Aviation management challenges increase
By Frank L. Frisbe|December 2023
The Aerospace Traffic Management Integration Committee monitors, evaluates and seeks to influence the direction of ATM technologies with a focus on efficiency, public safety and national security.
The year began with guarded expectations based on concerns about FAA air traffic controller staffing and airline crew staff capacity. Unexpectedly high travel demand exacerbated by poor weather across the U.S. exposed these concerns. The already daunting challenges to air traffic operations received a serious setback in early January when more than 11,000 flights were canceled or delayed because of a two-hour ground stop, prompted by an outage of the FAA Notice to Air Missions system.
The lack of runway incursion technology led to multiple close calls, stressing the importance of airport surface management. Among them was in January at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, in which a Boeing 777-200 that was taxiing into position crossed an active runway that another passenger aircraft was using for its takeoff roll. The departing aircraft aborted its takeoff attempt and subsequently taxied to the gate.
In June, upwards of 11,000 flights were delayed or canceled in a single day because of severe weather or controller staffing issues. There were several days this year in which 9,000 flights were delayed or canceled across the U.S. after powerful storms ripped through parts of the country where many busy hubs are located. Public criticism was very strong throughout the period.
As the year progressed, the aircraft traffic management community recognized the imminent challenges in airspace management as new entrants, notably Joby Aviation, a California company that is developing all-electric air taxi for commercial passenger service. Joby received an FAA Special Airworthiness Certificate in June for the first aircraft built at its pilot production line, clearing the company to begin flight tests with this production prototype. Other air taxi manufacturers, including California-based Archer Aviation and Wisk, as well as Germany-based Lilium, are on a similar path. In the face of these developments, FAA in July published an Advanced Air Mobility Implementation Plan providing guidance and direction as this emerging segment moves into the National Airspace System in a big way. In the near term, the plan focuses on preparing for air taxi operations during the 2028 Summer Olympics.
In late June, Virgin Galactic completed its first commercial suborbital flight, marking a major step for space tourism. This event brought focus to FAA’s Space Data Integrator, the first of several new capabilities to track and share information about vehicles launching and reentering. FAA calls SDI an “operational prototype” that will “enable improved situational awareness and airspace management decision-making” to manage traffic around commercial space operations, as well as enable FAA to make rules and adjustments moving forward.
Unidentified aerial phenomena also added to aviation safety and national security concerns this year. There were 510 such sightings in 2022, according to a report issued by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence in January. During a July congressional hearing, witnesses testified that the government has withheld a large body of information about sightings not attributed to natural phenomena. More information may be learned from closed hearings and from Congress’s proposed provisions on UAP in the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act.
In August, FAA acknowledged it was investigating about 4,800 pilots suspected of falsifying medical records, 60 of which posed a clear danger to aviation safety and were ordered to cease flying pending the outcome. Much of the oversight was attributed to faulty information exchange between the Department of Veterans Affairs and FAA.
Virtually all the challenges faced by civil aviation in the U.S. this year occurred without a permanent FAA administrator until late October, when the U.S. Senate confirmed Michael Whitaker to the position.
Contributor: Charles Keegan