NASA: Simulation proves its worth

NASA announced last month that it had completed its first real-time simulation of a major hub airport using its air traffic control simulator, FutureFlight Central.

Officials tested six potential changes to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) that could help prevent dangerously close encounters among aircraft, vehicles and other objects on the ground. Such incidents, known as runway incursions, are a constant concern for the Federal Aviation Administration and air traffic controllers.

FutureFlight Central was designed to allow the FAA to test ideas that could improve aircraft safety and traffic flow in a lifelike, simulated environment. The LAX study — conducted at the Future.Flight Central facility at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. — has shown that such a simulation can be done, NASA officials said.

"The LAX simulation at FutureFlight was the first attempt to model a major hub airport with controllers and pilots interacting in real time," said Nancy Dorighi, FutureFlight Central facility manager.

The two-story tall FutureFlight Central tower simulator opened in late 1999. It features a simulated 360-degree view and provides air traffic controllers with lifelike, real-time displays of airport activities. The tower is 25 feet in diameter and has a bank of 12 screens that can display up to 200 moving aircraft and vehicles.

John Bluck, a spokesman for Ames Research Center, said FutureFlight enables airport officials to test possible airport changes before making them — potentially saving time and money. "The idea is to try it in a safe way that's as close to reality as we can make it," he said. "[With FutureFlight], you don't have to try something new on a real airport, where you have thousands of flights coming and going."

LAX and FAA officials will review details of the $485,000 study, which began in 2000, to see how runway safety can be improved at the airport. In addition, officials said the LAX study could lead to similar ones involving other large airports.

Researchers found that relocating an existing taxiway to one end of the airport, instead of having planes cross busy runways while taxiing, could reduce the chances of incursions, according to Boris Rabin, Ames' simulation project manager.

However, making such a change could increase air traffic controllers' workloads and could cost millions of dollars, said Raymond Jack, a chief of operations at Los Angeles World Airports, which operates LAX.

The simulation enables aviation officials to see how a change such as moving a taxiway would affect workload and traffic before it's made, he said, providing more certainty.

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