Victor airways are obsolete

January 24th, 2014 by Tom Kramer
For decades, Victor airways have enabled navigation across the National Airspace System. These “highways in the sky” serve as the skeleton of our navigation infrastructure, connecting hundreds of VORs through a spider web of routes crisscrossing the country. But half of the VORs anchoring these airways are about to be decommissioned. How will we get from point A to point B without Victor airways?

Airways

In reality, Victor airways don’t really get us from Point A to Point B. They usually dogleg through Points C, D, and E. In some cases, the dogleg detours traffic around special use airspace, terrain, or conflicting instrument procedures. These airways are also subject to the physical location of the ground based equipment supporting the VOR. Real estate, terrain, and service volumes dictate less than optimal locations resulting in a network of Victor airways that work, but aren’t quite optimized.

 

Why Victor airways are nearing obsolescence

The FAA is on a path to reduce the network of VORs by about half in the coming years as part of the Minimum Operating Network, or MON. Because Victor airways must begin and end at a VOR, a reduction of hundreds of VORs means thousands of Victor airways will need to be modified. The FAA is already decommissioning some VORs due to natural disasters or significant equipment failures. When a VOR is decommissioned, the FAA must modify all of the associated instrument procedures like approaches, arrivals, departures, and airways. In most cases, the FAA simply replaces the VOR with a GPS waypoint to retain the airway. While this preserves the existing capabilities (at least for GPS-equipped aircraft), it does nothing to improve the access and efficiency of the airspace.

As part of the broader transition to NextGen, the FAA is promoting smarter, more efficient airspace. Simply replacing a VOR with a GPS waypoint does not leverage the benefits of satellite navigation. The FAA needs a strategy to replace Victor airways with more efficient satellite navigation. Click here to Tweet this thought.

We need an airway transition policy

Imagine the Federal government decided to demolish every on ramp and off ramp for the entire Interstate highway system. Instead, flying cars would simply levitate directly onto the highway, bypassing those crumbling and outdated on ramps. The problem is, if cars can fly, it renders the highways obsolete. This is how the FAA is currently approaching VOR decommissioning and the Victor airway network.

Instead of developing workarounds like GPS waypoints replacing VORs, the FAA needs to approach navigation infrastructure with a fresh approach. Do pilots really need to be restricted to airway navigation in uncongested airspace away from major metropolitan areas and high-density jet traffic? Wouldn’t point to point navigation be more efficient, decreasing workload for both pilot and controller?

There was once a plan called Free Flight. Pilots would take off, point their airplane at the destination, and away they’d go. If another aircraft was encountered en route, the planes would simply alter course a little bit to avoid each other’s buffer zone. While Free Flight has been largely abandoned, satellite navigation promises to get us closer to Free Flight than ever before. But we have to find a way to free ourselves from the constraints of Victor airways.

AOPA Advocacy

AOPA has been working closely with industry partners and the FAA on the VOR reduction process. We are advocating for a criteria-based approach that ensures a robust network of VORs capable of serving as a backup for GPS. Under the MON, pilots will be able to revert back to VOR navigation and land at an airport within 100 nm. We also want to ensure that pilots have an opportunity to review and comment on individual NAVAIDs. But this doesn’t address the day-to-day navigation needs under a system based on satellite navigation.

AOPA will be formally asking the FAA to convene and industry stakeholder committee to assist the FAA in developing a strategy and policy for transitioning from Victor airways to a system based on satellite navigation.

What do you think?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on an airway transition policy. What challenges do you see, and how would you like the future of navigation infrastructure to take shape?

Sneak Peek

Be sure to check back next week when I’ll write about AOPA’s advocacy efforts regarding the FAA’s plan to reduce the VOR network by 50%. What are your concerns with the planned reduction in VORs? Leave a comment below or send an email to airtrafficservices@aopa.org.

