The demonstration was only intended to show how the technology could augment runway awareness, and its basic benefits were apparent. Even in foggy weather, the cockpit display would have given a clear view of runway traffic and immediately made apparent any wrong turn. The system worked perfectly. On the other hand, its interpreter-in this case, an experienced FAA official-had briefly been confused by the display. The mistake was an apt demonstration of why approval of new technologies for air traffic control takes time: to ensure all sources of confusion have been ferreted out.As UPS pushes its case, a consensus is emerging that growing demand will force changes in the nation’s air traffic control system. In the short run, some relief may come from airport expansion and new construction; some airports are also considering higher peak-period landing fees to discourage the rush-hour crush. Late last year, the FAA announced a lottery system for the assignment of flight times at LaGuardia-which by itself accounts for about one-quarter of the nation’s delays-to reduce congestion. New procedures and uses of radar tools are increasing capacity at airports like Dallas-Fort Worth. The FAA, for its part, notes that even in busy cities the system has plenty of capacity at off-peak times. “All of the technologies that we are working on address a piece of the pie, and together they will ultimately create more capacity, but it is going to be incremental, at best,” says Kathryn Creedy, an FAA spokeswoman.
However, NASA’s Rosen projects that the FAA’s incremental approach will only keep pace with demand for the next decade or so. “Because of the demand on the system, all the technology developers are focusing on next-generation tools,” Rosen says. “But we recognize that even after all these tools are in place and working together, demand is such that it would soon again exceed capacity.”
The basic technologies for satellite-based air traffic control-the GPS system, datalinks, computational power and compact cockpit displays-are on hand. But there is nothing close to consensus on how-and whether-to deploy them widely. So far, the public outcry hasn’t been loud enough, the airlines haven’t seen the business case, and the FAA hasn’t tried to force a systemwide change. “Gridlock is in the eye of the beholder,” Rosen says. “However, everyone agrees that it will get worse before it gets better.”
Last October, UPS got good news: the company received the first FAA certification for its new cockpit device. It was only a small step and only for a very limited purpose, to help pilots gain “enhanced see and avoid” capability in the skies over Louisville. But the approval did signal that the system is making its way onto the regulatory radar screen. “There are still a lot of challenges with this-a lot to be resolved,” McDaniel says. “The pilots and air traffic controllers are excited; there’s a lot of potential, but they are not the least bit bashful about what it needs-for instance, [reducing] the clutter on the screen.”
If those problems can be ironed out, however, the UPS initiative at Louisville just may be the first step in helping reduce clutter in the skies.