March 18, 2012

Don't worry, the Frogs are happy!

Life is full of change.  We often resist it.  Sometimes we grow impatient waiting for it to come our way.  Change is an opportunity.  Many moons from now we may longingly gaze nostalgically back to the good ole' days.  Change makes us wiser, older, and possibly an old, irritable bastard. 

There are things I wish I could forget.   

Change is something as simple as tomorrow.  And for all of this general indecisiveness about the inevitable, change happens anyway.

I've been meaning to write this post for a while now.  But tomorrow keeps happening and things keep changing and this post keeps going philosophical, as opposed to my intended route, which would be technological.  I feel like I can't finish this before something changes.  Very frustrating.

There is a general (mis?)conception that government is slow at change; nothing ever gets done around here.  In many cases this is true. But at least government CAN change.  As stubborn as the people who work at the FAA may seem, changes to the system occur every 28 days (most charts update every other cycle - 56 days).  

I know what you're saying:  "You can't keep up with something that changes every month or two?  Seriously?  You can't just write us a damn blog post!?"

Yes. No.  I can't.  It's sad.  Get over it.


This is where I've been.

My solution to this creativity problem is that I'm going to keep it short and sweet.  Or at least shorter.  I'll split up all the different changes into separate posts.  Maybe that will keep us all more interested...

Cycle 1112
Some updates have more substance to them then others.  Previous updates had included things like a few new GPS approaches at the airports in the HNK sector, changing the number of an airway to eliminate confusion, or creating a new published holding pattern on the Standard Arrival Route (STAR) into Newark.  Stuff like that.

Update 1112 (the 12th update of 2011), as it is referred to, completely redesigned New York Center's airspace in ways I still don't fully understand.  New GPS/RNAV (Q) routes were created to fly through New York's newly designed sectors.  Routes into Dulles were changed to a new RNAV STAR.  But, except for checked to make sure planes were flying the new routes, not much changed for my area specifically.  Most of the airspace changes affected airspace that I never work with, even if it is within 50 miles of my area.  The routes are structured so that I really don't have to worry about it.  So, while BIG changes were happened for controllers all around me, my area was just minding its own business as usual.

So, about half way through the first day of this new update, on November 17th, someone realized that the HUO Sector, which works NYC departure traffic immediately adjacent to my area's DNY sector, was changing its altitude limits.  When the new procedures were being tossed around the administrative side of the building months earlier, the HUO sector didn't seem to concern anyone.  Now, suddenly, the support staff sprung wildly into action, re-changing the maps in our area and creating a new briefing item that we could sign claiming we now knew everything again. We were assured that nothing else was overlooked.

On the Boston Center side of things, there were a few changes to Area E's airspace.  Most notably, to allow for the fancy new RNAV STAR's into Boston that were set to be launched during the next chart date.


Last year, or was it two years ago (let's call it a year and a half ago), I was sitting in a meeting upstairs in the administrative wing of the Center, trying to stay awake.  Years before this meeting, MASSPORT, with local community groups hounding their shadow at every turn, studied the traffic patterns in and out of their Logan Airport and determined that changes should be made to the arrival and departure tracks to decrease fuel burn, decrease the number of flights over noise sensitive areas, and to save the world by letting frogs yell at each other in the elevators of the central parking garage.  Aforementioned local community groups appreciated the second benefit and loudly announced that the new flight paths NEEDED to be implemented. The frogs may have had their own agenda, but as far as we're concerned, they just like riding the elevator.

These fancy executive-type chairs are too comfortable, so I struggled to stay awake waiting for the controllers from the Boston TRACON (approach/departure) to arrive.  Our counterparts at the TRACON used a fancy computer program to plot all the new arrival and departure procedures according to their newly completed study with the assumed encouragement of many land-based Boston natives.  The idea was that planes would stay as high as possible as long as possible and remain on an off-shore flight track as long as possible. The airlines liked the idea and determined that if air traffic controllers simply let them fly at whatever altitude they wanted, they could save millions of dollars a year.  A few members of our group were invited down to Charlotte to fly in a flight simulator to show how awesome the new procedures would be if they were adapted with only USAirways in mind.  It would be our mission to find a compromise so that all users of the NAS could benefit from these procedures.  Am I jealous that I didn't get to fly in the simulator?....maybe. 

