Two US proposals to shake-up the air traffic management system need the political will to turn the vision into reality

The Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing have unveiled their separate visions of how the US airspace system can be revamped to reduce airline delays which are already worrying and threaten to become crippling. The visions do not conflict. In fact they are complementary. But are they what is required?

The FAA's Operational Evolution Plan (OEP) is the repackaging of a host of projects into a roadmap focused on increasing the capacity of the US national airspace system by 30% over 10 years. The improvements would be rolled out in three phases at a total projected cost of around $14 billion. This includes the government's share of $5 billion in new runway building outlined in the plan.

Boeing's concept calls for a fundamental change in air traffic management, including the creation of a constellation of dedicated communication, navigation and surveillance satellites that would allow constant data sharing between aircraft, air traffic controllers, weather forecasters and other participants. Sharing aircraft trajectory information in real time would increase airspace capacity by allowing aircraft separation to be reduced and enabling controllers to anticipate and alleviate bottlenecks. The new system would be rolled out in three phases over eight years and would create capacity for more than 15 years of traffic growth. If the new runways and improved airport infrastructure envisaged in the OEP are added, Boeing says its system would accommodate growth for the next 25 years.

The aircraft manufacturer has not put a price on its system, nor defined how it would be funded and by whom. Boeing says it is willing to make the investment necessary to make the system a reality. That includes constructing and launching the satellite constellation. This is no idle offer. The company has both the capability and the incentive. It has a $30 billion-a-year aircraft manufacturing business which is threatened by airspace gridlock. If Boeing can justify the multi-billion-dollar investment in developing a new aircraft for a 2,000-airliner market, the company can justify the cost of a system protecting the 22,000-aircraft market it forecasts for the next 20 years.

There are problems with both plans. There is nothing fundamentally new in the OEP, and the FAA has yet to prove that it can bring large, complex programmes in on time and budget. The agency has yet to secure all the funding required by the plan. Boeing's plan does involve fundamental change, but it does not yet address how the change will be achieved.

There is goodness in both plans. What is lacking is the political will to put them together. The objective is a public-private partnership that will combine the FAA's operational expertise with industry's entrepreneurial skills to create an airspace system that will meet the travelling public's needs in the shortest time.

The FAA has shown that it can respond to industry needs. The industry has shown it is willing to invest in solving the problems. Now the stakeholders - politicians and user groups alike - must seize the chance to forge the two together into a partnership serving US air transport into the new century.

Source: Flight International