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Carpool lanes for airplanes?

Aviation experts say a $40-billion GPS system is needed to handle the huge volume of traffic expected by 2025.

June 11, 2007|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

Concealed under a thick blanket of fog, Louisville International Airport emitted an eerie orange glow as Capt. James Haney lined up his heavy cargo jet for landing after a long nighttime flight from Los Angeles.

As he descended, the United Parcel Service captain had an advantage other pilots don't have: a monitor in the dashboard that displayed a clear picture of aircraft plying the soupy skies around him, guiding him safely around a stream of other planes arriving from the West Coast.

After the Boeing 767 touched down, with a Times reporter observing in the cockpit, the satellite-based surveillance system helped Haney avoid nearby aircraft hidden behind the unusually heavy white mist.

UPS Airlines is pioneering the system in Louisville in hopes of using its breakthrough technology to safely land more airplanes per hour and prevent delays. More significant, the system, which relies on a network of global positioning satellites commonly used by hikers and drivers, also is the backbone of an ambitious plan by federal officials to overhaul the nation's aging air traffic control system.

The 1950s-era network is in dire need of a technological overhaul as passenger traffic is expected to jump 78% to nearly 1.3 billion annually by 2025. But modernizing highways in the sky with a precise satellite-based system carries a staggering $40-billion price tag, and the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to persuade Congress and the airlines to help pay for it.

Advocates say the proposed modernization -- which includes satellite technology along with a system that would allow public agencies and private airlines to share information and new navigation procedures -- is expected to improve efficiency and increase safety.

Federal officials plan to use signals from satellites to create something akin to carpool lanes in the skies for airlines that equip their aircraft with the new technology.

Last year was the worst in history for flight delays, with planes stranded on the ground for hours in well publicized incidents in Texas, Colorado and New York. Although inclement weather played a major role, carriers complain that the patchwork of technologies that make up the existing air traffic network contributes to severe delays.

On Friday, airlines grappled with thousands of delays along the East Coast when a computer system that processes pilots' flight plans went down. A backup system also failed. The malfunctions, exacerbated by bad weather, required controllers to enter information manually and caused some passengers to wait up to four hours for their flights.

FAA officials attributed the glitch to 1960s-era technology that "reflects the need for the modernization of the air traffic control system."

But much about a plan to revolutionize the nation's aviation system is up in the air. A coalition of federal agencies that is designing the system is attempting to persuade Congress to authorize funding for the overhaul and cash-strapped airlines to equip their fleets with new technologies. And not everyone is convinced the new system will live up to expectations.

"Right now, I have to prove this is going to work," said Vinnie Capezzuto, manager of the FAA's surveillance and broadcast services program. "We can't afford not to do it."

Aviation experts say it may be tough to convince Congress -- and the flying public -- that the upgrade is necessary, given that many passengers assume today's system -- which serves half of the world's air traffic -- is adequate.

"The good news is that accident rates are very low now," said John Hansman, director of the International Center for Air Transportation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "but we've run into an era where it's hard to have a sweeping demand for change."

Hansman noted that, historically, it has taken a catastrophic accident to provide the impetus for major change.

A midair collision between two airliners over the Grand Canyon in 1956, in which 128 people perished, convinced Congress it must fund an air traffic system that would allow more precise tracking of aircraft by radar. Until the accident, pilots and controllers relied on rudimentary radio communications and a "see and be seen" philosophy to guide aircraft through most of the nation's air space.

The FAA says the proposal for the nation's "next generation air transportation system" will transform air travel, as the "Internet changed computing," in part by replacing antiquated ground-based radar systems with more accurate and reliable satellite technology. The agency hopes Congress will make a funding decision this fall.

The existing system requires pilots to fly a network of rigid routes, often not the most direct paths, 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.

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