The departure procedures were already being implemented on a voluntarily basis within the TRACON's airspace (fly this if you want, if not, we're still using the old procedures which include vectors mainly).   Now it was time to finalize the arrival procedures.  This was more complicated, since the arrival routes start hundreds of miles from Boston, in Center airspace.  It was up to our group to tie their new procedures together with our own at the Center level, and in doing so, create procedures which were operationally feasible and beneficial to the actual airplanes, regardless of the weather.  We spent a lot of time trying to figure out the altitude limits along the arrival route at each fix.  The airlines want to be able to descend on idle thrust from cruise altitude all the way down to the altitude onto which they turn final approach.  As I've mentioned here before, each plane descends differently based on all sorts of variables, including the wind.  Boston arrivals fly through VERY congested airspace, so we can't just give it all away and let them do whatever they want all the time.  After a few days of working out the details, we were ready to publish our new procedures.  All the information went up, down and all around the chain of command, and would be ready sometime near the end of the 2011, a year later.  The FAA has a thorough process to ensure that the procedure is legal, can be physically flown without complications, and then to have all the of the charts printed correctly and the data entered into all of the flight management computers in the airplanes and for the dispatchers.  Oh, and then the controllers need to be training on everything.....

Here is a small part of our results:

The updates to Area E's airspace, as mentioned above in the previous chart date were to facilitate Boston arrivals entering the Danbury sector at FL270 as shown in the new KRANN arrival, as opposed to FL230 with the old ORW arrival.

Cycle 1113
This cycle, introduced on December 15th, included these major changes for Boston arrivals.  All of the major routes in and out of Boston were now officially on RNAV procedures.  Since many airlines pushed for these new procedures, we didn't have to work very hard to get them to file their new flights plans correctly (there's always at least one airline that doesn't get the memo).

From an Area A controller standpoint (me), not much has changed.  The real benefit to my area will be during the upcoming thunderstorm season, when aircraft are often rerouted off of the GDM/QUABN arrival to avoid weather.  Reroutes to the ENE.OOSHN1 arrival will be much easier to issue compared to the previous reroute.  


Please note how many of the fixes along the route in Center's airspace (WIKID, YEARS, PAHTI, BAWLL, STRKK, OUTTT) have altitude limitations shown between two horizontal lines.  We spent a lot of time working on those in our meetings.  But Boston Center controllers are not allowed to issue "Descend via..." clearances (which is why those altitudes are there) (and we're not expected to be able to in the near or far future).  Why are they published, you may ask?  Just because.

New procedures in Canada have shown light on an issue with these altitudes.  In Canada, when an aircraft is "Cleared to Ottawa via the DEANS5 arrival", any descent clearance issued assumes compliance with the altitudes listed in a similar manner on the Canadian charts.  Controllers do not need to issue a specific "descend via the DEANS5, maintain 11000" clearance.  "Descend and maintain 11000" implies that.  In the US, "cross LOBBY at 11000" permits the deletion of all previous altitude limits shown on the chart.  The only one that matters is LOBBY at 11000.  Altitudes beyond LOBBY are in TRACON airspace, and they say "descend via" and issue an approach transition.  This causes confusion among Canadian pilots.  Many of them have not flown a STAR in the US with altitude restrictions (known as VNAV - Vertical Navigation).  At least they ask.

Another issue arises when the approach controller issues the approach transition, which instructs the pilots which track to fly after RSVOR or MYSTK (in the case of the QUABN1).  This clearance must be issued in time to give the pilots enough time to enter the new route into the computers. This often occurs prior to LOBBY.  A descend via clearance is sometimes issued at the same time as the approach transition, which can then make the Center's clearance of "cross LOBBY at 11000" turn into "descend via the QUABN1 arrival, runway 4R transition, maintain 7000."  That clearance then allows the pilot to cross LOBBY between 11000 and 13000.   This is a discussion between Area B, C and D and the TRACON (those area's actually hand the plane off to approach).  I'm gonna stay out of it beyond this simplified explanation.

Secondary to this issue is a display issue of the actual chart with the horizontal lines that define the altitude restrictions on digital screens.  Certain zoom levels may cause the horizontal lines to disappear or be very difficult to see.  We can't use them, we sometimes can't see them, and none of them are in Area A's airspace.  Word on the street is they are being taken off the STAR next chart date.  No sweat off my back, really.

For now, everything dealing with Boston is mostly under control.  The vast majority of aircraft are filing the RNAV routes though I don't know exactly how Boston TRACON is handling the approach transitions.  

Slowly but surely, change is happening.  In the end, the goal is simple.  Save the world.  One happy frog at a time.

Till next time....