FAA requests $388M to test advanced air traffic control

Despite concerns about its broader modernization program, the Federal Aviation Administration last week underscored to Congress the importance of funding a $388 million program to test how a revolutionary method of air traffic management works in real life.

The Flight 2000 program is a critical step toward modernization of the National Airspace System and toward the concept of free flight, which gives pilots more flexibility to choose the best route, altitude and speed based on weather and traffic conditions. Airlines believe free flight could save billions of dollars a year in fuel and other costs.

At a hearing last week by the House Science Committee's Technology Subcommittee, Dennis DeGaetano, FAA's acting associate administrator for Research and Acquisitions, said the current airspace infrastructure must be modernized to handle the anticipated increase in traffic.

Rather than drawing funds and energy away from FAA's modernization program, he added, Flight 2000 is central to modernization. "Flight 2000 provides an opportunity to accelerate modernization by reaching early consensus with users on the future NAS," DeGaetano said. "I want to assure you that current NAS modernization projects and activities will not be compromised by the addition of Flight 2000."

The FAA has asked for $90 million in fiscal 1999—- and $388 million overall between fiscal 1999 and 2003—- to fund Flight 2000. Initial operational capability for Flight 2000, which will test on-board computers, satellite navigation systems and other technologies that will make free flight possible, is scheduled for April 2002.

However, Michael McNally, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said at the hearing that the transition to Flight 2000 must not happen at the expense of other essential modernization programs such as the Display System Replacement, the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System and the replacement of the major air traffic control center's old mainframe computers, which are not Year 2000-compliant.

"I raise the issue of DSR, STARS and the host Year 2000 compliance because of our concern of the prioritization of funding," McNally said. "Flight 2000 is estimated at $90 million for initial implementation. NATCA does not believe the air traffic control system can afford any diversion of funds from these critical programs to fund any part of Flight 2000."

The subcommittee chairwoman, Connie Morella (R-Md.), said that while the need for NAS modernization is obvious, the FAA should exercise caution when it rolls out Flight 2000. "There is broad consensus among the aviation community that our nation's current aviation infrastructure is in desperate need of modernization," Morella said. "While it is important that we move quickly to advance the modernization process, it is imperative that the FAA avoid its past mistakes of trying to do too much too fast."

McNally agreed, saying that "very small steps must be taken in the development and testing of new equipment necessary for Flight 2000 or free flight."

Jack Ryan, vice president for Air Traffic Management at the Air Transport Association of America, said timeline to fund Flight 2000 and make it operational is too long. "We need the capabilities as soon as possible and are willing to step up to the responsibility," he said. "The challenge is getting there within budget and on or ahead of schedule."

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