Time Magazine Studies Air Travel Delays

I recently saw this article and graphic at Time.com. I’m assuming the same is printed in Time Magazine, which I’ll confirm after my next bloody visit to the dentist.

Time Article:  An Answer to Flight Delays?

I hold a private pilot certificate with a few hundred hours under my belt. I don’t have the authority of a commercial pilot or a busy controller, but I fly under ATC guidance, and practice instrument flights and approaches “in the system” as often as possible. In reading this article I feel akin to doctor who sees a puff feature on the heart or circulatory system that lacks any substance and is plastered with colorful pictures of angry faced fatty acids and “FYI” balloons making up the majority of “in depth” reporting. I’d guess said doctor or expert would hurl the magazine at the wall and scream, “No, No, No, that’s NOT how it is!”

While the basis of this article, “GPS is more efficient that radar,” is technically correct in that single line summary, there’s so many other issues that should be considered before selling GPS/Nextgen as the sure fire cure for all ATC woes. But first – kudos to whichever 5th grade class tackled the graphics and animations on “How air traffic control works.” My only correction is that you mislabeled Denver’s airport as DIA. DIA is a local moniker for Denver International Airport. The FAA designation is DEN. No big deal, still an A- for the group.

However in contrast to the kids that designed the animation, the writer of this  Time story, Tracy Samantha Schmidt, is obviously inexperienced and uneducated in the logistics and delicate ballets danced daily between pilots, ATC centers, approach controls, and towers. With recent articles such as “Is the Wii Good for your Health” and “The Backlash Against Facebook” I’m not surprised that the quality of the piece she penned is appalling.

The current ignorant sell, which Tracy Schmidt so eagerly jumped on, is to convince everyone that our current ATC system and method of routing planes is responsible for all your current air travel misery. Sounds like a great scapegoat huh? That and general aviation, which is another myth with private pilots everywhere are taking issue with.

Consider the air travel horror stories lately: Eight hours on the ground in New York. Feces rolling down the aisles on Continental. Northwest cancels half their daily flights.  Do these anecdotes sound like they have ANYTHING to do with air traffic control? Nobody hates an airline when they’re actually moving through the sky.

The animation highlights to a laughably disproportionate level the current method of routing cross country flights, and blames delays on the routings. The ridiculous animation shows a plane being bounced around the sky like a pinball, saying to itself in Droopy Dog voice “If only there was a way I could fly a straight line to my city” This simply isn’t the case. The vectors that planes fly are no further out of the way than an easy dog leg on your local city golf course. When extreme “zig zag” patterns do exist they’re localized and born from complex arrival and departure patterns in and out of major cities. These approaches exist in order to “funnel” planes from all directions into one or two arrival lineups for final approach. Often complex turns and “zig zags” are based from100 miles out in order to avoid terrain, other airports, departing traffic, and of course noise abatement.

Look at the graphic below and tell me you actually BELIEVE this is how you fly? It’s a complete lie.

Airlines are routed across country by VORs. These high range VORs are set in strategic locations to assist in “transitions”, guiding traffic in and out of major class B cities.  And airlines already do fly “direct” to these VORs and transition points, unlike the graphic above.

As a small-time private pilot I consider charts and traffic patterns beautiful pieces of art. The transitions and arrival procedures from high altitudes into busy airspace above an metropolitan area are well crafted and written, and these global charts are used worldwide by skilled and responsible pilots. They’re simply elegant in their technical sexiness.  I respect the work of pilots and controllers, which is why I found this statement so inflammatory:

“pilots rely on split-second decisions made by controllers to keep them on a route out of the heading of other planes.”

This is complete nonsense. This line makes is sound as if head on airline collisions are imminent at all times. Once planes are en-route they are under a “center” control. East and West routes have certain altitude assignments and maintain horizontal airspace at all times. Have you ever heard about a near-miss at 38,000 feet over Des Moines?  No.  What you hear about is near-misses in what’s termed the “airport environment”. Runways, final approaches, takeoffs, and ramps are where the majority of incurrences takes place, and thus need the most improvement. The lack of focus on the LOCAL AIRPORT ENVIRONMENT is what makes this article so wrong:

Consider the (misperceived) frustration at our ATC system as compared to the interstate freeway system. It’s wonderful to drive with the top down in the open country road, but often hellish to drive in urban areas. Pull up Google maps and look at interstate 15 between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. The interstate takes some turns and dog legs around mountains and terrain, but it’s direct and it connects the two cities just fine. Barring unforeseen events like accidents, (or weather in the aviation half of this analogy,) you’ll find a nice and pleasant drive (or flight) from Vegas to L.A.* But that last 40 miles into L.A.? You’ll sit there for another two hours suffering the miserable traffic into downtown.

This route is no different than flying from Albuquerque into Dallas or Chicago. Everything is peaches until you hit the congestion. By car it really doesn’t matter if you’re going 80 or 70 miles per hour on I-15, or even if you stop at McDonald’s for 20 minutes. The shit happens when you get to the cities. The air travel misery happens at overbooked hub airports and their local air traffic areas. Not en route.

