Airplane Safety vs NextGen

By | Monday, May 16, 2016 Leave a Comment

Will changes to air traffic control improve US aviation safety?

One of the goals of the FAA’s NextGen “Next Generation” Air Traffic Control System is increased aerospace safety. This is something we should all be able get behind. Isn’t it? The safer they can make flying, the better. Right? Right? Um, maybe. Before jumping to conclusions, let’s take a look at how NextGen addresses enhancing safety.

When most of us think of the dangers of air travel, we are pretty much worrying about not crashing, or being hijacked or abducted by terrorists. Changing air traffic routing has nothing to do with terrorists or other hijackers, but there is no doubt that not crashing is one of my personal priorities when travelling for pleasure or business. What causes airplanes to crash? There are a handful of factors involving equipment failure, human error, and mother nature (e.g. weather, clouds, lighting, birds, pterodactyls).

How can NextGen stop planes from crashing? NextGen only addresses air traffic control, so it has nothing to do with equipment failures, weather, or flying dinosaurs. While the FAA works tirelessly to help protect us from mistakes made by ground crew, as well as pilots that may be poorly trained, overworked, psychologically unstable, or otherwise unqualified, NextGen wont help with any of that either. By changing flight patters, the FAA claims that NextGen will reduce hazards that arise from congested air space, crossing flight paths, and air traffic controller errors. This is important because it will help to stop the scourge of mid-air collisions that are plaguing our skies. Wait. Huh? The scourge of mid-air collisions that are plaguing our skies? What scourge of mid-air collisions that are plaguing our skies?

Aviation Disasters

From the fiery end of the Hindenburg to the attacks of 9/11, there have been disasters throughout the history of aviation. Some will recall Valujet flight 592, which crashed near Miami after a fire erupted in the cargo hold. The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines MH370 may never be solved. Air France flight 447 cost the lives of 228 people; the unexplained explosion of TWA flight 800 will long be remembered. The "Bermuda Triangle" seems to have claimed many an airplane. Celebrities including Amelia Erhard to Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, Otis Redding, and many others have died in airplanes.

But air traffic controllers (ATC) did not direct the airplanes that struck the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. The one thing we know about MH370 is that it was out of contact with ATC when it disappeared, and it was definitely not in US airspace. Actions by controllers could not have saved any of the airplanes brought down by fire or explosion. The region of the Bermuda Triangle is not controlled by the FAA, and if the planes lost there had been in contact with ATC, their disappearance might not be such a mystery. Celebrities killed in airplane crashes virtually always died in private planes, not commercial flights under ATC guidance.

The history of mid-air collisions in the US

In the middle of the 20th century there were a series of mid-air collisions in the US that prompted the Federal Aviation Act of 1958. This act created the Federal Aviation Agency (later renamed the Federal Aviation Administration) whose primary responsibility was air traffic safety. The FAA has done a great job. According to Wikipedia, since the founding of the FAA in August 1958, there have been just 14 mid-air collisions (exclusive of military aircraft which fall outside the purview of the FAA.) Of course, each of these was a tragedy. But most of them were not commercial flights controlled by ATC.

One incident involved a collision of a commercial flight with a military plane. The two most recent collisions in US airspace involved news helicopters colliding in one case, and a private plane hitting a tour helicopter in the other. None of these would have been avoided if  NextGen had been implemented at the time.

Of the remaining 11 mid-air tragedies, 8 involved private planes striking commercial jets. It has been suggested that NextGen actually increases the hazard of collisions between commercial and private flights (aka “general aviation”.) The reason is that on takeoff and landing, commercial flights are now flying at lower altitudes, closer to the airspace where private planes fly. Whether or not this is true, NextGen does not address general aviation, so there is no reason to believe that it would decrease collisions between private planes, private planes and commercial airliners, or helicopter accidents. Even if NextGen did make it safer for commercial and private aircraft to share the same airspace, there have been no such collisions since 1990 – twenty-six years of safe flying in our skies.

The remaining three mid-air collisions happened in the 1960's, killing a total of 220 people. The first, the “Park Slope Plane Crash” of 1960, was the result of a combination of equipment failure, failed communications, and human error. The 1965 “Carmel Collision” could indeed have been avoided by better air traffic control. Thankfully, in that incident, of 112 people onboard there were only 4 fatalities, due to the efforts of the pilots of the two planes. Lastly, a mid-air collision in 1967 could probably have been avoided through better air traffic control. Would improvements by the FAA have saved these lives? Quite possibly. But keep in mind that these incidents occurred almost 50 years ago.

A virtually perfect record

There are over 31 million commercial flights over the USA each year, yet there have only been three incidents involving collisions of two commercial flights since the FAA was established, and none in almost 50 years. Over 600 million people fly in our skies each year. Of the billions of people that have traveled by air since the founding of the FAA 57 years ago, just 220 of them died in accidents that might be attributed to air traffic control. I don’t want to sound crass to people whose lives were touched by these events, but, statistically speaking, commercial air travel has been almost 100% safe from the kind of crashes that NextGen claims to address.

The FAA proposes that NextGen will improve safety. But how can it? How do you improve on an almost perfect record? There is no scourge of mid-air collisions that needs to be addressed. Travelling by plane is incredibly safe. Even if we include private planes, helicopters, military aircraft, and crashes that didn’t involve air traffic control, it is not dangerous to fly. When considering the number of flights, miles flown, billions of passengers carried, and tons of cargo delivered, air travel is astonishingly safe.

Safety is a red herring

NextGen may well have benefits in terms of efficiency, fuel savings, convenience, time saving, and increases in capacity. It is well worth considering how significant these improvements may be, and the trade-offs for people in the air and on the ground. However, the FAA’s claim that NextGen somehow improves on the near-perfect record of American air traffic control is specious. When debating the merits of NextGen, we should be concerned about not harming the extraordinary safety of air travel we all currently enjoy. Claims of increased safety should be left out of the argument.

As always, I look forward to reading your thoughts.
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