My Turn: Major expenditure at the airport? |

My Turn: Major expenditure at the airport?

Truckee Tahoe Airport District is considering spending a millon dollars plus unknown operational costs on a technically advanced flight tracking system, more sophisticated than systems used at many airline hubs.

There are much better uses for aviation money, including open space acquisition, noise insulation, improved (publicly usable) terminal facilities, quieter propellers, and even needed improvements that benefit aviation directly. Flight tracking could actually compromise safety and increase noise in sensitive areas. You should understand why this is the case and tell Aiport Board of Directors Kathleen Eagan, Mary Hetherington, Sandy Korth, Bill Quesnel and Tom VanBerkem that you oppose this extravagant expenditure.

See A public workshop will be at Hampton Inn in Truckee at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 12.

The Federal Aviation Agency standardizes flight procedures near airports to promote safe aircraft separation. They allow local noise abatement procedures (NAPs), notably “right traffic” patterns to concentrate arrivals on less-populated sides of runways and straight-out departures prior to turning on course.

Pilots are familiar with these simple deviations which don’t compromise safety dramatically. More complex procedures are difficult to publicize, less widely observed and problematic when they put airplanes in dangerous proximity. Unusual procedures also distract pilots from their primary responsibility to see and avoid other traffic. Our airport promotes non-standard NAPs, more complex than typical adjustments elsewhere. Most local pilots are well-informed, accept the safety compromise and have a good history of voluntary cooperation. The airport used to award a fuel delivery discount to pilots who learned the procedures. The Board rescinded it.

The proposed system promises accurate tracks of cooperating aircraft. Current customer airports use such information mainly to generate automated responses to noise complaints. Truckee neighbors currently file about four such complaints weekly.

This technology will discourage exaggerated complaints by proving that they are inaccurate. Airport advisers (including some well-intentioned pilots) want better statistics to prove our strong compliance. They also want to counsel errant pilots to increase cooperation, but cooperation may already be as good as it can get. The very few pilots who don’t cooperate may never do so. Airport staffers deny intent to use the system to enforce NAPs, which is illegal, proposing “incentive” discounts on fuel or hangar rent for conforming pilots. Airport staff say there is a difference between removal of discounts and a fine and between incentives and actual enforcement. But the cash consequences are equivalent ” a financial incentive to observe NAPs.

This is dangerous. We are happy to conform voluntarily when it’s safe, but weather and collision avoidance are too important to compromise for money. Besides, the few pilots who refuse to cooperate can legally evade detection by flipping a switch, becoming invisible not only to the airport but also to other aircraft equipped with traffic detection equipment ” another safety sacrifice.

The airport uses a similar scheme to enforce the “voluntary” curfew. (Mandatory curfews are illegal.) They raised hangar rents dramatically and offer a partial offset to cooperating pilots. At least pilots make most curfew decisions on the ground.

However, pilots decide in flight that they must deviate from NAPs to avoid clouds or traffic. Proposed incentives ask pilots to trade off safety deviations against risk of financial penalty. If this proposal prevails, it will be vital to specify broad exceptions for safety. Even if no pilot ever makes the unsafe decision, the distraction of worrying about it during the most challenging minutes of flight is a safety compromise in itself.

Flying is not like driving. Approaches and departures require utmost concentration.

Consider also this unintended consequence: Incentives represent a price for exemption from NAPs. Pilots who dislike the procedures can simply buy out. We may get better cooperation voluntarily than with tracking-enforced incentives!

Although the new, whiz-bang technology is fascinating, I maintain it’s not worth the costs and risks. Besides, in a few years the same gear should cost a 10th as much. Please ask yourself: Is the ability to automate a few complaint responses, measure compliance and advise a few errant pilots worth a million dollars plus maintenance fees, staff time and increased risk to aviation and people on the ground? Is it worth demoralizing our very cooperative local pilots? I think not. If you agree, please tell the Directors, the airport and me. Thanks.

Rick Tavan is a Truckee resident and a member of the AOPA-designated Airport Support Network.

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