New ATC Flight System Sought

October 12, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — There's a revolutionary change coming to the civil aviation system, and it will manifest itself in a satellite-based system for air traffic control and in-flight navigation.

Both Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration are talking about the next-generation air traffic control system that will bring ATC into the digital era, but there is a lot of dispute about what should go into it, how it should operate and who should pay for it — particularly the latter, said Congressman Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids.

Overhaul of the nation's ATC system is a priority in this year's FAA Reauthorization bill, a bill Congress has to pass every three years to keep the FAA operating. Congress has extended the old bill for a couple of months while it continues rewriting the law, Ehlers said.   

The FAA estimates air traffic activity will double by 2015 and triple by 2025, but the nation's current ATC system is based on 1950s technologies, with some vintage World War II radio technology thrown in. The need for an automated, high-capacity ATC system is a live issue and one that Congress is seriously debating, Ehlers said at a panel discussion hosted last week by Northern Jet Management, where he and several aviation experts gathered to discuss the future of aviation in Michigan.

Daniel Elwell, assistant administrator for the FAA's Aviation Policy, Planning & Environment division, said the current ATC system makes moving traffic through dense areas very difficult because it basically moves traffic "at the speed of voice." It requires air traffic controllers to monitor the location of aircraft using radar and to issue voice commands to pilots to keep airplanes out of each other's space. Elwell said the inadequacy of the ATC system is the reason flight delays are up more than 20 percent and why the delays have cost the economy and the users of the system an estimated $9 billion so far this year.

"We need the next generation of air traffic control system to resolve the inadequacy," Elwell stressed. "We need to replace and consolidate literally thousands of infrastructures throughout the country. There will be gridlock in the sky if we don't get the system up and running."

A next-generation ATC system would replace speed-of-voice with speed-of-light satellite communications and give controllers the ability to identify the precise positioning of aircraft at any point in time using radar-like surveillance equipment known as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, which relies on the Global Positioning System network. Future applications of ADS-B technology could include exchange of real-time information from the flight deck, such as weather and aircraft-to-aircraft separation, said Lorne Cass, managing director of Air Traffic Management and Industry Affairs for Northwest Airlines.     

Some features of new-generation ATC are already in use today, such as Required Navigation Precision and Continuous Descent Approach. RNP equipment enables an aircraft to pinpoint its location within fractions of a mile, and CDA equipment gives an aircraft the ability to stay at cruise altitude slightly longer and descend in a smooth, continuous motion rather than in the step-down approach currently used. Those kinds of features, Elwell said, will lead to increased airspace safety and airspace capacity, and will reduce delays, flight time, fuel burn, aircraft noise and aircraft emissions.

As Cass pointed out, most of the modern, general-aviation business aircraft comes equipped with those tools but really don't have the ability to use them because the infrastructure is not there.

Charles Keegan, director of Future Air Navigation systems for Raytheon, said the technology needed is straightforward, and a lot of it has been identified. The technology that allows more planes in the same airspace has been around for 10 years or more, for instance. Some technologies have been identified by the U.S. Defense Department and have moved into Homeland Security, and they could easily make their way into aviation, Keegan note.

"The big thrust here is that an investment will be required by every single aircraft owner, because they will have to do something with their airplane to make the system operational," Keegan pointed out.

Modernizing the ATC system will also take intellectual capital — drawing the best minds from industry and from colleges and universities to address the problem, Keegan said. The careers in building the next-generation ATC have to be attractive to bring the best of the best to the task, as well as an influx of new ideas, he said.

Two area businesses that are contributing to innovation in ATC systems are L3 Avionics Systems and GE Aviation, the latter through its systems division formerly known as Smiths Aerospace.

"As a country we need to do this," said Kent County Aeronautics Director James Koslosky. "We've had the capability to move ahead with this for five or 10 years, but Congress and the administration have consistently not funded or underfunded the program. You have to have the political will to get it done." 

GeraldR.FordInternationalAirport pumps $500 million annually into West Michigan's economy and is one of the top employment districts in the state: Its 60 primary tenants employ more than 2,000 people. With the infrastructure the airport provides and the services its 60 tenants provide, the airport supports every aspect of West Michigan's economy, said Koslosky. And as a primary economic development tool, the airport needs next-generation ATC, he said.    

Birgit Klohs, president of The Right Place Inc. regional economic development organization, said in today's global environment it would be very difficult to market any community and retain, expand and attract new business without a viable airport. Klohs has been on more than 80 overseas missions to capture new business for West Michigan, and one of the first questions foreign companies ask about is the area's airport facilities, she said.

"We market this region, and infrastructure matters — water, sewer, roads and airports. It really, really, really matters," Klohs noted. "The airport has attracted companies to this area. It's the largest center of employment in KentCounty and in West Michigan in terms of high-paying, wealth-creating jobs."

There are more than 2,000 manufacturing businesses in Michigan, many of them global enterprises manufacturing high-tech products that serve diverse industries both domestically and abroad. Too, this region's growing life sciences and health care sectors are attracting bright minds from all over the world and are giving rise to innovative new businesses. Klohs said the airport is crucial to both those pieces of the regional economy and plays hugely in selling this region.    

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