ATC technology: The route ahead

 - October 8, 2007, 9:15 AM

here is a saying in aviation that a mile of highway gets you one mile, but a mile of runway gets you anywhere. It’s an adage that the FAA is taking to heart as it prepares to deal with an expected sharp increase in commercial air travel in the years ahead. The addition of new runways at major airports across the country–euphemistically referred to as “laying concrete”–has become a top priority for the agency in light of internal forecasts that are predicting a nearly 70-percent increase in commercial air activity by 2020.

The White House was concerned enough about runway capacity to issue an executive order last year that streamlines permits and removes environmental barriers for major transportation projects. DOT Secretary Norman Mineta promptly listed a new runway for Philadelphia International Airport as among the federal government’s first initiatives. And of the 35 biggest airports in the country, 19 are now in various stages of planning and development to expand capacity, with four new runways opening this year alone in Denver, Houston, Miami and Orlando, Fla.

The FAA’s rolling 10-year Operational Evolution Plan (OEP) calls for construction of several more runways and added ramp and taxiway space. Those who advocate more airport expansion projects generally argue that runway and ramp capacity outweighs the importance of airspace capacity or improvements to ATC infrastructure.

Conventional wisdom says there is plenty of room in the skies to fit all the airplanes, but a scarcity of runways or ramp space on the ground to handle them once they land. Some believe this situation makes airport and runway construction the most daunting challenge aviation faces, especially in places where airports and their surrounding communities are sandwiched so tightly as to prevent further expansion in any direction.

Since taking the helm at the FAA a little more than a year ago, Administrator Marion Blakey has sought to dispel notions that more runways alone will solve the nation’s aviation capacity problems. While pressing for more airport development, she has also argued that new technologies and a top-to-bottom overhaul of the nation’s ATC infrastructure will be necessary to clear chokepoints in en route and terminal airspace once all the new runways are built and airport capacity improvements have been made.

“We must help people understand that there is not a zero-sum tradeoff between more runways and more technology,” Blakey said in a recent speech on the topic. “You can no more separate the two than you can build roads without traffic lights. We need both, because technology supports the increased and efficient use of more concrete.”

One of Blakey’s goals since coming to the FAA from the NTSB has been to put a renewed focus on management accountability within the agency. As part of that endeavor, the FAA has unveiled two major planning initiatives aimed at making necessary technological upgrades for the future. The first plan, Roadmap for Performance-based Navigation, calls for new types of airspace and procedures and a heavy reliance on Rnav (area navigation) and RNP (required navigation performance) concepts, while the second, Strategic Plan: Flight Plan 2004-2008, is a broader overwiew of future challenges and potential solutions.

The industry will need to become intimately familiar with these plans if the FAA’s vision for the National Airspace System (NAS) evolves as envisioned.

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