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Airline safety: The next generation of smart planes

New ways of handling air traffic, including 3-D infrared upfront, may cut delays and improve airline safety.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / November 23, 2009

To increase airline safety, cockpit and ground equipment could get a big update. Here, American Airlines pilots showoff the cockpit of the newest addition to its fleet, a Boeing 737-800 jet.

Donna McWilliam/AP

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The holidays are coming. You’ve decided to buck the economy and head over the river and through the clouds to Grandmother’s house.

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Airline boarding pass in hand, you sit at the gate, only to watch the clock tick past your departure time. Your winged steed is late. Once airborne, you breathe a sigh of relief, only to learn that air-traffic jams are adding more delays. It’s starting to look as if cold turkey sandwiches will be your first meal at Grandma’s.

But help is on the way. Federal transportation officials are working with researchers and air carriers across the country to find new high-tech ways of handling air traffic, from takeoff to landing, that are expected to reduce delays, save fuel (thereby cutting greenhouse-gas emissions), and improve safety. All this while allowing for a significant increase in airline traffic.

The broad program is called NextGen. And for all the improvements planners say it will bring, it is destined “to change the way the system operates in ways we can’t envision today,” according to Vicky Cox, senior vice president for the project at the Federal Aviation Administration, who shared her insights on the program with a group of FAA employees during a “lunch and learn” session earlier this year.

Demands on the nation’s air-traffic system are expected to rise to between two and three times today’s level by 2025, she explains, although the current economic slump will affect that estimate. Globally, air traffic is expected to rise by about the same factor by 2027, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization, in Montreal.

To cope with that growth, planners are turning to Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites; increasingly automated flight-control systems on airliners; and rapid-fire communication between controllers, flight crews, and airliners in the sky. In essence, much of the decisionmaking on altitude, route, and speed will shift from controllers on the ground peering at radar screens to pilots scanning display screens in the cockpit.

“There is no doubt that the number of things that a pilot has to keep track of will increase,” says Christopher Wickens, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a consultant to companies designing the flight deck of the future.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology aerospace engineering professor John Hansman says the upcoming system will have three broad groups: first, using the pinpoint precision of GPS to “thread the needle,” especially at airports nestled in tricky terrain or plagued by chronic bad weather; second, in­-flight tracking; and third, a kind of airborne Internet that makes all this available to other aircraft and the ground crews faster than today’s system can manage.

He notes that when controllers track aircraft with radar, they get updates on planes close to the airport every 4-1/2 seconds and long-range radar checks about every 12 seconds. It takes that long for the antenna to make one circular sweep of the sky. Several sweeps are needed to pick up changes in an airplane’s course and speed. The uncertainty regarding a plane’s precise location, altitude, and speed between radar sweeps – as short as that period seems – is one factor limiting how tightly air-traffic controllers are willing to bunch aircraft together, especially in the skies around airports.

NextGen technologies already are working their way into the cockpit. For a lesson on using GPS to thread the needle, for instance, look to Alaska Airlines. Its pilots must fly into and out of airports in some of the most rugged terrain on the planet under fickle weather conditions.

Juneau, the state capital, is a case in point. The airport was built on a tidal flat nestled against a mountainside. The field hosts one runway. Approach from the north or south, and you descend amid narrow inlets hemmed by mountains.