Change comes slowly in aviation. While technology has improved immensely in recent years, aviation regulators loathe changing processes that are essentially obsolete and less safe than they should be. There is an inertia in aviation regulation much akin to the old adage “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” that permeates the regulatory culture. But in many areas, this has become counterproductive. Often, it takes a tragedy to bring regulatory reform. But there are a number of simple changes that can be accomplished without overhauling the entire system using today’s technologies and a little common sense. How do we, as an industry, work together to get them done?
NOTAMS, or Notices to Airmen, are published in the same way that they have been since the concept was initiated many years ago. That format is the telegram, using the ITA-2 International Telegraph Alphabet character set from 1924 instead of ASCII, which was adopted almost universally for communications in 1963. Even Western Union stopped sending telegrams 15 years ago, as demand for the service waned. Yet in aviation, a NOTAM reads just like an old-fashioned telegram, replete with abbreviations that take a while to learn to decipher, partially based on 1909 Q Codes. With today’s mobile phones and the Internet, can’t we do better and put NOTAMS in plain English and sent via SMS? Change comes slowly in aviation.
The proliferation of NOTAMS has been driven by the threat of legal liability. Nearly any potential situation that could impact an operation, no matter how insignificant, is reported using the system. For a typical flight operation, a flight crew for a commercial flight today might receive 50 pages of NOTAM messages with 250 or so NOTAMS to decode as they prepare for a flight. There likely isn’t enough time to ensure that all of them are actually read. The problem is an insignificant NOTAM about parking at a specific gate that you weren’t going to may look just as important as the one stating that one of the destination runways is closed. With today’s technology, there has to be a better way.
After Air Canada flight 759 on July 17, 2017 missed a NOTAM that stated runway 28L was closed in San Francisco and tried to land on the taxiway, saved only by the alertness of a United Airline crew to avoid colliding with 4 airplanes with 1,500 passengers, the NTSB concluded that “NOTAMS are garbage.” Apparently, the Air Canada crew missed the one critical NOTAM among the 250 or so to review and decipher prior to a flight. The NTSB stated, in their report “The current system prioritizes protecting the regulatory authorities and airports. It lays an impossibly heavy burden on individual pilots, crews and dispatchers to sort through literally dozens of irrelevant items to find the critical or merely important ones. When one is invariably missed, and a violation or incident occurs, the pilot is blamed for not finding the needle in the haystack!”
Change comes slowly in aviation. In 2021, we should be able to do better!
Magnetic North versus True North
Magnetic North has been utilized in aviation since the earliest days because a magnetic compass was the best technology available at the time. The problem is that magnetic north continues to move and has moved offshore from Canada halfway to Siberia.
Since then, modern GPS and Inertial navigation technologies enable us to utilize the latitude and longitude system, which does not move, for more accurate navigation. Those technologies can easily toggle between True North, which should be the basis for navigation, and Magnetic North, which they need to utilize for much of the system, including runway numbers, VOR radials, bearings, and tracks. In recent years the precession of Magnetic North has caused runway numbers to change in Anchorage and Tampa, among other airports. We are literally aiming at a slowly moving target instead of using the fixed grid that could quite easily fit the bill, and every few years need to re-jigger the system to make things fit together.
Today, moving to True North would provide several benefits, and in most cases, with modern avionics, can be accomplished with a toggle switch. Nav Canada, which has a lot of territory to cover in its northern territories, has already switched to True North for a large area of the Country. Of course, the company that privatized navigation services is leading the charge for upgrading to modern technology. But change comes slowly in aviation.
We have technologies that are better, safer, and easier to use than the old NOTAM system and using a moving target, Magnetic North, to anchor our navigation. Solutions exist that could improve safety at lower costs. Unfortunately, the regulatory agencies and the political processes for enabling legislation get in the way. As the old saying goes, if pro is the opposite of con, progress is the opposite of Congress. Inertia, politics, and “we’ve always done it that way” lead to the fact that change comes slowly in aviation.
We can’t immediately solve the system through which MCAS fell through the cracks on the 737 MAX. But we can fix the obvious shortcomings and obsolete technologies still impacting the safety of air operations. Let’s make our voices heard to at least get those items that can be easily changed, and for which 99.9% of the industry agrees, accomplished.