Congressional Fix to NextGen ATC Implementation uses Poor Process rather than Early Technical Intervention

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The FAA is a creature of Congress; the 535 (plus three delegates) wise persons elected to occupy the House and Senate seats pass legislation. As a matter of Constitutional law, the FAA must follow those dictates.

One example of a bill passed by the House and Senate plus signed by the President is H.R.658 — 112th Congress (2011-2012), the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA). Section 213 of that enacted legislation prescribed certain procedures which the FAA was to follow in its implementation of the NextGen technology for Air Traffic Control design. To reiterate, this is a dictate drafted, debated and decided by Capitol Hill. This is NOT a procedure which the FAA could either propose or implement without HR 658.

Now fifteen Members of the 114th Congress have introduced HR 3965 entitled “FAA Community Accountability Act of 2015” (FCAA). Rep. Gallego (D-AZ), who introduced this bill, stated that its enactment

“would establish a new process to compel the FAA to reconsider existing flight routes that are exposing residents to unacceptably high levels of aviation noise. The legislation would also end the presumption under current law that flight paths implemented through the NextGen program may not follow pre-existing routes, even when these paths better reflect land use around the airport.” [emphasis added]

All but two of the co-sponsors were in the House in 2012 when FRMA passed. Now they have decided to try to undo what Capitol Hill passed only 3 years and one Congressional session later.

Below is the text which the US legislature in 2012 decided the FAA should follow. The relevant text is a Congressional determination that NextGen, as examined at a national basis, would have a positive impact on the environment. Based on that macro finding made by the 248 Representatives and the 75 Senators who voted for FRMA, §213(c) authorized the FAA to make categorical exclusions in implementing ATC procedures in conjunction with implementing NextGen. Here is what that section states:

SEC. 213. 49 USC 40101 ACCELERATION OF NEXTGEN TECHNOLOGIES.

(c) Coordinated and Expedited Review.—

(1) In general. Determination.—Navigation performance and area navigation procedures developed, certified, published, or implemented under this section shall be presumed to be covered by a categorical exclusion (as defined in section 1508.4 of title 40, Code of Federal Regulations) under chapter 3 of FAA Order 1050.1E unless the Administrator determines that extraordinary circumstances exist with respect to the procedure.

(2) NextGen procedures.—Any navigation performance or other performance based navigation procedure developed, certified, published, or implemented that, in the determination of the Administrator, would result in measurable reductions in fuel consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, and noise, on a per flight basis, as compared to aircraft operations that follow existing instrument flight rules procedures in the same airspace, shall be presumed to have no significant affect on the quality of the human environment and the Administrator.

That statutory language provided a basis for the revision of the ATC architecture for 29 airports, all of which are currently in place and meeting the expectations of the FRMA Sec. 213(c)(1) determinations.

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The FAA has published micro benefit analyses for Atlanta, Charlotte, Cleveland-Detroit, D.C., Phoenix and others. The green results are impressive.

The public’s acceptance of these new flight tracks has not been uniformly positive, but they are in place, reducing the total noise impact on the communities and reducing the fuel burn at these airports. By definition these exercises tend to be zero sum games and those who get more or new noise are highly motivated. Their frustration is frequently heightened.

Scott McCartney of the Wall Street Journal has observed the tension between the FAA and the neighbors in this recent article and made the following relevant comments:

  • “The Federal Aviation Administration is redrawing the paths flights follow as it switches from ground-based to satellite navigation dubbed NextGen. Some communities say they weren’t fully warned about the new flight paths, and now neighborhoods that never had much airport noise are getting bombarded. Opposition groups from Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood to Silicon Valley are blitzing airports with hundreds of thousands of noise complaints and a few lawsuits to stop the changes.”
  • “The growing controversy poses a big new challenge to the U.S.’s effort to improve air transportation, boost capacity and speed up travel.”
  • “Part of the problem is the precision of satellite-based navigation. Planes used to tune in radio frequencies and flew toward beacons or simply were assigned directional headings by controllers. Flight paths ran across a range of airspace. Many houses got some noise each day; now fewer houses get more noise.”
  • “Today planes can follow prescribed routes with exacting precision. They are getting out of urban areas faster, which reduces overall noise.”
  • “‘The objectives are the right ones: significant track-mile cost savings, lower fuel burn and greenhouse gases,’ says Southwest Airlines chief executive Gary Kelly. ‘There’s no easy answer. We have to continue to work with local communities and the FAA.’”
  • “Communities charge the FAA with bungling implementation of the new routes, thinking only of what’s good for airlines and their passengers and not for people on the ground. They want environmental impact assessments. In an effort to speed up air-traffic modernization, Congress exempted the FAA in 2012 from full-blown environmental impact assessments if the FAA administrator determined new routes would reduce fuel consumption, emissions and noise, on a per-flight basis.”
  • “The agency is stepping up its outreach in cities where changes are still under consideration, like Los Angeles and San Diego. The FAA official says the agency is providing easier-to-understand materials, such as overlaying proposed routes on maps so communities can see which homes will be impacted.”

McCartney’s research and interviews of communities around the country confirm that the FAA’s ability to explain what it is doing and the neighbors’ comprehension of these recondite phenomena help exacerbate the local acceptance of the national program to improve the environment, increase efficiency and enhance safety.

No one ever exclaimed how easy it is to understand how air traffic operates, what impacts the efficiency of the flights, what elevations/directions/turns are best for safety. To then correlate those variables to how these choices impact those on the ground is an extremely difficult challenge.

The science of noise measurement is also a complex discipline. Psychoacoustics correlates the hard data of engineering measurement and the more subjective human perception of noise. All of these technical elements constitute the tools of airspace design in this context.

