Distant hope for clogged airways

A 10-year plan will build more runways and shift to a satellite-based control system.

Hope for the nation's delayed and fed-up fliers is on the horizon.

The Federal Aviation Administration unveils a 10-year plan today to ease congestion in the skies and runways - and consumer frustration in terminals.

It's the most ambitious proposal to overhaul the nation's aviation system in decades. It will affect everything from how planes fly to weather prediction and runway construction.

Critics and skeptics are calling the $11.5 billion plan a long-overdue fix and wonder if the FAA, which has fumbled in the past, can pull it off. But even they are applauding the scope of the efforts, which could, eventually, make flying in America a far less frustrating experience.

"I'm more optimistic than I've been at any time before," says Alan Bender, an aviation expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. "I think initially some constructive action is going to be taken."

The FAA's goal is to overhaul the nation's aviation system. A top priority is shifting the air-traffic-control system from its antiquated radar to a satellite-based global positioning system.

More runways will be built and analysis done to use the existing ones more efficiently.

At the same time, state-of-the-art meteorological equipment will be used to try to spot dangerous thunderstorms as much as 10 hours in advance so that traffic can be re-routed around them, instead of tangled in delays behind them.

If all goes according to plan, enough extra capacity will be added to the nation's airways to meet the expected 30 percent increase in traffic expected by 2010. By then, experts believe, almost 3 million passengers will take to the air a day. That's a million more than now and far more than enough to paralyze a system already verging on gridlock.

But don't expect a quick fix. The proposal is called the Operational Evolution Plan (OEP) for a reason. It is a designed to be implemented incrementally.

And there are skeptics. The FAA's last major attempt to fix the air-traffic-control system ended in the early 1990s as a $2 billion dollar bungle that tarnished the FAA's reputation. The combination of a cumbersome bidding process and advances in technology at breakneck speed left the FAA's new system a costly dinosaur even before it made it off the drawing board.

Lesson learned

But the agency also learned some vital lessons. The attempt produced the following analogy: that trying to fix the system is like trying to change a tire on a racecar speeding on the track. So to prevent crashes, and ensure that safety won't be compromised, the proposal is designed to be implemented slowly.

It is broken into three phases. In the next year, the FAA hopes to ease the choke points at the major hubs that are responsible for about 90 percent of the delays in the system. Two new runways, at Detroit and Phoenix, are expected to be operational. And at 14 other airports, the FAA will streamline operations to increase the number of planes that can land.

By 2004, new runways or extensions will be ready in six other airports, including Houston, Minneapolis, Miami, and Denver. Critics believe the new construction will help, but it's still not enough to deal with the aviation industry's fundamental problem: There's just no more room to build at some of the nation's most congested airports.

During the second phase, the agency also hopes to begin shifting the system to a global positioning system. That will fundamentally alter the way planes fly. Right now, pilots navigate across the country in a system of clearly defined highways in the sky - known as airways. Air-traffic controllers act like cops that limit the number of planes in each lane. It's gotten crowded up there.

The shift to satellite navigation will allow pilots to break free of those highways and fly more efficient routes. If they see a thunderstorm ahead, they could potentially fly around it.

"It's brilliant technology but extremely complicated," says Richard Gritta, an aviation expert at the University of Portland. "A substantial amount has to be spent to retrofit the planes, and that also takes time."

It will also require new training for pilots as well as air-traffic controllers. That's another reason the technology won't be completely operational until the plan's final phase in 2010. "You don't want pilots up there playing dodge ball," says Prof. George Hopkins, an aviation expert at Western Illinois University.

More like a subway ride

But even if the FAA succeeds with its plan, the flying public will also have to make adjustments.

"Since deregulation [in 1978], airlines have undergone a steady evolution that precludes the kind of elite travel that in some cultural sense we're still locked into," says Professor Hopkins. "We all still think we should be like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers flying first class to Paris, but the reality is that flying today is more like a trip on the subway."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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