Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Sharklets have arrived

 I've known these were coming for a while now, and now we've seen them at LAX:  The new, more fuel-efficient winglets for the Airbus A320-series. Airbus calls these "Sharklets", and they are available on new production aircraft as well as available for retrofit. Reportedly, they offer a 3.5 percent reduction in fuel consumption on long-haul flights as compared to the standard Airbus wingtip fences seen on the 320-series aircraft.

And, is it just me, or does the paint on Virgin America's Sharklets bear a striking resemblance to American's new tail paint?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The day after

Yesterday, I posted quotes from two NATCA bulletins, describing the recent action by the Senate and the House to stop the air traffic controller furloughs. This made national news, and no doubt the general public thought the situation had been resolved. But . . .

Even when the government moves fast, there is still the bureaucracy to contend with. And while the congressional action has made the news and will let the FAA steal from Peter to pay Paul, none of that happens immediately. As I write this, it is expected that it will be Tuesday before all the I's are dotted and the T's are crossed.

But meanwhile, the public thinks that everything's okay again. After all, they heard about it on CNN: The controller furloughs are over.

On the other hand, this is the federal government we're talking about: Woe be unto the department head or official who moves before all the paperwork is in order.

However, the public is expecting immediate action. Waiting for administrative details to be attended to before getting controllers back to work would cause sufficient outcry from an already-aggravated public that somebody's head would end up on a platter. What to do, what to do?

So Saturday was an ever-changing, dynamic environment: Meetings, conference calls, and e-mail updates were all chasing the latest decisions about the furloughs. We heard differing stories as the day went on: They were going to keep the furloughs in effect until the President did something; They were going to cancel the furloughs at the end of the pay period, once everybody had taken one; They were going to keep the furloughs that were already scheduled but allow the use of overtime to back-fill; and so forth, throughout the morning and into the early afternoon. Finally, shortly before the end of my shift, we got official word that the furloughs were being cancelled effective immediately. Calls were made to those controllers scheduled for furlough to try and get them to come in to work. As it was a beautiful Saturday afternoon in southern California, I imagine the success rate was pretty low. Those of us who hadn't yet taken their furlough day were given the option of keeping the day off as a vacation day or coming to work as usual. As yet, I've heard nothing about what will be done to/for the controllers who were already furloughed for a day.

More to the point, by Sunday night we will be back to full staffing.

But we had started the day on Saturday in full furlough mode: LAX had about a half-dozen controllers on furlough, and all the other ATC facilities across the nation were short on people as well. And it got ugly. At LAX, we had to put ten miles between each departure to the respective departure sectors -- spacing that on a normal good-weather day could be as little as one mile (with visual separation being applied). Then there was also extra miles-in-trail over certain fixes in addition to the miles-in-trail off the airport. None of that was because LAX tower was so short on controllers, it was because somebody else, somewhere downstream, was. To make things more interesting, a military warning area offshore went active, which placed addition spacing requirements on a popular route, and shut off another one entirely.

Where all this really came to a head was on ground control, because nobody was reducing the number of airplanes that the ground controllers had to work: the airlines were running their normal schedules, despite the FAA advising them of the likely delays before the furloughs even began. Saturday mornings are a busy departure time at LAX, as folks who didn't get out last night head off for the weekend or possibly start a week's vacation. And because of the furloughs, we had one less ground control position than we might otherwise.

When much fewer airplanes are taking off than normal, but the same number of airplanes are taxiing out for departure as always do, the result is inevitable: An incredible line forms at the end of the runway. Eventually, the line gets so long that it threatens to block arriving airplanes trying to get from the runways to their gates. So we start holding departures on the gates because there's no room for them on the taxiways. Then the arrivals can't go to their gates because there are still aircraft parked on them. If they can't get to the gate, the ground controller has to keep dealing with them out on his taxiways. Worse yet, if the line gets bad enough, airplanes in the line waiting to depart start to discover that they no longer have enough fuel to make the flight. Others may have their flight plans expire.

Meanwhile, because of the flow restrictions on departures off the airport, departing aircraft are also being sent to the correct side of the airport for the direction they want to fly -- no cross-over operations (a cross-over is when a south-bound aircraft takes off from the north side of the airport). Thus, a lot of Southwest aircraft are finding their way to the south side of the airport to join the line for departure (they're not the only ones, just the most visible). Oh, and there's still A380s to contend with as well. There's a reason there are no pictures with this entry: Because there wasn't time to mess with the camera.

This is when we really earn our money: When there's more airplanes than gates or taxiways, and the only way to move one of them is to move all of them; nobody can park on a taxiway somewhere to wait it out.  The south-side ground control at LAX (aka Ground One) has always been our meat grinder position for controllers -- and trainees. We lose more trainees on Ground One than any other position in the tower. We lost one just a week or two ago, in fact. For a long time, it was considered a given that if a trainee made it through Ground One, they were going to make it all the way. That's not been the case so much lately, but it's still pretty much the acid test.

