Data determining Free Flight future

National Airspace System: Free Flight Tools Show Promise, but Implementation Challenges Remain

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The Federal Aviation Administration should have enough data in time for a March 2002 deadline to decide whether further deployment of a key software tool in its Free Flight program makes sense, according to a new General Accounting Office report. However, lack of data on another system will keep its future up in the air.

In a report released Sept. 28, GAO said the FAA will have enough performance data about the Traffic Management Advisor—which helps controllers space aircraft more efficiently as they approach airports—to determine whether it should be installed at more sites in the second phase of Free Flight.

The Free Flight program consists of a number of new systems and procedures designed to introduce more flexibility to the National Airspace System. The FAA is deploying five Free Flight tools to selected sites under Phase 1 of the program, which ends after 2002. The agency needs to decide by March which systems should be expanded to more locations under Phase 2, which could amount to $717 million.

Late deployment of the User Request Evaluation Tool (URET) may not allow enough data to be collected in time to justify further deployment, GAO found. URET is a Free Flight system that automatically identifies conflicts and responds to pilot requests for route changes in the en route airspace between airports.

The FAA also needs to ensure that URET can work with the agency's other air traffic control systems, according to the report.

The FAA has already decided not to deploy the passive Final Approach Spacing Tool, a Free Flight system that helps airport terminal controllers schedule landing sequences and assign runways, because of risks found during testing. GAO supports the decision.

The report was issued last week, but GAO delivered it to a Senate committee overseeing transportation Aug. 31. At the time, NAS congestion was expected to grow and Free Flight was expected to check that growth. Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it's unclear whether the same amount of growth is expected.

Effective training in the use of Free Flight tools will be crucial to their success, and the FAA needs to improve in that area, GAO found. Training groups composed of air traffic controllers have requested more help from management, according to the report.

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