FAA software tool gets flights out of the rain

New air traffic program expected to reduce flight delays caused by weather

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Early Returns

FLIGHT CONTROL: FAA's new system is expected to reduce weather delays.

Courtesy of Lockheed Martin Corp.

Flying during the summer often means spending extra hours in the airport because of the frequent thunderstorms that wreak havoc with flight schedules.

While no one can make the severe weather patterns disappear'and not accounting for the type of security delays caused by last week's foiled bombing plot'the Federal Aviation Administration hopes that a new air traffic tool will at least give the aviation community greater control over their flights and schedules, saving not only money but a traveler's most precious commodity'time.

'Weather is an act of nature; we can't control that,' said James Wetherly, manager of domain systems engineering within the FAA's programs directorate of systems operations. 'But we can control how we react to it.'

FAA and aviation industry officials formally unveiled the Airspace Flow Program last month in the middle of a sweltering heat wave in Washington that followed an unprecedented, nearly week-long period of torrential rains'a stretch of weather that could no doubt cause countless flight delays.

FAA officials estimate that the program could save airlines and the flying public about $900 million over the next 10 years by reducing the financial impact of having thousands of flights delayed, diverted or canceled because of inclement weather.

'This program allows us to work around severe weather in highly congested airspace with greater precision and efficiency than in the past,' FAA administrator Marion Blakey said at a news conference. 'As a result, we will cut delays, keep passengers safe and make summer travel easier.'

The Airspace Flow Program, at its core, consists largely of tweaking the existing Traffic Flow Management System (TFM), a massive shareware tool that manages flight traffic.

TFM is a hub-and-client network consisting of two parts: a central Linux database located at the Transportation Department's John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Mass., a fee-for-service research facility; and client sites located at each airline's operations center. For example, American Airlines' operations center is located in Dallas.

The Volpe Center's Enhanced Traffic Management System collects information on the es- timated 60,000 daily flights from airline carriers prior to departure. This information, Wetherly said, produces a list of flights expected to pass through severe weather or congested airspace.

The data is sent every five minutes via a virtual private network to more than 80 FAA facilities throughout the country with some 600 workstations and 27 external databases running on several operating systems, including Linux and Sun Solaris, maintained by the airlines, the military and the public. The airlines use the data as a Flight Schedule Monitor, so they can be fully aware of the other flights taking off each day.

If severe weather is predicted in a certain region, FAA uses the data to determine which flights may need to be delayed or canceled, and then how to reconfigure the rest of the schedules throughout the day so the airlines can catch up with their flights, Wetherly said.

Generally, most delays are based on severe weather expected at or near the arriving airport, Wetherly said. For instance, if Newark Liberty International Airport is experiencing thunderstorms to the south, all incoming flights no matter their direction'be it from the north, east, or west'will likely be delayed, he said.

This often results in a significant number of flights remaining grounded even though the severe weather is not in their flight path, causing unnecessary delays and flight schedules.

'Before AFP, we would typically resort to holding people on the ground that were going to a specific airport that might be getting severe weather,' he said. 'If the weather was around an airport, we might be delaying an aircraft that might not go anywhere near that weather.'

Tweaking the system

But after reaching out to the aviation industry, FAA officials determined that there was a more discrete way of delaying flights.

The agency started working with industry in May 2005 and tapped Metron Aviation of Herndon, Va., which developed the Flight Schedule Monitor, to tweak the existing system.

Miro Lehky, Metron's chief systems engineer, said his company modified the FSM, a Java application, to let air traffic controllers determine, essentially, how much room there is around airspace experiencing inclement weather and whether more flights could fly around the affected airspace. The controllers enter data into the system, which then calculates and assigns departure times and/or delays to the airplanes expected to fly through the affected airspace.

'This gives airlines much more control over their operations,' Lehky said. 'It lets airlines manage delays from flight to flight.'

The program could dramatically reduce the number of delays and give the carriers more control over their flight schedules, FAA and airline officials said.

'This shifts the focus from delaying programs at the airports and focuses on airspace,' said Jim May, president of the Air Transport Association of America, a trade group representing the airline industry in Washington. 'This provides carriers with flexibility and gives us a series of options to complete our mission.'

FAA is implementing the system across the Northeast, which experiences a large amount of inclement weather, and will be expanded nationwide, although officials could not be specific.

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