Change is in the air

The Federal Aviation Administration has reached a key milestone in a program that eventually will change the nature of commercial aviation and has already begun to transform air traffic management.

In April, the FAA delivered a software program called the User Request Evaluation Tool (URET) to the sixth air route traffic control center, marking the end of the first phase of the 4-year-old Free Flight program.

Free Flight builds on the FAA's ongoing modernization effort, which is replacing decades-old technology with new computer and display systems, making it possible to introduce software programs to assist air traffic controllers and finally replacing the paper strips that have been the primary tool for marking the progress of aircraft for decades.

"I had heard about the paperless strips for a long time," said George Greenfield, a controller at Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center. Now, with URET, responding to pilots is "a lot easier," he said.

But Free Flight not only automates basic controller operations, it also supports a dramatic new approach to air traffic control. Rather than forcing aircraft to fly along predetermined routes, Free Flight allows pilots to choose the most efficient paths, speeds and altitudes, depending on the prevailing conditions.

The program is expected to reduce traffic congestion and consequently improve safety in the National Airspace System (NAS) by giving controllers more flexibility in managing aircraft flow. The approach also will save airline companies money by enabling them to choose the most fuel-efficient route.

URET, which went live last month at the Washington center in Leesburg, Va., is a key component, because it takes care of the complex calculations needed to ensure that a change in a flight plan does not put one aircraft in the path of another.

URET "is a significant enhancement to the way controllers do business," said Tom Spellerberg, the FAA's URET program manager.

The arrival of URET also marks a change in the modernization of the FAA. Although the agency has spent nearly 14 years replacing its core computers, with numerous delays and program restructuring, it's delivering Free Flight as scheduled.

"We did what we said we were going to do when we promised," Jane Garvey, the FAA's administrator, said at a May 6 news conference. "It's a major milestone in our ongoing modernization."

"What's the big deal about Free Flight Phase 1?" said John Thornton, the FAA's Free Flight director. "We signed up to do different things and we've delivered them."

For the FAA, the timing couldn't be better. Phase 1 came to a close as the nation's 32 major hubs reported an increase in flights and the busy summer travel season approached. Confident that Free Flight will alleviate congestion, the agency is forging ahead with plans for Phase 2.

But a budget shortfall could make the second installment less of a success. "We're happy that things are progressing...but not as fast as we'd like to see them," said John O'Brien, director of engineering and air safety for the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which represents more than 62,000 pilots at 42 airlines in the United States and Canada. "The issue is funding."

Tools of Change

The airlines were the first to embrace the concept of Free Flight, citing its potential to cut costs. The FAA later signed on to the concept, ultimately billing it as fundamental to the agency's modernization effort.

"The impetus for Free Flight was the impending gridlock forecast for the early part of the new century," Thornton said. "The airlines, the controllers, the pilots and the technicians essentially threw down the gauntlet to the FAA: Here are the tools we want, here are the locations we want for them and you've got to deploy before 2003."

In cooperation with those stakeholders, Garvey established Phase 1 in 1998 to provide five core capabilities defined by RTCA Inc., a nonprofit organization that advises the agency, by the end of this year.

Those tools included Surface Movement Advisor (SMA), Collaborative Decision Making (CDM), Traffic Management Advisor (TMA), the NASA-developed Center-TRACON Automation System (CTAS) terminal and URET.

"ALPA feels this whole effort is critical to the well-being of our employers," said O'Brien, who is chairman of RTCA's board.

SMA is used during takeoffs and landings to obtain taxi times and gate delays. It gives airline ramp towers aircraft arrival information that helps direct ground resources, including baggage operations, food service and refueling.

The FAA made the tool available at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport and the Philadelphia International Airport on Dec. 18, 1998. A year later, the agency expanded it to four more: O'Hare International Airport in Illinois, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in Texas, and Newark International Airport and Teterboro Airport, both in New Jersey.

With SMA, airlines can reduce taxi delays. Northwest Airlines estimates it avoided three to five costly diversions a week, especially during bad weather, according to the FAA.

Meanwhile, CDM provides airlines and the FAA air traffic control staff with real-time access to NAS status data, including weather, equipment availability and delays. The system — employed during the takeoff, departure and cruise flight phases — enables improved information sharing and traffic management. For instance, planes can be rerouted around bad weather and restricted airspace.

CDM was completed on May 3, 2001, and is operational at seven en route centers. More than 30 airlines and Nav Canada, which operates that country's civil air navigation service, are registered as users.

It "gives us and the airlines the ability to collaborate [with controllers] in real time," Thornton said. In the past, a request for a flight change would take a half-hour to reach the controller. Since its debut, the tool has saved the industry "20 million minutes" in delays, he added.

TMA, which helps controllers schedule landings by managing traffic flow in the airspace around the airport, also has racked up points with stakeholders, increasing arrival capacity at airports by 3 percent to 5 percent, according to the FAA.

The tool forms part of the CTAS terminal, which provides aircraft sequence numbers and runway assignments according to user preferences and system constraints, operating in conjunction with TMA and directing traffic flow until airplanes land.

Although a cost/benefit analysis has halted installation of the terminals, TMA reached initial daily use at all seven planned sites Aug. 29, 2001.

Since arriving on the controller scene, TMA has saved fuel and decreased delays at airports in Atlanta, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis and Oakland, Calif., according to the FAA.

Big Returns

Still, URET could be the biggie of the bunch. With the Lockheed Martin Corp.-developed system, airlines already have increased direct routing by 20 percent, and Indianapolis and Memphis, Tenn., are saving $1.5 million a month in operating costs, according to the FAA. Other advantages to the software include increased capacity, better use of airspace and real-time collaboration, Thornton said.

URET is what is known as a conflict probe. When a pilot requests permission to change route or altitude, the software analyzes the known flight paths of other aircraft in the area to check for potential conflicts. It also monitors aircraft and issues an alert 40 minutes in advance of a potential foray into restricted or prohibited airspace.

"This enhances the safety by having the ability to look out farther," said Dave Perkins, URET management co-lead at the Washington en route center. At the least, he added, it saves controllers the time previously used for "shuffling tickets."

The tool enables better decision-making and air traffic management, said Lockheed Martin URET system architect Tom Kochuba. That's because the technology, not the controller, does the math to discern potential conflicts — and does it fast, too.

Washington, D.C., controller Greenfield demonstrated the difference. Seated at a console, he plugged in a made-up request, then dragged the future time tag icon on the screen to five minutes. Voila! He saw a potential conflict.

"The biggest difference is having more time to work with the radar person," Greenfield said. "The paper strips required a lot of attention.... A route amendment used to take 60 to 90 seconds, which in air traffic control is a long time. Now [it's done] with three clicks of a mouse."

Program training lasts six days, with five spent in the classroom and one on the floor. The Indianapolis and Memphis en route centers are fully operational, after officials spent three years working with the prototype, which the Mitre Corp. created. Centers in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Cleveland and Kansas City, Mo., are partially on board.

"There are a few bugs because it comes generic," Perkins said. "Overall, the response has been great."

Training, of course, is no small matter for air traffic controllers. Atlanta, one of the seven centers included in Phase 1, didn't meet its April 23 start-up date, because of the training requirements.

"It takes nine to 12 months to get everybody trained and squared away," the FAA's Spellerberg said. "They've got to do it while still controlling aircraft."

The FAA said it was working with the controllers' union to resolve the issue. "They just don't feel their staffing allows them to take that time aside," Thornton said.

Despite the holdup in Georgia, controllers elsewhere have reacted positively to the tool, said Barry Frazier, the URET co-leader at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). He said many ask him, "When can I get in a class?"

Greenfield estimates it took him a week to feel comfortable working with URET. "It's just like anything else," he said. "You just have to get used to it.... Most of the people who have a complaint haven't been trained in it. We're creatures of habit."

Turning the Corner

For the FAA, URET was about delivering on a promise. "I think the big thing about Free Flight was about meeting commitments," Spellerberg said. Having achieved that goal, the FAA deemed Phase 1 a victory.

ALPA's O'Brien said airlines have been able to measure improvements, although it's hard for an individual crew to note the benefits because Free Flight isn't nationwide. NATCA President John Carr was unavailable for comment.

"The 'build a little, deploy a little' approach was key to our success," Thornton said. "We were careful to use human factors testing and evaluation each step of the way. Having the controllers sit down and work with the new software while it was being developed provided a wealth of data. We were able to make course corrections efficiently."

"I think it's fair to say that the stakeholders made the building-block approach successful," he continued. "Because we had the controllers, the pilots and the technicians involved from step one, we were able to avoid the common pitfalls that can plague modernization programs." Such pitfalls — including delays and cost overruns — have plagued FAA programs.

"With [the] FAA, you always hear about things that are coming and all the great things that are going to happen," Greenfield said. "I heard about AAS for 10 years before [the] FAA decided it couldn't happen."

The FAA broke the Advanced Automation System, an ambitious program to overhaul systems throughout all air traffic control centers, into smaller projects in 1994, after spending six years and $1.5 billion of agency money.

With Free Flight, the FAA has turned the corner on NAS modernization, Thornton said.

"It's one of the biggest leaps forward that we've made with technology in the last 25 years," said Jerry Whittaker, NATCA's Free Flight liaison. "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."

URET's major technical challenge is making it work with other systems, according to an August 2001 General Accounting Office report on NAS and Free Flight tools. Although the "FAA does not think this challenge is insurmountable, we believe it is important for [the] FAA to resolve this issue to fully realize URET's benefit of increasing controller productivity," the GAO report says.

The FAA plans to expand URET to four more centers next year and then to the remaining nine by the end of 2004. TMA also will be further deployed. In addition, Phase 2, which begins in 2003 and includes system upgrades, has a research and development piece consisting of nine projects.

There are potentials to the tools that have not yet been realized, Frazier said.

Lockheed is already exploring new capabilities. "We're just beginning to look at conflict resolution, providing a suggested solution," Kochuba said.

Bumpy Ride Ahead?

Although support for Phase 2 remains strong, funding is waning. The FAA received $177 million for Free Flight for fiscal 2002, but the Bush administration is asking Congress for only $145 million in fiscal 2003.

Capt. Duane Woerth, president of ALPA, expressed concern a year ago while testifying before Congress that Free Flight's momentum might not be sustained, according to ALPA's Web site (

"What we envisioned for Phase 2 is not going to take place due to funding issues," said ALPA's O'Brien, who offered the following outlook: URET at all centers maybe by 2007, realistically by 2008.

"That has a direct impact on other programs, [creating] a domino effect," he said. For instance, four centers established a group to work on restructuring the airspace above flight level in anticipation of receiving URET. Now that the tool's arrival has been delayed, the group might be disbanded.

ALPA officials have visited staff members on Capitol Hill in hopes of improving the money situation for Free Flight, while recognizing that a lot of funds are earmarked for security, another priority. Once confidence is restored and flights increase, however, "we'll back to the good old days of delays" and the tools will be essential, O'Brien said.

"With demand on the system rising once again to pre-Sept. 11 numbers, the need for Free Flight is as important now as it was in the past," Thornton said.

In addition, Garvey said Free Flight was critical to the FAA's NAS operational evolution plan, a series of steps the agency intends to complete by 2010 to increase the capacity of the airspace system to meet passenger needs.

Controllers, too, are looking ahead to a more modern time — when paper strips will cease to exist. Right now, they serve as backups to URET. "Someday, as society gets more automated, [they] could possibly be done away with," Perkins said.

Regardless, old habits die hard. "I can't talk to airplanes without a pen in my hand," Greenfield said, laughing. "It's just something you get used to."


Free Flight tools

* Surface Movement Advisor: Provides airline ramp towers with aircraft arrival information, which helps airlines better direct ground assets, including baggage operations, food service and refueling.

* Collaborative Decision Making: Gives airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration real-time access to National Airspace System status information, including weather, equipment availability and delays.

* Traffic Management Advisor: Enables controllers and traffic management specialists to make arrival sequence plans for selected airports.

* CTAS terminal: Provides aircraft sequence numbers and runway assignments according to user preferences and system constraints.

* User Request Evaluation Tool: Enables controllers to evaluate pilots' requests to change route or altitude by anticipating possible conflicts with other aircraft up to 20 minutes into the future.


Free Flight Phase 1 milestones

October 1998: Free Flight Phase 1 established.

December 1999: Surface Movement Advisor completed.

August 2001: Traffic Management Advisor in initial daily use at all seven sites scheduled for Phase 1.

May 2001: Collaborative Decision Making tool completed.

May 2002: User Request Evaluation Tool operational at six of seven centers scheduled for Phase 1. The Federal Aviation Administration declares Phase 1 complete and a success. (Planned installation of CTAS terminals has halted following a cost/benefit analysis.)


Controllers' take on URET

Controllers at six en route centers are already using the User Request Evaluation Tool. Overall, their response to the tool, which enables them to look 20 minutes into the future of a flight and determine if a pilot's request to change route or altitude is safe, has been positive, said officials from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

"It's a tool that's going to help controllers do their jobs better," said Jerry Whittaker, the association's Free Flight liaison.

Many of the benefits come from increased automation: Digital predictions and alerts have replaced strips of paper and mental calculations. "It used to take four or five motions just to switch frequencies," said George Greenfield, a controller at Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center. "Now [we] can do it with a click of the mouse."

Despite that ease, URET takes some getting used to. "For a controller, even to change a button means a world of difference," said Barry Frazier, the association's URET co-leader.

At the center in Atlanta — the seventh center scheduled for Free Flight Phase 1 — officials have decided to forgo training on URET because of staffing issues. That center will adopt the tool by the end of the year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Nevertheless, the FAA has declared Phase 1 complete.


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