Can technology solve air travel woes?

Senators and aviation executives say it'll help. Others warn that travel snafus can't all be blamed on a 1950s-era air traffic control system.

WASHINGTON--With air traffic congestion and flight delays becoming increasingly vexing, politicians and airline executives are saying there's an urgent need to modernize the nation's air traffic control system.

Unless the radar-based system dating to the 1950s undergoes significant technological upgrades, "I guarantee that we will have more passengers delayed, inconvenienced and angry at airlines, and an aviation system that can no longer transport them in a timely and efficient manner," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.), who heads a Senate subcommittee focused on aviation operations, in prepared remarks for a morning hearing here.

This year has brought record-breaking flight delays, cancellations and diversions, according to a report released earlier this week by the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general (PDF), who also appeared at Thursday's hearing.

That study found airlines were on time only 72 percent of the time during the first seven months of this year--the lowest such performance in a decade. During that same period, more than 54,000 flights--affecting close to 3.7 million passengers--spent one to five hours, or more, taxiing in and out of their gates. And travelers endured record-breaking flight arrival delays--averaging 57 minutes, up almost three minutes from last year.

A higher-tech control system may not resolve all those woes, but "it'll go a long way," said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the ranking member of the Senate panel.

Executives from Delta Air Lines, Continental Airlines and American Airlines concurred in their brief statements at the hearing, which lasted barely an hour because senators wanted to leave for a long series of floor votes.

"The maddening part is that unlike in 1956, the technology is available now to fix these problems."
--Joe Kolshak, Delta vice president of operations

Modernization proponents envision a shift from the existing largely ground-controlled, radar-based system to a next-generation setup that relies on Global Positioning System satellites. The latter type of system is expected to ease congestion and delays by allowing both pilots and air traffic controllers to see real-time displays of air traffic for the first time and to exchange not only voice communications but data as well. Another goal is improving information sharing about weather, with the goal of cutting the many flight delays and cancellations owed to the elements.

The complaints about today's system are hardly new. In his written remarks to the committee, Joe Kolshak, Delta's executive vice president of operations, recounted that as he prepared for the hearing, he came across a 1956 Delta employee pamphlet that described the air traffic control system as "being too complicated, too cumbersome, lacking flexibility and lacking capacity."

"The maddening part is that unlike in 1956, the technology is available now to fix these problems," Kolshak said.

Some of that work has already begun, but, as Federal Aviation Administration acting administrator Robert Sturgell put it Thursday, the new approach "is not a 'plug and play' system that can be dropped in place."

One step forward has been implementation of a system called RNAV, which was put in place at the major airports in Atlanta and Dallas, and is slated for rollout at New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport next summer. In aviation jargon, RNAV refers to technological methods including GPS receivers that let pilots fly in a direct line from place to place, rather than the older method of flying along what are called Victor airways. Flying directly is faster, relieves congestion aloft and saves on fuel.

As with all government-sponsored computer upgrades, much of the process comes down to funding. Commercial airline executives said it's key to move ahead with the funding proposal contained in the latest Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, which is sponsored by Rockefeller and Lott and is awaiting a final Senate floor vote.

That bill proposes imposing a $25 fee on aircraft operators, as opposed to directly on passengers, that would be deposited into an "Air Traffic Modernization Fund." But that idea has run into opposition from the general aviation community on the grounds that it already pays its own way through special fuel taxes. A slightly different version, which proposes $5 billion to start the modernization program, passed the House of Representatives last week.

Another reason given for flight delays is airlines' use of a hub and spoke travel system instead of the direct-to-destination system that was more common before deregulation. The hub system tends to be more efficient and reduces the price of air tickets, but at the cost of increased delays when the number of travelers jumps or bad weather hits a hub airport. Lack of airport expansion--because of noise or environmental complaints by local residents--could be another factor.

Some senators on Thursday questioned whether too much blame is being placed on the state of the air traffic control system and not enough on "sloppy" management by the airlines, as Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) put it.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) described a travel experience that involved a series of multihour waits because of late arrivals by the crew, the pilots and even the food that was supposed to be offered on board.

"I know it's a lot of labor relations problems, but you have to look at this system that causes us to miss connections because of crew problems," he told the airline executives. "I've never seen the number of delays related to crew problems and service problems any time in the last 39 years, so I hope you'll look at that."

 

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