FAA finishes Free Flight phase

The Federal Aviation Administration has finished the first phase of its high-profile Free Flight program, introducing several systems with safety, efficiency and cost-saving benefits, agency officials announced May 6.

Most recently, the FAA deployed software at the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center in Leesburg, Va., that enables controllers to look 20 minutes ahead, helping them determine whether a pilot's request to change route or altitude is safe.

The en route center is one of six — the others are in Chicago, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Mo., and Memphis, Tenn. — using the User Request Evaluation Tool (URET), which replaces paper strips and mental calculations with digital predictions and alerts. Atlanta is slated to join them by the end of the year.

The Washington center went operational in April, the same month many major airports recorded significant increases in flights, according to the aviation agency.

"We did what we said we were going to do when we promised," said FAA Administrator Jane Garvey at a news conference. "It's a major milestone in our ongoing modernization."

Garvey established Free Flight Phase 1 in 1998 in cooperation with the aviation industry in hopes of transforming the National Airspace System. A year later, the FAA awarded Lockheed Martin Corp. a $204 million contract to refine and install URET, which was conceived by Mitre Corp.

Already, Indianapolis and Memphis are saving $1.5 million a month in operating costs, according to the FAA. Other advantages to the software include increased capacity, fuller airspace use and real-time collaboration, said John Thornton, director of the Free Flight program office.

In addition to URET, the Free Flight program includes a collaborative decision-making tool, which enables airlines to exchange flight plans with the FAA in real time; a surface movement adviser, which increases awareness of traffic flow into an airport; and a traffic management adviser, which helps manage planes in the en route space. The latter has increased airports' arrival capacity by 3 percent to 5 percent, according to the FAA.

The program reflects Garvey's building block approach to fielding new systems and is critical to the agency's operational evolution plan, she said.

"It's one of the biggest leaps forward that we've made with technology in the last 25 years," said Jerry Whittaker, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association liaison to Free Flight. And "we're not done. This program is meant to go nationwide. We need to keep working, fix the bugs and make the system seamless across the NAS."

The FAA plans to expand URET to four more centers next year and the remaining nine by the end of 2004.

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