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Is Half a Cheer Better Than None?

Free Flight Phase 1’s “free flight lite” approach and the pared-back avionics trials of Safe Flight 21 get cheers from the airlines, who have long pitched for such closely focused, cost-conscious approaches, and the traffic controllers, who are relieved that neither program threatens to eliminate their jobs. But free flight early advocates give perhaps only half a cheer. “They’re starting to implement free flight,” Cotton says, “but much too slowly.” Baiada actually agrees with Cotton on this point: “Free Flight Phase 1 would have been a good program-20 years ago.”

Indeed, the three-year Free Flight Phase 1 program is neither breaking new technological ground nor implementing system-wide improvements. “It’s just another R&D effort,” laments Michael Goldfarb, a former FAA chief of staff who’s now in private consultancy. “They’re spending hundreds of millions on disparate things, none of which talk to each other,” Goldfarb says. “The FAA hasn’t figured out the concept of operations.”

For his part, Baiada remains adamant that a stripped-down scheme, using only conflict probe and time-based sequencing, could achieve 70 percent to 90 percent of free flight’s eventual efficiency in just “three to five years.” All it would take, Baiada says, is a $500 million investment in off-the-shelf software to be installed in the current infrastructure. And again, the software he believes to be capable of getting the job done comes from Lonnie Bowlin’s company, Aerospace Engineering (see “Mighty Atom”).

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