Flying the increasingly unfriendly skies

Like so many of us, Cragg Hines of the Houston Chronicle

traveled by air this summer. During his trip, he read an inflight magazine, in which American Airlines chairman Gerard J. Arpey called for fundamental reform in the way the U.S. manages air traffic.

That reminded Hines of an article I wrote for IEEE Spectrum back in 1997, exactly 10 years ago this month. In that cover story, â''The truth about Air Traffic Control,â'' I reported that in spite of billions of dollars spent in a patchwork of fixes and upgrades to the decades old U.S. air traffic control system, the system is essentially broken. I quoted Neil Planzer, then director of the Air Traffic System Requirements Service for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and now a Boeing executive, who said that, by the year 2015, if the U.S. air transportation system does not change in any significant way, there could be a major aviation accident every seven to ten days.

Since then, I havenâ''t written much about air traffic control, because in fact, nothing much has changed. Bit and pieces of aging technology have been replaced, though that effort has been plagued by delays. For example, a project to replace aging analog radar installations with digital radar, slated to be complete by 2005, has been cut back with the completion date pushed out to 2013. And the overall processâ''radar surveillance providing aircraft position information to controllers sitting at computer workstations who use radios to give instructions to pilotsâ''remains the same. A plan to allow controllers and pilots to exchange digital text messages for non-emergency communications got people excited, but the FAA quietly canceled it. Talk of replacing radar with a GPS-based system is still talk. And a power failure at a single U.S. air traffic control facility still wreaks havoc on the entire system. Meanwhile, air traffic, though plunging after 9/11, is back on the rise; no surprise to anyone who hustled through crowded airports this summer. A recipe for a future of aviation accidents? I'm not quite so pessimistic; the future I see is one of more long waits on runways as controllers maintain safety by holding flights on the ground. And these days I travel prepared with bags full of food and water, resigned to long travel delays.

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