The most exciting part of my workday

January 3rd, 2014 by Tom Kramer

Every day, Monday through Friday, excepting Federal holidays, the National Archives and Records Administration publishes the Federal Register. It is an exhaustive listing of proposed regulations, policies, and more for the entire federal government. Perhaps I exaggerated this article’s title a bit. The Federal Register is not (usually) the most exciting part of my day. But it does contain very important information and shapes much of my workload for the weeks and months ahead.

Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

The Federal Government’s Journal

The Federal Register is described as the daily journal of the United States Federal Government. It was established by Congress through the Federal Register Act with the goal of addressing a growing government and a proliferation of agencies issuing regulations. The Federal Register allows agencies to promulgate and enforce federal regulations. If you’re interested in learning more about the Federal Register, the National Archives and Records Administration hosts an online course detailing everything you would ever want to know about the Federal Register.

How AOPA uses the Federal Register

Everyone in the Government Affairs department reads through the Federal Register each morning to see what actions are being considered or proposed. While the document is categorized by agency, aviation is subject to regulatory burdens beyond the FAA. Consider the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) recent decision to restrict overflight of National Marine Sanctuaries. The notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) was listed in the Federal Register under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which oversees the ONMS.

So really, we need to review the entire Federal Register for activities that have the potential of impacting general aviation. The Table of Contents alone is around 15 pages each day. From that, I may investigate anywhere from 3 to 10 announcements that have caught my eye. Most turn out to be harmless, routine, or not applicable to general aviation.

When I do find something that pertains to general aviation, it sets a lot of things in motion. Depending on the nature of the announcement, it could mean the beginning of months of work.

What happens when something is found

The first thing I do is analyze the proposal to understand exactly what the issue is, and start to determine how it may impact (positively or negatively) general aviation. I share a summary of the issue with my colleagues and map out our path forward for a response. One of the first actions is to submit a communications request, or comms request, which is AOPA’s internal mechanism for generating articles for our digital publications like the website or ePilot.

I may collaborate with industry partners or contacts at the FAA to gain additional insight or information as I begin to sketch out AOPA’s draft comments in response to the announcement. Depending on the issue, we may also notify and solicit input from our regional managers and affected Airport Support Network Volunteers (ASNVs). I use this input to refine our final comments and prepare for submission. If it is a particularly significant or groundbreaking issue, we will often run a second article sharing AOPA’s comments and reminding members to submit comments of their own.

There are a lot of steps and a lot of lead time needed to ultimately submit comments that are insightful and substantive. That is why we often request a comment period extension. It is not necessarily to slow down the process, but to allow us sufficient time to do all the leg work in preparation of submitting comments. The Federal Register is not very user friendly. Most pilots are not reading the Federal Register themselves. Instead, they rely on organizations like the AOPA to digest the information, summarize the important points, and alert them to significant items.

Have you ever submitted comments?

The Federal Register is important, but the comments submitted in response are crucial. Many of the decisions or policies proposed by the FAA and other agencies are made in a vacuum with little or no input from the general public. Submitting comments is our chance to shape the regulatory and operating environment. Have you ever submitted comments to an NPRM or other Federal Register announcement? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!

We can start ignoring NOTAMs pretty soon

November 26th, 2013 by Tom Kramer
Pilots have a love/hate relationship with NOTAMs.  We love that they can alert us to things like closed runways or temporary flight restrictions.  But we hate reading through dozens of NOTAMs for unlit, 300 foot towers when we plan to cruise at 8,000 feet.  The really important NOTAMs are buried in a long list of NOTAMs that don’t apply.  That’s all about to change.

notam

Admittedly, the title was selected to catch your attention. I certainly don’t propose pilots ignore all NOTAMs. Instead, the FAA and industry stakeholders are working towards new solutions that will reduce the overwhelming volume of NOTAMs that pilots have to sift through prior to flight.

Less NOTAMs = better NOTAMs

There are just too many NOTAMs. A 200 mile flight can lead to page after page of NOTAMs. While every NOTAM is important to someone, most are applicable to only a small segment of users. I don’t care about taxiway wingspan limitations of 200 feet when I’m flying a Mooney. Irrelevant (to my flight) NOTAMs only clog up preflight activities, detract from the applicable NOTAMs, and create unnecessary workload.

