Friday, March 29, 2013

Let's Talk about Air Traffic Control

Recently, we were contacted by a close relative who was concerned about aviation safety due to the possibility of a shortage of air traffic controllers. Never mind that most of the effects of the current budget impasse have been manufactured by the administration, it got us thinking that the public perception of the role air traffic controllers play in modern aviation has become somewhat skewed over time. Are they as essential to aviation safety as they once were? What role has technology played in the movement of air traffic? Let's investigate.

While the history of the heavier than air craft dates back to the Wright brothers in 1903, air traffic control has its beginnings in the 1920s when people with flags would signal pilots when they could take off and land. What we consider modern air traffic control, with controllers actively directing the flight of aircraft, didn't occur until after World War II when radar became commonplace. The post war air traffic system that was developed consisted of aircraft following radio beacons across the country, and then being directed or "vectored" by a controller using radar to an instrument approach for landing. Tower controllers would control traffic in the immediate vicinity of an airport and control takeoffs and landings. 

It is important to note that while airplanes flew for decades without any need for ground control, air traffic control or ATC exists for two separate and sometimes conflicting reasons: safety and efficiency. In the infancy of aviation there was a theory that came to be known as the "Big Sky Theory" which posited that the sky was so big and airplanes were so small that collisions were unlikely. As aircraft grew larger and faster, it was soon determined that the sky was not so big after all. There are no fender benders in the air. Any collision would likely result in fatalities in one or both aircraft. Several high profile mid-air collisions such as the Cerritos DC-9 accident in 1986 crystallized the need for improved and error free aircraft separation standards.

Concurrently, runways that were located near population centers became more valuable as air traffic increased. Construction of new airports in congested urban centers has become prohibitively expensive so the existing runways are needed to accommodate the greatest amount of traffic consistent with safe aircraft separation. At times the need for increased airspace utilization seemed to conflict with the need for the safest possible operation and all of this pressure was placed on the backs of air traffic controllers. Move traffic too inefficiently and the public complains about delays, but make one egregious error and people could be killed. Hence the popular depiction of an air traffic controller as a chain smoking coffee mainlining emotional wreck.

But is this still the case? As in most every other aspect of human endeavor, technology has made huge advancements and changed the very nature of aviation as a result. Let's start with technology improvements in aircraft. The introduction of inertial navigation systems (INS) beginning in the 1970s and later GPS systems have largely eliminated the need for commercial aircraft to navigate by using ground based radio aids. While equipment on modern aircraft can still receive and use these radio signals, they are not necessary for extended range navigation and hence controllers are not as necessary to make sure aircraft stay on these imaginary "highways" in the sky. Most flight plans today are "point to point" with the aircraft able to navigate directly to a point hundreds or even thousands of miles away on a direct route.

As a result of the Cerritos accident mentioned above, in-flight air traffic avoidance systems were developed and installed on all commercial aircraft. This system known as the traffic collision avoidance system or "TCAS", is an airborne data-link in which all participating aircraft with compatible equipment have a display in the cockpit showing the location and relative altitude of every other aircraft in the vicinity. The system not only detects possible threats, it can issue verbal and visual signals to the pilots in each aircraft to avoid a collision. All aircraft which wish to operate in the same airspace as commercial airliners must have some type of this equipment installed. This system has virtually eliminated the possibility of a mid-air collision.

Lastly, an array of technologies have been installed on modern transport aircraft which fall under the general category of automation. On board flight navigation computers are now able to fly complex arrivals and departures with highly precise altitude, lateral positioning, and airspeed. Whereas before this technology was deployed, a controller might have to issue dozens of instructions to each individual aircraft, now a controller might issue one clearance for the entire procedure which the aircraft will then follow from initial descent all the way to the runway.

Technology has also been improving the equipment that controllers themselves use albeit at a slower pace. Controllers now utilize predictive software tools which show where an aircraft will be at some future point based on current parameters. Flight clearances are now transmitted electronically to aircraft directly through a data link obviating the need for controllers to read them to pilots. The future of air traffic control technology will ultimately deconflict an aircraft from all potential collisions before it even takes off. Controllers today, like pilots, are becoming more system managers than hands-on operators. Artificial intelligence and other promising technologies will eventually mean fewer controllers will be needed to manage this system as it will only require human input by exception backed up by airborne systems and pilots.

