A NextGen Thought Experiment

By | Sunday, April 24, 2016 Leave a Comment

The FAA planned, designed, and implemented NextGen (their "Next Generation" air traffic control system) with very little public input or scrutiny. Since the rollout, there has been a huge outcry from people on the ground that have been impacted by the new flight paths. Until recently, the FAA seemed intent on ignoring all complaints and feedback.

As readers of this blog may know, I am fond of thought experiments. They help me get my brain around an issue. The other day I got to wondering about what would have happened if the impacts of NextGen were not the discomfort, annoyance, and potential loss of property values that are currently being reported. What if NextGen were fatal?

What if, for every day that NextGen were in place, some number of people living under the new flight paths died. Random people. Not young or old, or with impaired immune systems. Not people of any particular race, ethnicity or socio-economic status. For no apparent reason, every day, when a plane went over, some number of people would die.

Lets think about what would happen if in every region where NextGen was rolled out, one thousand people per day living under the new flight paths died. I would hope that NextGen would be rolled back instantly. They wouldn’t just stop the rollout. They wouldn’t form committees to study the problem. They would immediately roll back the implementation of the plan. There would be mass migrations of people away from the affected areas – even after the rollback. There would be congressional hearings, firings of engineers and scientists, lawsuits, and massive reparations. Right?

OK. That’s an extreme thought experiment. One thousand people per day is a lot of deaths. What if it were one hundred, or ten, or just one? There are millions of people in the bay area. What if NextGen measurably improved airplane safety and efficiency, but, as a direct result of the changed flight plans, one person on the ground died every day that wouldn’t have died under the prior air traffic system? I imagine that the effect would be the same as with one thousand people killed per day.

Let’s continue. What if it were one person per month? Or one person per year? What if the implementation of NextGen would cause the random death of one person per century? What if there were a one in a million chance that in any given year a person would die? It could be this year, or, it could be a million years from now. At what point would we say that was acceptable “collateral damage” for a new level of aerospace safety and efficiency? After all, even if the one death happened this year, it still probably wouldn’t be you. Right? What number would you choose? Or, is there any number of deaths that would be deemed acceptable? If we knew for certain that the chances were one in a million, or one in a billion, or one in a trillion, would people be willing to live under flight paths? I live quite close to the Hayward fault. We are overdue for a major earthquake. When that happens, some number of people are likely to die. But housing prices in my area have never been higher.

What about the other end of the spectrum? What if airplanes were silent and invisible? What if they were undetectable without radar or other special equipment? Now imagine that some people living under NextGen flight paths complained that they were scared by the idea that there were airplanes above them. What if some people said that they were terrified by the possibility of an engine falling off of a plane, or an invisible airplane suddenly crashing into their house? What if they said that they couldn’t sleep, their health was failing, and they could no long work, just from the thought of airplanes above them?

Would we expect the FAA to accommodate one person complaining that their life was being ruined by the fear of airplanes, even though there was no tangible impact on them? What if ten people were so effected? What if 10% of people under the flight paths were having their lives significantly affected by the knowledge that airplanes were flying over their neighborhood, even though there was no evidence of their passage? Would the FAA, Congress, and the nation declare that these people were just nuts? Would they say that progress should not be impeded by delusions? What if it were 20%? Or 50%? What if 100% of people living under NextGen flight paths indicated that they were being negatively impacted simply because there were airplanes up there somewhere? Is there any number of people complaining of "irrational" fears that would cause a change in NextGen?

To me the most important question is, who gets to make these decisions? The benefits are some amount of predicted increase in safety and efficiency*. The impacts lie somewhere on a scale from millions of deaths to the unfounded fears of one person. But who gets to decide the trade-off?

As it currently stands, Congress empowered the FAA to make the rules, and then directed them to develop a Next Generation air traffic control system with little or no further input. It was the FAA that decided how many decibels is “loud”, and how much of a change in decibels is an “impact.” The FAA themselves then concluded that the NextGen changes did not create an impact. There have been lawsuits against the FAA over NextGen, but they are failing, since there aren't grounds to sue. If you sue the FAA claiming that the noise is impacting you, and the FAA says that the numbers show no impact, then your suit is baseless. Is the fox guarding the hen-house, or does the FAA just not appreciate the true impacts of these changes in certain areas? How much do we trust the FAA to make the right choices, and who gets to decide?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but, I find them inherently interesting. They help me to think about the actual impacts of NextGen and the FAA’s lack of response. I would love to hear your thoughts.

* Note: According to the FAA's Environmental Assessment for Northern California Optimization of Airspace and Procedures in the Metroplex, section 5.7.1, "The Proposed Action would result in a relatively small increase in aircraft fuel burned: 0.40 percent in 2014 and 0.36 percent increase in 2019." This implies that NextGen is less efficient. However, it is not clear from the wording of the section if this refers to total energy use, fuel used by airplanes in while flying within the metroplex, or an increase in fuel purchased in the region for refueling of aircraft.
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