In less-crowded skies, fewer flight delays

Late planes, a staple of summer air travel, are way down. New technology may help keep it that way.

With all the new security induced tribulations that come with flying these days, Americans may not have noticed an upside to the woes dogging the country's airlines.

Delays, once the top concern of the frustrated fliers, are down dramatically. In April, 17,000 flights were late, compared with more than 30,000 in April of 2001.

That's primarily a result of the recession and Sept. 11, which forced the nation's largest airlines to cut capacity as much as 25 percent. Hundreds of planes that used to clog the congested airways are now mothballed in the desert.

But the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the airlines have also worked together to improve communications and flight scheduling and find alternative routes when banks of thunderstorms roll in across the midsection of the country. That happened regularly during the summer of 2000, on record as the worst time ever for airline delays.

"None of us will ever forget the summer of 2000. Twenty out of 30 days we had thunderstorms," says Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University.

While the drop in air traffic continues to bedevil the major airlines financially, some of which are still losing millions of dollars a day, it's also given aviation planners some breathing room to contemplate how to improve the overall air traffic system. This is expected to prevent future delays when passenger traffic starts to rise again - which it's expected to do.

Currently, there are 627 million passenger boardings a year. Back in 2000, experts predicted that passenger traffic would surpass 1 billion boardings by the year 2010. Because of the dramatic drop in air travel, however, that milestone has now been pushed back to 2015, giving the system more time to create fixes.

Replacing antiquated traffic systems

This year, the FAA finally began installing a long-delayed and overbudget air-traffic control system known as the Standard Terminal Aviation Replacement System (STARS). It enhances and simplifies the old systems - some of which go back to the 1970s - that are still operational at most of the nation's airports. STARS will allow controllers to handle more planes more safely - a necessity especially when air traffic picks up again.

"It's much easier to use. Controllers will have much more flexibility," says the FAA's William Shumann. "It has a triple-redundant computer system that can take data from more radars than the earlier systems, process it, and do it more reliably."

Too little, too late?

But some analysts contend the STARS system is a fix that should have been in place a decade ago. And thus the FAA is missing a key opportunity during this lull in traffic to move the system forward even more.

"We're way behind the times, generally speaking, and we need to take advantage of this time to make a big, bold step forward," says Aaron Gellman, an aviation expert at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "That includes developing primary navigation by satellite and far more automation in the system than is now the case."

The European Union has already put up close to $1 billion to develop Galileo, a system that could deploy up to 30 satellites to improve air safety and navigation over Europe. The FAA has an experimental satellite-navigation program already operating in Alaska, but a national system isn't envisioned for another two decades.

Professor Gellman believes the US should be following Europe in planning a satellite-based system sooner.

"We have to get ready for the next wave of increased use of airspace," he says.

Currently, planes fly across the country in what are basically highways in the sky - preordained routes from one point to another - so they can be tracked by radar. In the summer of 2000, those highways were already congested. When the thunderstorms rolled in, they caused delays that backed up the system around the country. Once the planes were able to start flying again, some of those sky highways became jammed like a Los Angeles freeway. Satellite navigation would essentially allow pilots to jump off those highways and take the most efficient routes to their destinations, easing congestion dramatically.

But some analysts don't believe satellite navigation is fiscally feasible right now. They note that the FAA has already had to delay implementing STARS in all of the nation's airports for several years because of budget constraints. And with the current budget deficit planned in the future, the funds may not be there for a major satellite upgrade.

That's an argument Gellman doesn't buy. "It will be much more costly to the economy and society if congestion builds," he says. "Mobility is one of the cornerstones of American industrial and social growth."

A redesign for gridlocked airways

The FAA notes it does have a plan in place to deal with the expected future congestion. Called the Operation Evolution Plan, it was unveiled two years ago and is expected increase air-traffic capacity by 30 percent over the next decade. It will do that by, among other things, redesigning the air space - those highways in the sky. It would allow planes to fly closer together at higher altitudes and increase the number of runways at some of the nation's busiest airports.

"Overall, we believe airline travelers can continue to expect fewer delays," says Mr. Shumann of the FAA. "But that's no consolation to someone who's sitting in an airport and there's a thunderstorm overhead so nobody is landing or taking off. And we realize that."

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