It’s not about reducing the total number of NOTAMs in the system. It’s about presenting pilots with only those NOTAMs that actually matter to that pilot for that flight. Wouldn’t you agree that pilots are more likely to read, understand, and follow NOTAMs when there are less overall, and only applicable NOTAMs are presented?

Search, Sort, and Filter

The Pilot’s Bill of Rights was signed into law on August 3, 2012 and included provisions for the creation of a NOTAM Improvement Panel that would review the FAA’s progress and make recommendations for future improvements. The FAA finally complied and created the group in the summer of 2013. I am excited to represent AOPA members as the Co-Chairman of the NOTAM Improvement Task Group. Over the past few months, a dozen-plus representatives of various stakeholders have met multiple times to review the FAA’s NOTAM improvement progress and make recommendations on further refinements.

The most significant improvement to NOTAM delivery will come from the ability to filter out NOTAMs. This will reduce the overall volume of NOTAMs that a pilot sees. Next, a pilot can sort the results so that the most important NOTAMs (runway closed, TFRs, etc.) appear at the top of the report. Additional enhancements will include the option for plain language, lower-case lettering, and graphic NOTAMs.

 Crawl, walk, run

Before we can really leverage the power of search, sort, and filter, we need digital NOTAM data. These NOTAMs follow strict formatting rules that enable a computer to run the algorithms to search, sort, and filter. Trouble is, only about 60% of all NOTAMs are digitized today. The remaining 40% come from the smaller airports that serve primarily, or exclusiv3ely, general aviation traffic. That is why AOPA is pushing hard for 100% digitization of NOTAMs.

The real magic in digitized NOTAMs will be realized through third-party vendors. They will be able to integrate the NOTAM data and manipulate the presentation to be even more useful to pilots. Imagine looking at an airport diagram on your tablet computer and visually seeing a taxiway colored red. It’s a graphic depiction of the NOTAM letting pilot’s know about a closed taxiway. I think we are just scratching the surface of what technology will enable. Ultimately, we are headed towards more applicable NOTAMs, delivered at the right time, and in a format that pilots can easily use.

Discuss

What improvements to the NOTAM system would you like to see implemented?

Meet the AOPA Regional Managers

October 30th, 2013 by Tom Kramer
This is a guest post by my colleague, Bob Minter. Bob is one of 7 Regional Managers at AOPA and oversees localized issues in the southeastern region. You can read more about each of the Regions and each of the Regional Managers, here.
AOPA's Regional Managers

AOPA’s Regional Managers

In 2012 AOPA upgraded its former program of 12 Regional Representatives to 7 Regional Managers. All of the association’s former Representatives had been operating under individual contracts. The new Regional Managers were all hired as full-time employees.

The Regional Representatives program was begun under former Association President John Baker in the early 80’s and most of those who comprised the “Rep. Corps” had formerly served at state government aeronautics departments. All lived in and worked from their respective regions and the Rep. Program then came under the Communications Division at AOPA headquarters. It was later moved into the Government & Technical Affairs Division. The core mission was to serve as AOPA’s eyes and ears, to become the face of AOPA in their respective regions, to work closely with members and pilot groups, to identify and resolve issues before they became larger problems and to take AOPA’s governmental affairs advocacy and expertise to the state and local level. During those days, the Reps worked lots of airport related issues until AOPA’s 3rd President, Phil Boyer, established the AOPA Airport Support Network (ASN) and began utilizing volunteers(ASNVs), at what is now more than 2,500 local airports nation wide. Boyer then refocused the Reps mission to working primarily with state legislatures and local governments.

When the full-time Regional Managers program was established in January, 2012 under AOPA President Craig Fuller, the Managers’ responsibilities were expanded to include membership development and territories were redefined to conform with the FAA regions .AOPA Regional Managers continue to live and work in their assigned territories.

