WHITE PAPER: Is MSP too busy to be safe?

Is MSP way too busy at times?

The South Metro Airport Action Council (SMAAC) has been asking this question since September 2010.  That month two jets almost collided in mid-air just after taking off on MSP’s parallel runways at about the same time.  The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was culpable.

The investigation found that the FAA Air Traffic Control Tower (ATCT) at MSP routinely allowed (or directed) flights using MSP to coordinate departures including turns across the path of planes using the adjacent runway(s). The ATCT controllers failed to check on both aircraft before directing a passenger jet to turn.

Afterward, FAA acted to “reduce air crossings” while still allowing near-simultaneous operations on three MSP runways. FAA explained this in a public presentation December 9, 2010 at SMAAC’s Winter Forum. Carl Rydeen said that FAA’s efficiency policy is to maximize runway use. To maintain space (separations) and time (intervals) between flights, arrivals and departures are alternated on the parallel runways, as many as one operation every 60 seconds, and an operation also may occur on the new runway (R17-35) every 90 seconds.

One result was that almost all westerly departures using the North Parallel Runway (30R) were directed to turn right as soon as possible. Since turns were usual, airlines began sorting departure runways by destinations.

SMAAC raised several questions of FAA and MAC about the situation, but none have been fully answered. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) also warned, in 2012, that conditions at MSP were unsafe in westerly flow because an aborted landing on R35 would intersect airspace often occupied by departures from the parallel runways.

  1. Isn’t MSP maximum capacity based on the annual flights needed for economic growth?

  2. What additional airport and air traffic control changes or capabilities are needed for operations at this level per hour

    Note: If enough aircraft are in use there could be 60 + 60 + 40 = 160 operations per hour. This capacity is planned by FAA, but a lack of gates (to supply departures) and less than 60 scheduled arrivals (slots) in easterly flow restrict operations somewhat. Still, peak operational rates of 155+ operations per hour for 4 or 5 hours each day are typical at MSP. The new runway was built at MSP to expand use of MSP capacity by 25% compared to1995 on an annual basis, from about 450,000 operations to about 520,000; on an hourly basis, to about 120 operations per hour peaks (during the arrival and departure of connecting aircraft) twice a day.

  3. After a collision of two airliners at an MSP gate in May 2005, various new ground-traffic procedures were established, including use of departure runways nearest the gate. How were the longer taxis now in use accommodated?

  4. Are the automated flight systems (Next Gen, PBN/RNAV, and A/DW) needed for safety at peak hours with over 150 operations? Are the very costly taxiway bridges needed now for safety at peak hours at MSP?

  5. If not, why are billions being spent on them? If they are, aren’t peak-hours operations unsafe?

SMAAC wrote twice to the MAC and appeared before the Commission (August 18, September 15), asking for hearings on safety and the capital improvements plan for MSP.  SMAAC furnished letters from NTSB and FAA indicating ongoing safety problems at MSP --and that solutions were delayed.  Specifically, SMAAC asked for a joint review of MSP capital improvements and the FAA safety risk management status at peak operational hours.

The MAC referred the request to MSP Executive Director Jeff Hamiel, who had promised SMAAC a meeting with MAC staff to review the letters and the NTSB investigation of MSP operations in westerly flow. Instead, the MAC Noise and Environment Manager John Nelson messaged SMAAC that this request was denied.  Mr. Nelson’s message said that an FAA presentation on operations and safety would be given at the November 19, 2014 Noise Oversight Committee meeting.

Since 2010, FAA added a lot more complexity to operations at MSP: automated flights and more “precise” routes.  Next Gen Air Traffic Control is supposed to ease route restrictions, allowing arrivals at MSP to approach the area from more directions. GPS-autopilot connections are supposed guide aircraft along PBN/RNAV routes even when there are a lot of flights around; an automated Arrival/Departure “Window” system is supposed to avoid various emergency situations.

Trouble is, this unproven stuff is being done piece-meal, and at MSP interim solutions – instrumented departure and standard approach procedures – currently complicate the situation.  SMAAC has asked: Is this safe?  Is it needed?  Is it affordable?        

Top Federal officials have answered “Not yet.  Technology and training are missing.”  As to need and costs, the Metropolitan Airports Commission just won’t comment. SMAAC suggested a limit on operations per hour (fewer near-simultaneous operations).

Refusing to consider this lower cost, safer, and less polluting solution is on the heads of the Commissioners and the Governor who appointed them and the Legislators who oversee them. Perhaps that is why the Commission hearing on noise and pollution is after the elections. Also perhaps, why the MAC and the FAA shy away from releasing the present risk of an accident and why operations at MSP today are an acceptable risk?

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