It's back to the future for FAA modernization

It's back to the future for FAA modernization

Despite not achieving its previous upgrade goals, agency says it will execute latest plan to ease crowded airspace

BY PREETI VASISHTHA | GCN STAFF

Federal Aviation Administration chiefs are confident that a new $11.5 billion modernization plan will deliver on its promises in the next 10 years'despite FAA's inability to complete modernization efforts that have been under way for more than a decade.

'It's not a research plan or a concept plan,' FAA acting deputy administrator Monte Belger said. 'It's truly an operational implementation plan with focus on ideas and solutions that can be implemented.'

FAA released the National Airspace System Operational Evolution Plan June 6.

Through its execution, the agency hopes to ease congested airspace by accommodating a 30 percent increase in air traffic, reduce delays, and provide pilots and air traffic controllers with better weather information, precise data on aircraft location and more freedom to choose flight paths.

To critics who may be skeptical about the agency's ability to carry out the various components, Belger said the new plan is different than other FAA initiatives because it identifies specific systems details and schedules.

'We've put all this into the plan,' he said.

It lays out near-, mid- and long-term goals that include completion of certain projects at set locations by deadlines.

For example, the time line calls for completing the Local Area Augmentation System next year. LAAS is designed to let pilots plot approach paths to avoid obstacles, congested airspace and noise-sensitive areas. It also should help pilots more easily land planes in conditions of reduced visibility, the plan said.

Cockpit data

Pilots also would get help from Data Link, a system to reduce voice communications by transmitting flight data to cockpit computers.

The plan also incorporates the FAA's ongoing systems efforts. It calls, for instance, for deploying the lateral and vertical navigation capabilities of the Wide Area Augmentation System by 2003, Belger said.

WAAS, which fine-tunes satellite location data from the Defense Department's Global Positioning System, will let pilots adjust their landings even when their aircraft are as close as 350 feet above touchdown and there is as little as one mile of visibility.

With better information available to pilots, FAA wants to set a reduced vertical separation minimum. Essentially, it would change the standard that governs how closely aircraft fly to one another. By 2004, Belger said, FAA wants to reduce from 2,000 to 1,000 feet the required altitude between aircraft. The effort never had a completion date before, he added.

The new plan also ties together safety certification procedures for all systems, staffing and equipment requirements and ongoing NASA research activities, Belger said.

FAA has traced the flight capacity versus demand problem to four areas: arrival and departure rates, en route congestion, airport weather and severe en route weather.

The agency plans to add runways at 15 airports between now and 2010, when it expects 2.9 million passengers to fly daily, 1 million more than today.

The plan calls for creation by 2007 of a Surface Movement System that would let airport personnel predict, plan and direct the movements of aircraft and other vehicles on the ground. The system would include animated airport surface displays for all vehicles.

By 2005, cockpit tools would supplement existing visual navigation aids and controller communications to determine an aircraft's position once on the ground.

Rather than implementing sweeping changes, the strategy is to make progress piece by piece, Belger said.

For example, the User Request Evaluation Tool, which would let air traffic controllers route aircraft and predict potential conflicts 20 minutes in advance, is set to be installed at seven airports by next year and nine more sites by 2004.

The passive Final Approach Spacing Tool, which helps controllers maximize runway use by assigning landing sequences, will be set up at four airports by the end of this year and at another airport next year.

The plan is getting a good reception from some Transportation Department critics. On Capitol Hill, Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation, has expressed support for it and set plans for a hearing.

Kudos for plan

John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents more than 15,000 air traffic controllers, engineers and other safety professionals, lauded the plan.
'As far as we are concerned, this plan is cleared for takeoff,' he said.

Meanwhile, FAA is focusing on the immediate future. Belger said the plan could work with a proposal Boeing Co. released on air traffic modernization the same day as FAA issued its plan. Boeing said its plan could serve as an add-on to the FAA proposal and allow for an even greater increase in air traffic.

Belger said FAA would continue to hold discussions with Boeing.

'We will continuously look for new technologies, new ideas, new solutions and look for the best solutions that anyone can offer,' he said.

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