Status Report

Testimony of Captain Hank Krakowski, United Air Lines, at House Science Committee Space Weather Hearing

By SpaceRef Editor
October 30, 2003
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Testimony of Captain Hank Krakowski

Vice President – Corporate Safety, Quality Assurance and Security, United Airlines

Before the House Environment, Technology and Standards Subcommittee

October 30, 2003

Chairman Ehlers, Ranking Member Udall and Members of the Committee, on behalf of United Airlines, thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony concerning a subject that has direct bearing on flight safety, public health and commercial efficiency. In addition to my 25 years as a United pilot, I am also responsible for Safety, Security and Operational Quality at our company.

Mr. Chairman, if you flew from a city such as Grand Rapids, Michigan to Hong Kong or Beijing six years ago, the journey would connect through at least two cities and take nearly a full day to complete. Today, through the pioneering efforts of United Airlines in cooperation with multiple countries and agencies, one can fly from Grand Rapids to these and other Asian cities in just 16 hours with only one connection over Chicago. This is possible by flying directly over the North Pole, Russia and China. In fact, State Department officials involved in recent talks with China enjoyed the convenience and efficiency of these very flights on United between Chicago and Beijing.

Safety is always our number one priority at United Airlines. Toward that end, while polar routing provides a tremendous advantage of time and convenience to our customers, everyone on these flights could be exposed to potential safety risks that did not exist when flying at lower latitudes. Information we receive from the Space Environment Center (SEC), operated by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), ensures that United Airlines can take timely action to mitigate any risks associated with occasional solar storm activity that can disrupt communication, navigation and impact passenger and crewmember health.

During such solar activity, our company policy dictates that United restrict flights from certain routes and altitudes. If we are made aware of threatening activity prior to the flight, United will not hesitate to fly at lower altitudes and latitudes or incur a very costly fuel stop.

United is one of the few airlines that maintain an in-house meteorology department that works with our dispatchers and crews to provide a safer and more comfortable flight. We are proud of our excellent reputation in forecasting flight safety threats.

The solar environment, however, is so unique that it requires specially trained forecasters and specific technology not available within the commercial sector. The Space Environment Center the only link to this environment. We blend the information received from the SEC into the flight planning process daily and even hourly. The SEC provides United with daily forecasting, monitoring and, most important, immediate alerts some of which can affect flight operations in as little as 10 minutes. We can demonstrate that this process works exceedingly well.

In our five years of polar flying experience, United has found the need to alter flight plans two or three times per month. In some cases, when an event is severe, we will alter flights already in the air.

Please take a look at the chart that we have provided for the Committee’s reference. As recently as last week, on October 24th, United flight 895 from Chicago to Hong Kong planned to fly a polar route. The flight was re-planned, however, on a more southerly route due to a R3 magnitude solar event. This routing took 30 extra minutes and used 3,000 gallons of extra fuel for a total added cost to the company of $10,000 for that flight.

Mr. Chairman, United works with numerous government agencies from the FAA to the TSA. NOAA and the Space Environment Center distinguish themselves by being an exceptionally transparent, customer-oriented partner with the airlines. I have personally visited the SEC in Boulder and can attest to the talent and professionalism of this organization and their people. We are concerned that a reduction in funding could damage this important source of real-time safety information for our airline. We are also concerned that transferring operation of the SEC to another federal agency could result in a disruption, degradation or filtering of critical information.

We urge you to support this program and seriously consider the ramifications associated with a change in program oversight. We operate polar flights each and every day. A degradation of performance in this program would cause us to become overly conservative in our flight planning. In our view, this program is not an example of a government program that is broken and in search of a fix. Quite to the contrary, our work in cooperation with the SEC exemplifies the use of American tax dollars at its best for the protection of U.S. citizens.

Again, thank you for allowing me to testify before the Committee. I look forward to any questions you may have.

SpaceRef staff editor.