New technology is making the skies just a bit friendlier

Ten years ago, in ''The Truth about Air Traffic Control,'' I quoted Neil Planzer, then director of the Air Traffic System Requirements Service for the Federal Aviation Administration, 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.'' Planzer at the time was looking at data that showed historical accident rates for certain volumes of traffic, and a future in which air traffic over the U.S. was likely to climb steadily. Adding the statistics together did not bode well for safety in 2015.

I caught up with Planzer this week; he''s now a vice president for air traffic management at Boeing. And he was happy to report that enough has indeed changed that his dire prediction won''t be coming true.

The skies are safer, Planzer says, due, for the most part, to better technology on the

airplane. I wasn''t exactly surprised that, as a Boeing executive, he would say this, but he was able to give me compelling examples. Terrain warning systems, he pointed out, have drastically lowered the number of so called CFITs, or ''controlled flight into terrain'' accidents. (Ya gotta love how the aviation community makes flying into a mountain sound so scientific.) TCAS, the Traffic alert and Collision Avoidance System, mandated for large commercial aircraft in the U.S. since 1993 and in Europe, Australia, and China since 2000, has proven itself by basically eliminating head-on collisions. Planzer also credits new techniques for training cockpit crews to communicate for reducing human error. And he says flow control on the ground, that is, sophisticated computer programs that adjust aircraft departures and arrivals so as to not overload air traffic controllers, have also increased safety.

This last technology may have made air travel safer, but not, as countless travelers who waited on the ground long past their scheduled departure times, more pleasant. For, while safety may have improved in the past ten years, capacity hasn''t. In fact, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported this week that July's U.S. airline on-time arrival rate of 69.8 percent made it the worst July on record. Said David Castelveter in a brief from the Air Transport Association, "We're seeing a growing volume of traffic in the airspace system and an air-traffic control system that is incapable of handling that growth."

''To drive down the accident rate, and make safety supreme,'' Planzer says, ''you, at times, restrict capacity.''

So does that mean by 2015 we''ll hardly have any U.S. aviation accidents because most of us will be sitting on runways?

Planzer says no. Technology will improve capacity too, it will just take a few more years. First, ADS-B, Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, needs to roll-out system wide. In this aircraft positioning system, based on GPS instead of ground-based radar; aircraft broadcast their locations and velocity to ground controllers and other aircraft. Just last week, on 30 August, the FAA took major step towards implementing ADS-B by awarding a $1.8 billion contract to a team led by ITT. According to the contract schedule, ADS-B should be nationwide by 2013.

Next, the FAA needs to implement what it is calling System Wide Information Management, or SWIM (Planzer has a vested interest in this project, he admits, because Boeing is one of the companies working on developing this technology.) SWIM will let air traffic controllers and pilots share information, for example, the fact that a pilot''s collision avoidance system told him to dive suddenly. Right now, controllers don''t get that information, and may issue conflicting instructions.

Get ADSB, SWIM, and supporting technologies in place, Planzer says, prove they work, and then capacity can increase. Separation standards, for example, set today to allow for radar''s inaccuracies at 3 miles around terminals and 5 miles in long-distance routes, could be reduced, instantly getting more airplanes off the tarmac. And we''ll start seeing the impact of these efficiency improvements by 2015.

We''ll check back with Planzer then. Meanwhile, what do you think?


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