The legacy of AOPA’s regional outreach over the past 30 years is truly extraordinary – hundreds of legislative and regulatory victories at the state and local levels have saved members money in the form of sales & property taxes, airports charges & fees and more helping to fulfill our promise to keep the cost of flying down and protect our freedom to fly. General aviation airports and funding have been saved… the successes of AOPA’s Regional Reps and now Managers as well as those of the Airports Support Network Volunteers are far too numerous to mention; all made possible because of close and collaborative support from AOPA headquarters staff who frequently are the real experts on a given technical issue.

Members often wonder how Regional Managers handle their various responsibilities in regions with a large number of states. The key is a team effort connecting members, alliances in each state, and headquarters staff. Managers must be skilled strategists. Networking and establishing relationships with state and local governments, federal agencies, airports, pilot/user groups, and a variety of centers of influence that impact aviation and air transportation policy are vitally important. AOPA utilizes a broad spectrum of the latest in technology in its work for our membership. For example, Regional Managers utilize legislative and regulatory monitoring software and services to stay abreast of lawmaking and regulation that may impact our members. It is common to see an AOPA Regional Manager in the halls of state legislatures initiating a measure that will benefit general aviation or opposing those that threaten to increase the cost of flying, our airports, or our freedom to fly.

At the end of the day, our work is all about connecting with AOPA members. Members consistently provide our most valuable advanced link to issues and opportunities. Our new President, Mark Baker, understands the importance of connecting with our members and is re-focusing and re-dedicating AOPA toward more one-on-one service. In 2014, we expect AOPA Regional Managers to be even more involved in helping fulfill President Baker’s mission.

Advocacy efforts continue even when the government is shut down

October 23rd, 2013 by Tom Kramer
While attending the AOPA Summit in Ft Worth, the most frequent question I received was “what is AOPA’s government affairs doing if the federal government is shut down?”    A lot more than you’d think.
Image courtesy of Tomasso Galli [http://www.flickr.com/photos/tommy-ironic/]

Image courtesy of Tomasso Galli [http://www.flickr.com/photos/tommy-ironic/]

The government was only sort of closed

Even while the government was “shut down,” roughly 60% of all federal employees continued working.  These folks are deemed essential or exempt.  Most of the FAA’s lines of business are considered essential and were largely unaffected, leaving pilots to fly as usual.  While flight operations were not directly impacted, the regulatory and “backroom” work was paused.  Most rank and file employees involved in non-operational capacities were furloughed.

The shutdown presented a unique challenge for continuing our advocacy efforts.  AOPA participates, and chairs, many industry committees which make recommendations to the FAA regarding policy and regulatory issues.  In most cases, these committees continued to operate.  However, submission of final reports and input from FAA subject matter experts delayed the progress or completion of some activities.  Despite the government shutdown, AOPA’s advocacy work continued and over the past few weeks, we made significant strides on several issues.

Advocacy efforts continue

AOPA supported the Small Airplane Revitalization Act, which recently passed by unanimous consent in the Senate.  The Act mirrors recommendations made to the FAA by industry, to streamline and simplify the certification process for GA aircraft and avionics.  This will drive down costs and pave the way for innovation and safety enhancement for new and existing aircraft.

The 16 day government shutdown resulted in closure of the aircraft registration office in Oklahoma City.  AOPA, along with several other associations, requested the FAA reopen the aircraft registration branch, citing legal authority based on the FAA’s past characterization of the office as an “essential function for public safety, security and compliance with international treaty obligations.”

AOPA staff and industry partners met with Customs and Border Protection Field Operations staff to discuss improvements to the border crossing process, including the Advanced Passenger Information System (APIS). The group secured a commitment from customs to improve consistency amongst officers and procedures from airport to airport.

AOPA submitted a letter to the San Francisco Mayor’s office, expressing concern with an ordinance being considered which would prohibit aerial advertising over the city. AOPA’s letter urged the Mayor’s office cease moving forward with any ordinance that would restrict aerial advertising, and recognize the FAA’s sole authority to regulate navigable airspace.

