10-year FAA effort takes off

The Federal Aviation Administration last week publicly embraced a 10-year timetable that pieces together a hodgepodge of technology proj.ects and other initiatives to achieve a clear-cut goal: increasing the capacity of the nation's aviation system by 30 percent.

"Today we want to say, "This is our plan,' " said Acting FAA Deputy Administrator Monte Belger at a June 6 press conference detailing the FAA's Operational Evolution Plan. The OEP, developed with input from air traffic controllers, airlines, airport mangers and other aviation representatives, incorporates more than 50 initiatives and lays out short-, mid- and long-term time frames for their completion.

"What we have done is pull it all together," Belger said. The OEP "is a compilation of all the things on the books."

The plan categorizes National Airspace System (NAS) capacity problems into four areas: arrival and departure rates; airport weather conditions; en route severe weather; and en route congestion. Each problem area includes a number of proposed solutions.

For example, proposals under en route congestion include reducing voice communication between pilots and air traffic controllers, tightening the vertical space between airborne planes and providing access to restricted airspace. A variety of technologies will be used to achieve those goals.

Belger said the OEP won't affect current contracts and "incorporates almost all existing projects or ideas." The FAA estimates that it will spend $11.5 billion on the initiatives.

Having helped develop the plan, the various sectors of the aviation community almost universally endorsed it. "We're encouraged and see this as a major step forward," said Michael Wascom, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association of America Inc., the trade organization for major airlines.

Ruth Marlin, executive vice president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said the OEP provides a realistic approach that represents a welcome change from previous FAA attempts to make sweeping reforms.

"They've laid out the projects [the FAA] is working on and put them in the context of capacity," she said. "It lays a solid path for integrating those programs . Rather than build a system that does everything, it evolves the system incrementally."

Although the plan only includes changes that FAA officials believe are attainable by 2010, it will accommodate future innovations, Belger said.

A prominent new idea was thrown into the mix soon after Belger spoke, when Boeing Co. outlined its long- awaited air traffic management pro.posal. That plan involves a new satellite system for airplane navigation and surveillance; a new network to provide real-time data to pilots, flight planners and controllers; and a redesigned airspace system. John Hayhurst, Boeing senior vice president and president of its new air traffic management division, was quick to point out that Boeing's plan can work with the FAA plan.

"We support the FAA's plan and think it should be implemented as soon as possible," he said. But Hayhurst said Boeing estimates that the FAA's plan will only improve NAS capacity by about 20 percent. Boeing's proposal, if incorporated with the FAA's plan, would boost capacity by 45 percent, he said.

Belger said the agency will work with Boeing as the company releases more details about its proposal. Whatever proposals emerge — from Boeing or others — it is imperative that the OEP initiatives are accomplished, he said.

"Regardless of future concepts, we must make the improvements that are in this plan," he said. "We must make the fundamental changes that are in this plan first."

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