Supporters say changes to air traffic control are overdue

New FAA regulations could bring new costs, inconvenience for local pilots

Posted 2/4/20

The Federal Aviation Administration is looking to upgrade how air traffic control operations are carried out, which some critics say could impact aviation in rural Wyoming.

As part of a broader …

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Supporters say changes to air traffic control are overdue

New FAA regulations could bring new costs, inconvenience for local pilots


The Federal Aviation Administration is looking to upgrade how air traffic control operations are carried out, which some critics say could impact aviation in rural Wyoming.

As part of a broader plan to create more efficient air traffic directions and greater safety, the FAA is considering the idea of decommissioning older approach procedures in favor of new methods that rely on GPS. However, not all aircraft are equipped to fly those approaches and some pilots still use ground-based procedures when landing at airports.

The FAA has not determined which approaches will be decommissioned, if any. However, some in Wyoming — including the head of the Wyoming Department of Transportation — are worried enough about possible impacts that they’ve begun proactively communicating their concerns to the FAA.

Meanwhile, supporters like the Powell airport manager say the benefits of the FAA plans are worth the cost and inconvenience to pilots — and long overdue.


Thousands of approaches under review

Currently, air traffic control (ATC) relies primarily on radar and voice communications to direct aircraft and keep them safely separated. When a controller gives instructions to a pilot, the pilot reads them back to confirm the instructions were received and understood. The pilot then follows the instructions, which often requires entering new information in the aircraft’s computer.

It’s all pretty simple until you’re dealing with thousands of aircraft with changing weather conditions. Trying to direct hundreds of arriving and departing aircraft into a busy airport with verbal instructions is time consuming.

The FAA wants to upgrade this system with a lot more data communications, which it says is more efficient and safe and will open up the crowded skies to greater capacity. The administration is calling the upgrade the Next Generation Air Transportation Systems, or NextGen for short.

Currently, there are 4,000 approach procedures the FAA is reviewing. The administration claims the complexity and cost of maintaining the entire inventory is not sustainable, so it’s looking to decommission approaches that are under utilized and based on older navigation systems.

The Powell Municipal Airport, for example, has a non-directional beacon (NDB), one of the first types of navigational systems used in aviation. Pilots can tune into the beacon’s frequency, and follow an approach procedure that aligns their aircraft to runway 31 — even if the pilot can’t see the airport. The procedure also tells pilots what altitudes and speeds to maintain.

The FAA flies these approaches on a regular basis to certify them for pilot use, a process that comes with costs.


WYDOT and others object

Luke Reiner, director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation, is among those raising objections with the FAA’s NextGen plan. He wrote a letter to the FAA last month requesting it reconsider.

“Because of the remoteness of many of our communities and the vast distances between medical facilities, airports serve as a critical connection to needed resources,” he wrote in the letter.

Smaller airports without GPS approaches will be forced to limit operations, Reiner said. Meanwhile, some military aircraft, such as the Air National Guard’s C-130, aren’t GPS equipped and Blackhawk helicopters are not capable of installing the equipment. Further, some regional airlines use smaller aircraft without the equipment.

“We are not ready for this broad application, and we’re asking the FAA to slow down,” Reiner said in an interview.

He compared the ground-based approaches to rotary phones, which remained in use during a long transition to push-button and cellphones before becoming entirely obsolete.

Joe MacGuire is part of a letter-writing campaign to get the FAA to maintain Wyoming’s procedures. He’s an airline transport pilot and a certified flight instructor based in Casper. MacGuire flies to airports around Wyoming and Colorado as a regional developer with Murphy Business, a business brokerage.

He said upgrading for the GPS systems can be expensive — and prohibitively so for some pilots. MacGuire upgraded his Cessna 182RG, which set him back $16,000; for larger aircraft, it can be much more expensive.

He sees other problems, too: The Department of Defense is under no obligation, he said, to offer the GPS systems to civilians. In the event of an emergency, the system could be shut down and if there are no backup systems, pilots would have no way to land in inclement weather.

If visibility falls unexpectedly below a certain point, a pilot without GPS can’t land at their destination. If few ground-based approaches are available, MacGuire notes, the pilot will need to fly long distances to an airport with an approach they can use.

MacGuire also questions how much money the FAA will actually save by decommissioning the approaches. With the administration flying each approach only one time per year, “the only thing that’s going to save is 20 minutes of flight time” per approach, he said.

MacGuire said he’s not trying to be an alarmist or exaggerate the issue. Rather, he said, “it’s a question of what money is saved versus the problems that will be created.”

A regional FAA spokesperson said he was unable to provide any figures as to how much money would be saved by decommissioning the ground-based approaches, but Gillette pilot Michael Von Flatern believes it’s a considerable amount.

Von Flatern is among those who support the changes proposed by the FAA.

“I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “They [critics] think it’s the end of the world for these little airports.”


Supporters see benefits

However, Scott Adkins, airport manager for the Powell Municipal Airport, is on-board with the FAA plans and supports decommissioning his facility’s NDB approach.

“The change makes a lot of good sense,” he said.

In many ways, Adkins said, the GPS approaches are easier to follow, allow for landings in worse weather and, in the event of a missed approach, don’t require the pilots to fly as far away from the airport before circling back.

Von Flatern, a commercial pilot and a state lawmaker, said the ground-based approaches are simply obsolete technology.

He noted that the technology behind NDBs and VOR, another type of navigation system used on ground-based approaches, dates back to the 1930s.

“I say, well, it’s about time,” Von Flatern said.

While there are costs to install GPS equipment, he noted that aviation is not cheap. He estimates that a full installation of GPS equipment on a C-130 aircraft could be a couple hundred thousand dollars. That’s a lot of money, he agrees, but on a $65 million aircraft, you’d spend that on annual inspections. Just a single propeller on such a plane could be a half-million dollars, Von Flatern said.

Adkins, a veteran who served deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, said the concerns about impacts to military flight operations don’t make a lot of sense. While the Air National Guard may have avoided budgeting for the upgrades on these aircraft designed in the 1960s, they probably should get those upgrades.

And when it comes to emergency medical flights, Von Flatern said it’s reasonable to expect such vital operations would be carried out with most up-to-date systems.

“In this day and age, you should have GPS,” he said.

He added that the weather in Wyoming tends to be more sunny and clear than a lot of places, so instrument approach procedures aren’t often needed.

As for the government shutting down GPS systems, Von Flatern said that would only happen in a serious, national emergency such as a terrorist attack.

“We’ll have a lot more problems than what’s happening to general aviation traffic at little airports,” he said.

MacGuire, however, said it’s a more common occurrence. He’s experienced planned GPS signal disruptions near Reno, Nevada, and the DOD recently jammed the signal over a large portion of the southeastern United States as part of a GPS interference testing exercise.

Whether or not the FAA will proceed with reducing Wyoming’s approach inventory or if the objections of state officials and pilots will give it pause remains to be seen. However, in the not too distant future, it’s likely that pilots without GPS systems will be limited in where and when they can fly.