Thursday, September 28, 2017

How Do Pilots Check the Weather Before Flying?

Honeywell's GoDirect Weather Information Service app displayed on an iPad

An old aviation aphorism states that there are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots. Going flying without first checking the weather would be sort of like gambling in a casino but with no way to win and many ways to lose. So it is universally recognized by all pilots that one of the keys to a long and prosperous aviation career involves thoroughly checking the weather before committing aviation.

The methods that pilots have used over the years to investigate the weather along their route and at their destination have been continuously updated over the years through advances in technology. The Weather Bureau, a predecessor to the National Weather Service, first established an aerological department in 1914 to meet the growing needs of aviation.

Since that time, government-provided weather services have been the backbone of aviation weather, but that is changing. With the reality of the internet, aviation weather became more democratized and the advent of wireless connectivity means it has never been easier to have access to high quality weather information and graphics wherever a signal is available.

There are many products currently available for pilots to use as a source for weather information, but one I've been using has been a standout. Honeywell's GoDirect Weather Information Service (WIS) is a fully functioned product for presenting a range of weather observations and forecasts to include high quality graphics for pilots. The app is available for both Windows and iOS, but I've been using it on an iPad. It is available from the Apple app store and installed easily.

It's Fast!

The first thing I noticed about this app is that it's fast. I mean really fast. I have used many other weather apps and it seems that waiting for a radar picture to load can take forever. That is not the case with WIS. Hit the weather uplink button and your weather data is displayed within less than a second. I realize that this time will vary depending on the speed of your underlying data connection, but the uplink was fast in comparison to other products I've used with the same connection.

The data that you get is everything you need to safely plan and fly your trip. Multiple overlays are available on the map display to show as much or as little data as you care to see. Again, toggling overlays on or off is nearly instantaneous with no discernible lag to render graphics. Did I mention that the software is fast?

The available map overlays include terrain, airports, navaids, waypoints, and political boundaries. Most of these are user selectable to provide information when needed or to de-clutter the display when not needed. Another feature of the app that I have really come to appreciate is an automatic map de-clutter feature that displays information based on zoom level.

You would think that such a feature would be standard on most software to be used while performing an intensive task such as flying, but that is sadly not the case. Fumbling through menus to de-clutter a map when you might be trying to avoid a storm is not an optimal use of cognitive resources. The engineers at Honeywell have figured this out, and data such as waypoints, navaids, and airports will automatically change presentation based upon the zoom level. Again, this was quite fast with no lag time for rendering. I found this feature quite useful and it made the software a pleasure to use.

You're In Control

When flying in challenging weather, knowing what has happened in the past can be just as important as knowing what the current conditions and forecasts are. Honeywell has included an intuitive time slider on the map display which allows pilots to easily see conditions up to three hours old. Historical data can be displayed as an animation or statically.

And just as the observations time slider allows a look at past conditions, the app also includes a future time slider to display forecasts up to 24 hours ahead of the current time.

The program presents radar, satellite, and lightning data along with available PIREPS in an easily readable and selectable map format. Clicking on any observation or forecast feature will display a window showing the details of that particular area. All of these features worked together to make the product easy to use while flying.

In addition to knowing the "when" of the current and forecast weather, a Flight Level selector lets you control the "where." Moving this selector will present the clear air turbulence (CAT), winds and icing forecasts for your chosen flight level. Satellite observation is also selectable using this slider. This again reinforces the philosophy of only seeing that information which is of use while not cluttering up the display with extraneous data.

Another powerful tool which I found to be very useful is the Vertical Situation Display (VSD). Showing a vertical slice or profile view of weather along the loaded flight plan, it is easy to determine where icing, turbulence and CB tops lie along your route. These things can be determined without the display, but seeing a graphical display is immensely helpful when planning a route. Again, the Honeywell engineers seem to have really put some thought into how this product will be used.

Flight Plans Made Easy

And speaking of flight plans, WIS makes loading and editing flight plans a snap. Flight plans can be loaded from Honeywell's GoDirect Services, pasted from the clipboard or entered directly. Once loaded, plans are easily edited. It is important to note that the program accepts routing in standard ICAO terms, so don't forget to add "DCT" when proceeding directly between fixes. Plans are then rendered as an overlay on the map display.

The program even has an “own ship” centering feature which can access the GPS signal from the device on which it is installed. Tracking your own progress has never been easier.

A related airports list adds easily accessible weather information from selected airports to a side panel. The best part of this feature is that when refreshed, only data for selected airports will be uplinked, thereby saving data costs.

If you are interested in seeing the weather at any one particular airport, just clicking on the airport symbol on the map brings up a window in which the current METAR, ATIS, and TAF can be instantly displayed. This was probably my favorite feature saving me multiple steps in obtaining this information from several separate sources. It's all conveniently aggregated into one place.

In Conclusion

We are living in a golden age of weather information which is available for pilots to plan and fly. But as with any data stream, the presentation and analysis of that information can be just as important as the data itself. A smart and intuitive interface is essential for proper flight planning and conduct, and Honeywell's GoDirect Weather Information Service provides that in spades. Equally useful for both pros and recreational pilots, it’s an easy recommendation for me to make.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Air Traffic Control Reform: The Battle of the Fat Cats

Should air traffic control be privatized?
Should air traffic control be privatized?

