It was a nice VFR Friday afternoon in early summer when I was returning home to Westchester County Airport just north of New York City. In other words, it was just about as bad as air traffic – or ground traffic, for that matter – gets in the Northeast. Summer and a Friday add up to going nowhere fast.
Before being handed off to the sector that actually controls airplanes in and out of Westchester, a New York Approach controller told me to expect delaying vectors. Not a hold, but just assigned headings that would take me in at least one big 360-degree loop. No surprise there. Vectors are more common around New York than real holds, and delays of any type are to be expected at rush hour. I pulled the power back as far as possible. No point going fast with the tail pointed at the destination.
But just as I was slowing down the controller told me to speed up, intercept the localizer to Runway 16 and change frequency to the final approach control sector. The delays vanished and I was cleared for a visual approach – number four in line – as soon as I had the traffic ahead in sight.
When I was handed to the tower the controller was busy fielding “how much longer” questions from airplanes waiting to take off. Two crews reported that they had to shut down engines or get out of line and go back for more fuel. The tower controller barely had time to respond to those of us calling in on final approach for all the queries and carping coming from the taxiway. What’s going on?
The answer from the tower controller to everyone was that New York Approach decided to clear out its airspace and was leaving no breaks in the stream. Airplanes were being handed to the tower no more than two to three miles apart in an unbroken conga line. As I crossed the numbers I counted 19 jets of all sizes, plus a smattering of piston airplanes, lined up on both sides of the runway waiting to go. Okay, I finished the count on rollout and taxi because it was hard to count and flare at the same time.
The point of this – other than the obvious, that New York is a pain in the butt at rush hour – is that pavement, not airspace, is the fundamental congestion problem. There was plenty of space in the air, but only one airplane could use the runway at a time, and it was being used for landings. If Westchester had a parallel runway, takeoffs could have been conducted as soon as the landing airplane was down and rolling. Without that extra runway, there was no way capacity could be increased. Pilots were doing an excellent job of spacing themselves on the visual approach, and the airplane ahead was turning off the runway as the next one was nearing the numbers. Only formation landings could have increased capacity, and nobody is ready for that.
Every pilot knows that it is concrete, not airspace, that puts the final limit on capacity, but to hear the airlines argue for new fees and limits on business aviation, you would think it is the opposite. And the FAA sides with the airlines. The administrator has repeatedly said that without an overhaul of the airspace system, and without implementation of a new automatic dependent surveillance system based on GPS, air travel will become impossible. I, too, favor the precision of an ADS-B airspace system, but I know that it can’t solve the real problem, which is lack of runways where we need them.
To show you how flexible and innovative our present airspace system can be in the face of almost impossible runway conflict and congestion, look at Teterboro Airport just west of New York City. Teterboro’s Runway 19 points almost directly at Newark, and the airports are only a few miles apart. When wind direction dictates that Runway 19 be used at Teterboro, the same wind means the parallel Runway 22s will be active at Newark. The stream of airliners crossing Teterboro on final for Runway 22 at Newark are so low they don’t allow enough room for standard IFR separation for Runway 19 departures from Teterboro.
The solution for Teterboro departures, at least when the weather is 3,000 foot overcast with three miles visibility or better, is the unique Dalton departure. Pilots who ask for the Dalton – it cannot be assigned without pilot request – take off on Runway 19, but are actually departing VFR. At 800 feet in the climb a pilot flying the Dalton turns right to 280 degrees and continues the climb to 1,300 feet with a maximum speed limit of 190 knots. As soon as the turn is completed and the controllers issue a clearance to climb above 1,300 feet, the flight is automatically converted from VFR to IFR and everything is back to normal ATC procedures.
The Dalton is a bit of a rule beater because it puts the burden to maintaining separation on the pilot departing Teterboro for the first few miles because an airplane approaching Newark may not always have the full 1,000-foot vertical separation IFR standards require. But it’s no different than a visual approach where traffic separation obligation transfers to the pilots, and it gets airplanes out of Teterboro without having to wait for a gap in the stream of Newark arrivals.
All manner of similar procedures are being designed around the world to take advantage of the precise navigation that flight management systems (FMS) have been delivering for years. These procedures have different names, but can be lumped under the category of required navigation performance (RNP) and they are more common in Europe now than in the United States. RNP procedures will allow pilots to follow the precise guidance already available in most airplanes to remain clear of other arriving or departing traffic, something that is not possible with controller assigned headings that are the common form of departure or arrival guidance.
The majority of airplanes using busy IFR airspace could meet RNP standards right now, if there was a reason to do so. But the FAA has been slow to implement RNP procedures that could be done now, apparently waiting for some silver bullet coming in the form of an entirely new air traffic control system. Meanwhile, the real problem of lack of runways, and of runway configurations that prevent simultaneous operations, is not mentioned.
Perhaps the FAA realizes that runways are not going to be added or reconfigured in the most congested areas of the country, so it chooses to focus on issues in the air. I, too, am resigned to the fact that no new airports are going to be built or runways added where congestion is greatest, but I’m not willing to sell the traveling public or pilots a bill of goods that the answer to congestion relief is in the air. The FAA and airlines are really perpetrating a fraud on the traveling public by promising that a new airspace system can remove all or most delays. The only time we don’t have enough air to go around is when thunderstorms fill the spots airplanes want to fly in, and no ATC system is going to move a thunderstorm.
I wish that the FAA would stop complaining about the new taxes it needs from business aviation and go to work finding more immediate solutions like the Dalton departure. We need to squeeze every last drop of capacity out of the runways that exist in the Northeast, South Florida, Southern California and the other places where new airport construction is not going to happen. ADS-B, or any other new ATC system, can be an improvement, but it won’t be a solution to the lack of pavement on the ground.
Facing Up to Carbon Pollution My arms are not wrapped around a tree as I write this. In fact, after one of the most severe pollen plagues in the Northeast this spring and early summer, I’d like to take a chainsaw to most of the trees that surround my house. But it is time to face up to the small amount of carbon dioxide emissions our airplanes create and do something about it. Now there is a way.
By any measure aviation engines release a tiny amount of the world’s total emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Aircraft engines burn fuel with very high efficiency, and there just aren’t that many airplanes compared to homes, factories, automobiles and all the other sources of CO2 emissions.
But the fact that we are small potatoes in total CO2 pollution doesn’t matter because aviation is extremely high profile, particularly private aviation. It is the nature of societies to attack small, manageable issues and ignore the big, unsolvable problems. Airplanes, and the people who fly them and fly in them, are easy targets for all types of restriction and regulation, and CO2 emissions are on that list.
The industry has made great strides in increasing the efficiency of all types of aircraft engines because lower fuel burn makes everything better, including greater range, larger payloads and shorter runways. So we really can’t accelerate our drive for greater efficiency to a higher level than it already is only to help control pollution. But we can pay for the unavoidable CO2 gases we create through carbon offsets.
Carbon offsets are already big in other industries and are the norm in Europe and much of the rest of the world. The concept is that activities which unavoidably create CO2 emissions pay proportionally to have carbon emissions reduced from other activities. By trading these “carbon credits” aviation can reduce or eliminate the amount of total CO2 emissions created by all fuel burning.
For example, a carbon credit that an airplane operator pays may go to the construction of a wind farm that generates electricity without emissions, or to research in alternate fuels or to help reduce emissions from other sources. I know this sounds like a lot of “feel good” charity, but it works in the sense that it is accepted here in the United States and internationally. Carbon credits are traded like other commodities on major markets.
Carbon Neutral Plane Program has been founded by Jeffrey Witwer, who is a longtime pilot and airplane owner and also has a background in energy and environmental work. Under this program an airplane operator pays an annual membership fee that covers the amount of CO2 released based on fuel burned. The Carbon Neutral Plan Program acts as a buyer’s cooperative, buying high-volume carbon offsets on the open market that equal the amount of carbon emitted by its member airplanes.
There are two programs, one for business operations and another for personal airplane owners. The bottom line is that your airplane can be certified to be carbon neutral; in other words, all CO2 it generates is offset by programs that reduce emissions elsewhere. Being able to demonstrate that your flying activities add nothing to the total CO2 emissions because of the offsets has obvious benefits in many situations, particularly in Europe now, and soon everywhere.
The cost of the carbon credits at today’s fuel prices equal about 5 cents per gallon. You could say it is a tax, and you would be correct, but at this point it is still a voluntary one. Paying for carbon offsets is more akin to supporting your local community, but in this case the ramifications are global.
I don’t know if human activity is the cause of climate change, and I haven’t the foggiest idea if we can in any way deflect the inexorable variations of the atmosphere that we fly through. But that doesn’t matter. Most of the governments of the world, and the people they regulate, believe it, and that makes it a reality for airplane operation. This is a case of better to join the carbon reduction bandwagon than fight a losing battle. For information on Carbon Neutral Plane go to carbonneutralplane.com. But don’t bother to hug a tree.