Into a clearer blue sky

FAA pro­poses state-of-art traf­fic con­trol sys­tem for re­gion’s crowded airspace

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Dan Weikel

High above the 22 mil­lion peo­ple who live and work in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia is some of the busiest airspace in the na­tion.

On a typ­i­cal day, more than 11,000 air­craft take to the skies, most of them over the sprawl­ing Los An­ge­les Basin.

There are Gulf­stream jets from Van Nuys Air­port, Cessna 172s from Santa Mon­ica Air­port, he­li­copters from Tor­rance Mu­nic­i­pal and gi­ant Boe­ing 747s from Los An­ge­les In­ter­na­tional, which han­dles more than 1,700 de­par­tures and ar­rivals daily.

Keep­ing track of it all is a mas­sive un­der­tak­ing for air traf­fic con­trollers, who use radar screens dot­ted with mov­ing lights to guide air­craft to their des­ti­na­tions; tech­nol­ogy that dates to the 1950s.

The Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion now be­lieves there is a bet­ter way to man­age the crowded sky.

The agency is propos­ing a state-of-the-art air traf­fic con­trol sys­tem that would track air­craft more pre­cisely, po­ten­tially free­ing up con­gested cor­ri­dors and al­low­ing pilots to make shorter, safer f lights to their des­ti­na­tions.

For pas­sen­gers, the an­tic­i­pated ben­e­fits in­clude less time in the air, re­duced taxi­ing times and the elim­i­na­tion of long de­lays on the tar­mac or at ter­mi­nal gates. Na­tion­ally, flight de­lays and can­cel­la­tions cost trav­el­ers an es­ti­mated $16.7 bil­lion a year, roughly the same amount as air car­ri­ers.

The planned Metro­plex pro­gram — one of 14 in the na­tion — is the lo­cal ap­pli­ca­tion of pro­ce­dures and tech­nol­ogy from the FAA’s sweep­ing NextGen pro­ject.

NextGen, which will cost the gov­ern­ment and air­line in­dus­try at least $32 bil­lion and take years to im­ple­ment, is an am­bi­tious ef­fort to mod­ern­ize the air traf­fic con­trol sys­tem.

The pro­ject is grad­u­ally re­plac­ing radar-based flight mon­i­tor­ing with more

so­phis­ti­cated au­to­ma­tion and global po­si­tion­ing satel­lites. The tech­nol­ogy will en­able con­trollers — and even­tu­ally pilots — to know ex­actly where air­craft are at all times in­stead of wait­ing ev­ery nine to 12 sec­onds for radar sig­nals to bounce back.

FAA of­fi­cials say the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia pro­posal in­volves 109 new satel­lite-re­lated pro­ce­dures, in­volv­ing 50 de­par­ture routes, 37 ar­rival routes and 22 ap­proach pro­ce­dures that guide flights down un­til they are very close to their des­ti­na­tion air­ports.

“We are tran­si­tion­ing from a radar-based sys­tem to a satel­lite-based sys­tem,” said FAA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Michael Huerta. “This set of tech­nolo­gies will give us bet­ter ef­fi­ciency, bet­ter fuel burn, en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits and im­proved safety.”

When the sys­tems are in place, air traf­fic con­trollers will be able to cre­ate more pre­cise f light paths, keep air­craft routes sep­a­rated au­to­mat­i­cally and re­duce ra­dio com­mu­ni­ca­tions with pilots be­cause in­struc­tions can be easily down­loaded into on­board flight com­put­ers. The mea­sures also would let con­trollers space air­craft closer to­gether dur­ing take­offs, land­ings and flights — mean­ing air­ports could han­dle more traf­fic.

By 2020, the cock­pits of all com­mer­cial and gen­eral avi­a­tion air­craft us­ing cer­tain airspace must be equipped with some of the same NextGen tech­nol­ogy air traf­fic con­trol will be us­ing.

As a re­sult, FAA of­fi­cials say air­craft will be able to fly more di­rect routes, re­duc­ing travel times, fuel con­sump­tion and air pol­lu­tion.

Though the fuel sav­ings and emis­sions data for the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia pro­gram are still be­ing cal­cu­lated, pos­i­tive re­sults have been re­ported at sev­eral air­ports, in­clud­ing Seat­tle-Ta­coma In­ter­na­tional.

Alaska Air­lines, for ex­am­ple, es­ti­mates that the pro­ce­dures can save 2.1 mil­lion gal­lons of fuel an­nu­ally and re­duce car­bon emis­sions by 22,000 met­ric tons — the equiv­a­lent of tak­ing 4,100 cars off the road ev­ery year.

