FAA sets course for free flight

In response to earlier criticism, the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to accept a new scaled-back plan that significantly restructures the agency's Flight 2000 program, which will test a revolutionary air traffic management concept.

Flight 2000 will test new technologies for "free flight," a network of air and ground communication systems, on-board computers and global positioning satellite navigational aids. Pilots would use the network to choose the best route, altitude and speed for a flight, based on current conditions. Currently, pilots almost exclusively rely on controllers, who use a centralized command and control system to set pilots' routes. Flight 2000 is central to the agency's national airspace system modernization effort.

"The idea with Flight 2000 is to establish a real-world test of surveillance and navigation and communication capabilities for the future before we do full deployment," said Monte Belger, acting deputy administrator at the FAA. "We're doing it to get to free flight."

The original Flight 2000 plan released last year by the FAA did not receive wide industry support. As a result, the agency asked the RTCA Free Flight Select Committee, made up of industry and government representatives, to redefine the program. Last week, the group presented its report to the FAA, and FAA administrator Jane Garvey is expected to accept it, Belger said.

Under the original Flight 2000 plan, disagreement centered around where Flight 2000 would take place, what technology would be used on planes and how Flight 2000 would lead to national deployment, said Margaret Jenny, director of operations research at US Airways Inc. and co-chairwoman of the RTCA Free Flight Select Committee.

The revised plan, however, stresses integration, enables testing of alternative technologies, is driven by an overall strategy and has industry consensus, Jenny said. "The key is we started with a strategy and with what we wanted to accomplish, [which is] risk mitigation in communications, navigation and surveillance."

In drafting its report, the RTCA select committee reviewed more than 70 technologies and winnowed the list down to nine that will be tested during Flight 2000. "Flight 2000 is about learning lessons as we go," Jenny said. "FAA policies and [investment] decisions should be based on the ongoing results of this program."

Many of the nine technologies to be tested during Flight 2000 are designed to enhance safety, which is a critical element of improving efficiency, Jenny said. For example, using the Flight Information System to receive weather information in the cockpit would make the flight safer by improving the situational awareness of the pilot, and using Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast— which broadcasts aircraft positions to provide additional surveillance coverage where radar does not reach— would open up more airspace and allow pilots to travel safely through it.

The new Flight 2000 plan will take place on a smaller scale. Originally, Flight 2000 included tests in Alaska, Hawaii and Oakland, Calif. But under the new plan, tests will take place in Alaska and the Ohio Valley between 1999 and 2004 and are expected to cost less than the original price of $400 million. The new plan also includes tests with the Cargo Airline Association, which was not part of the original plan, but the organization already is working on some of the technology to be tested during Flight 2000.

Michael McNally, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said the new plan is better than the first, which he described as "too aggressive and too expensive. We thought it was too much of a radical change at one time."

The original FAA plan included testing new technology over the Pacific Ocean, which is something not included in the scaled-down plan. McNally said he supports this decision.

Jack Ryan, acting director of aviation safety and operations at the Air Transport Association, also prefers the new plan, but he said some questions remain unanswered. "Overall, I think it's a more compact and concise plan than the one the FAA proposed earlier," Ryan said. "I need to have an answer as to what this plan will cost, and I also need to get some detail on what kind of avionics [equipment] will be purchased for aircraft...and what is needed on the ground. This is a high-level plan, and we need to go down another level."

One hitch in the Flight 2000 program is funding. The administration asked for $90 million for fiscal 1999, but the Senate gave only $4 million, and the House did not fund the project. The FAA is hopeful that differences can be ironed out in conference. Funding problems next year would definitely slow the program down but would not prevent it from taking place, Belger said.

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