Phoenix’s Battle with FAA’s NextGen ATC implementation requires expert knowledge of the science and art of design

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The City of Phoenix is frustrated with the FAA’s implementation of a set of departure and arrival routes over their neighborhoods. As noted in the article, the Council has voted to return to the previous pattern. If implemented, that’s merely a first step. Once “calm” is restored, there must be efforts to develop a new proposal to meet the FAA’s goals. Initiative is a huge advantage in the creation of a new ATC architecture; the communities would be well served to put forth their own concept of what would be a win/win alternative.

The design of airspace is a complex science with more than a soupcon of art. The FAA is engaged in a systematic campaign of revising the air traffic control patterns around airports, all over the country, in order to align the traffic routes with the benefits of the NextGen navigational precision guidance. Any ATC decision to draw line in its maps involves a complex balancing of safety, environment (both in terms of the airlines’ consumption of fuel and the flights noise impacts on the ground) and efficiency. That is a complex calculus and it is difficult to discern which of the factors drove the choice of one alternative, after the fact. To create a new sheet of lines for these operations is even more recondite.

To put forward a proposed ATC structure, which will be credible to the FAA, the person has to have knowledge of (1) comprehensive aircraft performance (safe and efficient) , (2) the capabilities of the navigational system on board and on the ground, (3) the way in which flights can flow safely and efficiently, (4) the skill required of the controllers to guide the planes through the proposed maneuvers, (5) the capacity of the runways/taxiways to accept landings, the throughput from the takeoffs to the surrounding TRACON and ARTCC airspace, (6) alternative procedures in the event of some error AND (7) the impacts of these alternatives on the people on the ground. The FAA is an expert at all of the first six factors; they understand the science of the last element, but may lack some of the sensitivity associated with understanding the neighborhood needs.

The essential ingredient of the FAA’s management of new airspace proposals is their mastery of this complex calculus. Once their proposal is on the table it is difficult, if not impossible, to convince the person(s) who designed the routes to alter any aspect materially.

One way to reverse the “power” of the proposer’s position is to start the process with a community-based ATC architecture. This initiative must include all of the seven elements listed above. Failing to incorporate critical elements of RNV benefits, to marginalize safety or to include the procedures upon which controllers rely guarantees that the FAA team receiving this draft can belittle, reject it and replace it with their agency tracks and procedures.

It would behoove the City of Phoenix and its fellow communities to include the expertise necessary to design a sound proposal, one which is sensitive to neighborhoods’ needs and which maximizes the safety/efficiency/environmental parameters which are the FAA’s primary metrics.

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