Saturday, May 16, 2009

U.S. Air Traffic Control Systems Needs Money - Anykind of Money, As Long As Its $20B

Posted by Travel Sentry

Click on the image
and take a jet through its paces using the current vector radar tracking, then test drive a new GPS air traffic control system. USA Today

Airline industry leaders have had just about enough of the antiquated air traffic control system. The Obama’s economic stimulus package passed them by when there was no leader at the helm of the FAA. But while money is flowing off the printing presses in Washington, the airline powers to be are working diligently on obtaining funding to bring the U.S. air traffic control into the 21st century.

“So now the industry's leaders are trying to make quick funding of the long-discussed Next Generation, or NextGen, air traffic control program a priority in the budget battle in Washington,” reports USA Today.
Their message: Planes need to fly in straight lines, guided by satellites, rather than taking longer, twisting routes over the current network of ground-based navigational radio beacon and radar sites that controls flights. Doing so, the industry claims, would save the USA's economy more than $40 billion a year through fuel and labor cost savings for the airlines and time savings for the 740 million fliers a year.
The savings payoff could show up by 2012 or sooner if Obama and Congress get on with funding the $20 billion needed to finally build a more efficient system. United Airlines CEO, and chairman this year of the Air Transport Association, Glenn Tilton launched the airlines' lobbying effort on March 27 at an industry gathering in Phoenix.

“Been too long in coming” is an understatement uttered by Tilton at the gathering. Nothing but talk from Washington for ten years and no money. The funding of the $20 billion is still being discussed in Washington as Congress decides how to pay for the new system.

What We Have Now
NextGen would replace a system that dates to the 1950s, when the federal government began building the current network of air traffic control radar sites around the nation.

The sites were located largely along paths that airlines already were flying. The paths tended to follow highways between cities so that pilots in pre-radar days could find their way, in part, by following the roads below.

Thus, a plane flying from Dallas/Fort Worth to Boston, for example, doesn't fly in a straight line. Typically, it flies east, passing over a string of Southern states until it gets east of the Appalachian Mountains. It then turns northeast toward Boston, swinging wide enough to avoid the congested skies around New York. Along the way, the plane flies over a series of radar stations and radio beacon sites that track its movement to keep it from colliding with hundreds of others in the air at the same time.

What We Need
The NextGen system would shift that tracking of planes to satellites using GPS and hundreds of small ground sensors to track digital signals broadcast by every airplane in the sky.

Now, it takes three sweeps of conventional radar — each taking 4.5 seconds, or nearly 14 seconds total — for an air traffic controller to determine a plane's location. And that's for planes that are relatively close to a radar site. Aircraft are kept miles apart to compensate for the imprecision in knowing a plane's exact location.

With the GPS-driven satellite system that's part of NextGen, planes would receive a satellite signal at the rate of one pulse per second, then triangulate that signal against the known position of small GPS ground stations to pinpoint a plane's position.

It also would instantly know a plane's altitude, speed and direction. That kind of precision would let planes fly more closely together, greatly increasing the capacity of the nation's airways.

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