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Boeing Plan to Unsnarl Air Traffic
An article from today's WSJ. I pasted the entire article because it's from a subscriber website.
Boeing Plan to Unsnarl Air Traffic: Cede Ground Control to Satellites
By J. LYNN LUNSFORD
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
SEATTLE -- When Boeing Co. announced that it was getting into the air-traffic management business last year, most of the people who had been doing that job for the last 40 years started scratching their heads: What could an airplane builder tell the experts about air traffic?
Plenty, Boeing says.
The company this month is set to present what it calls a novel approach to rationalizing a system that has become so overburdened that even the good days are nightmarish. At the heart of the plan is a shift from the current ground-based air-traffic-control system to one primarily reliant on Global Positioning Satellites, known as GPS.
Boeing sees a future in which airplanes will soar efficiently and directly to their destinations under the guidance of satellites. Navigation computers that would be standard equipment on Boeing-made jetliners would transmit precise information about location and speed to one another, making it possible for pilots to look at a screen in the cockpit and have a view of the skies now reserved for air-traffic controllers. Such precise information could eventually lead to decreased distances between flights, allowing more planes to be in the air instead of stacked up on runways. Air-traffic controllers would still be necessary, particularly at busy airports, but for en route flights, the job might evolve into something more like referee than shepherd.
Boeing won't confirm details, but the plan will apparently rely on technologies that already largely exist, cobbled together by a Boeing-made satellite network. Boeing officials do say the equipment needed to operate in its system would be relatively inexpensive and easy to install on older airliners, as well as airplanes made by rival Airbus Industrie.
Steven Zaidman, associate administrator for research and acquisitions for the Federal Aviation Administration, says his agency is awaiting Boeing's proposal with eagerness and a bit of skepticism. "If Boeing can provide value-added, then terrific. ... we'll take a look at it and see how it fits into the needs of the users." But he urges caution: "With technology," he notes, "there is a long road between vision and implementation."
Officials at the major airlines say they also are eager to see Boeing's proposals, particularly with regard to how much investment in new equipment is required. "We have some concerns about how or if Boeing's ideas will even work in the real-world environment, but I would call for a state of open-mindedness until we have seen what they propose," says Robert Baker, vice chairman of AMR Corp.'s American Airlines.
The idea of satellite-based navigation isn't new. The government, the air-traffic controller's union and competing vendors like Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Co., have been talking about the idea for years. United Parcel Service Inc.'s UPS Airlines and FedEx Corp.'s Federal Express have both been using an early version of satellites and data links to improve operations at their largest hubs. The problem is with bringing the entire air-traffic system into the satellite age without driving users to bankruptcy or compromising the safety of thousands of passengers. It is a problem that predated the development of GPS and is one that has flummoxed presidential commissions, FAA administrators and the airlines for decades.
Why does Boeing think it can do better? "Among all of the people you could turn to, we probably have the most vested interest in doing something about it," says John Hayhurst, president of Boeing's newly formed air-traffic-management unit. The company predicts a $30 billion market for jetliners in the next 20 years -- if the inefficiencies of the present air-traffic system don't strangle demand.
Those who have been a part of the system for years agree that the air-traffic system is in dire need of modernization. But so much needs to be done on so many different levels that a flow chart of the work required looks like a highway map of Los Angeles. "There are no instantaneous silver bullets out there," says Jack Fearnsides, an air-traffic expert and consultant for Lockheed Martin.
The current air-traffic system is built around a network of airways and radio beacons. Many of the beacons were located for ease of maintenance, not because they allowed the shortest possible routes. Over the years, despite significant modernization, the system has essentially retained the same design. Critics have accused the FAA of using technology to "computerize the buggy whip."
"When it comes to air-traffic control, the gene pool is pretty shallow from years of inbreeding," says Michael Boyd, president of Boyd Group, an aviation-consulting firm in Evergreen, Colo. "Boeing should bring an entirely new perspective, so the existing players will have to respond."
John O'Brien, an Air Line Pilots Association official, says Boeing's entry into the market has already rankled competitors. Boeing, he says, has "already upset the apple cart."
Boeing says it offers unique capabilities. Its executives point out that the company's new planes come equipped with technology that enables them to fly from place to place without using any ground-based navigation systems.
The company also says it can draw upon its space and communications systems to build and launch satellites. Boeing is the world's largest satellite maker after having bought the satellite-making unit of Hughes Electronics Corp. last year. Boeing also owns an Australian venture called Preston Group, which developed a software program used by a number of airports and airlines to simulate how terminal and airport designs, as well as scheduling changes, can affect capacity. Boeing hints that it might be possible to use Preston technology to recast air routes nationwide.
John Carr, president of the 15,000-member National Air Traffic Controllers Association, says controllers will resist any proposal that drastically changes the role of controllers. He also questions whether routing air traffic more efficiently would provide any long-term improvement without substantial investment in new runways and other ground-based infrastructure.
"You could put 10,000 airplanes in the sky over L.A., but they are still going to have to land two by two, and somebody is going to have to keep them separated," Mr. Carr says.
Boeing executives say the company has no illusions of being able to change air traffic by itself. "We are going to propose an architecture that technically can work," says Harry Stonecipher, Boeing's vice chairman. "For it to happen will require all of the stakeholders to take part in an effort to truly fix the problem."
To detractors and skeptics, he says: "They know one thing: The current system they've got won't work for the long term."
Ken in Sacramento