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.
Eventually, planes will carry computers that automatically alter converging flight paths, keeping the system safe while saving money.
The proposed solution is called the Next Generation Air Traffic System. The agency will soon publish a timetable for the project. The first step is to replace software that is decades old and running on computers that will be functionally obsolete in a few years, when IBM stops providing technical support and spare parts.
The FAA is now spending US$1 million a day on new computers and the software to run them. The estimated cost of the project is US$2.1 billion.
On time and on budget
FAA officials and agency contractors say the computer replacement system is on time and on budget, unlike previous computer overhauls. Airlines would have to invest tens of thousands of dollars per plane to adapt. The international shipping company UPS has found that the changes can save money, but airlines, like the aviation agency, are notoriously slow to change.
At the outset of this transformation, it is also unclear who will be running the agency. About 10 years ago, Congress decided to give the FAA administrator a five-year term to stabilize management and make modernization easier. The first administrator under the system, Jane Garvey, served from 1997 until 2002.
Blakey, the incumbent, has said that she will serve out her term, which ends this year. But aviation experts wonder whether a Democratic Senate will be willing to confirm a replacement for five years, locking in President George W. Bush's appointee for the next president's first term.
"I don't think the Democrats will let them name another administrator for the next five years," said John Douglass, president of the Aerospace Industries Association. "The government tends to kind of slow down during the last two years of a two-term presidency, but air traffic isn't going to slow down."
Blakey says she is hoping to get Congress to act on something even more contentious than a new administrator: a new financing structure.
The main source of revenue for the Aviation Trust Fund is a tax on passenger tickets. But as ticket prices have fallen, so has the agency's available capital, while demands on the system have mounted because of many new small airliners.
Blakey would like to finance the agency through user fees, but there is no consensus on how the fees would be calculated.
The airlines, which say they pay more than their share of costs, favor fees from corporate aviation and planes not owned by the airlines.
Business aviation interests say that their planes fly from underused airfields and at off-peak times, and do not often overload the system.
With the underlying law governing the FAA's financing and expenditures expiring in September, there is little prospect in a divided government for achieving consensus on these issues. But experts said the cost of developing the next-generation system could run an extra US$1 billion a year for the next few years and would thus require some new source of revenue. The Aviation Trust Fund balance is now below US$2 billion, its lowest in decades.
Another question is who will actually operate the system. For every five controllers now working, the agency will need to hire and train four more by 2015 to replace those who retire or change jobs. Most of those now working were hired in the early 1980s to replace 10,000 controllers fired by president Ronald Reagan after they went on strike.
"If you hire them all at once, they're going to retire all at once," said Marvin Smith, the coordinator of the aeronautics master's degree program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
Smith said that the ideal cycle for controllers would be like an investor's ideal bond portfolio: "You want them to mature in a laddered fashion."
The reason, he said, is that new controllers require on-the-job training, making it hard to absorb too many at once.
The agency says it has improved tools for determining which recruits will make good controllers, and now has simulation labs with computers where they can be trained much as pilots are.
But the agency has had limited success in measuring exactly how much time it will have to replace them.
In the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, the number of air traffic controllers retiring in the last fiscal year was underestimated by about 25 percent, the third year in a row of a major underestimate.
Most controllers used to work until the mandatory retirement age because pensions were based on the final salary levels, and pay was rising. In a contract last September, though, many controllers will not receive pay increases. Others have complained about recent changes in work rules.
"It's a pretty unhappy workplace right now," said James Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
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