Jamaica’s Air Traffic Controllers Call In Sick

Jamaica‘s airports only experienced a small hiccup this weekend as the country’s air traffic controllers staged a sick-out in protest over low wages and mismanagement of the civil aviation authority. The posts were quickly filled by supervisors and managers and there were no reports of flight safety being compromised.

A Jamaican court has since granted an injunction to the Ministry of Labour, ordering the ATCs back to work, though there has been no response from the union representing the protesting workers.

Flights appeared to be operating more or less on schedule, though there were reports from the capital, Kingston, of delays on inbound and outbound flights. There were no delays at Sangster International in Montego Bay, Jamaica’s busiest airport.

The union had said that the sick-out will affect traffic in Jamaica’s airspace over the coming days. However, with the abandoned posts having been taken over fairly quickly by management, the impact of the protest appears to be less than hoped for.

Airport, Airline Weather System Updates To Save Time, Fuel, Eventually

When unavoidable bad weather causes turbulence in the air, passengers can expect a rocky ride. In the past, while pilots have aimed to avoid turbulence, they have been limited in the number of available tools. Now, a new turbulence avoidance system promises to change that.

A smoother ride
Called the Juneau Airport Wind System (JAWS), it was developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and provides information pilots can use to route aircraft away from patches of potentially dangerous turbulence.

“By alerting pilots to areas of moderate and severe turbulence, this system enables them to fly more frequently and safely in and out of the Juneau airport in poor weather,” says Alan Yates, an NCAR program manager who helped oversee the system’s development in an R&D Magazine article. “It allows pilots to plan better routes, helping to reduce the bumpy rides that passengers have come to associate with airports in these mountainous settings.”

The system uses a network of wind measuring instruments and computational formulas to interpret rapidly changing atmospheric conditions. The Federal Aviation Administration accepted JAWS for operational use this year.

Just how bad can turbulence in the air be? Check this video:

Sliding in for a landing
In the works and delayed for several years, another system relies on satellites and GPS rather than the radar system developed in the 1950s to direct planes and jets from takeoff to landing.

Called the NextGen system, it will be initially used in Orlando, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, northern and southern California, Houston, Charlotte and northern Texas. The new system should allow planes to fly with less spacing between them on more direct routes, and allowing them to glide to a landing rather than following a step down pattern that is not fuel efficient.

The NextGen system has been compared to walking down a flight of stairs vs. sliding down the banister.

“In addition to improving safety and increasing capacity, this plan will allow for more direct routing for airplanes, less holding at the destination and better planning for constant descent arrivals mentioned above, resulting in less carbon emissions, fuel consumption, and noise.” said Gadling’s Kent Wien in Plane Answers: Airlines see green in appearing green back in 2009, just to show how long this one has been in the works.

This video tells the whole story:

Flickr photo by Ack Ook

Child directs airplanes from JFK air traffic control tower – FAA not amused

Bring your child to work day usually involves showing the little ones how your office looks, and letting them play with the water cooler. At New York JFK Airport, someone took things a little too far by letting a child issue commands to aircraft. In the video above, you can clearly hear the kid, with someone in the background telling him what to say.

Thankfully, the pilots all seem to find it rather funny, and I assume it brightened up their otherwise boring day. Sadly, the FAA doesn’t share their sense of humor, as a full investigation is underway to determine who did what, and why. The FAA had this to say:

Pending the outcome of our investigation, the employees involved in this incident are not controlling air traffic. This behavior is not acceptable and does not demonstrate the kind of professionalism expected from all FAA employees.

Even though rules were broken, I doubt airplanes were in any kind of danger during the short burst of entertainment from the tower.

FAA admits near-collision of two jets

Early in the morning on November 23, two jets coming in for landing at Denver International Airport had a near-miss, as one plane tried to make a U-turn into the path of the other, causing the jets to come within 200 feet of one another.

According to ABC News, one jet was in a line of planes coming in for landing. The other was on a parallel path, and needed to be guided in to the line. Air traffic controllers gave the second plane incorrect instructions though, requiring it to turn around to right in the path of the other plane. The plane’s collision avoidance system sounded an alarm, and the pilots were able to avoid the other plane.

ABC News quoted a source as saying that the two planes merged on the radar screen and came with “a blink of an eye” of each other. As is always the case with incidents like these, the FAA is investigating.

Another “blue ribbon” panel to fix the airline industry

It’s been a tough month year decade for the airline industry. In the United States, it’s lost $58.5 billion and cut 158,000 jobs. There never seems to be an answer, and news of an industry in jeopardy has become routine. So, .

But, it will be different this time. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says it will not be “just another advisory committee.”

On his Department of Transportation blog, LaHood writes, “I am not commissioning some report to fill space on my bookshelf. This committee will make a difference.”

He continues:

“Look, without a financially strong aviation industry, we will be unable to compete in domestic and international commerce. We could also fall behind in addressing our own infrastructure needs. So we must begin this important conversation in order to ensure a viable, competitive U.S. aviation industry.”

But, he has his work cut out for him, as does the advisory committee. The estimated price tag to fix the most vexing problems the industry faces is $20 billion. And, many of the recommendations from the last two panels were never implemented.

A new air traffic control system, based on GPS technology, is at the top of the list, but it’s years away. It could save us $40 billion a year in lower fuel and labor costs, not to mention trimming a lot a time from the 740 million people who take to the skies. But, the $20 billion price tag is frightening, especially for airlines that are perpetually behind the financial 8-ball. The other possible wallet belongs to the taxpayer. Anyone want to pay more?

Oh, taxes could go up again if new environmental legislation is passed, so buckle up for more.

On the subject of taxes, the airline industry gripes that it gets hit worse than liquor and tobacco companies (well, except maybe rollers of loose cigarette tobacco). This gives them even fewer financial options to improve equipment and service. For airline shareholders, Jim May, top dog of the Air Transport Association, puts the lost value at around $24.5 billion. Yeah, I spelled it because there’d be a lot of zeroes otherwise. Local and state taxes have gone up, applying even more pressure. But, the other side of this is that taxes are a fact of life for any company, and the airlines should suck it up and move on. Let’s face it: with the U.S. economy in its current state, nobody’s getting tax cuts anytime soon.

Foreign money, the airlines say, would make it easier. Right now, foreign investors’ abilities to invest in U.S. airlines are limited because of national defense considerations. But, this is probably a dated risk, according to Carlos Bonilla, who advised former President Bush (the recent one) on transportation matters. The airlines would still be subject to U.S. regulation, regardless of who owns them.