Mar. 5, 2004 - AOPA influenced the nation's top airline, military, and other aviation system users' minds this week at a Washington "summit meeting." Powerful interests gathered at the invitation of FAA in an unprecedented meeting to address the growing airspace congestion problems along major routes and hub airports. AOPA was the only organization representing general aviation pilots invited to attend the three-day FAA meeting to discuss the future of FAA's new Air Traffic Organization (ATO - responsible for flight service stations, control towers, tracons, and enroute air traffic control).
And because of AOPA's representation, by the end of meeting, GA's access to the system was ensured. But that wasn't the tone of the discussion at the beginning. The ATO's new leader, Russ Chew, (a former American Airlines executive) called the meeting in anticipation of the upcoming summer convective weather that annually affects an already constrained system.
The meeting was to discuss short-term improvements to air traffic control procedures and equipment - and develop strategies for the future. It was important enough to GA that AOPA sent three senior-level staffers, including President Phil Boyer. FAA Administrator Marion Blakey opened the conference saying, "We've gathered all of you that we see as our customers. And if we can do it right, we can deliver new areas of efficiency and capacity."
But the "customers" dominating the discussion were the airlines, who started with ideas like reducing GA access to some airspace and airports, creating "HOV lanes" in the sky, and giving ATC preference based on the number of passengers in the aircraft.
As these ideas were being tossed out, Boyer told the group, "In 1958 the first steps were taken to establish what we now know as air traffic control and the congressional establishment of the National Airspace System (NAS). Are we now trying to change that government mandate and make it the AAS - the airline airspace system?"
"What I am hearing could be likened to the bus industry asking to ban cars from the interstate!"
Boyer, AOPA Senior Vice President of Government and Technical Affairs Andy Cebula, and VP of Regulatory Affairs Melissa Bailey defended the role of general aviation in the national transportation system. AOPA pointed out that GA reaches the "other" 90 percent of airports and communities that the airlines don't serve. AOPA's arguments were supported by the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) representing companies and flight departments with business aircraft.
"There are capacity issues in airspace of the large hub airports and some sectors of the enroute environment," said Boyer. "But GA isn't the problem, and restricting GA won't increase capacity."
The meeting participants ultimately agreed with that viewpoint.
And what do the results of the meeting mean for the average AOPA member/pilot? For pilots flying below 18,000 feet, nothing will change significantly. Pilots will be encouraged, whenever possible, to file "intended" file plans (which can be amended) as much in advance as possible to allow FAA to better predict traffic. But this won't happen until FAA changes the computer system to accept advance flight plans and an expanded list of "slant codes," which will state the communications / navigation / surveillance equipment onboard the aircraft.
In the future, GA pilots might be required to fly RNAV routes (using an IFR-certified GPS receiver) to access some capacity constrained hub airports during busy times. Preferential treatment would be given to those with equipage.
But the airlines (and to a certain extent, turbine-powered aircraft flying at the flight levels) will see a change soon. A new "System Access Plan" will be developed that would allow FAA's command center, rather than a negotiated process between the airlines, to reroute high-altitude traffic whenever departure delays at a hub airport exceed 90 minutes. Up until now, FAA only exercised its authority in bad weather conditions, but now they will perform reroutes and other actions when there is high volume and system constraints in enroute or terminal airspace segments.
In addition, flight-level GA users located at non-hub airports adjacent to a large constrained air carrier airport might find ground delays for IFR even though the departure weather appears not be a factor. That's because ATC will "balancing" the system to account for the filed route being impacted by capacity restraints somewhere down the line.
"This was a good exchange of views," said Boyer. "We understand the airlines' problems better, and the airlines have a much better appreciation of GA's needs and capabilities. AOPA also demonstrated that we're not part of the problem, but we are here to be part of the solution.
"AOPA will continue to push for fair and equal access to the National Airspace System for all users. And we will continue to work with Congress and FAA to fund and implement reasonable solutions to improve system efficiency."