Overhaul of Air Traffic System Nears Key Step

Flight delays packed the walkways of New York's LaGuardia Airport in early June. The new air traffic system is expected to improve airlines' timeliness.
Flight delays packed the walkways of New York's LaGuardia Airport in early June. The new air traffic system is expected to improve airlines' timeliness. (By Frank Franklin Ii -- Associated Press)
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 27, 2007

The federal government is expected this week to award a contract worth more than $1 billion to build the key components of its next-generation air traffic control system -- a high-tech network that officials say will alleviate chronic flight delays.

The system comes at a critical time, officials say, with flight delays at record levels and commercial aviation expected to continue growing steadily. The network will rely on satellites, rather than radar, to guide aircraft, and it is expected to allow planes to fly closer together and take more direct routes, saving fuel and time while reducing pollution. Government officials say it will also improve safety by giving controllers and pilots more precise information about planes.

Controllers could begin using the system to manage traffic nationally by 2013, according to officials at the Federal Aviation Administration. But consultants and airline executives don't expect major benefits of the program to be realized until at least 2020.

"Aviation is critical for the economy as we move forward, and our current infrastructure is simply too antiquated to support the level of traffic," said Marion C. Blakey, administrator of the FAA. "As you have more traffic, you are going to have to raise the bar on safety as well. There will be more planes closer together. This gives you a substantially increased safety margin."

While most in the industry support building the new system, which is projected to cost the government at least $15 billion, aspects of the program have generated controversy.

A fierce fight has erupted between the airlines and owners of small planes and private jets over how to finance the network, and Congress is facing pressure to work out a funding plan by a Sept. 30 deadline. Members of Congress also worry that contracting out the building of such a critical system could pose problems.

Some consultants and air traffic controllers say they also doubt whether the new technology will do much to ease delays.

"It won't do a thing for delays," said Patrick Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, a union that represents U.S. controllers. "The biggest reason for the delays isn't the technological infrastructure. It's that there is no landing space for the planes and over-scheduling by the airlines."

Government officials say they cannot wait much longer to start building the system. The rest of the world is developing similar networks, and such systems may be the only way to keep pace with expected air traffic growth.

The number of takeoffs and landings at towered airports in the United States is projected to grow by 1.4 million a year until 2020, according to the FAA. By 2015, more than 1 billion passengers a year are expected to board commercial flights, up from 740 million last year, the FAA estimates.

The foundation of the proposed system is known as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) and will rely on Global Positioning System satellites. Airplanes will receive signals from satellites that will give its precise location, similar to the devices in many newer cars.

Planes will then beam that data and other information about their speed and altitude to ground stations scattered across the country. The ground stations, which are scheduled to be completed by 2013, will relay the information to air traffic controllers who guide the planes.

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