Invisible Highways: An Inside Look at Air Traffic Control in the U.S.

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Note: This was originally published on the Aviation Queen blog, where I have been fortunate enough to post as a guest contributor thanks to the immense kindness of Benét Wilson.

While I love music, these days I find myself listening to air traffic control feeds more often than tunes. On average, more than 400,000 landings and takeoffs occur at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport each year, and the fact that the controllers get them all on and off the ground safely never ceases to amaze me.

So when passengers at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport were faced with serious flight delays in early February due to a computer issue in air traffic control, it really got me thinking about our own ATC system.

How exactly does it work? Is there a “backup” plan in the event something similar happened here?

According to a video released by the FAA, controllers have two primary jobs: to make sure planes are properly separated from one another, and to keep air traffic flowing in the most efficient manner.

When planes depart, an initial heading is used and then they fan out into their specific routes. When planes are nearing their destinations, they’re sequenced and merged into “arrival streams.” And in the air, planes have both a minimum lateral and vertical distance they must remain from one another.

Near airports, planes flying at the same altitude must be at least three miles apart, but at higher altitudes that jumps to five miles. And if planes don’t meet those lateral requirements, they must remain a minimum vertical distance from other one another. For commercial aircraft below 41,000 feet, the minimum vertical separation is only 1,000 feet. So when you’re at cruising altitude, the distance between your plane and one that’s above or beneath you could be as small as the length of three football fields.

Departures and arrivals also have numerous crossing routes where they must be separated from one another, so controllers are continually managing and separating them throughout the day.

So how exactly do air traffic controllers do their job?

Derek Sorenson has worked at the Minneapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) for roughly three years, first as a contractor and more recently as a controller. The Minneapolis Center is one of 21 ARTCC facilities in the U.S. and encompasses nearly 400,000 square miles of Midwest airspace.

Sorenson is responsible for an area that covers roughly the northern half of Wisconsin, the upper peninsula of Michigan, and the northern half of the lower peninsula of Michigan. And a lot of planes fly through that airspace on any given day.

“If it were averaged throughout the year, I would estimate something like 2,000 aircraft per day,” he said.

Before departing, pilots file a flight plan with the ARTCC, which includes their requested route and altitude. The controllers do their best to accommodate these requests, but that’s not always feasible. “Sometimes, for traffic situations or a required route to be flown to a busier airport, we need to change things up,” Sorenson said.

There’s no such thing as a “typical day” for Sorenson, and he likes that. “It all depends on many factors such as traffic volume, weather, turbulence, and how many people are working that particular shift,” he said.

FAA-ERAMOn the job, he is in constant communication with pilots via radio, and with other controllers via phone. And when it comes to tracking aircraft, he primarily works off of a radar display that runs on En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM). ERAM technology is a vital component of the Next Generation Air Transportation System, commonly referred to as NextGen, and is helping in the transition from an aging ground-based air traffic control system to a more modern satellite-based system. Previously, controllers could only track 1,100 aircraft at a time, but the use of ERAM has increased that capability to 1,900.

Lucky for him, Sorenson has never encountered a significant system failure akin to what happened in Amsterdam, and he isn’t aware of any past incidents at the Minneapolis ARTCC. The most notable event he could recall here in the U.S. was in September 2014 when a contract worker set fire to the Chicago Center early one morning. As a result, thousands of flights into and out of both Chicago O’Hare and Midway airports were delayed or canceled.

atc_ERAM“In the Chicago incident, they lost communication and radar… so they were ATC-Zero,” said Jennah Perry, Program Chair and Assistant Professor of Air Traffic Management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

The Independent reports that in Amsterdam, the fault apparently occurred with radar correlation software, which compares and assesses information from primary and secondary radar. Perry explained that primary radar detects anything that has mass, whereas secondary radar only picks up aircraft that are carrying a transponder.

“I would imagine it is the system that puts them together that failed,” Perry added.

