ATM Modernization

Editor’s Note: The Drumbeat Grows Louder

By David Jensen | February 1, 2003

The drumbeat for more efficient air traffic management (ATM) and use of airspace grows louder and increasingly zealous. The final report from the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry states there should be a "national priority" to rapidly deploy automated ATM systems. In our "Perspectives" column (page 50), National Air Transportation Association president James Coyne warns of the "present stress on the air traffic control system" and calls for the acceleration of Free Flight. And, at the 2002 Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) conference, Ron Morgan, vice president-strategic planning, Lockheed Martin ATM, echoed other pleas for rapid ATM modernization and listed "eight imperatives" for the future National Airspace System (NAS).

Morgan noted Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) statistics that show 700 million passengers traveled by air in 2002, and the agency’s prediction that air passenger travel will mushroom by 2.5 times in less than 20 years. "Will all the current efforts to accommodate the doubling of the passenger load be adequate?" Morgan asks, rhetorically, referring to current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) initiatives. "I would say, ‘probably no.’" He fears that "our children and children’s children will not enjoy the 30-plus years of good, dependable air transportation" that present-day adults have enjoyed. So what are Morgan’s eight imperatives?

1. Swap current distance-based aircraft separation standards for time-baced standards. Morgan says the spacing standards adopted to accommodate non-automated radar "don’t differentiate the types of aircraft." The FAA has developed standards based on time, he adds, but the controllers use distance-based standards. "We need tools, such as conflict probe, that will encourage controllers to use time-spaced standards."

2. Go beyond reduced vertical separation minima, to "vertical trajectory clearances." These would allow a constant rate of climb. "Over high-density airspace, aircraft would have to remain within specific altitudes," Morgan acknowledges. "But over the ocean, vertical trajectory clearances would be most beneficial for fuel efficiency."

3. Broaden the optimal range of aircraft performance to better utilize airspace. "DoD [U.S. Department of Defense] does this well," Morgan claims. The design and performance characteristics of the military’s aircraft are made for a particular mission, while those for air transport aircraft "are all about the same." He argues that civil aircraft could be designed to operate efficiently in lesser-used airspace, i.e. below 29,000 feet or above 49,000 feet.

4. Improve instrument flight rule (IFR) capacity. "We should implement new technologies and procedures to allow visual approaches and visual separation in less than VFR [visual flight rules] conditions," says Morgan. He uses as an example, automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), which offers pilots greater situational awarenss and could help tighten closure rates during approach.

5. Create more efficiency in airport runway and taxiway designs. Morgan suggests, for example, moving the taxiway farther from the runway edge, so an aircraft can exit on a high-speed turn without compromising safety. "If you can get 70-second runway occupancy down to 50 seconds, you can operate four more aircraft an hour on that runway," he explains.

6. Use digital data link and digital voice to improve communications and safety. "There are a lot of hear-back/read-back errors," says Morgan. He suggests, for example, that digitized voice alerts could be used to announce to pilots runway conditions or a runway’s closure.

7. Expand the application of collaborative decision making and information sharing to all stakeholders. "The airlines, FAA, controllers and pilots all have bits of information, but the information is not shared to make work easier," says Morgan. As an example of how shared information and collaborative decision making could improve operations, he offers a scenario in which "controllers may want to expedite an aircraft landing, but, for connecting passengers, the airline might prefer another of its aircraft be expedited."

8. Where there is a business case to do so, transition elements of the NAS to a spaced-based capability. This means evaluating where satellite navigation and communication work best, and where they don’t. For example, "long range, satellite navigation would be best," he says, "but on the ground, multilateration would be better."

"I don’t know if these are the right eight imperatives," Morgan concedes. "But what bothers me is that, while I am confident the aerospace community can come up with the right solutions, I don’t see anyone who is willing to take the risk. We’re ignoring the problem, and we’ll hand it off to someone else."

Quite zealous words. But, until the pace quickens to modernize the NAS, we can expect many more like them.

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