During the AOPA Summit, government affairs staff met with industry counterparts, learned about new technologies, and led several educational seminars.  My favorite part about Summit, though, is engaging directly with AOPA members.  It’s easy to get wrapped up in the day to day activities and forget that there are real, live pilots that I am serving.  Meeting members face to face and finding out what is important to them is my top priority at Summit and other outreach activities.  So while I am sad to see Summit suspended, I am looking forward to meeting even more members through our regional outreach events.

Speaking of Summit

The second most-frequently discussed topic was the suspension of Summit and questions about the future regional outreach efforts.  Where will these smaller events be held?  Will there be vendors, static displays, seminars?  The bottom line is that we really don’t know yet.  This is an exciting new development for the organization and the details are still being ironed out.

What would you like to see?  Where should these events be held, and what should be included?  This is a clean sheet design, so we’re looking for lots of input on how best to meet our members, literally and figuratively.  Share your thoughts in the comment section below!

What’s an advocate and what do they do?

September 3rd, 2013 by Tom Kramer
Conversations with my in-laws would be a lot easier if I were an accountant.  Whenever we meet, they kindly ask, “how are things going at work?”  Their eyes glaze over as I try to explain the transition from a ground-based navigation and surveillance system to one that is satellite-based.  They smile and nod, and I quickly change the subject to the weather.

Advocate

In a previous post I detailed the organization of AOPA’s Government Affairs and provided a broad overview of how the division works.  Now, I’d like to dig a little deeper and provide insight as to how an individual Advocate carries out the mission of Government Affairs.

I work as the Manager of Airspace and Modernization for AOPA’s Government Affairs.  In this role, I am responsible for developing, implementing, and advocating AOPA’s position as it pertains to the National Airspace System and how pilots operate in it.  Very simply, I work the issues that happen in the airspace.  This includes instrument flight procedure development, NAVAID and airway management, obstruction evaluations, the transition to a satellite based airspace system, and a handful of other topics.  My actual day to day work falls into three broad categories.

Analyzing and Reporting

The majority of my time is spent researching, analyzing, and reporting on the issues that fall under the banner of Air Traffic Services.  Before I can advocate on an issue, I need to understand it inside and out.  I need to identify what the potential impact or benefit to general aviation is and what course of action will affect the result we’re looking for.

My coworker, Melissa McCaffrey, has the unenviable task of analyzing and reporting on thousand-page environmental studies.  These reports detail the potential environmental impact of an airspace boundary modification, for example.  While 90% of the document has no relevance to our membership, key pieces of information are often buried in unassuming sections and need to be ferreted out so we can develop comments in opposition or support.

Meetings

Each week, I spend between 10 and 20 hours in meetings.  Most of these meetings happen at FAA headquarters in Washington, DC, but I often travel around the country for meetings on regional issues.  Occasionally the meetings are single day, single issue events.  More often, they are ongoing, committee type efforts.

Recently, I have been selected as co-chair of a committee that is tasked with making recommendations to the FAA on improvements to the U.S. NOTAM system.  It’s exciting, important work that will impact the lives of any pilot who uses NOTAMs.  One of the challenges with this, and many committees, is that we (general aviation) are outnumbered.  In a room of 2 dozen participants, there might be only 1 or 2 other individuals who represent some segment of general aviation.  Thankfully, these committees are usually consensus-based efforts.  This means the group works to achieve a workable solution that is palatable to all versus a perfect solution that is ideal for some.  Having strong working relationships with other stakeholders is critical under the consensus process.

Building Relationships

So much of what we do is reliant on having a strong network of knowledgeable, influential people.  Not just in the FAA, but throughout other associations and stakeholder groups.  This isn’t the shady kind of back room deals or insider information, but knowing who can assist me in addressing an issue.

Consider a recent example.  A member called in to report a disparity between the textual description of a TFR and the FAA provided graphic.  Thankfully, I had a great contact in the FAA’s System Operations Security office that was able to quickly correct the issue and prevent pilots from inadvertently entering a TFR.

