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Birds do it. Bees do it. Even Orville Wright did it. Why can’t today’s pilots do it too?

“It” is “free flight,” an alluring notion thrust into official awareness by a passionate group of pilots and researchers in the mid-1990s. Free flight, these advocates argued, would transform aviation from, well, the ground up. The idea sounded simple and intuitive, and at the same time radical: Free pilots from the rigid, circuitous routes imposed by ground-based air traffic control, and let them choose the quickest and most fuel-efficient paths around wind and weather. New satellite, computer and communications technologies would keep aircraft from crashing into one another. Planes would fly faster, cheaper and even more safely, avoiding the gridlock that currently threatens the overloaded air traffic system.

Today, five years after Congress validated this vision and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) set out to realize it, free flight is still sitting on the runway. Air traffic is more congested, more delay-prone and scarcely any freer. “The whole idea of free flight’ has kind of fizzled,” says Heinz Erzberger of NASA’s Ames Research Center, the lead scientist in the development of a more limited air traffic automation scheme now coming into use. The FAA and its constituents have retreated from a comprehensive free-flight agenda (what some critics call the “Big Bang” approach) to limited demonstration projects and incremental improvements.

For some, this retrenchment marks a welcome return to reality. For others, it is a temporary obstacle to clearance for takeoff. But for some of free flight’s radical devotees, it’s an unconscionable retreat from an urgent and eminently feasible mission, the latest in a string of costly botches and compromises by the FAA. And since there are no alternative proposals on the table for a substantial overhaul of the air traffic control system, some experts think were on course for a nightmare in the sky.

“We’re currently number ten for takeoff…”

Father figure: Many credit Bill Cotton with the idea of free flight.
Though observers of airline traffic don’t agree on much, they all concede that the existing system must be improved. With about 21,000 commercial flight departures each day, a number variously projected to grow by 2 percent to 5 percent a year, air planners have moved from lamenting congestion to invoking the dreaded “G” word.

“Gridlock is near,” the National Civil Aviation Review Commission intoned in a 1997 report titled, perhaps ironically, A Consensus for Change. “Traffic data and trends indicate that adding just a few minutes of delay to each airline flight in the United States will bring the aviation system to gridlock with dramatic negative impacts on the economy,” not to mention alarming “safety implications.” Delta Airlines, to name one example, has warned that even such relatively small additional delays will mean it can no longer function as a scheduled airline.

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