DOT forecast: Crowded skies

The Federal Aviation Administration's $2 billion-a-year effort to modernize

the U.S. air traffic control system with new technology will do little to

bring passengers relief from delays already at an all-time high, according

to top Transportation Department officials.

Even the agency's flagship effort to improve capacity, Free Flight phase

one — which will introduce information systems that help controllers better

manage traffic at busy airports and eventually give pilots information to

help them determine the best routes to fly — will provide only incremental

improvements, said Kenneth Mead, DOT inspector general.

"I think it would be a mistake to view that as a panacea," Mead said

during testimony Sept. 14 before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science

and Transportation. DOT Secretary Rodney Slater and FAA chief Jane Garvey

also testified about efforts to reduce delays.

Extensive airline delays during the past two summers are evidence that

the demand for air travel exceeds the capacity of the National Airspace

System. "There is confusion over the extent of relief the modernization

effort is expected to provide," Mead said.

Recent upgrades of the Host and Display System Replacement at the nation's

en route control centers replaced old equipment with new computers but won't

increase the capacity of the system of airports or set air routes similar

to highways in the sky, Mead said. He also said the FAA still is plagued

by problems with software-intensive developments such as its satellite navigation

system, which is years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget.

Garvey stressed that new IT is intended to provide a platform for future

enhancements that will increase the capacity of the system.

Since the cancellation of the Advanced Automation System modernization

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

control systems, Garvey said. Instead of using a "big bang" approach, the

FAA builds a little and then tests a little. For Free Flight, the FAA will

implement the new technologies, but industry is responsible for measuring

the results.

As new technology is given to air traffic controllers, passenger demand

for more flights fills it, Mead said.

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