And yet, we all want to work it. Every chance we get. For any given LAX controller, that's rarely more than once a day, and quite often not even that much. But given the choice, most of us will take it every time. Even when you have to work just to survive the session.

While yesterday was my first opportunity to see the furlough traffic at LAX get this bad, I've been hearing stories of it occurring pretty much everyday since the furloughs started. I'm currently training somebody on the ground control positions, and we got three sessions yesterday. What a baptism of fire. And while he didn't make it through unscathed, he did make it through. He's a keeper.

I tell you all of this so that you can perhaps get just a little better idea of what your controllers have to work with sometimes, and how we work to get you there safely. Every time. And we're glad to be back.

Friday, April 26, 2013

So much for the furloughs . . .

Last night, it was the Senate:

At 8:34 p.m., the Senate passed, by unanimous consent, legislation (S. 853) allowing the transfer of funding from unobligated Airport Improvement Program discretionary balances to the FAA’s Operations account in order to minimize the furloughs of air traffic controllers.

According to sources, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid forced the bill’s sponsors (led by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME)) to modify the legislation and drop provisions present in the earlier draft versions of the bill that would have also used the funds to prevent the closure during fiscal year 2013 of any air traffic control towers currently being operated under contract.  It is still not quite clear if Reid is forcing the shutdown of the contract towers for his own reasons or if he is acting on behalf of the Obama Administration (or on behalf of another Democratic Senator).  One source close to the negotiation called Reid an “immovable object” against efforts to prevent contract tower closures.
The House of Representatives may take up the bill tomorrow.  Language of the bill as passed should be available shortly.
Because the bill moves money from a slower-spending capital account to a faster-spending operations account, the bill increases total federal outlays in fiscal year 2013 and thus triggers a point of order under section 311 of the Budget Act (though the ten-year impact of the bill on total federal deficits is said to be de minimis, because the increased FY 2013 spending is offset by lowered spending in years after FY 2013).
The act of agreeing to the bill by unanimous consent in the Senate also overruled any points of order under the Budget Act in that chamber. 
The House of Representatives earlier today put into place a special procedure that would allow the House to consider the Senate-passed FAA bill on Friday under the expedited “suspension of the rules” procedure, which requires a two-thirds vote but also limits debate to 40 minutes, prohibits amendments, and has the effect of waiving all Budget Act points of order.  So, if Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor decide to bring the Senate-passed bill to the floor tomorrow, no procedural problems would stand in their way.
Reid also got a UC agreement that if the House passes its own identical bill tomorrow, the Senate be deemed to have agreed to that bill.  This eliminates any possible problem with S. 853 being considered an appropriations bill that, by custom, must originate in the House.

Then today, the House followed:

At 12:13 P.M., the House of Representatives passed the bill H.R. 1765, transferring $253 million from the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program to the FAA’s Operations account to prevent further furloughs of air traffic controllers and (possibly) to prevent the closure of air traffic control towers operated under contract.  The vote was 361 yeas to 41 nays.

The text of H.R. 1765 is identical in every respect to the text of the bill S. 853 as passed by the Senate last night.  Because the two bills are identical, House passage of H.R. 1765 activates an order into which the Senate entered last night that automatically sends H.R. 1765 to the White House for President Obama’s signature without any further action.

The bill moves up to $253 million from the slow-spending AIP account to the fast-spending Operations account.  As a result, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that H.R. 1765/S. 853 would increase the FAA’s outgoing cash flow from the Operations account by about $200 million in fiscal year 2013 but would also lower the outgoing cash flow of the AIP program in subsequent years so that the bill only increases total FAA outlays by $4 million over a ten-year period.

(By law, FAA contract authority stays “available until expended,” which means forever, and as Prince said, forever is a mighty long time – so just because unobligated balances have been on the books for a while does not mean that they won’t get spent.  The cuts in AIP balances will result in eventual real spending reductions in AIP grants.)

Quoted from NATCA press releases. No word yet on what will happen to those controllers who already took a furlough day . . .

Monday, April 22, 2013

Furlough Update

 This was the scene when I came up to the tower cab this morning: A row of media trucks lined up between terminals one and two. All, no doubt, waiting for the big story of the day: Air traffic delays caused by air traffic controllers being furloughed as a result of the budget sequestration. Six LAX tower controllers were assigned furloughs today -- about ten percent of our entire complement. I heard a sound bite of our LAX union rep on NPR on the way in, along with news that there were three-hour delays at LAX yesterday evening and into last night. A lot of our evening flights got pushed back past midnight; the overnight guys got a real workout.

A little while later, there was an incredible line of people. They must've been waiting for their interviews!