There is a battle royale brewing over the future of Air Traffic Control in the US which could affect much of the nation's air transportation system. While the usual ideologically pro and anti privatization partisans are playing their roles to perfection, there is an array of very well heeled interests on both sides of this legislative food fight. This has scrambled the rich and powerful vs. the little guy narrative which usually attends these sorts of melees.

Some Background

You may or may not have been following the story about efforts to corporatize and privatize the FAA's Air Traffic Control Services (ATCS), so here's the story so far:

Organized under the DOT, the FAA is divided into several divisions which have responsibility for the nation's air transportation system. The major divisions in the FAA are responsible separately for airports, aviation safety, space transportation, and air traffic control services. It is this last division, air traffic control services, that has become a political football in recent years.

The idea of privatizing ATCS dates back to 1985 when an airline industry trade group, the Air Transport Association (ATA), published a paper calling for a federal corporation to take control of air traffic control. Since then, the idea has percolated in think tanks and resulted in various legislative efforts, but has never had enough support to pass into law. Interestingly, there have been efforts on both sides of the political aisle for privatization including a 1994 proposal from Vice President Al Gore's reinventing government initiative.

Fast forward to today and the idea is once again back within striking distance of becoming a reality due to the Trump administration's desire to reduce costs for businesses while both branches of Congress also belong to Republicans. President Trump held a meeting for airline executives shortly after taking office where he stated support for the idea of ATCS privatization, which has been somewhat of a holy grail for the airlines.

The idea is to spin off the FAA's ATC services into a not-for-profit corporation which would be funded by user fees (with some carve outs). This corporation would be controlled by a board consisting of stakeholders from across the industry. Over 50 countries around the world including Canada have adopted a similar structure for their air traffic services to date.

The mechanism by which privatization of ATC would occur is the current FAA spending reauthorization bill. Now working its way through Congress, Senate Bill 1405 does not include provisions for privatization while the competing House Bill 2997, called the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform & Reauthorization Act (or AIRR Act.), does include the privatization of ATC.

Funded through September 30, the FAA will need a short term authorization to continue to function without the passage and reconciliation of these two bills. Whether ATC privatization survives the legislative sausage making process is an open question.

As alluded to above, though, some interesting alliances have been formed for both the pro and anti privatization sides, and they aren't exactly lining up as how you might expect. For starters, there are some very well connected and deep pocketed players on both sides. Shall we have a look?

The Pro Side

The airlines are predictably the most pro-privatization players on the field as they have the most to gain through the legislation. Operating about 27,000 flights daily carrying about 2 million passengers, the airlines see delayed technology rollouts and inefficiencies in the current system as a direct threat to their business model. 

As Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher once put it, "In no other industry does a government bureaucracy have direct control over the production line of a multi billion dollar industry." With about $200 billion in revenue for 2016, US airlines have quite a bit on the line and also the means to advance their cause for a more streamlined ATC system.

An unlikely voice on the pro side is that of the air traffic controllers themselves. The controllers, through their union (NATCA), have come out decidedly in favor of privatization. It is rare that a public employee union would come out in favor of the privatization of their own jobs, but reviewing their materials reveals a rare exercise in realpolitik. 

The controllers complain that their livelihoods are a constant political football subject to the political whims of the day concerning FAA funding and disruptions such as sequestration. In their opinion, a not-for-profit air traffic corporation funded by user fees would provide needed stability and growth to their career field. 

The Anti Side

Some of the most ardent opponents of the privatization of ATC services are the owners of small privately owned aircraft. Known as "general aviation" (GA) and represented by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) this group is fiercely opposed to the scheme, and probably with good reason.

With the FAA and by extension air traffic control services currently funded by excise taxes on fuel, the fear is that a new user fee regime would end up sticking GA pilots with higher operating costs. This may or may not be true, but if you are happy with the current arrangement, you will be skeptical of any changes. It should be noted, though, that the legislation currently under consideration keeps the GA funding method through excise taxes on fuel the same as it currently exists.

One argument used against GA owners is the allegation that they consume ATC services in excess of what they pay into the system and therefore like this arrangement just as it is. The airlines, who pay excise taxes on the gargantuan amount of fuel they consume, would allegedly like a change to a user fee system which would shift away some of their cost burden. The challenge of any ATC reorganization will be to determine the amount of ATC services each group consumes and to then apportion the costs in relation to that consumption; no easy task when each side mistrusts the other.

The last group on the anti side are the owners of private business aircraft or business jets. These people are perhaps the fattest cats in the sky. They have thrown their lot in with general aviation believing that the airlines would have undue influence in a new air traffic control corporation and restrict their operations into major airports where a bizjet carrying two or three passengers can take up as much airspace as an airliner carrying hundreds.

In Conclusion

How this fight eventually ends is really anyone's guess. You might believe that because the Republicans control both the House and Senate that passage would be a slam dunk, but that is apparently not the case. The partisans on both sides of the debate have their champions in Congress and very deep pockets to keep them in the fight.

I'll admit to being personally agnostic on this issue. From my perspective as an operator and primary consumer of ATC services, there is little doubt that the system could use a boost in efficiency and a more rapid deployment of promised technology. That said, as currently structured, the system does handle an amazing number of aircraft and is staffed by dedicated and competent professionals.

And it should be noted, that even though the holy cause of safety may be invoked by either the pro or anti side, I don't believe any questions of safety are relevant in this debate. Our current aviation system is about as safe as it can be made short of parking airplanes and it is likely to stay that way in any reorganization.