do fear consequences from this hubris.

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Here it comes, the 3 Hour Rule

April 27, 2010 on 1:00 pm | In Air Traffic Control, Airline News, Airports | No Comments

The 3 hour rule officially starts on April 29th, this Thursday.  The media is starting to bubble with lots of quotes from spokespeople at various Airlines and many of those quotes are about cancelled flights.  There appear to be about 3 levels of fury in these quotes.  Level 1 isn’t really fury more than it is resigned acceptance and is represented mostly by Southwest and American Airlines (which kind of surprises me). 

 

Level 2 is what I’ve started thinking of as the “Happy Threat”.   These airlines are announcing in cheery PR tones that they’ll “try hard” but it is likely that lots of flights might get cancelled.  Then there is Level 3 which really isn’t from the PR department so much as the CEO (Can you say Jeff Smisek) who are basically attempting to make it out to be the FAA evil plan to wreak havoc on the airline system.

 

Here is what I think you’ll see happen on Thursday and Friday.  The sounds of crickets chirping.  This rule is only going to affect a small portion of flights over the course of a year and is likely to only affect a small-ish portion of flights on a day of catastrophic weather.  It is notable that despite a pretty bad winter in the Northeast, the airlines dealt with it much better with proactive measures that, yes, included some cancellations but also included things like encouraging people to rebook and leave earlier and later or postponing their trips.  The airlines did a great job of handling the weather delays this winter and let’s give them a small round of applause. 

 

Should you be worried?  Nope.  Not right now.  There is no sense in worrying about something that, statistically, is less likely to happen to you than a traffic accident.  Worry when you’re approaching your travel date.  Look at the weather expected from about 3 days out.  If it looks a bit catastrophic in its potential, start looking into your options such as leaving a bit earlier (your airline may be happy to waive change fees to do so), leaving a bit later (why not book on a flight the day after the weather and be the first to have re-scheduled instead of the last?) and monitor the situation a couple of times a day until departure. 

 

Even if you have no options, don’t panic.  Just because the 3 hour rule is in effect doesn’t mean your flight is getting cancelled.  It DOES NOT MEAN THIS.   The overwhelming chances are that your flight will leave.  This isn’t a rule that governs when you must board and take off.  This rule governs the time it might be taking to transit from the gate to the runway and then takeoff.  3 hours is a *long* time to make that transit. 

 

In addition, just because you are out there and about to take off but approaching the 3 hour limit doesn’t mean your flight is getting cancelled.  If it is unsafe to return to the gate and disembark people, pilots can continue on.  If air traffic control determines that it is unsafe for your aircraft to leave the line or that it will impact other aircraft too much, they can give a waiver for the 3 hour rule too.  There are plenty of outs. 

 

Seriously, this isn’t anything to get worked up about as a traveler for 99.5% of the time.  It simply isn’t.  And even if you are in the that 0.5% period, you still have a very small chance of seeing your flight outright cancelled.  If you’re traveling on critical business and you really do need to get out, then watch the weather, check your options and, frankly, I’d suggest consider using the Cranky Concierge as a lifeline in the event you do get a cancellation.

 

Should you be worried with respect to the NYC area?  Well, JFK does have that runway under construction and just about everyone thought the plans for mitigating against delays were a bit optimistic.  Essentially, the two big players (American and jetBlue) agreed to retain a winter schedule until mid-summer.   A better plan would have been to cut everyone’s slots by some percentage and then tell the airlines to plan a schedule around that.   Adding a bit of safety margin into that by extending it to the end of July or first of August would be smarter still. 

 

Are there going to be some extra delays and/or cancellations here?  Yes, I think so.  However, I don’t think the primary “cause” of those is going to be the 3 Hour rule.  The primary cause will be an overscheduled airport missing a critical runway and airlines without a plan to realistically deal with that.  The secondary cause may be the 3 hour rule. 

 

Bottom line:  Avoid departing JFK if you can.  If you can’t, try scheduling for non-peak time departures (such as the morning instead of the afternoon or evening.  Monitor the weather, have a backup plan, set up an account with the Cranky Concierge.  Personally, I find it difficult to believe that the NYC traveler *must* go through JFK to go somewhere.  I suppose there are a few limited circumstances requiring it but I’d look strongly at traveling via La Guardia or Newark instead of JFK when making plans.  

 

This is *not* a time to be married to the idea of traveling on an airline because you like accruing their miles.   Seriously, are miles that are worth probably no more than $20 for a trip of 1000 miles so important that it takes precedence over everything else?  Is it not better to avoid incurring the expenses that a delay brings such as food, lodging, potentially lost baggage, etc?

