ATM Modernization

Perspectives: Accelerating Free Flight

By James K. Coyne | February 1, 2003
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Imagine never again experiencing a flight delay. Imagine flying from point A to point B via the most direct route possible. Impossible? Not really. We all know that the technology to enable Free Flight exists today. Then why are we still struggling with a grossly inefficient air traffic control system taxed to maximum capacity?

By definition, the concept of Free Flight depends on advanced automation in air traffic control (ATC). However, new ATC technologies aimed at enabling Free Flight have been plagued by countless cost overruns and interminable program delays. A recent trade journal described modernization of the ATC system in the United States as a "disaster story of epic proportions."

The Advanced Automation System, which cost taxpayers $2.6 billion before it was cancelled in 1994, is one of the most egregious examples of waste. The delay in implementing the User Request Evaluation Tool (URET) is yet another example. The Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS), which started out with a budget of $940 million and has ballooned to a staggering $1.4 billion, is four years behind schedule and slipping, according to the General Accounting Office (GAO).

Studies by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and other agencies estimate the cost of our current inefficient air traffic control system in the billions of dollars. United Airlines, which has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, calculates that it wastes an average of 880 cumulative hours a day due to inefficiencies in the current ATC system. These wasted hours result in an annual cost of approximately $500 million to United alone. United’s costs include building in 30,000 minutes of extra air time in planning routes over the great circle. Additionally, the airline calculates 7,400 minutes of extra taxi-out time and 1,800 minutes of extra taxi-in time due to ATC delays. Add the rest of the airlines and all of general aviation to these numbers and you get the picture–it’s not a pretty one.

Even the most optimistic predictions now indicate that Free Flight will not be fully operational until at least 10 years from now. Given the present stress on the air traffic control system–and the projected 4 to 5 percent increase in demand for air travel during the next 10 years–that time frame is untenable. Consider that by the year 2012, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) forecasts more than 90 million operations a year at airports with control towers (including contract towers), an increase from the current rate of approximately 75 million. How will controllers handle the increased workload efficiently when the system is already struggling?

In the quest for a more efficient air traffic control system, three things must happen:

  • The technology that will enable Free Flight must be implemented–and without further delay;

  • The flight decks of today’s aircraft and future aircraft must be outfitted with the equipment to utilize this technology; and

  • We must move away from a labor-based air traffic control system to a technology-based system.

This will not happen voluntarily–at least not in a timely fashion. The government must mandate this new technology and demand that the necessary steps be taken to implement it. This is the only way that our antiquated approach to air traffic control will ever be modernized and we will be liberated from a labor-intensive system with voice-based commands and circuitous routing.

The FAA’s incremental approach to implementing Free Flight has not worked. It is time for a more radical approach.

Stagnation breeds complacency. Dramatic changes such as those that Free Flight encompasses give everyone pause. There is no question that these changes will require sacrifices from all stakeholders in the aviation community: airlines, pilots, aircraft owners, equipment manufacturers and labor–air traffic controllers. No one wants to be responsible for displacing people from their jobs. But that is inevitable when technology can do the same job more efficiently. And it will be worth it in the long run. If the government can’t do it soon, then it’s time for someone else to take on the job. It may be the only way we will ever have true Free Flight.

A greatly expanded, more user-friendly and more efficient air traffic control process is the dream of everyone who uses the national airspace system (NAS). Now, in this centennial year of flight, is the time for that dream to become reality.

James K. Coyne, an experienced pilot, is president of the National Air Transportation Association,

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