The po­ten­tial ben­e­fits are of par­tic­u­lar value in heav­ily ur­ban­ized ar­eas with com­pli­cated airspace, such as greater Los An­ge­les, which has five com­mer­cial air­ports and more than two dozen gen­eral avi­a­tion fa­cil­i­ties as well as mil­i­tary air bases.

“These are all good things they are work­ing on,” said Jon Rus­sell, an air­line pi­lot who is the West Coast safety co­or­di­na­tor for the Air Line Pilots Assn. “There will be lower work­loads for pilots, less noise on des­cents and more pre­cise de­par- tures and ar­rivals.”

Rus­sell said, how­ever, that the tighter spac­ing of air­craft will in­crease re­liance on au­to­mated flight sys­tems, rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that pilots could lose some of their man­ual fly­ing skills over time.

Some pos­i­tive re­sults have al­ready been re­ported by some of the na­tion’s air­ports. At Harts­field-Jack­son At­lanta In­ter­na­tional Air­port, 12 more planes per hour can de­part, re­duc­ing wait times for trav­el­ers. In Las Ve­gas, FAA of­fi­cials say the new sys­tems have cut the time it takes to land by 10 min­utes.

The new sys­tems have not been with­out con­tro­versy.

Ac­cord­ing to re­cent con­gres­sional tes­ti­mony, there have been sig­nif­i­cant de­lays in the mod­ern­iza­tion ef­fort and at least $4.2 bil­lion in cost in­creases. A re­cent Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice sur­vey of 70 in­dus­try stake­hold­ers found that only 13 thought the FAA’s over­all im­ple­men­ta­tion of NextGen was go­ing well.

“We un­der­stand the im­por­tance of NextGen and are pas­sion­ate about it,” Ni­cholas E. Calio, pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Air­lines4Amer­ica, told Congress last Novem­ber. “Re­gret­tably, we have lit­tle to show for the $5 [bil­lion] to $6 bil­lion” that has been spent on NextGen so far.

Huerta, the FAA ad­min­is­tra­tor, said the mod­ern­iza­tion ef­fort has “made ma­jor progress” and has al­ready saved the air­lines and pas­sen­gers about $1.6 bil­lion. An es­ti­mated $11.4 bil­lion could be saved dur­ing the next 15 years, he added.

Ear­lier this month, Phoenix of­fi­cials sued the FAA over in­creased air­craft noise in neigh­bor­hoods sur­round­ing the city’s in­ter­na­tional air­port. They al­lege the noise is due to new f light paths de­signed for the NextGen pro­ject.

In North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, res­i­dents of Wood­side and Por­tola Val­ley also are con- cerned about air­craft noise. They have asked a fed­eral ap­peals court to re­view the en­vi­ron­men­tal anal­y­sis for air traf­fic con­trol im­prove­ments.

As a mat­ter of pol­icy, FAA of­fi­cials do not com­ment on pend­ing law­suits. Ian Gre­gor, an FAA spokesman in Los An­ge­les, said, how­ever, that “thou­sands of pro­ce­dures have been im­ple­mented seam­lessly across the na­tion. Only a hand­ful have be­come con­tro­ver­sial.”

Af­ter en­vi­ron­men­tal assess­ments are fin­ished, FAA of­fi­cials plan to start the new pro­ce­dures in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia next year. The rest of the pro­gram would be phased in grad­u­ally. The FAA also has sched­uled 11 public work­shops about the Metro­plex pro­ject from San Diego to Santa Bar­bara from June 16 to July 1.

Last week, the agency re­leased a draft en­vi­ron­men­tal as­sess­ment of the pro­posal, which con­cluded there would be no sig­nif­i­cant noise ef­fects. The public has un­til July 10 to com­ment on the anal­y­sis.

‘There will be lower work­loads for pilots, less noise on des­cents and more pre­cise de­par­tures and ar­rivals.’

— Jon Rus­sell, an air­line pi­lot who is the West Coast safety co­or­di­na­tor for the Air Line Pilots Assn.

Don Bartletti Los An­ge­les Times

AIR TRAF­FIC con­trollers at Palm Springs In­ter­na­tional. The FAA’s NextGen pro­ject is re­plac­ing radar-based f light mon­i­tor­ing.

Pho­tog raphs by Allen J. Schaben Los An­ge­les Times

GREATER LOS AN­GE­LES has five com­mer­cial air­ports and more than two dozen gen­eral avi­a­tion fa­cil­i­ties as well as mil­i­tary air bases.

A PAS­SEN­GER at Or­ange County’s John Wayne Air­port. The new sys­tem’s ben­e­fits will in­clude less time in the air and the elim­i­na­tion of long de­lays.

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