The DOT’s Poor Delay Fighting Plan Earns Them the Cranky Jackass Award

Cranky Jackass, Safety/Security

A couple of months ago, when delays were at their worst, the President came out and said he was going to fix things. Today, we learned exactly what he’s planning on doing and it’s a pretty sorry effort. Despite what you might expect, I’m not blaming the President for everything. I just blame him for picking the wrong Secretary of Transportation.

06_09_12 jackassIt’s the President’s responsibility to find a Secretary of Transportation who can actually addresses the issues going on in the country’s transportation system, and after today’s recommendations, I’m convinced Secretary Peters doesn’t really understand the problem here. That’s why she and her department have earned the coveted Cranky Jackass Award for their efforts.

If you’d like, you can read the Fact Sheet on the proposal or the President’s Speech, but I would say the best read is Secretary Peters’ press conference. The lack of organization is readily apparent in her speech. Enough pre-talk. Let’s dig in.

1) Of all the proposed changes, the one that they think is the most helpful is opening military airspace for commercial flights during the busy Thanksgiving weekend.

Hooray! More airspace! Oh wait, airspace isn’t the problem right now. A friend of mine who has intimate knowledge of the East Coast air traffic problems said it best:

“The greater use of the military deep water airspace is advantageous during the summer months when t-storms block overland routes up and down the coast. When was the last time we had East Coast thunderstorms during Thanksgiving or Christmas?”

Ah yes, good point. See, in the summer, thunderstorms close down airspace (you don’t want to fly through one of those) and that’s when things get sticky. But we rarely see that happen in the winter. In the winter, it’s not airspace problems, because snow storms don’t shut shut down airspace. Snow shuts down airports. So, these new routes aren’t going to do anything substantial.

Oh, and if that’s not enough, these are overwater routes. If they’re more than 50 miles offshore, this would fall under Extended Overwater Operations, and not every airline has the right equipment onboard to allow them to use those routes. Ugh.

Really, the saddest thing about this is the press conference. You’ll need to read the whole thing, but here are some excerpts from Secretary Peters and her VP of Support Operations Nancy Kalinowski.

QUESTION: But you still have that — you still have sort of the choke points if you are at the airport, you still have to land them — I mean, you might be able to get out of New York a little quicker, but on the other end you still have the runway capacity you have, as far as landing the planes.

MS. KALINOWSKI: We believe it’s going to be able to help us get out of New York quicker for the holiday season.

QUESTION: Do you have any idea how many airplanes you’ll be able to move — I mean, is there a number that you can quantify at all?

MS. KALINOWSKI: It’s going to depend on the weather. No.

SECRETARY PETERS: And by the way, let me introduce who Nancy is, so you know who she is. Nancy Kalinowski — and we’ll spell that for you later if you need that — she’s the vice president of support operations, basically the air traffic part of the organization. And I’m sorry, how many more planes, Nancy?

MS. KALINOWSKI: We’re not — we haven’t done those statistics, so we just feel like we know how much traffic we’re going to have for the holiday season and we’re just going to get them out of the New York area quicker, especially —

Holy crap. Talk about confusion. They say this is going to be great, but they have no idea how many planes it will help move. Uh, ok. But I really shouldn’t say “they,” because on Kalinowski says that. Right after she says it, Peters asks here the same question that Kalinowski said she couldn’t answer just two seconds earlier! This is just too much. But there’s more.

QUESTION: A quick follow up to what you just said. You said you were making, effectively, two new airways available. How many exist now?

MS. KALINOWSKI: Well, there are no airways through that airspace now.

QUESTION: Right, right, I know. But what I’m saying is, if you’re thinking of it like a consumer does, how many lanes currently exist, and you’re adding two more?

MS. KALINOWSKI: We’re essentially adding to a route which allows airplanes to move up and down through that airspace.

SECRETARY PETERS: Nancy, absent opening these two new routes, how many routes are available under the normal configuration?

MS. KALINOWSKI: Oh, we have hundreds of routes up and down the East Coat. I mean —

QUESTION: So how much of a percentage increase in capacity is this?

MS. KALINOWSKI: It’s not necessarily a capacity; it’s more of an efficiency. It’s an ability to have an alternative if we have bad weather on the East Coast. I mean, every day planes move up and down the East Coast. They move over land, some of them move slightly off the coast, or they use what we call the amber routes, which are outside of the warning area airspace.