The biggest delays I saw today were for flights leaving LAX for JFK: I saw at least one on the ground with a three-hour delay assigned. Later, we had to keep JFK flights on the ground regardless of their assigned delay time (known in controller parlance as a "ground stop").  JFK was not the only affected airport; I just happened to take note of it specifically because I worked an airplane assigned a three-hour delay. Other airports I specifically noticed were Charlotte, Newark, and Teterboro. In addition, there was a large chunk of airspace in the southeast that had flow restrictions.

One other item of news today was the 24-hour strike at Lufthansa. We had two of their aircraft spend the night at LAX, seen here via the remote camera at the west remote gates:

Sunday, April 21, 2013

What's wrong with this picture?

Another in the favorite series. This shot was taken early one morning this month. It features two Volaris Airbuses parked at Terminal 2. So, what's wrong with this picture?

Saturday, April 20, 2013

What could possibly go wrong?

This just in, from the "What could possibly go wrong?" department. A shot of our ground radar:

Friday, April 19, 2013

Shot of the day

I think I've shown you this airplane before, but just in case, and for no other particular reason, here it is again. Enjoy!

Monday, April 15, 2013


I caught this Air Berlin A330 departing last month. If you look closely, you can see that the vortices extend from the tip of the winglets.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Big Swiss

In case the big cross on the red tail wasn't clear enough, Swiss has recently increased the size of their name on the front of the aircraft.

Saturday, April 13, 2013


I noticed what I thought was a misprint on a flight's radar data tag a few days ago: a Delta flight coming in from Tokyo's Haneda airport was shown as a B767-300. Ever since Delta started service between LAX and Haneda last year, the route has been covered with a B777-200 or an A330-200. The other carrier on this route, All Nippon, started service with a B777-200 and now uses a B777-300. But sure enough, when the flight arrived on runway 24 right, it was a winglet-equipped B767-300. A short time later, the outbound flight was also in a B763. I thought that perhaps it was a fluke of some sort, but it's continued for about a week now. So for the moment, Delta has the smallest aircraft flying nonstop to Japan from LAX.

Delta isn't the only one down-sizing aircraft on a route:

American started service to Washington Reagan National with B757-200s, but today I saw them run a B737-800 to DCA. Permanent changes? I don't know, but it doesn't really matter. I'd much rather they run smaller aircraft than drop the route entirely.

We have heard that Delta is adding destinations out of LAX this summer. Among them, three new destinations from LAX: San Jose, Costa Rica; Bozeman, Montana; and Spokane, Washington. None of these currently receives scheduled service from LAX. Delta is also renovating Terminal Five. For more about Delta at LAX, check out this article on Airnation.net.

American is also adding destinations this summer. New destinations from LAX will be Hartford, Connecticut, and Redmond, Oregon. See this article on Airnation.net for more about American's additional flights.

In additional to the new destination cities, both American and Delta will be starting service to cities that already receive airline service from LAX. Among them, Delta will be adding Boston (already served by American, JetBlue, United, and Virgin America); Nashville, Tennessee (already served by American and Southwest); San Jose, California (already served by American, Southwest, and United); and Seattle, Washington (already served by Alaska, United, and Virgin America). Meanwhile, American is adding Columbus, Ohio (already served by Delta); Indianapolis, Indiana (already served by Delta); and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (already served by United and US Airways).

There may well be other changes looming that we haven't heard about yet. The summer travel season is traditionally a busy time for us, and it sounds like this year will be busier than last year. Just to make things interesting, we start taking our furlough days on Sunday, the 21st. There have been plenty of dire predictions made already, so I won't bother. We are expecting to have severely reduced traffic flows because of reduced staffing. How reduced is yet to be determined - check back in eight or nine days . . .

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Wake Turbulence cheat sheet

 Some time ago, I did a series on Wake Turbulence. Times change, but wake turbulence is still a fact of life for controllers. Recently, we were given quick reference cards for wake turbulence separation standards. For those of you playing along at home, I present them here.

The FAA is currently researching reduced wake turbulence separation standards to allow greater airport capacity. This is being done by re-categorizing aircraft into six categories, up from the current five. A test program is underway in Memphis, home of Fedex, who operates a great number of wake turbulence aircraft. See this recent Flying magazine article.

For an airline pilot's thoughts about wake turbulence, read this posting at JetHead.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Flying the flag

After the flurry of activity in February, in which I had the personal goal of a new post every day, it's been pretty slow here on Ye Olde Blogg. In addition to the 500 posts milestone, the blog reached its unheralded five-year anniversary last month. Lots of things are going on at the moment, both at work and away, which have conspired to distract me from regular posting. Here's hoping that I can return to some consistency this month. 

We'll start with another look at the new American livery. Funny thing I noticed in this shot: the orientation of the pseudo-US flags on the tails. American has the field along the leading edge of the vertical stabilizer, while US Airways has the field on the viewer's left - exactly opposite.