FAA pact to cut flight times, costs

The Federal Aviation Administration last week decided to forge ahead with a software tool that should reduce the cost and duration of cross-country flights, providing a key ingredient of the FAA's vision of air traffic management in the 21st century.

The User Request Evaluation Tool (URET) will give air traffic controllers the latitude to allow aircraft to alter their path, altitude or speed in midflight to adapt to varying winds or other conditions, shaving time off flights and saving fuel. The tool is being deployed at seven air route centers, which handle aircraft flying at high altitudes across the nation.

At present, controllers often cannot permit pilots to change flight plans because they cannot be certain that an aircraft's new flight path will not put it on a collision course with another.

Eventually, the FAA plans to deploy similar tools that will provide that flexibility throughout the air traffic control system, in a concept known as free flight. But while it could take several decades to move into a full free-flight environment, the FAA is looking to provide the aviation industry with some early benefits.

URET "is one of the first enablers to [help us] achieve the concept of free flight," said Bob Voss, deputy director of the FAA's Free Flight Phase One program. "Anything we can do to provide some kind of incremental activity that removes [flight] restrictions represents a significant step toward free flight."

URET is what is known as a conflict probe. The tool works by comparing the flight path of one aircraft with that of all other aircraft in the same region, giving controllers the ability to predict potential collisions or near misses about 20 minutes ahead of time. When a pilot requests a flight change, the controller can test for conflicts and, if a conflict comes up, the controller can use the software to pick an alternate path.

Lockheed Martin Air Traffic Management, Rockville, Md., is deploying URET under a $200 million modification of its Display System Replacement System contract. While the FAA has been testing URET running as an external system, using a different processor and requiring a separate keyboard, the software will be fully integrated into controllers' display systems.

While the airlines are looking for the conflict probe to bring cost savings, air traffic controllers say the tool will improve air safety. The predictability that URET provides "is the missing ingredient for the future of air traffic control," said Dick Swauger, national technology coordinator at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Washington, D.C.

Controllers initially were skeptical about the value of the tool but warmed up to it once they were fully trained and understood what it could do for them, Swauger said.

Still, controllers emphasize that URET fixes only one segment of the air traffic control system. Programs that manage the flow of aircraft approaching and departing airports and on the ground need to come online, Swauger said.

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