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I’ve written a couple posts recently for other blogs, filling in for a vacationing Dan Webb (welcome back, Dan, and congratulations on the new Airplane Geeks gig) and looking at airport competition on AEI’s new (you should subscribe) Enterprise Blog.

An obnoxious letter to the editor of USA Today:

It would be irresponsible to get ahead of evidence [in the AF447 investigation], but important factors are emerging. First, some experts blame global warming for the increased severity and frequency of hurricanes (most of which originate at latitudes within 5 to 15 degrees of the equator). Second, the flight appears to have passed through a band of equatorial megastorms. Finally, levels of turbulence in such storms are being investigated in the crash. Perhaps the memorial service in Paris will be recognized as the first for airline victims of global warming.

Hat tip to Cafe Hayek.

The Senate Commerce Committee is holding a hearing today to review several nominations in its purview, including FAA administrator-designate J. Randolph Babbitt and DOT deputy secretary-designate John Porcari. Opening statements are going on now. Babbitt is, as you know, the former president of the Air Line Pilots Association and a pilot at Eastern. According to Mark Warner (D-Va.), who is chairing the hearing at the moment, Babbitt is “the right person to lead the FAA at the moment.” (Wow, tough crowd.) Porcari is Maryland’s secretary of transportation.

Opening statements by Babbitt and Porcari have been posted on the committee’s website.

I’m not on the Hill today, but I am watching the hearing’s live webcast. I’ll bring you aviation-related highlights of the hearing throughout the day, so refresh this post for the latest updates. Stay tuned!

Babbitt

Babbitt

11:43. Interesting item from Babbitt’s testimony: “I have worked with members of Congress on major aviation safety issues, including one of which I am most proud, ‘One Level of Safety.’ I led this project in 1993 while I was president of ALPA. This program resulted in required regional carriers to operate under the same rules and at the same level of safety as their major carrier counterparts.” Of significant relevance given the attention paid to small-lift provider safety standards in the wake of the NTSB’s Colgan Air crash hearings.

11:48. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) was principally responsible for torpedoing the confirmation of Robert Sturgell, former president Bush’s FAA nominee. He’s much happier with Babbitt today, about whom, when he slips up and says “if you are confirmed, he adds “if you’re not it will be a miracle.” Lautenberg asks about the New York / New Jersey / Philadelphia airspace redesign. Would Babbitt put a hold on the redesign until frontline air traffic controllers ha had a chance to weigh in? “I’m not exactly certain where that process stands at this time,” Babbitt replies. “On a personal basis, I would really like to solicit input from all the stakeholders in that area. . . . I think it’s very important that [controllers] have input in this process.”

Lautenberg then raises a parochial concern that is more than parochial, given the airport’s role in the system: reported controller shortages at Newark Liberty International Airport. “Can you assure us that the Newark tower will be staffed to the volume of performance we require there?” Babbitt: “It’s my hope that every tower in this country will be staffed and manned to the highest degree.” He refers to the “bubble of controllers being in a similar age, a band of age” who are going to retire soon. (And already are.–ed.)

Continue Reading »

Headless horsemen

Retired air traffic controller and blogger Don Brown had a great item yesterday. “President Obama’s budget includes cutting a ‘long-range navigation system’. . . . It took me a day or two to figure out they were talking about LORAN — Long-Range Aid to Navigation. Now, you tell me, did anyone (besides me) mention that LORAN was supposed to be the backup system for GPS? . . . Well, actually it was the DOD (you know, the folks in charge of GPS) via the JPDO that was warning everyone. I just happened to include it in my blog. Remember?”

Then, Brown links to a James Fallows post reporting on a GAO finding that the “U.S. Air Force, which runs the GPS satellites, has not managed to get new ‘IIF’-model satellites ready in time to replace the ones that are wearing out.” Brown: “So, we’re going to eliminate the system that GPS made obsolete, just in time for the GPS system to become unreliable. I assume the thought that the left hand of the government doesn’t know what the right is doing pops into your mind also.”

This reminded me of a new article by Jonathan Last about the natural process of knowledge decay in institutions. He documents the $92 million process of reconstructing the formula for “Fogbank,” a substance included in late-Cold War nuclear warheads whose formula had since been lost to history. Knowledge is lost, distorted, housed in human capital. Think of what happens when the admin in your office who’s been there for twenty-five years retires. No matter how much she writes down, she still takes away (and does not replace) a vast amount of institutional memory and knowledge.

And when you’re dealing with an institution as large and complex as the U.S. government, these kind of gaps are bound to happen frequently. The FAA thinks, “GPS, it’s a great system, let’s make it the basis of air traffic control.” (This is not a post on merits of Next Gen, FYI.) The Pentagon doesn’t bring a replacement for the current GPS system on line fast enough. And the OMB, eager to find redundancies in the federal budget, cuts the GPS back-up without knowing about delays in deploying its successor system. This is natural in giant institutions. We should probably be more surprised when systems actually work.

