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America's Air Traffic Control Again Nearing Obsolescence
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America's Air Traffic Control Again Nearing Obsolescence
Safety has improved, but new technology is needed to handle the demand for airspace.

June 3, 2006

Fifty years after a midair collision over the Grand Canyon triggered dramatic reforms in the nation's fledgling air traffic control system, aviation regulators again find themselves at a disquieting crossroads.

Today, federal officials face many of the same challenges they did before the deadly crash in 1956, including substantial increases in air traffic, obsolete technology and dwindling congressional appropriations.

ADVERTISEMENT"As things stand now, the system will be strained beyond its limits unless we put new technology essentially a new system in place," said Marion Blakey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, in a recent speech in Cleveland.

Air traffic controllers are struggling to keep pace with existing demand in the airspace above major metropolitan areas, even as the number of passengers plying U.S. skies is expected to jump 35% in the next 10 years, from 739 million in 2005 to 1 billion in 2015.

There has been a major change in the last five decades: It's become much safer to fly. In the 1950s, there were on average four close calls between aircraft in the air a day. Today, the number and rate of fatal commercial aviation accidents are at all-time lows. But experts say this safety record could be threatened if the air traffic system isn't overhauled to handle more traffic.

Modernizing the nation's airspace is expensive, complex and time consuming. Since 1981, the FAA has spent $43.5 billion on air traffic systems and facilities and needs an additional $9.6 billion through the 2009 fiscal year just to maintain and update its existing infrastructure. Within the U.S., the agency manages about half of the world's air traffic each day.

To build the system that Blakey says the nation needs, federal agencies including the FAA, NASA, and the departments of Homeland Security, Commerce and Defense formed a joint planning and development office in 2003. The team is charged with envisioning and implementing a "next-generation air transportation system" on a par with the federal highway system created in the 1950s. The effort is expected to take 25 years. Its cost and funding source is undecided.

"We're trying to change the whole vision, the whole direction, and the whole philosophy of the air transportation system," said Karl Grundmann, the joint office's director of communications. "Trying to make a change in this system is like trying to change a tire on a car that's moving 80 mph."

Federal officials say the effort will transform air travel, like the "Internet changed computing," by replacing antiquated ground-based radar systems with more accurate and reliable satellite technology. Officials also hope to develop a system that would allow public agencies and private airlines to share data, such as weather reports and traffic information, on a daily basis.

The "backbone" of the new system, according to federal officials, would allow pilots to fly the most direct route to their destination using signals from global-positioning satellites to navigate. Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B, would allow pilots, as well as air traffic controllers, to see what planes are around them, how fast they are flying, their flight number, and their heading. The FAA plans to install 400 ADS-B ground stations and retire 200 radar systems by 2020.

Today, pilots must fly a network of rigid routes over navigational aids on the ground. The system relies on radar, which uses radio beams to scan the sky for objects, to determine an aircraft's location. Radar is imprecise and forces controllers to separate aircraft by several miles to avoid collisions. The system also doesn't allow pilots to see the location of other planes and doesn't cover the world's oceans or high mountain ranges.

"We're not allowed to fly the most efficient path," said John Heimlich, chief economist at the Air Transport Assn., an airline trade group that has lobbied for ADS-B.

"It would require less fuel and less crew time, and we could build more connections into the schedule. Then our product becomes more appealing versus a train, or a car."



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well there was some recent incident that some USA airport didnt allow a Biman aircraft to land i guess at JFK this caused some losses to the airline is guess

Light travels faster than sound...thats why people appear bright, until you hear them talk!
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