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A little bit about NextGen Air Traffic Control Part 2

March 26, 2010 on 8:00 am | In Air Traffic Control | No Comments

Yesterday, I explained what we’re dealing with now in the United States for air traffic control.  Today, I’ll explain what NextGen ATC can do and why airlines want it so badly.

 

Since developing an air traffic control system in the 1950′s, our technological capabilities have expanded exponentially.   We have fast, compact computers, excellent software, GPS, better radio systems and a better understanding of how best to move aircraft.  It’s time to develop a system that makes use of these capabilities.  One reason the FAA has been so unsuccessful is that each time its walked down a path with a set of technologies, the technologies became obsolete before they could even fully test them in a new system.

 

Now our technologies are more compact and object oriented and can be used in more of a “plug and play” system and that means it is time to get going.  Our current GPS system can navigate aircraft with an accuracy of less than 10 feet of error.  We know that we can and will develop future GPS systems that will be even more precise but our current system is perfect for our needs and if it does become obsolete, the next system can be “plugged in” to the new system we’re designing.  The same is true for virtually all the other systems we’ll have.

 

Using the precision of GPS and the computing power we now have available, it’s possible to design a system that requires less than a mile of “margin of error” for our ATC system.  We can have planes take off and land every 45 seconds or less now.  In addition, our aircraft can fly “blind” with such a high degree of precision, it’s possible to land the aircraft in completely blind weather conditions that otherwise would ground almost all aircraft today.  Because our system relies on this new technology, we don’t even have to slow the pattern of traffic when weather occurs because this precision lets us navigate, communicate and aviate with complete comfort.

 

Aircraft can be allowed to fly more directly from departure point to destination without following all those intermediate pinpoints first.  Because we’ll no longer need so much separation between the aircraft to keep the same margin of safety, more aircraft can fly on those routings too.  That means substantial savings in fuel for airlines and fuel is the second highest expense an airline has.  Not only does it save fuel and raise the capacity of the airways, it helps prevent bottlenecks at congested airports by raising the capacity to land and take off using this precision. 

 

Will this stop delays?  No, not completely.  At the end of the day, the pilot still has to land the aircraft and the aircraft still can only land within its specification of conditions.  If it is too windy, it will still be too windy.  If there are thunderstorms right in front of a runway with microburts in them, its still too dangerous to fly through those.  Delays will still happen but they’ll happen with less frequency and intensity. 

 

Currently, when aircraft near an airport, say within 80 to 100 miles, they begin working their way down from high altitude to progressively lower altitudes to be ready to land when they arrive.  If you looked at the profile of this approach, it would appear to be an inconsistent set of stair steps leading downwards more and more.  It’s inconsistent because it is at the whim of conditions, traffic and the ATC controllers ability to manage traffic.   The result is that aircraft reduce power, go lower, stabilize at a new altitude, raise power and await permission to lower their altitude again.  The do this over and over again until they’re at the height at which they can land at the airport.   This practice is the same for take-offs as well although generally there aren’t as many “steps” to climb up. 

 

Problem is, this approach is slow and uses a lot fuel.   Each time those engines have to spool up to power to hold an altitude, a massive amount of fuel is used.  Just like in a car, the more you change the throttle position, the more fuel gets used. 

 

Airlines have been practicing something called a continuous descent.  This kind of descent means they’ll start descending a bit later in the approach but they’ll essentially pull the throttles to “idle” and kind of “glide” down one continuous slope until they land generally only applying some power in the last mile or two of the approach.  They’ve also been practicing take-offs like this as well.  But by practicing, I mean they’ve proved the concept and proved it saves *massive* amounts of fuel and is actually less stressful for the pilots as well.  Mostly this has been done with long haul flights taking off from coastal cities and going to coastal destinations elsewhere in the world.  How much fuel does it save?  It can save tens of thousands of dollars of fuel on a flight using a large, widebody 4 engine aircraft. 

 

It can save thousands of dollars even on smaller, single aisle aircraft flights too.  NextGen ATC will allow these approaches and departures to become the usual as opposed to the extremely unusual.  Again, that saves fuel, time and allows more aircraft to flow in and out of an airport than ever before. 

 

This is why airlines want it so badly.  Improvements such as this could literally save them tens of millions of dollars on annual fuel costs.  Airports with congestion problems could, for the most part, become uncongested.  With this precision, we can design how aircraft approach airports in busy areas such as NYC and allow for safer, better flights in those areas.  There is no downside to this at all except the cost.  Over the next 2 decades, such a new system will cost about $35 Billion dollars. 

 

Is it worth it?  Absolutely.  In fact, $35 Billion dollars is rather cheap all in all.  Our economy is highly depedent on our air systems and it will be choked a bit if we continue on with our present system. 

