Alternative to roads and airlines deemed "highly unlikely"

NASA's plan to develop small aircraft and airports into a new mode of transport to relieve congested highways and airways has been criticised by the US National Research Council (NRC). A special committee has labelled the Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS) concept "highly unlikely and potentially undesirable".

SATS programme manager Bruce Holmes says NASA intends to continue as planned with the five-year, $69 million research effort despite the "distressing" NRC report.

SATS is developing technology to allow the aircraft and airports to be used routinely as an alternative to roads and airlines. The technology will enable small general-aviation aircraft to be flown safely in all weathers, and will increase the capacity of small non-tower airports. Technology demonstrations are due to begin at year-end.

The NRC found little evidence that SATS aircraft could be made affordable for use by the general public, however. It also concluded the system would have limited appeal to leisure travellers - and that infrastructure limitations and environmental concerns would hinder its deployment.

Holmes says NASA had already recognised most of the issues raised by the committee and modified the programme. The original plan was for most of the aircraft to be self-flown and propeller driven.

Now commercially operated small jets are seen as the most likely users of the system, with business travellers and package carriers as target customers. Holmes says seven companies have produced business plans to enter the on-demand, point-to-point transport market, indicating the viability of the SATS concept.

NASA is partnering with the US Department of Transportation to counter criticism that it is not in the agency's charter to develop an alternative mode of transport. NASA is also close to signing a contract with the National Consortium for Aviation Mobility, a partnership of industry and state and local transportation and aviation authorities that will conduct the SATS flight experiments.

Source: Flight International