According to Perry, the FAA is supposed to have contingency plans in the event of radar failure. In the Chicago situation, even though there were plans in place, they didn’t work. The controllers didn’t have proper training on following the plans and there wasn’t proper infrastructure.

“Due to the high demand of air traffic and the lack of ability to train and be current on those non-radar procedures, those contingency plans are ineffective in the event they have to be used,” Perry said.

The contingency plans in place in Chicago were designed for short-term use, which created limitations and required controllers to discard the plans and instead work with adjacent centers such as Cleveland, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Indianapolis.

A similar incident happened in October 2015, when record rainfall caused flooding at the Austin-Bergstrom Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), also resulting in an ATC-Zero situation. The damage affected the operations for more than two weeks.

Over the last three years, a number of incidents have revealed a lack of resiliency in the current air traffic control structure, but ultimately, it was the fire at the Chicago Center that led to the FAA’s extensive review of its current contingency plans.

According to a January 2017 report released by the Office of the Inspector General, the FAA’s contingency plans are not yet sufficient to minimize the impact of system disruptions.

Following the Chicago incident, the FAA updated its contingency plan policy to include goals to achieve 90 percent capacity at the top 30 airports with the most passenger activity within 24 hours, and 90 percent capacity at facilities that manage air traffic at high altitude and in the vicinity of airports within 96 hours. But in a crisis situation, that’s just not realistic given the current plans, according to Perry. “The centers will not be operating at normal capacity… they’ll be operating at maybe 30 to 40 percent,” she said.

Additionally, the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) completed a 30-day assessment of the operational contingency plans, which identified five next steps that needed to be completed within one year. However, two of those steps have not yet been fully completed.

“Right now if any major facility went down in the U.S. to ATC-Zero, it would cause major havoc over the whole U.S. airspace system,” Perry said. “It’s a domino effect.”

According to her, our current radar-based system just won’t cut it… the only thing that can bring our centers up to the 90- to 100-percent efficient status they’d need to be at following a crisis is NextGen.

Key site testing for NextGen’s NAS Voice System (NVS) is expected to be complete in 2019. This voice switch capability would allow controllers to talk to any aircraft anywhere in our airspace. So if one facility lost communications, another facility could communicate with their aircraft. Once these systems are certified and available, they’ll be installed in terminal and ARTCC facilities, likely between 2019 and 2026.

Perry said the change in technology is great, theoretically, but it’s timely and expensive.

“It has a lot of advancements that we need in order to keep our system safe and streamlined, but with technology comes failure… redundancy needs to be there.”

So while flying is statistically the safest form of travel, more work needs to be done to keep it that way. The FAA has made progress by establishing goals and working to achieve them, but the January report concluded that until the administration strengthens controller training and implements policies and procedures for transferring traffic within all airspace, they’ll continue to face challenges.

Realistically, in a situation similar to what happened in Amsterdam, we probably wouldn’t fare much better than they did. But in the next 5-10 years, once NextGen is fully implemented, a center’s response to a crisis will almost certainly be much smoother and more effective, making our skies even safer than they are today.

A Truly Great Plane: The Boeing 747

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Photo Courtesy of Boeing

Two hundred and sixty-four days… it sounds like a long time, but I know it will come quickly. Just about eight months from now I’ll be soaring through the clouds aboard the Queen of the Skies: a Boeing 747. While it may not sound incredibly exciting to some, it will be truly monumental for me, as it will be my first time flying on one of my favorite aircraft of all time.

Sure, I love plenty of airplanes: the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, the McDonnell-Douglas MD-11, but those aircraft, or at least the passenger versions of them, are obsolete. My only chance to fly on one of my favorite planes was to snag a ticket on a Boeing 747. And with the help of my dad, I did just that.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:

I consider only one man made “thing” on this earth to be as truly remarkable and awe-inspiring as Mother Nature herself: the airplane.

And the Boeing 747 was the inspiration behind that quote by yours truly. It’s hard not to love that plane – don’t you think?

