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With new tool, fewer planes forced to circle airports

plane landing
A Southwest airlines arrives to land at the San Diego International Airport in San Diego, California, April 22, 2013.Mike Blake / Reuters

Extra go-arounds are welcome if you’re on a carousel, but not so great if you’re on an airplane hoping to make an on-time landing and a connection at an airport. Now, air traffic controllers have a new computer software tool that’s helps significantly reduce when planes are forced to circle around the airport before a landing.

For safety, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has set standards for the minimum distance air traffic controllers must keep between aircraft approaching airports. Weather, arriving flight volumes and other variables can mess with that spacing, so controllers sometimes issue ‘go-arounds’ requiring pilots to turn away and circle back for another, properly spaced, try.

“Those go-arounds are really wasteful,” said Jeff Price, an associate professor in aviation & aerospace science at Metropolitan State University-Denver. “They can add anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes or more to a flight, cause schedule delays down the line and, depending on the type of plane, burn a couple of hundred pounds of fuel.”

A new tool promises to cut back on the number of go-arounds. Called ATPA - Automated Terminal Proximity Alert - the software tells air traffic controllers if airplanes are optimally spaced and alerts them if there is a possibility of error. The software is part of a larger effort – NextGen –that’s transforming the National Airspace System (NAS) from a ground-based to a satellite system of air traffic management.

“Back in the day, we’d have to look at our display screen and eyeball it a bit to try to keep close separation, but not too close, between airplanes,” Dale Wright, director of safety and technology for NATCA, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, told NBC News. “Now we have a computer program that registers everything. If there’s 100th of a mile less than standard separation between planes, it alerts for an error and gives the controller a heads up.”

ATPA software was first developed in 2007 and began being tested in 2011 at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP). During the first year of ATPA use, the number of go-arounds for flights headed to MSP airport declined by 23 percent and excess flight time due to go-arounds at that airport decreased by 19 percent, according to the FAA.

Now available to airports around the country, “ATPA is becoming the norm,” said Wright. It’s not a mandatory tool but, especially at busy hub airports, most controllers are using it to help them the distance planes, said Wright.

“That’s a good thing,” said Price. “If we can properly line up the aircraft as they approach the airport it improves safety and the overall efficiency of the system.”

And if the software is used correctly, all that passengers will notice is that their plane is landing on time.

Find more by Harriet Baskas on and follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas.