NASA helps air traffic control

NASA officials expect that software recently developed by the agency will help ease air traffic congestion around airports.

Officials at NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and Mitre, based in McLean, Va., recently unveiled an application called the Multi-Center Traffic Management Advisor (McTMA) at the Air Route Traffic Control Centers in New York, Washington, Boston and Cleveland; the Philadelphia Terminal Radar Approach Control; and the National Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Herndon, Va. The tests took place in mid-November.

NASA officials hope the system will be operational in the Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth area by early 2006 and operational nationally later the same year.

"Everyone's pretty much a believer," said Tom Davis, acting division chief for the aviation systems division at NASA's Ames Research Center. "From a research and development center like NASA, [the time frame's] a very positive thing."

Although the current method of gauging aircraft separation relied on measuring distances between planes, McTMA does so in terms of minutes and seconds, which NASA experts say is more precise than the old way. With the time-based information, air traffic controllers can schedule departures within a different time window, saving travelers from circling above airports. "Distance apart is very hard for human beings to process," Davis said.

FAA officials have not used time-based metering to predict trajectories until now because the technology has not been adequately reliable until the past five to 10 years, he said.

An earlier version of the software, Traffic Management Advisor, lets air traffic controllers develop arrival-scheduling plans that increase a single airport's capacity by allowing early runway assignments for arriving aircraft. That version operates in Atlanta, Minneapolis and Los Angeles, among other cities. But in the Northeast, airports are too close for the system to work. Philadelphia's airport sits in the air space of Washington, D.C., and New York City airports.

"If an aircraft is getting close to landing in New York, there's a lot of interaction with the surrounding airports," Davis said. "They get a lot of holding in those areas. By connecting the multiple facilities, through McTMA, we're able to predict that there's going to be congestion later, and we're able to account for delays earlier."

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