Let’s start with how this beauty came to be. Of course the roughly 50,000 people who worked on this plane in the late 1960s are called “the Incredibles” – how could they not be given such a nickname? The engineers, the mechanics, the secretaries… they all contributed to aviation history when they seemingly “whipped up” the world’s largest civilian airplane in a mere 16 months.

The final design was offered in three different models: all passenger, all cargo, and a convertible passenger/cargo model. And I’m over the moon that my dad and I are getting to fly on the convertible model, often referred to as a “combi.”

The 747 is also the reason the largest building (by volume) was even built. The Boeing Everett Factory in Everett, Washington is where the manufacturer’s largest planes are constructed. Some equate the size of the facility to that of a city; workers even use bicycles to get around.

And it’s no wonder they had to construct that beast of a building – the 747 is huge. I work on the sixth floor of an office building in downtown Minneapolis, and knowing that if a 747 was parked on the street below, its tail would be at eye level with me, is just astounding to say the least.

While the 747’s iconic “hump” makes it so easily identifiable, the plane has been modified a number of times over the last several decades. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) modified two 747s into shuttle carriers (the first in 1976 and the second in 1988), in 1990 two were modified to serve as Air Force One, and in 2007 Boeing introduced the “Dreamlifter” – a specially modified version of the 747 used to carry large composite structures, including fuselage sections of the 787 Dreamliner. Additional modifications over the years such as an extended upper deck and the addition of winglets on some models have continued to shape the look, feel, and functionality of the plane.

Nearly three years ago, the 747 became the first wide-body airplane to reach the 1,500 milestone, when number 1,500 was delivered to Germany-based Lufthansa. And while that was reason to celebrate, the truth is – these planes may not be around much longer. Both United and Delta airlines are retiring the jumbo jet this year, and that news was what fueled my desire to catch a ride on one while I still had the chance.

The plane is gorgeous. It’s iconic. It’s a symbol of a special era in flight. And I’m ecstatic that I’ll have the privilege to fly in one. A flight in a 747 is certainly a “bucket list” item for me, as I’m sure it is for countless aviation enthusiasts. And you can bet your bottom dollar that come November 6, when I set foot on that plane and we lift off the ground, I’ll be overcome with joy as I check that item off.

Where Luxury Lacks, Savings Abound with “Basic Economy” Fares; United to Test Low-Cost Option at MSP

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Photo Courtesy of United Airlines

Note: This was originally published on the Aviation Queen blog, where I was fortunate enough to post as a guest contributor thanks to the immense kindness of Benét Wilson.

As one of three major U.S. airlines committed to offering travelers low-cost tickets with fewer amenities, United will soon test its basic economy fares in Minneapolis.

And while signs point toward these fares becoming a regular fixture in commercial aviation – mainly as a way for larger airlines to compete with low-cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier – flying has certainly transformed over the last several decades.

Having worked as a flight attendant for Eastern Airlines in the 1970s and 1980s, when donning more fashion-forward uniforms and serving meals on china in first class were the norm, my mom says flying was more “glamorous” back then.

But now, she says, plane rides almost feel more like bus trips, which isn’t too surprising with the rise of discount airlines, and more recently with these low-cost fares. Delta is already offering the no-frills option, and recently American announced that they’ll begin offering basic economy fares in 10 select markets starting this month.

United first announced plans to offer basic economy fares last November, and in mid-January, President Scott Kirby said they would debut at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. “When you think of the number of flights coming in, the number of customers choosing United, and the airports… MSP was a great market to test this in,” United Spokesman Jonathan Guerin said.

United basic economy fares provide the same onboard experience as standard economy with a few exceptions, most notably: you can’t choose your seat and full-sized carry-on bags are not permitted. But you are allowed one personal item that you must store underneath the seat in front of you.

