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The air controller of the future; FAA seeks high-tech eyes for US skies

By Lucia MouatStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 18, 1982


The numbers just don't add up.

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The number of air traffic controllers: 9,500, a little more than half as a year ago. The number of flights they must track: soaring upward and doubling by the year 2000.

That adds up to a potential crisis for air travelers and for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), whose job it is to manage the nation's airways.

The continuing air controller shortage, brought on by last year's controller strike, has brought a special urgency to the FAA's master plan to revolutionize the way airplanes are directed as they travel the highways of the sky.

The FAA wants a new generation of air-traffic cops: advanced computers and other sophisticated equipment that it says will make for safe skies while cutting the need for a big increase in the number of air controllers.

The FAA claims that 12,500 controllers, plus 1,300 flight data specialists, could operate the new system. If the current air traffic system were simply updated, the FAA says it would need roughly 28,000 controllers.

The multibillion-dollar FAA plan has won widespread support among pilots, airlines, and airport operators and on Capitol Hill.

But the specifics of the proposal -- who should pay, how quickly can the change be safely made, and what should be done about the thousands of air controllers who'll lose their jobs -- are being hotly debated even among these backers.

Congress still must authorize the plan and approve financing. At least six different Capitol Hill committees are involved in various aspects of that venture.

Pressuring action on a new system is an FAA estimate that air traffic in the US will more than double by the year 2000. To best gear up for that increase, the FAA wants to buy and install a computer system by 1985 and hook it to the agency's present software system of instructions and programs. Eventually the FAA would also bring in an entirely new software system.

The overall FAA proposal includes:

* Introduction over the next 20 years of the sophisticated new computer system capable of handling much more traffic more reliably than today's 15-to-20 -year-old computers. Some components of the present system have broken down during peak periods of use, forcing controllers to turn to a manual backup system.

* Installation of an advanced radar system (called Mode S) that would require new equipment both on the ground and in most aircraft. These would yield much more precise information about a plane's position, identity, and the surrounding traffic situation. With the help of the advanced computer network, instructions on everything from the weather to suggested flight paths could be automatically transmitted to pilots.

* Gradual replacement of current instrument-landing systems with a more flexible microwave system. The microwave system makes bad weather landings easier and safer by allowing approaches from several directions rather than just one.

* Voluntary installation of traffic alert and collision avoidance systems in airplane cockpits. These would serve as a backup to any failure in the ground system to warn pilots of an impending air crash. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) has long pushed for such a system. It wants the collision avoidance systems to be mandatory rather than voluntary, as the FAA now proposes.

The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), set up by Congress to analyze such proposals in a nonpartisan manner, questions the rush to switch to the new computer system. Larry Jenney, director of OTA's aviation system review, says that in the past the FAA has overestimated traffic growth and that it again ''may be running to catch a train that isn't going to leave for another hour.''