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It is a very complex task to use these factors to optimize safety, improve efficiency and minimize impact on the neighborhoods. This is not an exercise with infinite variations; starting with runways, incorporating geographical limits (mountains, areas blocked from radar coverage, other airports, etc.) the range of options is limited. Some of the flight tracks are almost preordained. Explaining this convoluted calculus to the citizens is a significant challenge for communicating.

Given those problems, it is not surprising that the public is upset, confused and even angry.

How should Congress fix those problems? Perhaps the FAA Community Accountability Act will provide answers:

  • The first is a reversal of the §213(c) determination of NextGen’s environmental benefits, a premise for the billions of tax dollars being spent to implement this new technology. Does the Community Accountability Act call into question those past and future appropriations?
  • The proposed Section 4(a) reverses the statutory “categorical exclusion” of FRMA IF the newly created Ombudsman or the airport operator determines that the “establishment or revision will have a significant adverse impact on the human environment in the vicinity of such airport.”
    • “Significant adverse impact on the human environment” is a NEPA defined term, but the FCAA does not incorporate that critical reference.n33
    • Airport operator (an odd term; proper word should be “airport sponsor”).
  • FCAA creates an Ombudsman (Sec. 3(a)) without any definition of what qualifications the individual should have.
    • 3(b)(1) indicates that this person should act as a liaison; that sounds like a useful tool to improve communications, but to be really effective the Ombudsman will need a staff with experts in a number of subjects.
    • The FCAA, to be effective, should specify that the Ombudsman should begin to be a liaison at the outset of the AT design process; that’s the point at which identification of alternatives will maximize the positive community impact. The Sec. 4(b) notice should be synched to the Ombudsman’s involvement.
  • FCAA Sec. 5 opens the proverbial Pandora’s Box. It empowers the Ombudsman or the Airport Operator to reopen any NextGen ATC revision since 2012 (the year of the FRMA’s effectiveness) if one of these two designated positions “written notification to the Administrator that the establishment or revision is resulting in a significant adverse impact on the human environment in the vicinity of such airport.”
    • Does that mean that the 19 airport complexes, where the AT routes and procedures are in place, can, may or must be reversed?
    • If an airport deems that the existing NextGen procedures create a significant adverse impact
      • On a neighborhood (“vicinity”), does that compel the process defined by Sec. 5(b)
        OR
      • Must the notification be based on a broader area than a neighborhood?
    • If the Sec. 5 (b) process results in proposed changes,
      • Must the FAA revise the previously approved patterns based on this determination; FCAA does not make that clear.
      • If the FAA must perform the revisions,
        • Must the new design be subjected to a full NEPA?
          and
        • How will the added capital and operational costs be paid for?
    • If the Sec. 5 process determines that the FAA original route is justified, can the communities opposing that pattern appeal that decision?

Creating a new process, adding a single official, creating status for an airport operator, promoting reversals of existing ATC NextGen patterns, voiding existing green ATC procedures and brandishing ill-defined terms will not add to the quality of life of the constituents of these 15 Members.

FCAA does not really address the underlying problem—the difficulty of involving the citizens in the complex process of designing an ATC architecture which balances the three concerns: safety, efficiency (decreased fuel burn) and noise impact. If the sponsors really want to see ATC designs which might satisfy all of the interested parties’ goals, then they should create the necessary resources to assure that the interests of their constituents can effectively be included in the FAA’s decision.  Those skills are best introduced at the beginning of the FAA review.

Processes, positions and reversal of prior Congressional decisions make good headlines. If instead the sponsors empowered the communities with technical competence to design ATC architecture which meets the noise impact, national environmental and safety goals, better path to better ATC paths will be more attainable. Such a bill might be titled The FAA Community Acoustical Amelioration Act.

 

PRESS RELEASE: Rep. Ruben Gallego Introduces Bipartisan Bill to Compel FAA to Reconsider Flight Routes and Address Flight Noise Problems

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3 Comments on "Congressional Fix to NextGen ATC Implementation uses Poor Process rather than Early Technical Intervention"

  1. It is certainly up for debate how “green” Nextgen really is other than saving the airline industry fuel$$$, at the expense of increased concentrated exhaust and noise over large swaths of residental areas, schools, playgrounds. Look at the heights the planes are flying 20 miles out from the airports now, vs pre NextGen. Much much lower traffic, and much much louder, miles from the airport. Concentrated air pollution accummulating on the homes, playgrounds below these higher concentrated routes. Absolute farce of a story airlines and FAA spinning of less noise, and greener footprint. The only thing greener is what’s lining the airline industries pockets. BIG GOVERNMENT CLUSTER #*!~. Follow the moneytrail vs. just how “green” NEXTGEN is. Why are more people not outraged at the fact this is being done without any due process/ eminent domaian?

  2. Joseph Schafer | November 14, 2015 at 2:56 am | Reply

    Your use of emphasis is telling. Like the FAA, you’ve played lip service to the noise impacts incurred by these changes and over-reach on the fuel savings claims.

    I cannot imagine that it is so complicated to jitter the flight paths on approach and departure in a systematized way such that certain neighborhoods aren’t impacted by 100% of the directional traffic in a given airspace. Yet instead of contemplating a simple technical fix, you argue for heaps more money. Wonder why that is?

  3. Hi, I have read many articles on the NOISE issue. If aircraft activity has declined in the last 10 yrs. Why do we need more “capacity”.
    Read the FAA’s own reports and the Inspector Generals report that says “aircraft activity” has declined by 23%. We are focusing on the immediate impact(NOISE) instead of a hidden agenda. Its not about fuel savings, its not about safety. thanks

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