Mineta: Tech can help clear air

New Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said Wednesday there is no silver bullet to relieve the nation's air traffic congestion, but making proper use of existing and new technologies could greatly improve the situation.

In an opening statement at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Mineta had advice for DOT agencies on technology. He said the Federal Aviation Administration will not reap the benefits of improvements—such as new runways—if it abandons existing landing systems while it develops new ones, such as satellite navigation.

"In several areas, FAA sometimes has a tendency to want to phase out an existing technology because it believes that a newer and better technology will be available in the near future," Mineta said in testimony. "Sometimes the near future then turns out to be not so near."

As an example, Mineta cited instrument landing systems that aid precision approaches to runways. The FAA plans to replace those systems with a satellite navigation system based on the Global Positioning System. But the new system is several years from completion and has already proven to be more complex than anticipated.

And while many airports are building new runways to help ease approach problems, the FAA may not continue to make instrument landing systems available to them. Such a decision would reduce the use of those runways in poor visibility, Mineta said.

"In a situation where we cannot keep up with demand, we cannot afford to stop installing today's technology until tomorrow's technology actually arrives and is ready to use," Mineta said.

Mineta said he would evaluate technology that would enable the FAA to create more communications channels within the existing radio spectrum.

He said he is committed to luring experienced technology managers to government to help apply new technology to air traffic control modernization. "I know the high-tech industry, and I know that there are talented people out there who are ready to prove their talent by tackling one of the biggest technology challenges ever," he said.

"The only sure remedy for air traffic control congestion in the near term would be a recession, which would suppress demand," Mineta said. "Who among us wants to advocate that to the American people or to the president as our alternative to expanding capacity?"

Mineta, a former congressman and Commerce secretary, was approved unanimously by the full Senate.

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