Wed, Jan 17, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Flying the crowded skies

Future technology will make today's US air traffic control system obsolete. But what will replace it?


By 2025, government experts say, America's skies will swarm with three times as many planes, and not just the kind of traffic flying today. There will be thousands of tiny jets, seating six or fewer, at airliner altitudes, competing for space with remotely operated drones that need help avoiding midair collisions and with commercially operated rockets carrying satellites and tourists into space.

To keep passengers moving safely and on schedule, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) needs to replace a half-century of outmoded technology with a new air traffic control system. But almost everything about the proposed new system is uncertain -- not only its digital nuts and bolts, but also the leadership, the financing and the staffing of a modern aviation network.

What technology will be adopted, and how will airlines and the government, with its Aviation Trust Fund at its lowest level in decades, pay their shares? How will the government hire and train all the air traffic controllers it needs -- almost as many new recruits, in the next seven years, as are at work today? And how will the FAA coordinate with NASA, the Pentagon and others?

"There's a consensus that there is technology out there that could help," said Roger Cohen, the president of the Regional Airline Association, one of many interest groups in the fractious aviation world.

"There certainly isn't a consensus, from the aviation community, on how the system will get paid for," Cohen said. "That's pretty obvious."

Overhaul is essential

So far, he said, "there's no consensus on any of the details."

But an overhaul is essential. In a recent simulation, the FAA increased traffic until controllers were overloaded -- an increase of about 25 percent, the pace the FAA expects to reach in about a decade.

"The system we have today is essentially not scalable," FAA deputy administrator Bobby Sturgell said at an air traffic conference in October. "You're going to hit a wall."

Marion Blakey, the agency's administrator, estimates that delays caused by air traffic will be 62 percent higher in 2014 than in 2004.

Safety is not an issue, officials say, because managers will keep traffic levels down to what they can handle by keeping planes waiting on the ground. The solution to moving more planes without creating a safety problem, the agency says, lies in new computing power and eventually on a new tracking and navigation system to replace radar technology dating from World War II with digital navigation aids.

Making the new technologies fit together, said Russell Chew, head of the agency's Air Traffic Organization, is like solving Rubik's Cube.

Today, the FAA tracks planes in flight using radars that bounce signals off a plane's metal skin and on-board transponders that relay data showing a plane's identity and altitude. Pilots navigate mostly by signals from a network of FAA radio beacons on the ground.

The new system would do away with almost all of that and make use of the satellite-based Global Positioning System that is widely used outside aviation. The system allows every plane to check its precise location and to broadcast the information to all others on a computerized network.

"It's like the current transponder on steroids," Ed Rafacz, a Delta pilot and a representative of the Air Line Pilots Association, told a safety seminar.

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