An airline quality report due out tomorrow confirms what most flyers already know: Airline service last year was worse than the year before, as it has been each year since 2003. But travelers, take heart. There's a new technology on the horizon that in the not-too-distant future could get your flight cleared for take-off … AND landing … faster than any of us have dared hope. Our Sunday Morning Cover Story is reported now by David Pogue of The New York Times:
You probably don't need some guy on TV telling you how bad air travel is these days. It's miserable.
At the Federal Aviation Administration's command center near Washington, the screens tell the story: More than 7,000 planes in the air at a time, crammed into an overloaded air-traffic system. And according to FAA acting administrator Robert Sturgell, it's only going to get worse as traffic doubles, even triples:
"We are, basically, using the same paradigm that we used 50 years ago, today," Sturgell said. "The current system is not gonna be able to handle that number of airplanes."
And what is the current system? Today air-traffic controllers get their information from radar dishes on the ground. Trouble is, radar takes a new snapshot of the sky as infrequently as once every 12 seconds, which isn't very precise. And it doesn't give the pilots any information, such as where your plane is relative to other aircraft.
"I can't see any planes," said Capt. Karen Lee, a veteran 747 pilot and director of operations for the world's 9th largest airline. (That would be UPS.) Commercial jets like hers do have a little screen that warns of imminent collisions, but it's crude, and not designed for navigation.
Today, only air-traffic controllers can see the details of all the planes in the sky, and because radar is so imprecise, they sometimes have to send planes around the block over and over again.
"They go, "Turn left heading one, eight zero through traffic," Lee said. "And I'll fly down here 'till I'm 60 miles away from the airport. And then we turn and then we fly back up, and on a good night, I will go straight to the airport at that point."
Today, when planes approach an airport, the tower makes them stay miles apart, and descend in altitude steps. Unfortunately, establishing each new altitude uses a lot of fuel, and makes a lot of pollution - and a lot of noise for the neighbors.
Wasting time circling the airport is not good for companies, either.
"It's my company's money that's getting blown out the tailpipes," Lee said.
So why doesn't the FAA do something? Actually, it is - a fundamental transformation of the air traffic control system.
It's nicknamed NextGen. It will take until 2020 to complete, it will cost $20 billion, and it's one of the biggest changes in aviation history. It relies on a positioning technology that's far more precise than radar. You might even have it in your car right now: it's GPS.
The airplane version has the geeky name ADS-B (Automated Dependent Surveillance- Broadcast).
An ADS-B screen in the cockpit shows the pilot - for the first time - where all the other planes are … above and behind you, and following you.
The ADS-B system has three components: global positioning satellites; a transceiver in each plane; and 800 receivers on the ground. The FAA has hired ITT to build and run those ground stations for $1.8 billion.
John Kefaliotis is the director of this ITT project. He showed Pogue a southern Florida facility where software development work is being done for the system.
"We have the surveillance data for all of southern Florida being drawn into the building," he said.
ITT plans to have the whole country covered by 2013.
Each commercial airliner will have installed a surveillance processor and transponder, "which is the unit that receives and transmits data to the ground," Kefaliotis said.
Vincent Capezzuto is the director of the FAA's ADS-B program. He oversees a small army of engineers, and demonstrated an experimental, specially-rigged plane. "This particular aircraft is also ADS-B equipped," he said, "so we're actually seeing the aircraft, aircraft-to-aircraft."
The cockpit screens can also show maps, aircraft manuals and weather information. The big idea is to give pilots more responsibility for their own spacing, taking some of the strain off the air-traffic controllers.
With ADS-B helping pilots maintain perfect separation, they can essentially coast in on idle, far more efficiently; and as a result, a lot more planes can land per hour.
More predictably, less circling equals more pilot control. According to UPS pilot Karen Lee, it all adds up to less misery for passengers. "Fewer delays, more airplanes landing in a given space of time," she said.
So who would not love ADS-B? Who could possibly object?
"The people who have to pay to put it on their airplanes," Lee said.
Ah, yes: where there's change, there's controversy. The FAA has ruled that airplane owners must foot the bill to equip their planes with ADS-B.
That cost is at least $6000 per small plane, and up to $300,000 to retrofit an older commercial liner.
That doesn't sit well with people like Andy Cebula of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
"Cost is a major problem," he said. "I'm not suggesting that there are not benefits. I'm just saying that the way that the FAA has proposed this, that the benefits come at a huge cost to the aircraft owners."
"Well, obviously, they would like this to be as little expense as possible to them," FAA chief Sturgell said. But he counters that they'll eventually recoup the expenditure:
"They will save money. And they are saving money today. UPS is a great example of a carrier that has this technology in its airplanes and is saving money."
And the UPS trial wasn't ADS-B's only success. The FAA also tried it in Alaska, where a lot of area has no radar services, presenting a very challenging environment for pilots.
And what were the results?
"We've reduced the fatal aviation accident rate in those particular areas on the order of, like, 38 to 40 percent," Capezzuto said.
The next test will be in the Gulf of Mexico, where there are thousands of flights but no radar coverage. In the meantime, once the industry figures out how to pay for it, ADS-B's biggest fans will likely include the people who have to live with it: Pilots.
But one pilot's opinion probably counts the most: FAA chief Robert Sturgell.
"When we look at technologies like ADS-B and some of the moving map displays and other things that are coming into the cockpit, you know, I just think it's great to have."
Poised for take off?
"I think it's ready to go," Sturgell said.