It’s difficult to define my job to someone who isn’t familiar with aviation.  I think the easiest way to explain it is that I work to promote, preserve, and protect the freedom to fly.  The cool thing is, that happens to be AOPA’s mission statement.

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Does this match with what you imagined Government Affairs employees did?

An inside look at AOPA’s Government Affairs department

September 3rd, 2013 by Tom Kramer
I often wonder about the accuracy of television portrayals of the workplace.  Is selling paper as much fun as it looks on The Office?  Are folks really making a fortune bidding on abandoned storage lockers?  Certainly the more mundane parts of these job are left out.  There’s a popular misunderstanding that AOPA gets things accomplished by storming FAA headquarters, pounding the table, and shouting ultimatums.  While this does happen on occasion, our day to day work is not must see TV.
Government Affairs Office

Government Affairs office at AOPA’s headquarters in Frederick, MD

Role of Government Affairs at AOPA

AOPA’s Government Affairs is one division made up of five departments.  In our Washington, DC offices, our Legislative Affairs team oversees Federal legislative issues such as the Pilot’s Bill of Rights, FAA funding, and the General Aviation Caucus.  The remaining 4 departments work from AOPA Headquarters in Frederick, MD.

The Airports and State Advocacy department is tasked with promoting and protecting airports around the country and state-level legislative issues such as property taxes.  Regulatory Affairs oversees issues related to aircraft and pilot certification including Airworthiness Directives and pilot medicals.  The Operations and International Affairs folks work collaboratively with AOPA International counterparts around the world.  Security issues such as the DC Flight Restricted Zone, Presidential TFRs, and the TSA are worked under Operations & International Affairs.

The final department, Airspace & Air Traffic Services, is tasked with airspace (boundaries and modifications), infrastructure (NAVAIDs, obstructions, etc.), and operational environment issues (instrument procedures, ATC interaction, etc.).  Together, these 5 departments represent around 30 people or 15% of the entire AOPA staff and serve as the front line of preserving and promoting our freedom to fly.

The Past, Present, and Future of Advocacy

A few months ago, Government Affairs hosted a purge party.  We had dozens of 5 drawer, extra-deep file cabinets holding the history of our advocacy efforts.  The cabinets were taking up valuable office space and the contents were obsolete and rarely, if ever, referenced.  It was fascinating to see some of these letters and documents, some dating back 30 years or more.  It struck me how much had changed.  Letters are no longer hammered out on a typewriter or addressed, “Dear Gentlemen,”  and purple-hued mimeographed duplicates are a distant memory.  Despite a change in the means, the method remains constant.  AOPA still accomplishes great work through analyzing issues, building relationships, and leveraging the organization’s experience and reputation.

Advocacy is really about communicating.  Each day we communicate our position on general aviation.  Whether its writing a letter to the FAA, meeting with a Senator, or participating on a panel to develop consensus recommendations.  Before these efforts ever see the light of day, hours upon hours are spent researching the issue, evaluating the impact or benefit to general aviation, and determining a path forward.

In my next article, I’ll provide more insight into the nuts and bolts of advocacy work including a breakdown of a typical work week and the nature of what it means to be an advocate.

How effective is this?

No single letter or meeting is going to make or break general aviation.  It is the collective, sustained effort over hundreds or thousands of interactions that will promote, preserve, and protect the freedom to fly. This is why AOPA’s experience and reputation has proven so valuable.  Fostering relationships with other organizations, regulators, and elected officials is critical in implementing the goals of our organization.  We don’t always see eye to eye, but the strength and breadth of our network ensures that when we need to be firm, it carries that much more weight.

AOPA’s Government Affairs is not nearly as dramatic as an episode of House of Cards.  While it’s unlikely that we’ll ever be made into a reality TV show, the work is deeply satisfying.  I can honestly say that my co-workers are not hired-guns, but passionate defenders of the freedom to fly with a personal, vested interest in general aviation.