QUESTION: So if the weather was perfectly clear during the Thanksgiving period, this actually wouldn’t really help that much. It would really help only if there was bad weather; it gives you additional routes to reroute planes?

MS. KALINOWSKI: It will especially help during the bad weather. But I think many of the airlines are going to take advantage of these routes, even if we have good weather up and down the East Coast.

07_11_16 secpeters

ARRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH!!!!! I think my head just exploded. What is wrong with you people?!?!? Ok, enough. Let’s say what else they’re going to do.

2) “. . . impose a holiday moratorium on maintenance projects that are not time-sensitive. . . .”

Really? What made you think that non-essential work would be worth doing during the busy season of the year in the first place? But I really want to know what they’re talking about here specifically. I haven’t seen any specifics on what projects are being stopped that will positively impact delays.

3) “The FAA is partnering with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to reduce bottlenecks in the New York metro area . . . .”

These guys have to learn to keep their stories straight here. First, they said that JFK was a mess and they’d fix it, so they made some operational tweaks and promised to make more. But wait. Then they decided that they need to cap flights at an artificially low 80-81 flights per hour at the airport during peak times even though they were trying to expand the airport’s capacity. Now they’re talking about congestion pricing to encourage airlines to use off peak times, but what about all those capacity increases that will make those unnecessary? Back and forth and back and forth.

The priority should absolutely be to increase capacity. If you can’t do it quickly enough, then you should enact congestion pricing or use caps to restrict traffic temporarily, but it certainly doesn’t make sense to do both at the same time. What is the point of the capacity increase if you’re just going to restrict operations?

4) “The Department of Transportation (DOT) and the FAA are encouraging airlines to take their own measures to prevent delays.”

Hah! That’s awesome. It’s exactly what the airlines want to hear. Hey airlines – you guys come up with something and we’ll take credit for it.

5) “Double the amount of compensation passengers receive when they are forced off overbooked flights.”

This really won’t do much to reduce delays, but it will encourage airlines to become more conservative when it comes to overbooking. I’m not really against this idea so much, but I don’t think it’s going to help delays either.

6) “Require airlines to collect and provide DOT with better data on the sources of flight delays.”

They say they want more information about the causes of delays and the the amount of time they sit on the ground, but that information is out there. I can find the gate times on the airline website and I can find the actual wheels-up and wheels-down times at FlightAware. Causes are reported in each DOT monthly report, but I guess they want more details? More importantly . . . what are they going to do with it?

The only action I’ve seen in this area is regarding chronically delayed flights. If a flight is delayed more than 70% of the time, the government wants to consider that deceptive practices and that means big monetary penalties. I like this idea, actually. Delays happen for a variety of reasons, but if you’re delayed more than 70% of the time, it’s either the worst weather month ever (in which case this will be problematic), or the flight isn’t scheduled properly. But that information is out there free for anyone who wants it, so I don’t know what this request will do.

7) “. . .mandatory contingency plans to aid stranded passengers and penalties for chronically delayed flights.”

I get nervous when something sounds like a passenger bill of rights, but this is actually not all bad. They’re letting the airlines decide what goes into the contract, but the DOT is going to require that it be legally binding. Again, this won’t help delays at all, but it could have an impact depending upon what the airlines put in there.

8) “The FAA is also going to better inform consumers by providing real-time updates on whether flights at a particular airport are on time or delayed, and by how much. This information will be available at:”

Um, they’ve been doing this for years. I like how they try to act like they’re doing something great here.

9) “To Solve Delay Problems In The Long Term, Congress Must Pass Legislation Modernizing Our Aviation System”

Ziiiiiiiiiing! There’s the whole point of this thing. Let’s bring politics in to the picture. After this headline, the Fact Sheet goes on and on saying how Congress has to act or everyone is screwed. I find it amazing that the President seems to have no qualms about expanding the powers of the presidency in other areas, but when it comes to fixing the problem here, he just punts and blames Congress.

Oh man, this is just sad. And that’s why the DOT and Secretary Peters have earned themselves the Cranky Jackass Award. Congratulations.

