A simple solution to congested skies

NextGen “is overly optimistic”

In 2017, the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General Calvin Scovel raised concerns in a letter to Congressional leaders that the FAA’s vision of NextGen benefits “does not take into account many of the challenges in implementing new capabilities at airports and air traffic facilities it has already experienced…” The FAA’s estimate of NextGen benefits “is overly optimistic,” and may be affected by double-counting, Scovel said in the letter.

Yet for all the well-documented doubts, no one seems to be seriously considering alternatives.

However, a handful of industry insiders say there is a simple solution to reducing flight delays and congestion: harness airlines’ self-interest to improve air traffic efficiency.

The invisible hand and ATC

A key proponent is the ATH Group, a Denver-based consulting firm founded by longtime airline pilot Michael Baiada and aerospace engineer Lonnie Bowlin. They have given their approach the ungainly name Business-Based Flow Management (BBFM). Think of it as a combination of ATC and Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand,’ introduced in Smith’s book, The Wealth of Nation.

Space does not allow here for really parsing out the technical differences between it and the NextGen approach. (See links below for more information on BBFM.) Here is a quick and dirty overview of BBFM.

Currently, congestion is handled by air traffic control largely during the approach phase to the airport and on the tarmac. Jetliners typically fly during the en route or cruising phase with no regard to how much traffic there will be when they get to the airport.

“It’s like ringing the bell for the end of recess, and having a hundred grade-school kids on the playground run to the door,” Baiada said.

A portrayal of the air traffic management ecosystem. (Courtesy of Honeywell International)

There is a crush of traffic that ATC must sort out, resulting in less efficient traffic flow, which compounds delays at congested airports.

Baiada and Bowlin take a system-wide approach to resolving congestion. Rather than leave it to ATC to sort out in the last 200 miles to the airport, tell en route airplanes to speed up or slow down so they arrive at approach in a smoother sequence, rather than in a jet-powered crush of traffic.

ATC’s primary focus is—and always should be—safety. Not surprising, then, that landings are typically on a first-come, first-served basis, except when safety issues take precedent. ATC does not know how this airplane or that airplane fits into an airline’s flight operations: Is it early or late? Is a gate available? How close is the crew to its legal work limit?

The reality is that a single late arrival (especially early in the day) can ripple throughout a carrier’s flight schedules that day, causing and compounding delays across its network. Those delays, in turn, can affect other carriers and their passengers, and so on and so on.

Which one of us has not been treated to an unexpected afternoon or overnight stay in Denver, Chicago, New York or some other waypoint in their journey?

Independently validated results

ATH’s approach, frankly, sounds too good to be true.

“The reality is it can be implemented now with existing technology,” Baiada said.

And it has been independently validated by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Georgia Tech, GE Aviation, even the FAA, among others.

Real-world trials about 10 years ago with Delta Air Lines and US Airways showed that it can deliver real—and significant—results. Between 2006 and2013, Attila, the name of ATH’s proprietary software, saved Delta nearly $74m in fuel costs by improving efficiency after being implemented at three hubs. It started with Atlanta in 2006, then Minneapolis in 2011 and finally Detroit in 2012.

The FAA tested it with Delta and US Airways in Charlotte and Minneapolis as a project dubbed Task J, part of research for NextGen. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professors worked with the FAA on the project and the data analysis.

The results surprised Vitaly Guzhva, one of the Embry-Riddle professors involved with the project.

“It made sense. Optimizing system is better than not,” he said.

The first trial was with just US Airways in Charlotte over 12 months. Pilots received information telling them to speed up or slow down while en route. A piddly 6.5% complied.

“Pilots are all arrogant people, right?” Guzhva said. He was a cargo pilot for the Russian Air Force before moving into business aviation, and later, academia. “They all think they know more than the people who manage the airlines.”

Even with such low compliance among pilots, flight times for all US Airways flights into Charlotte dropped by an average of 43 seconds.

“To me the results were compelling,” Guzhva said. “If I ran an airline, I would have a system like this.”

Given the positive results, it is not clear why the FAA did not pursue BBFM approach. The FAA did not respond to a request for comment.

Baiada is a relentless evangelist for taking a system-wide approach.

“Of course, I stand to benefit from selling BBFM/Attila, but more than that, I want to make the system better and safer,” he said.

