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Wednesday, August 1, 2001

Editor's Note: Plans to Improve ATM

David Jensen

THAT today’s technology can advance to benefit the individual much faster than it can to resolve a far-reaching problem that involves the coordinated efforts of many persons doing different tasks is, no doubt, obvious. It became even more obvious to me after attending three public events within a week’s time.

At one event, a wearable computer conference, the mood was upbeat, and hubris filled the lobbies of a Tysons Corner, Va., hotel. One conference speaker boastfully proclaimed, "Our goal is to make the laptop obsolete." There were many nods of agreement in the audience. Many attendees agreed that the only obstacle to wearable computers’ universal use is the resistance by less-than-geek-like fogies to change.

While these high-tech devices–strapped to a belt and worn on the head like a headset–are meant to improve system-wide efficiency, their focus clearly is on the individual; a multi-tasking individual, but an individual nevertheless. Personal use is where computer technology is at its best.

The technology also advances air traffic management (ATM)–dramatically. But expanding processing and data-transfer technologies to a nationwide, and ultimately global, scale is a task that can quickly supplant extreme confidence with humbleness and restraint. Such appeared to be the case in mid-June at two, back-to-back press conferences in the Washington, D.C. area, both unveiling plans to overhaul the overburdened U.S. air traffic control (ATC) system. Presenters at both events were clearly guarded from making optimistic promises, and both drew scepticism.

First came the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) announcement of a $11.5-billion 10-year plan, called the Operational Evolution Plan (OEP). This was soon followed by Boeing ATM’s unveiling of its more long-term plan, to establish a satellite-based air traffic system. (We will provide analysis of both plans, plus their impact on the Free Flight concept in our October issue.)

The OEP outlines how the FAA plans to "meet air traffic needs over the next decade," according to FAA Deputy Administrator Monte Belger. It involves establishing a commercial airspace infrastructure that can accommodate 30% more air traffic. The proposed steps to achieve this goal includes more runways, improved surface movement management, reduced vertical separation minima (RVSM), user-preferred routing, and improved means to detect and avoid weather, to name just a few. The technologies to attain these capabilities cover a wide swath and include automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), Local- and Wide Area Augmentation systems (LAAS and WAAS), and others included in Free Flight Phase 1.

Some industry officials are greatly encouraged by the FAA’s approach and the OEP’s direction. Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Operators and Pilots Association, praises, "Never before have I seen FAA dedicate so many resources to finding realistic, pragmatic solutions to a national problem."

Others, who no doubt recall FAA’s costly past failures, are skeptical. "We’ve had 10-year plans before, and they’ve fallen short," says National Air Transport Association President James Coyne, who otherwise praised the plan. Capt. Ross Sagun of the Air Line Pilots Association says he questions pilot acceptance of proposed procedures, like simultaneous offset instrument approaches, by the 2003 deadline established by the FAA. Still, others in aviation doubt the timely fruition of all the agency’s planned new runways. And one official notes that the OEP fails to address the need for a backup navigation system after shifting to a satellite system.

Meanwhile, Boeing ATM’s president, John Hayhurst, says the FAA plan "does not go far enough." In response, his six-month-old division unveiled a scheme described as "long-term" and one that "builds on the OEP." What Boeing proposes is a new constellation of medium Earth orbit (MEO) satellites, which will provide both communications and navigation–the latter supplementing the Global Positioning System (GPS). This satellite system would support three main elements to a Boeing-proposed traffic management system:

  • Aircraft trajectory–a graphic for controllers, showing an aircraft’s position, altitude, speed and intended flight plan;
  • Common information network–a satellite-based data link that would present trajectory information plus weather and other conditions affecting operations to everyone in the system: pilots, controllers, operations officers, etc.; and
  • Redesigned airspace–a simplified airspace structure to make air traffic procedures more strategic and less tactical.

Like the OEP, Boeing ATM’s plan drew scepticism. Many found the plan to be "sketchy." The company is vague about who would own and operate the system and what aircraft equipage would be required. And reporters questioning Hayhurst never learned whether Boeing’s ATM division is meant to be an autonomous moneymaker, or an endowed booster for increased airplane sales. It should be noted as well, that Boeing’s plan is comparable to one once proposed by its chief competitor in aerospace, Lockheed Martin.

Scepticism, sketchiness and redundancy aside, this recent flurry of planning for a better aerospace system does create a glimmer of hope, as we face a mounting number of flight delays and an estimated near-doubling of airline passengers within 10 years. Too bad establishing a highly complex, coordinated aerospace system can’t be advanced one individual task at a time.

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