This is at least addressed in one paragraph of the article:

The second problem is one of logistics. While NextGen’s technology would open up the skies to more planes, airports are still limited in terms of space, explains Darryl Jenkins, an aviation expert who consulted the White House during the 1990s and now teaches at Ohio State University. “As long as we are constrained at the airports, we are still going to have problems in the entire system,” he says. “We need more runways.” Blakey agrees that runways are great in a lot of circumstances, and she points to how a new one at Atlanta’s hub airport has eased congestion in the immediate area and nationwide. But NextGen does not include plans for more runways, and Blakey says that’s because of space constraints and local politics.

Instead of whining about zig zag patterns in the sky we should invest the money in people, resources (such as ground radar,) and improvements in the LOCAL airport environments at our largest hubs. The TOWER is where air traffic controllers are overworked, overtaxed, and because of this have increased chances of errors. Granted I haven’t sat next to him or her, but I’d bet the controller sitting in a dark room in Denver Center or Salt Lake Center watching planes meander over the big square states has a far less stressful position than approach control into Chicago. Why are people being told, or sold, a false worry about the LEAST problematic and least dangerous part of our ATC system?

The ATC SYSTEM isn’t to blame for your delays. Yes it’s old, yes GPS can route you direct, but it’s the AIRPORTS and city hubs that are to blame. Just because GPS is guiding you there doesn’t eliminate the need for the same number of controllers en route. And GPS doesn’t guarantee a faster gate arrival. If airlines still have 25 planes scheduled to arrive at 5pm, cramming them in and stacking them up over the hub won’t LAND them any faster. You still have minimum separation requirements on approach. And as shown with the Chicago area Janesville arrival (below), airplanes will STILL have to position and line up for approach miles from the city, rather than fly “direct” to the airport and drop into the gate. That fantasy is about as “straight” as Larry Craig after a three hour layover.

If people need something to blame, blame overscheduled flights, airports at capacity, and poor management by airlines at a LOCAL AIRPORTS run by local governments. Blame airlines that cram hundreds of people into planes during a snowstorm and never take off.

Personal examples: Blame United when it has five fully booked flights on Tuesday afternoon between L.A. and Denver, (two hubs,) and cancels TWO. THAT has nothing to do with the ATC system. Who do I blame when I’m visiting family in Grand Rapids and my Chicago commuter is on ground stop for 45 minutes due to traffic? I blame an airport with too many flights. Not the system that brings them there.

The “system” works fine. The airlines, schedules, and hub airports do not.

*Re: I-15 Vegas – L.A. Yes I know, don’t say it. Been there done that. It’s just a geographical analogy :)

6 thoughts on “Time Magazine Studies Air Travel Delays”

  1. Great write up, I myself have a SEL certificate. Tracey needs to check her facts, as the “zig zag” illistration is quite hilarious. What’s not funny is blaming GA for delays. I thought Time was more credable than that. Thanks for setting her straight.

  2. Thanks Mike. Yes blaming General Aviation for delays, who rarely even USE the busiest class B hub airports, is preposterous.

    And just because you’re flying in a corporate jet doesn’t mean you’re a fat cat millionaire. Medical staff, college sports teams, scientists, or just guys going to Vegas often charter small jets. It doesn’t make them rich. I held a part time job to obtain my private certificate, and I’m proud of it.

    The concept of small planes full of rich snots hogging up your airspace and airports is another falsehood the public is being sold.


  3. Nice rebuttal.

    The graphic that shows the zig-zag course taken on a flight versus the “direct” route is misleading. The supposed direct route does not take great circle navigation into account and is *NOT* the shortest route. In fact, as far as I can tell, the “taken” course is closer to correct. You can’t just draw a straight line 2000 miles East to West and get the shortest route.

    I long ago determined that the media is willing to report with great authority on things they have no experience or knowledge of. It only becomes clear when it is something that the reader does understand. What worries me, is that they are probably just as (in)accurate about everything else.

    The FAA and the ATA have been pushing hard to get their message of “NextGen will fix everything” out to the press and convince the taxpayers that it is the “bigwigs” in their private planes are causing the problems and robbing us blind. Meanwhile, we should ignore airline mismanagement, inefficient operations, bailouts and plundering of pensions.

    NetJets, private jets and their ilk are flourishing because of declining service from the airlines. Every time an executive flies private, they don’t buy a last minute, full-fare, First Class seat.

    Casimir (PPL SEL)

  4. THANK YOU for taking the time to point out the incredible disservice Time did with that story. Not only is it inaccurate but it is frightening in its subtle spin.

    Notice the very first slide, where the text suggests that the D.o.T. is blaming the airlines for refusing to modernize!! It refers to ATC as a “relic of the 1950s” and makes it sound as if the airlines are the ones getting in the way of the progressives at the FAA who want to modernize!!

    I DAMN NEAR CHOKED! What absolute b.s. As if the airlines had ANY choice but to use the FAA’s system (WHICH, B/T/W, IS STILL INCREDIBLY SAFE, AT LEAST THE ARTCC’s are).

    But why be surprised? Don’t we have a president who constantly blames Congress for ‘getting in the way’? As if Congress should just roll over and pass every bill he proposes. It’s SPIN, and they’re counting on an uneducated public to drink their Kool-Aid.

    Absolutely infuriating!


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