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As any passenger at LaGuardia, O’Hare or Newark knows, the air traffic control system is lagging behind the demand curve now. Delays hit record levels in 1999 and 2000, and the problem promises to get worse. Last year, 670 million passengers flew in the United States; the FAA predicts 1 billion passengers will fly in 2010. According to FAA statistics, bad weather gets the lion’s share of blame for the air traffic control-related delays. But weather causes widespread havoc in part because today’s air traffic control systems are a patchwork of technologies built over the past half-century that are being stretched to the limit by the ever-increasing number of travelers. Radar technology has significantly improved since it was adapted for civilian air traffic control after World War II, but the basic procedure remains the same. Controllers herd airplanes along a limited number of radar-monitored “highways” in the sky. When weather is bad, controllers close some of the highways, creating traffic jams. Bad weather also prompts controllers to enforce larger buffer distances between airplanes, increasing delays.

During the 1990s, the advent of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology-in which precise locations can be fixed by triangulating signals from any of 24 military satellites-promised a new approach. Using GPS, pilots can determine their exact locations without relying on ground-based navigation beacons. Over the past decade, a collaboration of several government-funded labs, including Bedford, MA-based MITRE and MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, developed a new way to continuously transmit digital GPS position information and other digital data among airplanes and controllers. With this network of digital information (known to insiders as ADS-B, or Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast), planes can continuously exchange data on location, speed, flight plan, aircraft size and type, number of passengers and weather.

The system can be thought of as the latest-generation phone lines and modems in an emerging “Aviation Internet”-one term being used to describe the increasing data flow among planes, controllers, ground crews and aircraft maintenance facilities. UPS Aviation Technologies is the only company that has developed cockpit displays certified by the FAA to receive and display information from this newly developed datalink, but others-including GE-Honeywell, Rockwell Collins and L-3 Communications-are working on their own systems.

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