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Baiada’s Bare Bones

As the official version of free flight lumbered toward takeoff, one of its champions-Baiada-was growing more and more impatient. The problem, he decided, was not too little technology, but too much reliance on new, unnecessary and unaffordable technologies.

Baiada argues vehemently that while GPS, datalink and other avionics can make flight more efficient, they aren’t essential to free flight. And by making the move to free flight much more protracted, complicated and costly, they effectively keep it from happening.

By contrast, Baiada proposes a starkly heretical “minimalist” approach to free flight. All it takes, he argues, is adding two software capabilities to existing ground-based computer systems. One, called “conflict probe,” would automate system-wide much of what human controllers now do in fragmented, sequential fashion in their individual sectors. While pilots and air dispatchers made or changed flight plans at will, the software would compare the plans with radar data, alerting controllers to any possible collisions between flights within the next, say, 10 or 15 minutes. Controllers would track flights as they do now, but only intervene to resolve such conflicts.

The other element of Baiada’s minimalist scheme is “time-based sequencing” at the arrival end. This software would automatically determine each plane’s place in the landing queue-one of the many operations controllers now perform in their heads. Not only would this make the stream of traffic on the runway more steady, it would also give each flight a precise landing slot to aim for. This would enable pilots to pace themselves and stay at higher altitudes (where planes are more fuel-efficient) until the last minute, rather than descending and then having to wait to land.

One thing that particularly galled Baiada was that he believed the FAA already had these tools and wasn’t taking advantage of them. In particular, Baiada wanted to see the agency implement a piece of conflict-probe software developed by FAA computer scientist Norman Watts and contractor Lonnie Bowlin. The software impressed some FAA researchers, managers and controllers, but after testing it at the Boston en-route center in 1995-96, the agency decided to go with a product from Mitre instead.

By then, Baiada had already left his post under Cotton (though he continues to fly for United). He started waging his free-flight crusade in op-eds for the aviation press, conferences and every other forum he could find. Today, Cotton dismisses him as “a stonethrower” who’s burned too many bridges to be effective. Baiada insists that stonethrowing was the only way to get any action.

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