Airlines aim to make technology upgrades
(IDG) -- Two jets -- one just landed, the other about to take off -- sat across from each other on opposite ends of a runway. "Loaded guns," muttered air traffic supervisor Sean Cullinane, using the slang for the potentially deadly face-off that had jolted him to action the moment he saw it. His eyes were now darting around the control tower at San Francisco International Airport, trying to size up whether the departing plane was about to hurtle toward the other aircraft.
Seconds later Cullinane relaxed and his jaw softened. The plane awaiting takeoff hadn't received clearance to move and wasn't about to budge -- something Cullinane learned not from a radio message or from his radar tracker, but from a plastic baton on the counter that read "Runway closed."
"It looks primitive, but it works," says Cullinane of the simpler tools of his trade, such as the baton and the paper strips used to track the arrival and departure of aircraft. The controllers do have modern technology, such as flat-screen displays that give a detailed map of every aircraft flying over the western United States. But when the planes get within a few miles of the San Francisco Airport, controllers rely on bulky old radarscopes that depict aircraft as tiny green blips on a screen. It looks about as modern as the original "Pong" video game.
San Francisco's air traffic system, along with the rest of the country's, has been due for a technology overhaul for almost a decade. And after a number of false starts, it looks as if it might finally get it. For instance, following a failed attempt to replace the software system used by the traffic control centers to track high-altitude flights, the government is now putting the megamillion-dollar project on a fast track and preparing to award the contract to Lockheed Martin. In another step forward, Federal Express began a trial six weeks ago of a long-awaited satellite technology that will make it easier for planes to land.
And Cullinane's baton may soon become obsolete: In May, San Francisco International and Detroit Metro airports begin testing a new radar system for tracking planes on runways.
The changes are being hurried along in part by the need to replace equipment that is past its prime. But they're also being spurred by the outcry of angry travelers, overwhelmed airline workers and frustrated government officials who have watched air travel become an utter nightmare. The issue isn't safety; it's service and time.
More flights were delayed last year than ever before, and travel agents are warning customers to brace for another hellish summer at the nation's airports. One out of every four flights is now taking off later than scheduled. The situation is especially grim at five airports -- Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, New York's LaGuardia and Newark, N.J. -- that together account for half of the country's air traffic delays. Consumer complaints about the airlines rose 20 percent last year, according to the annual airline-quality rating released in March by the Aviation Institute at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Airlines and airports are buckling under swelling demand. The number of air passengers grew from 580 million to nearly 700 million during the past five years. By 2010, government forecasts predict, that number will be 1 billion. "Addressing efficiency is now on the front burner of public concern," said transportation secretary Norman Mineta in a recent speech.
Technology isn't the ultimate solution. Better scheduling, for example, could bring some quick relief. But even if airlines solve that problem, a bigger one remains: Too many planes are using too few runways. While air traffic has soared, just six runways have been added to the country's 25 largest airports in the past 10 years. "There's not enough concrete," says San Francisco's Cullinane. There are 29 new runways on the drawing boards at the country's top 100 airports, but nearly all of them face community opposition.
Experts agree that if air traffic controllers had the latest technology at their disposal, they could handle 15 percent more flights in and out of the country's airports. Whether the Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines can successfully install such technology, however, is a big question. The agency still bears the scar of its last flubbed attempt to take dramatic action. In 1981, it launched the Advanced Automation System, an ambitious 10-year program to overhaul the nation's entire air traffic control system. In 1994, three years after the program was supposed to have been completed, the FAA pulled the plug on what had become a white elephant. The cost: A cool $2.8 billion.
It's the same story with trans-Pacific travel. The FAA tried to build a computerized trans-Pacific system in the early 1990s to replace the paper strips that controllers lay out along a table to track those flights, using radio reports from pilots that can be 30 minutes old by the time they reach the control tower. But the FAA abandoned the project in 1997. It now plans to buy technology to monitor the Pacific from either Australia or New Zealand, where controllers have figured out how to use laptops and PCs to manage flights. The FAA is expected to decide in June and install the new system over the next two years.
The agency has acknowledged its past mistakes and has stopped trying to adopt new technology in one bold stroke. Jane Garvey, who took over as the agency's head in 1997, describes the new approach as "build a little, test a little, deploy a little." Indeed, there are signs of progress, though many in the industry are frustrated by the slow pace.
There are two primary challenges in updating the nation's air traffic control infrastructure. One is to deploy a computer system that can provide a complete overview of the country's airspace. The other is to accelerate the installation of a global positioning system for satellite navigation. With these two systems in place, planes will be able to fly closer to each other and navigate better in bad weather conditions.
Even though such systems have been on the market just a few years, airline executives complain that the FAA isn't moving fast enough. Its goal is to have a global positioning system in place by 2010. "You can get GPS in a golf cart," gripes Michael Wascom, a spokesman for the Air Transportation Association.
Still, some companies are rolling out their own FAA-approved satellite-enhanced systems. In March, Federal Express began testing a new satellite landing system in Memphis, Tenn., developed with Honeywell and Rockwell-Collins. While navigation satellites routinely provide pilots with enough information to determine their plane's location within 30 feet, this new system has special receivers that process signals from ground-based radios, permitting the pilot to pinpoint his or her plane within three feet when preparing to land at that airport.
"It gives you a great deal more flexibility in how you design approaches," says Mark Cardwell, the pilot of the Boeing 727 being used for the trial. Chicago's O'Hare Airport will begin testing the system in the next few weeks.
Meanwhile, other companies are looking for new ways to take advantage of GPS. Next month, Boeing plans to pitch an ambitious plan to the FAA for a system to better track planes at high altitudes as they travel across the country. "We have the capability to know precisely where every plane is and to display that," says Phil Condit, Boeing chairman and CEO. "The technology is not being used."
At San Francisco International, the new radar system will be relatively modest, but it will provide real gains. When the system is fully operational at the end of the year, Cullinane and other controllers will be able to look on a computer screen to see every plane and motor vehicle on the airport grounds. When an aircraft enters part of a runway that puts it in the path of another plane, alarms will sound in the control tower. In addition to improving safety, the system should help controllers more smoothly handle the 1,300 takeoffs and landings at San Francisco every day. And that means Cullinane can spend less energy worrying about a crash and more time getting the planes off on time.
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