When he was a commercial pilot, he quickly lost count of the number of hours he spent in holding patterns, waiting for ATC to clear him for final.

Despite the real-world results, he said he hears a litany of reasons for why this approach is unworkable:

  • What about weather and other traffic?
  • Today’s technology can’t support this approach;
  • This wouldn’t affect the busiest airports, which are slot controlled;
  • Airlines already maximize flight operations, and so on.

Baiada has an answer for each.

“Some of these were true 20 or 30 years ago, but not today,” he said.

Many of these concerns are based on incorrect and outdated information, Baiada said.

Butting heads with conventional wisdom

It would not be the first time an entire industry let conventional wisdom cost

The Red Sox ended their 86-year World Series Championship drought in part by upsetting conventional wisdom. That is what ATH wants to do with air traffic management. (Image via Google Images)it money. Look at how statistics have revolutionized Major League Baseball in the past 20 years. Bill James and his disciples overturned deeply ingrained conventional wisdom to show that drawing a walk was just as good as a hit and that base stealing (or rather attempting it) typically hurt teams more than it helped. Their approach made low-payroll teams like the Oakland As perennial post-season contenders and helped the Boston Red Sox break their 86-year World Series championship drought. This theory was chronicled in the movie, Moneyball.

“The hardest part is explaining how delays can be fixed and airline profits improved, and why ATC is not the problem,” Baiada said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told ‘It can’t be done, because…’”

“I can show why those reasons are inaccurate, but those conversations take time, and you’re talking about dozens of people at each airline,” not to mention the regulatory side, he said.

After the FAA trials, “even though we showed the benefits, airlines were skeptical about the results, skeptical that could be replicated,” Guzhva said.

The US Airways’ flight operations team consisted of “very smart guys,” he said. “Still, we couldn’t convince them” the results were attributable to BBFM/Attila.

Delta’s flight ops people were skeptical, but finally came around after extensive modeling before going live in late 2007, according to a Delta flight operations manager writing in an internal publication that year.

However, Delta dropped the program after a change in the flight operations team.

For now, the FAA has shown no interest in pursuing BBFM even though it “actually makes NextGen easier to implement, as it provides benefits today for the equipment already installed, and can provide immediate benefits to those who equip with NextGen technologies in the future,” Baiada said in an email.

Taking a knife to the FAA’s NextGen plans is not a priority for the new head of the House Subcommittee on Aviation, Rep. Rick Larsen, a Democrat whose district includes Boeing’s Everett, Wash.-plant. (That is not to say he is opposed to BBFM.)

New technologies likely will dramatically change how we use and manage air space in the coming decades, as we integrate drones, air taxis and other developments, he told LNA.

Larsen wants his subcommittee to step back and provide leadership on how to realize the future visions coming out of Boeing NeXt, Blue Origin and others pushing the limits of aerospace. That means “having members of Congress thinking more broadly about the role aviation plays in our economy, the role U.S. aviation plays internationally, the growing role of new technologies in aerospace, as well as classic issues such as consumer protection and safety,” he said.

For NextGen, this means incorporating unmanned aerial vehicles, air mobility, and commercial space, he said.

“We’re using more of that air space in different ways rather than just airplanes, and that is really the fundamental change going on,” he said.

These changes along with growing demand for air travel mean our skies are only going to get more crowded, and that likely means greater delays.

And that could affect airplane sales for OEMs. Airbus takes the concern seriously enough that it is very active in air traffic management through its wholly-owned subsidiary Metron Aviation. On Jan. 29, the company announced a contract to implement Airservices Australia’s Long Range Air Traffic Flow Management (LR-ATFM) concept of operations.

That approach gives long-range international flights arrival times while en route when a delay is required, thus allowing the flight to take the most fuel efficient approach. Much like ATH’s approach, it shifts congestion from approach to the en route phase.

“Metron Aviation is at the forefront of business-based flow management,” John Kefaliotis, Metron’s president, told LNA in an email.

“Air traffic growth is producing delays worldwide which will only get worse,” he said. “Airbus believes that the future of aircraft sales can be affected by future inefficiency in air traffic management technology and procedures that can be a limiter to future aviation growth and, accordingly, aircraft sales.”

For that reason, “Airbus maintains a significant focus in the area based on this belief,” Kefaliotis said.

Boeing declined to comment.

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