September 14, 2010

The newly redesigned Chicago Class B airspace, expected to debut later this year, can be viewed as a success, and a model for airspace re-design elsewhere, in part because of involvement from local business aviation stakeholders.

“Over a dozen other Class B areas are scheduled to be redesigned in the coming year, so I hope others in the business aviation community will follow the lead set by the Chicago Area Business Aviation Association in becoming directly involved with the redesign planning in their areas,” said Bob Quinn, NBAA Representative for the Central Region.

Chicago is one of the first Class B area redesigns scheduled for this year and next. Other redesigns in process include those for Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia and Seattle. Redesigns for Class B areas around Cincinnati, Las Vegas, Miami, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City and Washington/Baltimore are pending.

The unusual number of airspace reworks this year – almost half of all U.S. Class B areas –  was caused by changed FAA approach procedures that were sending arriving aircraft outside the protection of existing Class B airspace.

In Chicago, the redesign process provided:

  • Additional space around Chicago Executive Airport for VFR approaches and IFR circling approaches;
  • Small extensions to the east and west, to keep arriving aircraft within the Class B airspace and still allow room underneath for VFR traffic.
  • Adequate airspace for soaring aircraft on the west side of the Chicago Class B area, with a 4,000 foot floor in that area.

Local business aviation groups absolutely must get involved with their local air traffic control [ATC] people if they expect to have an impact in the process for developing procedures that affect their operations,” said Zakula, a captain with Duchossois Group, Inc., a flight department based at Chicago Executive Airport (PWK).

Zakula and others helped form CABAA’s ATC committee nearly eight years ago, and started early to build rapport and understanding with Chicago-area FAA controllers and supervisors. “We needed knowledge of the ATC system here,” he said. “Not the kind you get from books, but the kind of first-hand knowledge that comes from face-to-face meetings between controllers and working pilots on our ATC committee.”

The committee invited controllers and supervisors from both the local TRACON and Chicago Center. “They were glad to educate us,” said Zakula. “I can’t say enough about how helpful and cooperative those guys are, and we developed a great relationship – we all have each other’s cell phone numbers.”

The relationship-building work tended to by the committee over the years proved enormously helpful as plans started coming together for redesigning Chicago’s Class B airspace in 2008.

At one of the first informal airspace meetings on the redesign, some of the changes proposed in a presentation by FAA officials, prompted Zakula to raise his hand to offer useful alternate options. “The FAA guy presenting stopped, and said, ‘that’s a great idea,’” Zakula recalls. “Then they made me chairman of the committee.”

From the formation of the ad hoc user group in 2008 up to the present, Zakula has led the industry stakeholders’ work to find solutions acceptable to everyone, including representatives from airlines, recreational general aviation groups, glider operations, air medical operations, and others. In long work sessions, pilots and controllers listened to each other’s problems and adjusted altitudes, procedures and Class B extensions, learning from each other along the way.

The benefits of ongoing pilot-controller cooperation in Chicago have extended far beyond the success of the local Class B airspace design. CABAA ATC committee members also helped the FAA create a new GPS instrument approach to runway 20 at DuPage airport and a new procedure to keep inbound traffic higher than previously, to save fuel and help aircraft avoid icy low clouds that form over Lake Michigan.

But the most-out-of-the-box thinking involved the creation of a new visual departure from Chicago Executive Airport, which will help separate traffic at Chicago Executive Airport from traffic using O’Hare Airport’s northernmost runway.  In honor of CABAA’s collaboration with local ATC officials, the new departure is named the “CABAA Visual Departure Procedure.” Only one other such visual departure exists, at New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport.

For regional business aviation associations yet to face redesign of their home airspace, Zakula offered advice. “Get to know controllers and airspace officials,” he said. “Light bulbs really go off when both sides communicate openly and honestly.” Specifically, he recommends the following:

  • Find people in your local business aviation community with a passion for ATC issues, and recruit them to become involved. “You may go through a lot of volunteers, because not everybody has the dedication to work through the entire process that’s involved,” Zakula said.
  • Make sure the industry stakeholders in your group include individuals based at each of the satellite airports in your Class B area, not just your own airport, so that your group benefits from a broad range of perspectives.
  • Convene an informal meeting with local air traffic controllers – from the tower, from the TRACON, from the Center – and begin a conversation about their procedures and instructions. Utilize the information as a starting point to help your group continue a constructive dialogue among stakeholders.
  • When you meet with the FAA to talk about your issues, have several possible solutions in mind. “It’s not nearly as helpful if you come just to complain,” Zakula said. “And, when pilots begin to understand the controller’s problems too, that’s the beginning of the solution.”
  • Work with your NBAA Regional Representative to ensure that you’re aware of the resources the Association makes available for local efforts.

View a graphic of Chicago Class B airspace changes, effective October 21, 2010.