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9 comments on “The DOT’s Poor Delay Fighting Plan Earns Them the Cranky Jackass Award

  1. Cranky,

    I love your blog. I read it daily, and find everything that you write to be very informative and well-written. While I don’t disagree with anything you wrote in this posting, I was curious, what specific, measurable steps would you take if someone were to make you Secretary of Transportation?

  2. This needs a triple jackass award. It’s absolute nonsense. It’s not only stupid but laughably innacurate to think that straightening out minor “dog legs” in en route traffic will have ANY effect on the miserable experience that happens at the AIRPORT ENVIRONMENT level.

    I can confidentally state, even though I’m only a small time private pilot, that this will have absolutely NO bearing on airport congestion whatsoever. The problem isn’t lack of space in the sky or the availability of routes. It all comes down to the airport environment being TOO crowded, and having TOO MANY flights scheduled.

    The stupily titled “express lane” isn’t doing ANYTHING! It’s NOT redesigning complex approach and departure procedures. It’s not spacing or rebuilding runways at tight airports to facilitate simoutaneous poor weather landings. It’s NOT improving ground radar and comms to reduce near misses or incurrences. These these only got a passing mention by saying the FAA “would take other steps”. What does that mean:?

    If airlines and airports 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.

    This “solution” is no different than building eight lanes on the rural interstates, but keeping all but one lane open through heavy construction approaching the big cities at rush hour.

    Even those without knowledge of aviation and ATC systems can see the problem ISN’T in the sky – it’s at the airport. As a commenter on the CNN story stated: This is just window dressing.

    I’m certainly not the highest expert in aviation, but I recognize BS, and to have a press conference and sell a “express lane through the east coast” is simply ridiculous.


  3. Great question. It’s really easy for me to sit on my soapbox and criticize others without having a plan of my own, right?

    It seems to me that Peters is looking for low hanging fruit here. She makes a call to the military, asks if they can use a little airspace and it’s done. It makes it look like she’s doing something when it probably won’t help right now.

    During the summer? Yeah, if she could get that implemented more often during the summer then it will help when t-storms are blocking the regular routes. But I would imagine the military isn’t doing as many exercises during Thanksgiving or Christmas as they will be during the rest of the year, so that’ll be tougher.

    During the winter, the focus needs to be on airports. You really run into trouble when snow moves in, because a heavy snow can shut down an airport if the plows can’t keep up. So, make sure the major airports have adequate snow removal and deicing equipment to keep things moving as best they can.

    Then, make sure you are efficiently using the runways you have so that you can launch as many aircraft as possible in quick succession. Also make sure you’re using as many departure routes as possible to make traffic flow as efficient as possible. I know they are not doing this right now, and they’re slow to make changes due to all the politics of aircraft noise.

    If a snow storm does hit, you need to have a contingency plan to help keep people comfortable. I would like to see a redesign of the system for taxiing that wouldn’t require planes to sit in line for hours on end.

    In the long run, we need more and better-spaced runways and more terminals to handle passenger growth. And yes, we should have free flight so that airplanes are not required to stay on airways. But those are long term projects.

  4. I always take the position to connect as far west as possible, and in the wintertime, as far south as possible.

    This usually avoids that whole northeast ATC mess.

  5. Ah yes the Politican’s Syllogism, with a twist.

    We must do something
    This is something
    Therefore we must do this


    We must look like we are doing something
    Here’s a bunch of crap that sounds like something
    Therefore let’s say we are doing this

  6. Cranky, this has to be one of your best posts.

    I wonder who our next Secretary of Transportation will be? Hopefully we will get someone who understands the industry — along with a President, Representatives and Senators who will also stand up for adequate FAA funding as well.

  7. Cranky,

    Good post and good that you took the time to try and spell out a bit of your thinking on solutions. However, from reading your post, I’m not really certain what you are expecting from the government. Your indicate that main issues in the winter are the airports themselves and trying to do everything possible to keep existing capacity running.

    At the end of it all, it thus seems like we need a major national investment in our air transit infrastructure. I say National as I imagine it would have to be funded by the federal government (via some national flight tax), rather than the individual localities. Localities won’t be able to put the right level of investment in this because, what it seems you really need to is to build emergency capacity that would likely be uneconomic for the locality during the bulk of the year, but the absence of which is extremely costly to the national sysetem (not to mention national psyche – missed holidays, etc) during key periods.

