FAA to advance state of air traffic management

Within the next year, the Federal Aviation Administration plans to award a contract to modernize its traffic flow management system in hopes of reducing flight delays and charting more efficient courses.

The program will replace hardware and upgrade software that dates to the mid-1980s. Because of their age, they cannot support the next generation of tools, according to Dan Gutwein, the FAA's integrated product team leader for traffic flow and enterprise management.

The goal of traffic flow management is to best use the nation's airspace — a tall order, given that up to 10,000 planes are airborne at peak times, Gutwein noted.

Traffic flow management is a collaborative effort in which technology provides a slew of stakeholders — airlines, general aviators, air traffic controllers and the military — with a common view of the airspace so they can make tough calls on the safest, most effective way to move aircraft. For instance, they might agree to route planes around a cluster of thunderstorms or to space out the departure times of planes headed for the same airport.

"Everybody's looking at a different forecast and trying to reach consensus," Gutwein said. And that makes for difficult decision-making, particularly in bad weather.

To facilitate the process, the FAA relies on information sharing. The existing traffic flow management network, which has evolved through several generations of hardware and software, provides decision-support capabilities. But it can only go so far.

"More and more, we're using complicated computer programs to calculate the delay and to allocate it," Gutwein said. "Like most systems, the software is getting to be very outdated and hard to add new capabilities."

FAA officials issued a screening information request May 27 to identify qualified sources for a contract to develop, test and deploy a modernized system. An award is anticipated by June 2004, with a performance period of one to 12 years.

Harris Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp., which last year established a strategic alliance in an attempt to snag a bigger share of the estimated $5 billion airspace automation market, have expressed interest in the program.

"This new system will minimize passenger delays during adverse weather conditions," said Miles Wiley, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association International. "The pilots like it. The passengers like it. So now it's up to the FAA to put out the RFP and get the right vendor to make it happen."

Now is the time to do it.

The frequent delays that frustrated travelers during the summer of 2000 have been reduced, but following a significant dip after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, air travel is picking up. And a full rebound is expected.

Once the new network is in place, the agency officials envision breakthroughs in traffic flow management.

Those could include building uncertainties into the system — for instance, calculating the probability that bad weather will occur. Right now, the process is more black and white — rain or no rain — but the FAA would like to work with actual percentages and more precise predictions, Gutwein said.

A program that gives pilots a say in flight routing also stands to gain from the modernization, which will increase integration and interoperability throughout the air traffic management structure, according to the agency.

Free Flight, which lets pilots choose their paths, speeds and altitudes depending on the prevailing conditions, is expected to save the airline industry billions of dollars a year by enabling more direct routing and by safely accommodating an increase in traffic volume.

Traffic flow management, with its planning and decision-making capabilities, is the key to making that a reality.

When air travel numbers bounce back, Gutwein said, "we hope to be prepared."

Lisagor is a freelance writer based in Vienna, Va.

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A common view of airspace

Several organizations participate in the Federal Aviation Administration's traffic flow management system. They include:

* Air Traffic Control Command Center in Herndon, Va.

* 21 Air Route Traffic Control Centers.

* Three Combined Center Radar Approach Control facilities.

* 36 Terminal Radar Approach Control facilities.

* Nine air traffic control towers.

* John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Mass.

* William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, N.J.

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