Brett Snyder, who runs the popular Cranky Flier blog, sees basic economy as a good way for legacy airlines to offer low fares while stripping out amenities for those who don’t need them. “While this might mean an increase in the lowest selling fare that allows for carry-on bags and advance seat assignments, those fares aren’t really sustainable today,” he said.

And it’s no surprise that basic economy has received some pushback. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recently voiced his concerns in a press release, citing the cheap fares as just another way for very profitable airlines to nickel and dime passengers. Through an upcoming FAA bill, he’ll push for new customer protections that “undo unfair policies” such as “banning” the free use of overhead bins.

The only issue is – the major airlines aren’t banning the free bin space because they’re not making you purchase a basic economy fare… it’s simply another option. These days, customers want choice and they want control, and that’s exactly what these fares are providing.

“There will always be pushback anytime the airlines do anything, even if it’s not bad,” Snyder said. “The reality is that you really shouldn’t buy these fares if you want a carry-on or a seat assignment, and the airlines will tell you that multiple times before you buy the ticket,” he added. “But people will still make that mistake and then complain.”

Another concern has been how airlines will keep track of those flying on basic economy fares. For United, Guerin said it shouldn’t be difficult, as it will be noted on your boarding pass and you’ll be in the last boarding group. This provides several opportunities for airport employees and gate agents to see if you have a full-sized carry-on, which will need to be checked and will be subject to the standard checked-bag fee. For domestic flights, you’ll pay $25 for your first checked bag and $35 for your second. But basic economy passengers who arrive at the gate with a full-sized carry-on will also need to pay a $25 gate handling fee.

United’s basic economy fares will go on sale during the first quarter of 2017, for travel during the second quarter. They’ll be available for routes between MSP and the airline’s seven U.S. hubs, eventually rolling out into other domestic markets.

Ultimately, while flying may not be the lavish experience it once was, it’s clear that the airlines have done their research in targeting this price-sensitive niche. Many people are just looking to get from point A to point B on the cheap, and now they have options outside of simply choosing a low-cost carrier.

“Big Flo” Helps Scientists Study the Mechanics of a Plane Crash in Real Time

There’s just something about watching a roughly 200,000-pound remote control airplane glide over the desert… it’s both eerie and beautiful. And that’s exactly what the scientists, pilots, and standby emergency responders did as they purposefully crashed “Big Flo” in April 2012.

The crash of the 170-seat Boeing 727 near Mexicali, Mexico was conducted to learn more about what actually happens during a plane crash. The experiment was captured by Channel 4 (a British public-service television broadcaster) in a documentary film appropriately titled The Plane Crash.

“Where should passengers sit to increase their chances of survival?”

“Is the standard ‘bracing’ position really the safest?”

Those are just a couple of the questions that the research team set out to answer.

On board the plane were three Hybrid III crash test dummies, which very accurately simulate human movement and responses while collecting data at a rate of 10,000 samples per second. The plane was piloted by Captain Jim Bob Slocum; he was joined by other crew members and a small group of passengers.

After taking off from General Rodolfo Sánchez Taboada International Airport in Mexicali, the flight made its way toward the Sonoran Desert as those on board gradually parachuted out through the plane’s ventral airstair. Slocum was the last to leave the plane, just four minutes before impact, at which point Chip Shanle controlled the 727 remotely from a small chase plane.

Big Flo hit the ground at 140 miles per hour and broke up into several pieces; she had been descending at a rate of 1,500 feet per minute.

Following the experiment, it was concluded that sitting in the back of the plane really does increase your chances of walking away without injury in the event of a crash. Also, passengers who adopt the brace position are far more likely to survive than those who don’t; the brace position involves getting your torso as low as possible by cradling your head on the seat in front of you, or by lowering your head and hugging your knees.

So for those of you who suffer from some form of flight anxiety, it might not be a bad idea to snag a seat toward the back of the plane to help calm your tensions. But rest assured, your chances of dying in a plane crash are a mere one in 11 million. So sit back, and enjoy the flight.

All photos courtesy of Channel 4.