    Am I wrong? How else do you see breaking the capacity problem?

    Random Qs:
    A few other random Q’s to follow up on from your post:
    – For the layman, what actual controls (direct power, indirect power — eg funding, etc) does the DOT/ FAA have over airports and airport operations?
    – Is a lack of adequate snow clearing/ de-icing equipment really an issue at most large, at risk markets? Who is responsible for making those investment decisions? Who is responsible for paying for them? Does it come from landing fees?
    – How can the federal government help with local airports violating local air traffic noise? Can the FAA/ DOT override local ordinances?
    – Is the system for taxiing at airports a national one or is their independent decision making by the local port authorities/ airports?

    And, as I sit here in a city brought to a halt by yet another transit strike, may I remind you, in the spirit of the season, to remember to give thanks this week to Ronald Reagon for breaking the air traffic controllers…

    – Frog Man

  8. Lots of good questions, Frog Man. Too bad I have a job so I can’t spend all day working on them. But here’s what I know (or think I know):

    > At the end of it all, it thus seems like we need a major > national investment in our air transit infrastructure. .
    > . . Am I wrong? How else do you see breaking the
    > capacity problem?

    Well, that’s a broad question. If you’re talking specifically about air traffic control infrastructure then yes, that’s certainly a federal job because it’s interstate in scope. That’s what they keep arguing about in the FAA reauthorization right now because they want to fund the new system.

    But if you’re talking about airports, it’s a big jumble of responsibility split between the feds, the state, and local governments. There are only a handful of airports in the US that truly need additional infrastructure. If you can get SFO to spread their runways out and JFK and ORD to add some more runways, you’re in much better shape on that front.

    In fact, ORD is doing just that. It’s part of the mammoth ORD expansion program and yes, there is quite a bit of federal funding in there. Though I don’t have the FAA budget in front of me, I’d imagine that you could funnel enough money into those three airports to make big changes without having to add a new tax.

    > For the layman, what actual controls (direct power,
    > indirect power — eg funding, etc) does the DOT/ FAA
    > have over airports and airport operations?

    Oh man, you’re really going to test me on some of these. Most large airport projects end up needing federal funding so the FAA has a direct impact in those areas even if the decision to complete the projects isn’t necessarily their own. As far as airport operations go, that’s an FAA decision. So when JFK recently starting using their runways more efficiently, that came from the FAA.

    > Is a lack of adequate snow clearing/ de-icing equipment
    > really an issue at most large, at risk markets? Who is
    > responsible for making those investment decisions? Who
    > is responsible for paying for them? Does it come from
    > landing fees?

    This is not my area of expertise so maybe others would know better. But, my understanding is that the airport managers are in charge of snow removal while the individual airlines are in charge of deicing their aircraft. Some airports have massive deicing pads that make traffic flow much better, but that requires a lot of space and money to make it happen. Snow removal is probably a lot trickier than I would imagine. In a huge blizzard, no amount of equipment is going to clear runways fast enough, but I would assume there are other times where better equipment could make things happen.

    > How can the federal government help with local airports
    > violating local air traffic noise? Can the FAA/ DOT
    > override local ordinances?

    If there are specific agreements about noise, then I would think it would require renegotiation. Though the government can probably override if it’s absolutely necessary. But I was speaking more about areas that don’t have noise regulation but will raise hell if the government tries to move airplanes over their heads. They can push that through if they want because there are no regulations at that point.

    > Is the system for taxiing at airports a national one or
    > is their independent decision making by the local port
    > authorities/ airports?

    I believe that taxiing is under airfield operations and is handled by the FAA. You have to have standardization globally to avoid causing major accidents, so the ICAO is probably involved as well. There are changes that are being discussed on the national level including improved signaling and on-ground computer simulations that would show positions of every aircraft even in dense fog. Testing may happen at individual airfields, but the FAA is responsible.

    These are some really good, really tough questions, and I tried to answer to the best of my knowledge. If other readers know more, please comment/correct me.

  9. Really good and really interesting post. I expect (and other readers maybe :)) new useful posts from you!
    Good luck and successes in blogging!

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