Air traffic delays await lofty tech
- By Paula Shaki Trimble
- Sep 15, 2000
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
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.