 

Is the FAA capable of contracting for and implementing such a system?  Certainly.  Contrary to most media criticisms, the FAA biggest problem was the advancement of technology rather than the implementation.  Yes, they are a large, monolithic agency but they also have a vested interest in getting this done.  There is a growing shortage of ATC controllers and this kind of system would help with that shortage tremendously. 

 

Will it get done?  Yes, I think so.  Our technologies have reached a stage of maturity that allows us to design a system that can accomodate new technologies in the future and avoid becoming obsolete even before the new system is turned on.  We really only got there about 6 to 8 years ago.  Now we can do it and we can do it safely and pretty efficiently.  It’s still a big job but it’s a relatively straight foward job now.

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A little bit about NextGen Air Traffic Control Part 1

March 25, 2010 on 8:00 am | In Air Traffic Control, Airline News | No Comments

I’ve had a few people ask me about NextGen air traffic control over the past couple of months wanting to know what it is and if it really is the silver bullet to current problems so I thought I would take a few minutes to give a cursory description of what it is and why airlines want it.  This is part 1 and we’ll have part 2 tomorrow.

 

The FAA has tried to find and implement a new system of air traffic control for 20 to 30 years now.  Airways were crowded in the 1960′s and 1970′s and all parties knew it was time to find better methods of controlling aircraft.  Contrary to what is often read in general news media, the current system is not 1950′s technology.  The basic system of controlling aircraft was introduced in the 1950′s, the technology has evolved and been improved a number of times over the past several decades.  That said, the issue with the technology is that in our modern microchip world, our current ATC technology is still kind of rooted in the mainframe era.  You can go only so far with a system and the technology that supports it before you need to transition.

 

NextGen really is two things.  First, it’s a re-envisioning of how we control aircraft.  In other words, we’re talking about re-inventing air traffic control and we’re able to do that because of newer, more modern technologies.  Before going farther, you have to imagine first that any system we use is not similar to a highway system because not only are we concerned about direction and speed, we have different altitudes to use too.  It’s more like layer upon layer of highway systems. 

 

The old system (and by system, I mean methodologies for controlling air traffic) was conceived in an era where our knowledge and technology allowed us to navigate with a fair degree of precision for that era but which still required a fairly large dose of margin of error to make it safe.  Under the old system, have a system of “points” that pilots can navigate to and upon reaching those points, they then navigate to the next point they need to go to.  When they create a flight plan, it is a plan that states which points they’ll fly to (within the rules of planning) and at what altitudes and speeds they’ll do it at.  It is a kind of multi-dimensional connect the dots plan.   Ever see the actual flight path of your aircraft and wonder why it looks a bit convoluted and twisted?  It’s because pilots are flying along airways from point to point rather than from departure to destination direct.

 

Let’s say a pilot for an airline wanted to fly from Chicago to Los Angeles.  Currently, the pilot cannot simply take off, flight at an altitude of his choice and fly directly from Chicago to Los Angeles.  Instead, he takes off, flies to a point that is on or close to a routing that leads him in the *direction* of Los Angeles and he continues to fly from point to point to get to Los Angeles.  As he gets closer, he flies with more precision to the airport by navigating to points that lead him to Los Angeles.   Flying to these points is essentially done by “homing in” on radio broadcasts from beacons at these points and through direction from air traffic controllers who are “tracking” his flight via radar. 

 

Neither the radio nor the radar paint a very precise picture.  There are many seconds delay in the radar that paints the picture of the aircraft and where it has been and where it is going.  If there is, say, a  15 second delay, that amounts to a lot of error.  It doesn’t sound like a lot but consider that these aircraft are traveling at 530mph.  That aircraft is traveling 0.15 miles / second and in 15 seconds, it has traveled nearly 2.5 miles.  In 30 seconds, it has traveled nearly 5 miles.  In just one minute, it has gone 10 miles.  This explains why we currently require so many miles of separation between aircraft in the air.  When you hear about aircraft being required to stay 5 miles away from each other on the horizontal, it probably sounds excessive.  When you consider that an error in knowing where you are that last just 30 seconds, you may well lose all of that separation and suddenly run into another aircraft. 

 

We’ve developed some systems over time that mitigate these risks such as TCAS (pronounced TEE-CASS) which stands for Traffic Collision Avoidance System.  This allows two (or more) aircraft to announce where they are to other aircraft and to decide if these two aircraft are on a collision course.  If they are, one system tells its pilot to “dive” and one tells the other to “climb”.   The problem is, aircraft have accurately know where they are for this to work.

 

For the most part, they do.  Airliners use a complicated set of gyroscopic inertial navigation machines.  These sophisticated machines sense movement direction and speed and if they know where they were before they started moving, then they can tell where they are as they travel.  Again, the problem is that the precision of these systems is measured in miles rather than feet. 

 

Next up, what we can do now.

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