FAA Looks Abroad for Air-Traffic Control Systems

FRAMINGHAM (07/13/2000) - The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has begun its on-site evaluation of technology from down under that it hopes will lift U.S. pilots into the 21st century.

The FAA currently uses technology developed in the era of propeller-powered Pan Am Clippers to guide jets across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Air-traffic controllers plot the movement of planes on paper, relying on position reports sent in by pilots over noisy and unreliable high-frequency voice radio systems.

But once suitably equipped trans-Pacific aircraft reach Australia- or New Zealand-controlled airspace, air-traffic controllers in those countries easily track inbound fights on large "pseudo radar" screens. Those screens display moving aircraft icons positioned with precise location information derived from onboard Global Positioning Systems (GPS) sent to advanced air traffic control (ATC) systems operated by Airservices Australia in Canberra or Airways New Zealand in Auckland.

The FAA, which has struggled since the mid-1990s to upgrade its oceanic air-traffic control systems, has decided to adapt either the Australian or New Zealand system to suit its needs. Earlier this month, an FAA team began its technical evaluations.

Arinc Inc. in Annapolis, Md., has teamed with Airservices Australia to adapt that country's system for use in FAA oceanic ATC centers in Oakland, Calif., and Anchorage, Alaska, for Pacific flights and in New York for Atlantic flights. Arinc and Lockheed Martin Corp. in Bethesda, Md., in partnership with Airways New Zealand, will submit bids to the FAA in November. Acontract is expected to be awarded by year's end, with installation planned for Oakland by the end of next year.

Potential Savings

The airline industry has been impatiently waiting to capitalize on the capabilities of cockpit-based Future Air Navigation Systems (FANS), which consist of flight management computers, GPS receivers and satellite communication systems. Airlines can save "significant sums of money" by flying FANS routes, said a flight operations manager at a large U.S.-based cargo carrier, because the systems provide greater flexibility in choosing routes, thus cutting down flight time.

This manager, who spoke anonymously, said his company could save $20 million to $24 million a year in fuel and crew time if FANS could shave 45 seconds off the flight times for the 12 to 14 Pacific trips the cargo carrier runs per day.

Controllers and the flying public will benefit too, said Bill Blackmer, director of safety and technology at the Washington-based National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "We still have controllers working aircraft with little pieces of paper.... [Oceanic] position reports are not displayed, which means controllers have to [visualize] it all in their brains," Blackmer said.

Airservices Australia and Airways New Zealand - the counterparts of the FAA in those countries - use a technique called Automatic Dependent Surveillance to track and display flights, according to Bob Peake, project manager for Airservices' Australian Advanced Air Traffic System.

He said the information in the visual display makes it far easier for a controller to provide flexible flight routings - which is key to helping aircraft avoid head winds and ride powerful tailwinds.

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