September 27, 2007 11:06 AM PDT

Can technology solve air travel woes?

WASHINGTON--With air traffic congestion and flight delays becoming increasingly vexing, politicians and airline executives are saying there's an urgent need to modernize the nation's air traffic control system.

Unless the radar-based system dating to the 1950s undergoes significant technological upgrades, "I guarantee that we will have more passengers delayed, inconvenienced and angry at airlines, and an aviation system that can no longer transport them in a timely and efficient manner," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.), who heads a Senate subcommittee focused on aviation operations, in prepared remarks for a morning hearing here.

This year has brought record-breaking flight delays, cancellations and diversions, according to a report released earlier this week by the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general (PDF), who also appeared at Thursday's hearing.

That study found airlines were on time only 72 percent of the time during the first seven months of this year--the lowest such performance in a decade. During that same period, more than 54,000 flights--affecting close to 3.7 million passengers--spent one to five hours, or more, taxiing in and out of their gates. And travelers endured record-breaking flight arrival delays--averaging 57 minutes, up almost three minutes from last year.

A higher-tech control system may not resolve all those woes, but "it'll go a long way," said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the ranking member of the Senate panel.

Executives from Delta Air Lines, Continental Airlines and American Airlines concurred in their brief statements at the hearing, which lasted barely an hour because senators wanted to leave for a long series of floor votes.

"The maddening part is that unlike in 1956, the technology is available now to fix these problems."
--Joe Kolshak, Delta vice president of operations

Modernization proponents envision a shift from the existing largely ground-controlled, radar-based system to a next-generation setup that relies on Global Positioning System satellites. The latter type of system is expected to ease congestion and delays by allowing both pilots and air traffic controllers to see real-time displays of air traffic for the first time and to exchange not only voice communications but data as well. Another goal is improving information sharing about weather, with the goal of cutting the many flight delays and cancellations owed to the elements.

The complaints about today's system are hardly new. In his written remarks to the committee, Joe Kolshak, Delta's executive vice president of operations, recounted that as he prepared for the hearing, he came across a 1956 Delta employee pamphlet that described the air traffic control system as "being too complicated, too cumbersome, lacking flexibility and lacking capacity."

"The maddening part is that unlike in 1956, the technology is available now to fix these problems," Kolshak said.

Some of that work has already begun, but, as Federal Aviation Administration acting administrator Robert Sturgell put it Thursday, the new approach "is not a 'plug and play' system that can be dropped in place."

One step forward has been implementation of a system called RNAV, which was put in place at the major airports in Atlanta and Dallas, and is slated for rollout at New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport next summer. In aviation jargon, RNAV refers to technological methods including GPS receivers that let pilots fly in a direct line from place to place, rather than the older method of flying along what are called Victor airways. Flying directly is faster, relieves congestion aloft and saves on fuel.

As with all government-sponsored computer upgrades, much of the process comes down to funding. Commercial airline executives said it's key to move ahead with the funding proposal contained in the latest Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, which is sponsored by Rockefeller and Lott and is awaiting a final Senate floor vote.

That bill proposes imposing a $25 fee on aircraft operators, as opposed to directly on passengers, that would be deposited into an "Air Traffic Modernization Fund." But that idea has run into opposition from the general aviation community on the grounds that it already pays its own way through special fuel taxes. A slightly different version, which proposes $5 billion to start the modernization program, passed the House of Representatives last week.

Another reason given for flight delays is airlines' use of a hub and spoke travel system instead of the direct-to-destination system that was more common before deregulation. The hub system tends to be more efficient and reduces the price of air tickets, but at the cost of increased delays when the number of travelers jumps or bad weather hits a hub airport. Lack of airport expansion--because of noise or environmental complaints by local residents--could be another factor.

Some senators on Thursday questioned whether too much blame is being placed on the state of the air traffic control system and not enough on "sloppy" management by the airlines, as Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) put it.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) described a travel experience that involved a series of multihour waits because of late arrivals by the crew, the pilots and even the food that was supposed to be offered on board.

"I know it's a lot of labor relations problems, but you have to look at this system that causes us to miss connections because of crew problems," he told the airline executives. "I've never seen the number of delays related to crew problems and service problems any time in the last 39 years, so I hope you'll look at that."