  • A thorough account of an ill-thought-out idea. [WSJ]
  • The U.S. Department of Transportation will make its decision on antitrust immunity for core Oneworld partners American Airlines, British Airways, and Iberia by November. [ATW Daily News]
  • “Rarely have I ever seen a former ranking official use that credential in more irresponsible ways than has [Mary] Schiavo since she left office. Having her comment on this will only undermine public understanding, but we have come to expect irresponsibility from her.” Ouch. [Airport Check-In]
  • The Midway Airport deal fell through, and now BAA is receiving smaller than expected bids for London’s Gatwick Airport. Too bad for BAA and good for the bidder; Gatwick is a valuable property that will be solid long-term investment, like most sparse infrastructure components. [FT]
  • Taiwan continues to expand bilateral aviation ties with mainland China. [ATW Daily News]
  • How to make the TSA even less accountable. [ANN]

Matt Phillips digs up a 2006 PLoS Medicine article by John S. Brownstein, Cecily J. Wolfe, and Kenneth D. Mandl that found a correlation between the grounding of commercial aircraft in the days after 9/11 and the later peak of the 2001-2002 flu season, which peaked at the normal time in countries that did not ground their aircraft. The takeaway from this? “At the regional level, our results suggest an important influence of international air travel on influenza timing as well as an influence of domestic air travel on influenza spread in the US.”

[O]ur results suggest that inter-regional spread occurs by a different mechanism, where air travel may be an important mode of long-range dissemination of influenza. We find that the effect of airline volume on regional influenza spread is largely based on travel in November. Though influenza activity is highest between January and March, initial regional seeding of infection may occur earlier. Our results suggest that for a non-pandemic year, travel during the Thanksgiving holiday may be central to the yearly national spread of influenza in the US. Similarly, we found that international airline travel influences the absolute timing of seasonal influenza mortality.

The flight ban in the US after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent depression of the air travel market provided a natural experiment for the evaluation of the effect of flight restrictions on disease spread. The importance of airline activity was highlighted by the delayed peak of influenza in 2001–2002 following the period of reduced flying activity. This finding is further validated by the absence of a similar delay in influenza activity in France, where flight restrictions were not imposed.

Thus, even though air travel is a major agent in spreading flu, by the time infections peak, the virus has already been seeded around the country and the world.

Matt interviewed John Brownstein, and their discussion is available at the Middle Seat Terminal blog post.

For more: yesterday’s post.

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The outbreak and rapid spread of the H1N1 swine influenza virus in Mexico and now the United States puts policymakers and business leaders in a difficult position vis-a-vis air travel. Pandemics exploit all the virtues of the air travel boom of the past few decades — a system that transports people and goods for travel, commerce, and economic opportunity suddenly becomes a primary agent of deadly disease. It’s the downside risk of international economic and cultural integration. Such integration still pays handsome benefits, however, and the risks can be mitigated by a multilateral public health infrastructure poised to go into action.

We are now in a critical moment for U.S. and World Health Organization (WHO) policymakers and the international aviation industry. To declare a pandemic right now and impose travel restrictions (as the U.S. and WHO have not done) might overstate the threat from swine flu and excessively impair travel to Mexico and U.S. border regions. But this outbreak appears to be unusually aggressive, with high mortality, suggesting that policymakers should nip it in the bud regardless of the cost to the travel industry. As the first case was reported in Europe, EU authorities issued travel advisories for the United States and Mexico. The danger to the aviation industry from either an over-aggressive response or from a widespread pandemic is high. In April and May 2003, at the height of the SARS epidemic in Southeast Asia and Canada, air traffic in the Asia-Pacific region dropped 45 and 51 percent, respectively. U.S. carriers with extensive routes in Asia — Northwest and United, especially — also suffered. This is an even worse problem in a recession, in which the prospect of future growth after an epidemic-related contraction is limited.

Part of the problem for policymakers is that U.S. citizens are inexperienced with pandemic response procedures. We are used to frequent and easy travel, not only by air but also locally, for work, school, or recreation. With deadly infectious diseases like smallpox and polio eradicated, we have become lazy. Less than half the number of people for whom the annual flu vaccine is recommended get it. Activists play on fear to spread the unproven belief that ingredients of children’s vaccines can cause autism, and their success in misinforming the public is correlated with a spike in pediatric measles infections (Megan McArdle referred to parents who decline to vaccinate their children as “twee BoBo sociopaths“). Our cities are unaccustomed to quarantines. How would you react to an order to stay indoors except for essential business? Would you obey it? The discipline of disease control is honed over time and cannot be immediately adopted with success. Moreover, the scale of the United States is also unsuitable for a concerted public health response. It’s one thing to isolate SARS in a tiny enclave like Hong Kong (which is extremely vigilant, at any rate) or on an island like Taiwan (unconscionably prohibited by Beijing from receiving WHO support during epidemics, by the way).

Whether or not this swine flu outbreak becomes an epidemic or a pandemic, policymakers and airline industry leaders need to be prepared for the dark side of global integration. Preventing the spread of epidemic diseases should be at the top of any government’s list.

Further reading:

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