FAA's Forward Flight

A largely out-of-date air-traffic-control system is trying its best to stay technologically current - and manage some 20,000 scheduled flights a day. But if the Federal Aviation Administration's new plan to modernize air transportation is successful, over the next 10 years travelers should expect to fly safer, faster, and with less delay.

The FAA's plan won't be an instant silver bullet for the silver tubes cruising the skies on a daily basis. Still, at a time when the air traffic system is regularly experiencing near gridlock, this move is welcome.

Among the features of FAA Administrator Jane Garvey's "Operational Evolution Plan": less congestion at airport hubs, improved weather predicting, a 30 percent hike in capacity to meet growing demand, and a satellite-based global positioning air-traffic- control system, allowing planes to be controlled from above, not beneath. "Streaming video" of planes in the air also should help pilots do their jobs better and increase safety.

These are needed advances, but they'll take time to implement, and they are expensive. The plan's estimated cost: $11.5 billion.

Today's air-travel problems can probably be traced all the way back to 1978, when the airlines were deregulated and air travel became cheaper and flyers more frequent. More recently, a strong economy has greatly boosted air travel - adding, ironically, to air-travel woes. Current estimates show a jump to 1 billion passengers traveling by air in the US by 2010, up from 700 million in 1999.

Runways, however, are in short supply, and new ones are hard to build, since jet fuel and noise don't mesh with either green values or strong property values. Such problems were not unforeseen. Critics of the FAA say, with some justification, that the agency has been slow off the mark. They're skeptical of a new plan, because they've seen plans before. Some even worry that the plan may just be a marketing tactic to keep current discussion of privatizing FAA services from moving ahead.

That's too much of a veer toward cynicism. The FAA clearly recognizes that the system overhaul it envisions will demand unprecedented teamwork. It was smart to bring some airlines aboard its plan. The agency also has to work with Congress, state and local governments, and unions - all stakeholders with often disparate interests. Everyone will need to work closely, and cooperatively, to prove to the nation's air passengers, who are the FAA's ultimate customers, that a credible, phased-in approach can right the current inadequacies.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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