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6 comments

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One Issue...
Back before the airlines were deregulated they used a feeders and belt style system to get people around. It was fairly efficient. Now it's spoke and hub. You can actually fly backwards to get to a hub to fly out to the next spoke and then backwards again to your destination. It's wasteful. It's also overutilizes the hubs, and underutilizes the outlying areas.
Posted by Renegade Knight (13748 comments )
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Also
Just as airlines tend to overbook flights, they also overbook airports. During popular times, they schedule more flights than the airport (runways, taxiways, etc.) can handle, because those are the times people want to fly. They figure it's better to sell the tickets for those extra flights and have a lot of them be late, than not sell so many tickets in the first place.
Posted by fredmenace (159 comments )
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Flight Delays
Main problem is overbooking & the Hub system.Other problems are "Flight miles program" needs to be knocked off. And last minute passengers arriving at the gate.
Posted by Pete.Goswell (7 comments )
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Late passengers
I know some get frustrated at late-arriving passengers, but I actually appreciate the plane waiting sometimes. I once had an ATC delay leaving my home airport, causing me to miss my connecting flight to Europe by 5 minutes. The plane would not wait for me, though they knew I was coming. The end result was that I arrived 8 hours later than scheduled, had to take a longer router and multiple carriers, my baggage was lost, and United Airlines told me they would not help, because lost baggage is the fault of the terminating carrier, and since I "volunteered" to fly on the other carrier (volunteered!?!?!), that it was my problem. So, I had no clothes for the week in Europe, thanks to United.

And, a plane waiting a few minutes when going on a trans-Atlantic flight will not make that much difference. I fly internationally a lot and, in almost every case where the plane left late, it still arrived on time. I guess they just fly a little faster ;-)
Posted by paulej (1261 comments )
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There are many reasons for delays
Traffic control is definitely one problem. But, who is at fault, I don't know.

What I can tell you is that it is very frustrating to get on a plane, taxi away from the gate, only to have the pilot come to a stop and power off the engines because ATC said he could not take off. That has happened many times. Can this kind of thing not be avoided?

I once had to spend a night in a hotel in Atlanta, missing a day of important meetings, because of this. I got a very tiny apology and a ticket for a flight out the next day. Thanks to ATC or the airline, the hotel charge was my problem. I would have preferred to not even leaving my home airport if I knew the pilot was just going to park and sit!

The other major problem I have had is mechanical problems. On the one hand, I am pleased that various safety checks are performed, but why does it always seem to be my plane that has a problem? I'll venture to guess that it's not. Why are there always so many small mechanical problems? Are planes not checked properly?

I once had a 45 minute delay because somebody noticed that the fire extinguisher needed to be recharged. The airline did not have a spare, so we had to wait for the recharge. Shouldn't that be somebody's job and shouldn't that be done before the last minute? I really do think that nearly every general maintenance item is done last-minute on most airlines.

If you take an early morning flight and have a mechanical problem (which has happened to me many times), it makes me wonder why those problems could not be found before all of the passengers were boarded. Would it not be reasonable to have the plane checked an hour to two before, or perhaps even at the end of day when the plane makes its last stop?

So, as much as ATC might be blamed, I think other factors are also to blame.
Posted by paulej (1261 comments )
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Technology to the rescue...
Technology, managerial accountability and adequate funding can solve the problems with the Air Transportation System.
Congestion and the resulting delays are a result of airline scheduling at peak demand times. Airport capacity (runway acceptance rates and ground facilities) limit the number of aircraft that can be handled without increasing delay time. Airport capacity can be increased if airlines would use or be "regulated" to use the twenty-four hour clock. Based on the twenty-four hour clock there would be very few delays.
Global Positioning System Satellites can be a valuble tool for navigation but has limits as a remedy for aircraft separation. RNAV, also a good tool but comes with separation control problems and the "Human" factor. The Air Traffic Controller has all of the resposibility but very little direct control over aircraft volume.
The key to the problem solving is the "management of the System"... There is a breakdown in the accuntability and control of "The System"... Who is in charge? Who is responsible for the "System"???
The Executive branch and the congress have the ultimate authority to fund or underfund the system. The "users" (airlines,general aviation, military, private flyers) share in the mix.
Industry attempts to respond to the "problem" by offering "off-the-shelf hardware and software that is designed to fix problems...at a profit.
Who designs the "System"? Who is charge if the system fails?
Systems that are designed by professional highly educated/trained personnel are seldom held accountable for system failure.
Systems change over time inorder to make them work. (Air Traffic Controllers invent tools to expedite traffic movement that system designers did not think about).
Large amounts of capital investment that is justified on a reduction in air traffic controllers will not work. FAA's problems seem to increase when management attempts to reduce scheduling.
Bottom line: Invest in technology, provide trained/skilled management and adequately fund system upgrades. Don't blame the weather or Air Traffic Controllers as the primary reason for the problem. It is also essential to have built in a systems measurement criteria that management can measure and be measured.
Consider regulating scheduling...
Posted by USAV1 (1 comment )
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