The success of Lockheed Martin's en-route modernisation (ERAM) equipment in US Federal Aviation Administration trials in September brings the agency one step closer to having the ability to decrease en-route traffic spacing from 5nm (9km) to 3nm, a key goal in boosting airspace capacity.

The system, which will process flight radar data and generate display data in the FAA's 20 air route traffic control centres (ARTCC) in the USA, finished acceptance testing six months ahead of schedule and is ready for operational testing at the William J Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey, says the FAA.

First deployment of ERAM is set for the Salt Lake City ARTCC next year, followed by roll-out across all centres by 2010. Lockheed performed the work under a $1.5 billion contract that started in 2002 and runs until 2009.

Features that will give the FAA the option to decrease en-route separation to 3nm in the future include ERAM's ability to track 1,900 high-altitude aircraft simultaneously, rather than 1,100 aircraft, the limit of the legacy computer system, and its "seamless" data sharing between centres, says the FAA.

The new equipment also "improves flight plan processing and automates hand-offs when planes divert due to bad weather, increasing flexibility and efficiency during weather and congestion", says the FAA. The software's open-system architecture will also make future upgrades easier and faster.

Eva Knapp, Lockheed programme director for ERAM, says the system has the software needed to support 3nm separation, but the FAA will not begin testing such advanced features until after the roll-out is complete. Reduced separation "will come over time with some very strict rules for how it will be implemented", Knapp says.

Source: Flight International