Air traffic delays await lofty tech

Technology that will modernize the air traffic control system promises to

improve future air travel, but it will not eliminate the delays being experienced

by passengers today, according to top Transportation Department officials.

"There is confusion over the extent of relief the modernization effort

is expected to provide," Ken Mead, DOT inspector general, told the Senate

Commerce Committee Thursday during a hearing on air traffic control delays.

Extensive airline delays this summer have shown that the demand for

air travel exceeds the capacity of the National Airspace System. The committee

asked DOT officials to discuss issues contributing to the problem, such

as an increased passenger demand for flights, stress on the air traffic

control system to meet those demands, and airports and runways stretched

to capacity.

Technology that has long been the focus of improving the air traffic

control system is not necessarily the answer to the problem, Mead said.

The modernization of the Host and Display System Replacement at the

nation's en route air traffic control centers replaces old equipment with

new computers. However, it won't increase the capacity of the nationwide

system of airports, and it won't set air routes, Mead said.

Federal Aviation Administration chief Jane Garvey stressed that technologies

such as Free Flight are intended to provide a platform for future enhancements

to increase the capacity.

The $700 million Free Flight program will implement technologies to

help pilots and controllers choose the best, most direct routes. In some

cases, pilots will be able to choose their own routes. However, Mead said,

"I think it would be a mistake to view that as a panacea."

Since the cancellation of an earlier modernization program known as

AAS in 1994, the FAA has changed its strategy for upgrading air traffic

control systems. Instead of using a "big-bang" approach, the FAA builds

a little and then tests a little. In the case of Free Flight, the FAA will

implement the new technologies, but industry is responsible for measuring

the results, Garvey said.

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