Wednesday 24 February 2016

What Stands in the Way of Reducing ATC Driven Delays and Their Negative Impact on Airlines and Passengers?

Interview with Capt. Michael Baiada, President ATH Group Inc

I was first introduced to Michael's work while writing "Beyond Airline Disruptions" and recognised the value of his out-of-the-box thinking based on his immense knowledge and experience. He tirelessly challenges old paradigms and pushes through inherited system boundaries which are slowing down so much needed improvement in airline operational efficiency.

In Michael's 35 years of flying as a commercial B747 Captain (now retired), he has also been actively working on improving the efficiency of the ATC system, so as to reduce airline delays. During that time, he developed RNAV/MLS approaches to land and hold short at DCA (early 1980s), represented Regional Airline Association at Air Traffic Procedures Advisory Committee (also early 1980s), worked on implementing TCAS (late 1980s), introduced the Free Flight concept with his Blueprint to FreeFlight articles (1994), testified at Congress, met and briefed 2 FAA Administrators, numerous FAA Associate Administrators, many, many FAA middle managers, top DOT personnel and attended 100s of RTCA, MITRE, FAA, ATPAC, ALPA, etc., meetings, as well as wrote and published numerous articles on this subject.

JR: Your years’ long efforts to improve ATC related operational efficiency and reduce airline delays are impressive. Can you take us briefly through the history of your involvement and how it changed over time?
MB: For the first 20 years of my efforts to improve ATC efficiency, I would have agreed 100% with those that believe that working collectively with the ANSPs (ATC providers such as Eurocontrol, NATS, FAA, etc.) was the way to go. But after 35 years, with no discernable system wide benefit, and, in fact, system wide degradation (IAH NextGen efforts), I just don’t believe that any ANSP can lead us to a solution for airline delays.
JR: Can you tell us a bit more about the reasons behind this belief?
MB: Clearly, everyone wants to see improvement, but I see the problem differently because I am asking a different question. I am guessing that the question most ask, is, "What can ANSPs do to make the ATC system better"? This question is so open ended, with no clear, discernible goal, and technology is moving so rapidly, while the ANSPs move so slowly, we will never significantly improve the efficiency of the ATC system. Further, this question incorrectly assumes that the ANSP can fix airline delays, which are 80% internal to each airline.

JR: Have any improvements been made over all those years?
MB: Of course, FAA has had local, but delayed successes. For example, closely spaced parallels (which I worked on as an Air Traffic Procedures Advisory Committee member in the early 1980s), the billion dollar ADS-B ground system (which has produced no reduction in airline delays) and FAAs En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) equipment upgrade (although long delayed and way over budget, since the original program to do this was the 1980s Advanced Automation System or AAS), and, of course, they continue to operate the current system (albeit, safely, but inefficiently).

JR: What is at the core of the problem?
MB: As I said, it is about how you approach the problem. For example, the question I ask is, “What is stopping the aircraft from consistently doing an idle descent to a 5 NM final and landing when I want it to land”? Given that the pilot and most commercial aircraft have been able to do this for upwards of 30 years, the problem is not the aircraft, but the ATC structure put in place in the US since 1958 (advent of Positive Control Airspace), layer by layer, year after year, and continuing today.

JR: What needs to be done to speed up the improvement?
MB: Airlines must take more responsibility for their aircraft and customers. Once off the gate, airlines unnecessarily abdicate control of their aircraft to the ATC system, telling ATC to work harder, do better, and spend billions of taxpayer dollars to manage the airline’s aircraft and customers.
Also, as I realized in 2000, after the 5 year FreeFlight debacle and described in my 2000 It's the Structure article, until we find a way to remove the structure required today by the ATC controller to linearize and distance sequence the arrival flow, i.e., an alternative sequencing process to the current linear, distance based, aircraft flow sequencing, there will be no significant improvement in the efficiency of the ATC system. And, in fact, ATC inefficiency will continue to get worse.

JR: What do you think about ongoing industry initiatives including SESAR, Next Gen, ADS-B, Eurocontrol, FAA, privatisation?
None of these will make a significant difference. Only clear airline leadership, with well-defined goals will change this.
Hence my push to move from distance based linear sequencing to time based sequencing, i.e. Airline Business Based Flow Management (BBFM). Airline driven BBFM is the only way to change this, by providing the sequencing alternative that allows the removal of the current linear, distance based sequencing structure (RTA Path to NextGen).To make this change requires strong leadership and the vision that airlines can, and must move beyond what they do today.

JR: Do you think that improvement can be made in foreseeable future?
MB: Sadly, no. Airlines are unwilling to rethink their operations and move into the 21st century by embracing Operational Excellence (85% on time zero or A0, 8 to 10 minute reduction in scheduled block/gate time within 5 years). The concept of Operational Excellence based on Big Data and well understood logistics/Supply Chain tools, while well understood in other industries, is still not a concept within the airlines, who deliver 35% of their customers late. 

The simple fact is that Operational Excellence is eminently doable, highly profitable and is not constrained by ATC or weather. Operational Excellence would benefit everyone - shareholders, employees, the environment, ANSPs, but mostly passengers who would end up being where they want, when they want, at a much higher rate of success.
But Operational Excellence requires a change in thinking, where the airline takes responsibility for their aircraft and customers. This requires the airline to track and manage their aircraft, in real time, 24/7, 365. While this can be easily done, as validated by 2 Universities at 3 airports through Airline Business Based Flow Management (BBFM), airlines are not interested.

That said, the ATC system must remain responsible for aircraft separation, but, as well accepted logistics/Supply Chain tools dictate, sequencing is a task only the airlines can do efficiently, starting before take-off, continuously monitored and managed throughout the flight, on a flight by flight basis, to determine what airlines want each of their aircraft to do. 

In other words, most airlines have no interest in BBFM or real time, tactical control of their aircraft and other assets as they want the ATC provider to lead them out of their current operational morass.For example, when I speak with FAA about airline driven time sequencing, their answer is that no one is asking for it. Given the complete lack of interest by airlines, ANSPs are more interested in improving the current ATC structure, when they should be working on removing the structure.

Little will change until airlines decide what they want, set a specific goal, and then lead ANSPs to that answer. From what I can tell, not A4A, not the NextGen Integration Working Group and, in fact, not any working group anywhere in the world is doing this, and hasn’t done this for the last 35 years that I have been in the game.

JR: Why are airlines unwilling to do this, when their customers would benefit and the airlines could make significant cost savings?
MB: The reason stems from the current, widely held assumptions that:
  1. Operational Excellence is not possible.
  2. Operational Excellence is not profitable.
  3. ATC will not allow Operational Excellence.
Until these flawed assumptions are pushed aside, and airlines lead instead of follow, the airline delay problems will get worse.