Alaska Air Banks On Satellites

The next generation of high-tech navigation systems, which use satellites to plot a pilot's position, promises to make air travel safer than ever for passengers and easier than ever for pilots. CBS News Correspondent Manuel Gallegus filed this report:

For an airplane passenger, the scenery around Juneau, Alaska, is stunning. For the pilots it's a challenge.

To land in Juneau, a plane must pass through the mountains, then bank at the last minute to clear a forest, before leveling off.

In the past, any foul weather meant turning back. But Alaska Airlines is now using global positioning satellites to help land its planes with greater success. The airline is investing more than $12 million to put the system in its place, including training pilots.

The airline has a fleet of about 120 aircraft and some 1,200 pilots.

"With GPS we can fit approaches in and fly closer to terrain than we ever could with an instrument landing system," said Doug Wahto, an Alaska Airlines pilot.

GPS, a network of satellites built by the Defense Department, has already mapped out the Earth's terrain.

Some of Alaska's airports like Juneau have gone a step further, and mapped the local terrain in detail.

The combination of a GPS-equipped plane and trained pilots makes landing a plane easier and more accurate than with conventional radio signals.

"It's a much safer approach," Wahto said.

Pilots say a GPS enhanced system could have prevented accidents like the American Airlines crash near Cali, Colombia, on Dec. 20, 1995, in which 160 people were killed.

Since Alaska Air began using the GPS system, the success rate of getting into the Juneau airport during foul weather has tripled. And that kind of efficiency has other airlines taking notice. Both American Airlines and United Airlines are in the process of refitting some of their planes with the GPS system.

But mapping-out the nation's airports takes time and equipping airplanes is expensive.

"The FAA has been slow to make the infrastructure commitments to put these systems in place," said David Stempler, president of the Air Traveler's Association, referring to the Federal Aviation Administration.

All sides seem to agree on one thing: satellites are the future of aviation safety.
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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