While air traffic control is a government function in the U.S., there is no innate reason for this to be so. A private corporation called Nav Canada handles all traffic control functions in Canada. There are other private corporations which provide ATC functions in other countries thereby avoiding the inevitable politicization and cost inefficiencies of a government bureaucracy with equal or better safety records. 

Commercial aviation is already one of  the safest modes of transportation available and promises to become ever safer as new technologies are deployed. Were all radios to go dead today, rest assured that every airliner aloft would land safely. So the next time you hear of threats to air safety due to engineered budget crises, know that those threats are empty.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Whither Yon Pilot Shortage?

There is a crisis brewing in the airline industry. It's been brewing for many decades and may...or may not finally be arriving. It's the pilot shortage. New FAA rules for pilot training coupled with high retirement rates have been fingered as the latest culprits, but the pilot shortage has been threatened many times before only to be a no-show.

 Like any other career field, factors like wages, demographics, product demand, competing careers, and training costs all affect the numbers of pilots employed by airlines. Major airlines hire pilots primarily from the military and also civilian backgrounds such as regional and cargo carriers. The military trains its pilots to their own standards while regional and cargo carriers have historically depended on entry level pilots such as flight instructors or banner tow pilots with very little experience. They are given minimum training and started out as copilots.

Both of these traditional pipelines however, the military and civilian, are largely shut down. The military, weary of losing its expensively trained pilots to the airlines, now requires a lengthy commitment of service in exchange for pilot training. At the end of the commitment, many military pilots are close enough to retirement to have the draw of a pension keep them in the service. On the civilian side, strict new FAA rules for minimum experience have all but dried up the flow of new aviators into the career field. Coupled with the cuts in wages and bankruptcies in the last decade at most major airlines, the promise of a long and lucrative career with a major airline is not the draw it once was.

Retirements on the other hand are only making the need for replacement pilots worse. The mandatory retirement age for pilots was raised from age 60 to 65 back in 2007, partly as a response to the request of airlines with large numbers of retirement age pilots. That retirement holiday came to the end in late 2012 and retirements once again threaten the staffing of airlines just as the new FAA rules are set to be enforced. But the shortage will not affect all carriers equally.

Major airlines with the highest pay scales are unlikely to be as greatly affected by the pilot shortage. There is a ready pool of aviators in the regional airlines ready to make the jump from their lesser paying positions. The majors will poach experienced pilots from the regional carriers. It is the regional airlines which may suffer from a lack of staffing. While their wages have historically been low, the unspoken deal was that part of a regional pilot's remuneration was the flight hours he or she was accumulating.

The new FAA experience requirements upset this arrangement as pilots must now show up already having these hours just to get a job. This will add greatly to the cost of choosing to become a pilot by many thousands of dollars. The low wage model, then, will likely fail to attract sufficient numbers of aspiring pilots unwilling to assume large amounts of debt when the payoff of a left seat job at the majors may be decades off.

There are some factors which may slow the precipitation of the crisis. For one, there are still many thousands of pilots still on furlough from the major airlines. Presumably though, this slack may only delay the shortage onset as pilots are all eventually recalled. Secondly, with economic margins in the regional airlines being very tight, the mainstay of the regional fleets, the 50 seat regional jets are being retired in favor of 80 and 100 seat aircraft. With these larger aircraft, more passengers can be flown with the same or fewer pilots. It is questionable, though, whether these trends will be enough to forestall a staffing shortage.

The last variable in the equation is pilot wages. They will inevitably have to rise to attract more pilots into the profession, yet with margins being as tight as they are, any significant wage increase may make the operation uneconomic. Current wages are starting to trend up, but it is not clear whether this trend will last or attract new talent into what is becoming to be recognized as a difficult and uncertain career field with a payoff of a high wage job at a major airline a receding mirage.