FAA gives Senate tech update

Senate panel addresses FAA modernization program in reducing delays and congestion

As the temperature rises and passengers brace for the summer travel season, a Senate panel May 10 addressed the role of industry and the Federal Aviation Administration's modernization program in reducing delays and congestion.

FAA Administrator Jane Garvey stressed the importance of the FAA's 10-year {www.caasd.org/nas-evol/index.html} National Airspace System Operational Evolution plan in testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation's Aviation Subcommittee.

The plan calls for:

Changes in how aircraft operate to better match available capacity. Redesigning the airspace to accommodate greater numbers of aircraft while maintaining safety. Deploying new technology to increase flexibility. Constructing new runways. Devising new procedures to improve management of delays. But many of the technologies essential to making air traffic control more flexible are still not implemented, Gerald Dillingham, director of physical infrastructure issues for the General Accounting Office, said in testimony.

Dillingham noted that when the FAA announced the air traffic control system modernization program in 1981, it was billed as a 10-year, $12 billion program. But it is now expected to cost more than $44 billion through fiscal 2005, he said.

"Although FAA replaced the hardware for the host computer system as scheduled in 1999 to preclude potential Year 2000 problems, many major modernization projects are years behind schedule and cost more than anticipated," Dillingham said. "Others have met with eventual success after FAA restructured them and modified their requirements."

While technological improvements to the air traffic control system will provide only a 5 percent to 15 percent increase in capacity — compared with the 50 percent to 55 percent gain in capacity from building new runways — the FAA is committed to implementing modern technology, particularly its Free Flight program, Garvey said.

Free Flight will enable pilots and controllers, under certain circumstances, to select optimal flight paths, lowering costs and helping to accommodate more flights.

The FAA has been building and testing five Free Flight technologies. Two of them — the Surface Movement Advisor and Collaborative Decision Making tools — have been successfully completed, Dillingham said. Traffic Management Advisor and the User Request Evaluation Tool face some technical challenges.

The final Free Flight tool, the Passive Final Approach Spacing Tool, has not only encountered significant technical challenges, but the FAA is still developing the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System, the equipment that provides a platform for the tool, he said. As a result, the FAA will not extend deployment of that tool to additional facilities.

The FAA also still has not developed a clear plan for determining the impact of Free Flight technologies on air traffic controllers, Dillingham said.

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