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Overhaul of air traffic system nears key step

The federal government is expected this week to award a contract worth more than $1 billion to build the key components of its next-generation air traffic control system -- a high-tech network that officials say will alleviate chronic flight delays.
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The federal government is expected this week to award a contract worth more than $1 billion to build the key components of its next-generation air traffic control system -- a high-tech network that officials say will alleviate chronic flight delays.

The system comes at a critical time, officials say, with flight delays at record levels and commercial aviation expected to continue growing steadily. The network will rely on satellites, rather than radar, to guide aircraft, and it is expected to allow planes to fly closer together and take more direct routes, saving fuel and time while reducing pollution. Government officials say it will also improve safety by giving controllers and pilots more precise information about planes.

Controllers could begin using the system to manage traffic nationally by 2013, according to officials at the Federal Aviation Administration. But consultants and airline executives don't expect major benefits of the program to be realized until at least 2020.

"Aviation is critical for the economy as we move forward, and our current infrastructure is simply too antiquated to support the level of traffic," said Marion C. Blakey, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. "As you have more traffic, you are going to have to raise the bar on safety as well. There will be more planes closer together. This gives you a substantially increased safety margin."

While most in the industry support building the new system, which is projected to cost the government at least $15 billion, aspects of the program have generated controversy.

A fierce fight has erupted between the airlines and owners of small planes and private jets over how to finance the network, and Congress is facing pressure to work out a funding plan by a Sept. 30 deadline. Members of Congress also worry that contracting out the building of such a critical system could pose problems.

Will overhaul ease delays?
Some consultants and air traffic controllers say they also doubt whether the new technology will do much to ease delays.

"It won't do a thing for delays," said Patrick Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, a union that represents U.S. controllers. "The biggest reason for the delays isn't the technological infrastructure. It's that there is no landing space for the planes and over-scheduling by the airlines."

Government officials say they cannot wait much longer to start building the system. The rest of the world is developing similar networks, and such systems may be the only way to keep pace with expected air traffic growth.

The number of takeoffs and landings at towered airports in the United States is projected to grow by 1.4 million a year until 2020, according to the FAA. By 2015, more than 1 billion passengers a year are expected to board commercial flights, up from 740 million last year, the FAA estimates.

The foundation of the proposed system is known as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) and will rely on Global Positioning System satellites. Airplanes will receive signals from satellites that will give its precise location, similar to the devices in many newer cars.

Planes will then beam that data and other information about their speed and altitude to ground stations scattered across the country. The ground stations, which are scheduled to be completed by 2013, will relay the information to air traffic controllers who guide the planes.

The new network will be far more precise and timely than radar, updating a plane's position about every second. The current system uses radar that sweeps the sky every 3 to 12 seconds, forcing controllers to add extra space between planes to ensure they do not collide. The new data will allow controllers to give planes more direct routes and handle more aircraft, FAA officials said.

"We will be able to create new routes at different altitudes where we couldn't do it before," said Vincent Capezzuto, a top FAA official and director of the ADS-B program, adding that the system will also improve the movement of planes at airports, and reduce ground back-ups and potential collisions by pinpointing planes on tarmacs.

With enhanced software and other computer tools, the air traffic system will eventually become more automated, giving pilots and airlines more freedom to select their flight paths, further improving efficiency, according to government officials and airline executives.

Safety boost
The system is expected to boost safety. Portions of Alaska, where radar coverage is spotty, have been using ADS-B for several years. Pilots' groups say the program has been successful, and the FAA reports that since ADS-B was first deployed in aircraft in Alaska, the fatal accident rate for general aviation has dropped by about 40 percent.

Another benefit: Computer screens in cockpits will depict other planes in nearby airspace and on the ground, giving pilots what experts call better "situational awareness."

The FAA would eliminate about half of its 398 costly radar installations during the switchover. It needs the rest, however, as back-ups in case the satellite system falters and to help detect planes with broken ADS-B devices or planes whose pilots are intentionally trying to avoid detection.

Most aircraft probably won't be required to have ADS-B devices until about 2020, according to FAA officials. But they believe the necessary avionics will be installed on 25 percent of the nation's airline fleet by 2014. It could cost airlines tens of thousands of dollars to install the devices on each airplane, and regulators and industry executives are working out ways to create incentives for early adoption of the devices.

Capezzuto said the FAA is working closely with aviation agencies in other parts of the world that are also developing satellite-based navigation systems and that all of the networks should work together.

He added that he was impressed by the proposals submitted by the bidders seeking to build, own and maintain the ground stations and networks needed to operate the system. The FAA will pay for the services, but its controllers will still handle air traffic.

The FAA is expected to announce the contract award in coming days. Raytheon, ITT, and Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin are bidding on the project. Representatives of the companies all expressed confidence in their proposals but declined to provide financial details on their bids.

Blakey, the FAA administrator, said relying on contractors to build and maintain the network was a smart move because "internally owned and operated systems don't necessarily get the best results."

However, James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he was worried that the FAA would rely so heavily on contractors. "These are public resources that serve the public interest, and the public should manage it," Oberstar said.

Oberstar and other members of Congress are running out of time to pass legislation needed to fund the FAA and its next-generation project. Funding bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress, where much of the debate and lobbying efforts have been centered on how to finance the system.

Airlines and the FAA have been aggressively lobbying Congress to scrap a 7.5 percent tax on each airline ticket, which provides a large chunk of the FAA's funding, and replace it with a system of fees for flights. They argue that air carriers pay more than their share for using the air traffic control system and that the ticket tax is an unreliable funding mechanism.

General aviation and business jet groups are vocally battling any effort to impose fees on their users.

A Senate funding bill includes a user-fee provision, though it exempts small propeller planes from the charge.

Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.), the minority whip and ranking Republican on the Senate aviation subcommittee, said the funding system had to be retooled because "nobody really believes that it can produce the next generation of air traffic control and aviation services."

A House funding bill includes no language on fees. Oberstar supports increasing fuel taxes and believes the current funding structure will be sufficient to finance the FAA and its projects. Amendments to the House bill dealing with air traffic controllers' contract and labor rules at FedEx are also controversial and face uncertainty in the Senate.