Raytheon, ITT, Lockheed in fray for next-gen air traffic system contract

29 Aug 2007

The US government has till 30 September to decide on the next-gen air traffic system. The contract might be awarded next week.

The federal government is expected this week to award a contract worth more than $1 billion to start building the key components of its next-generation air traffic control system - a high-tech satellite-based network that officials say will bring down chronic flight delays.

Raytheon, ITT and Lockheed Martin are bidding for the project. Representatives of the companies all have confidence in their proposals, but decline to provide financial details about their bids.

The decision comes at a critical time. Flight delays are at record levels and commercial aviation is expected to continue growing steadily. The new network will rely on satellites, rather than radar, to guide aircraft, and is expected to allow planes to safely fly closer together and take more direct routes, saving fuel and time, as well as reducing pollution.

Pinpoint precision
The new system is based on automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), which relies on global positioning system (GPS) satellites. The airplanes get signals from satellites that pinpoint its precise location, similar to the devices in many new cars.

Planes then beam that data and other information about their speed and altitude to ground stations built all over the country. These ground stations, which are scheduled to be completed by 2013, will relay the information to the air traffic controllers who guide the planes.

The new network is far more precise and timely than radar, updating a plane's position every one second. The radars used at present sweep the sky every 3 to 12 seconds, forcing controllers to add extra space between planes to ensure they do not collide.

The new data will allow controllers to give planes more direct routes and handle more aircraft, FAA officials say, adding that the system will also improve the movement of planes at airports, reducing ground backups by pinpointing planes on the tarmac.

Proven over Alaska
Portions of Alaska, where radar coverage is spotty, have been successfully using ADS-B for several years. The FAA reports that since ADS-B was first deployed in Alaska, the fatal accident rate for general aviation has dropped by about 40 per cent.

Computer screens in cockpits will depict other planes in nearby airspace and on the ground, giving pilots what experts call better 'situational awareness'. The FAA would eliminate about half of its 398 radar installations during the switchover, though it needs the rest as back-ups in case the satellite system falters, and to help detect planes with malfunctioning ADS-B devices or planes intentionally trying to avoid detection.

Most aircraft probably won't be required to have ADS-B devices until about 2020, according to FAA officials. But they believe the necessary avionics will be installed on 25 percent of the nation's airline fleet by 2014. It could cost airlines tens of thousands of dollars to install ADS-B on each airplane, and regulators and industry executives are working out ways to create incentives for its early adoption.

Dateline 2013
Government officials say it will also improve safety by giving controllers and pilots more precise information about planes. Controllers could begin using the system to manage traffic nationally by 2013, according to officials at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). However, the airline industry doesn't expect its major benefits to be realised until 2020.

The FAA is working closely with aviation agencies in other parts of the world that are also developing satellite-based navigation systems, so that all networks can work together.

Who will pay?
Everybody, who supports building the new system. But it is projected to cost a huge $15 billion, and airlines and owners of small planes and private jets disagree strongly over how to finance the network. The US Congress is under pressure to work out a funding plan by 30 September, when the FAA's present mandate expires.

Airlines and the FAA have been aggressively lobbying Congress to scrap a 7.5 per cent tax on each airline ticket, which provides a large chunk of the FAA's funding, and replace it with a system of fees for flights. They argue that air carriers pay more than their share for using the air traffic control system and that the ticket tax is an unreliable funding mechanism. General aviation and business jet groups are vocally battling any effort to impose fees on their users.

Contractor conundrum
Another debate is about using contractors to build and operate the system, especially the ground stations. The FAA feels relying on contractors to build and maintain the network is a smart move, because "internally owned and operated systems don't necessarily get the best results".

But others do not agree. Congressman James L Oberstar (Democrat from Minnesota), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has said he was worried that the FAA would rely too heavily on contractors. "These are public resources that serve the public interest, and the public should manage it," Oberstar has said.

ATCs doubtful
There's another worry. A section of the most vital cog in the system - air traffic controllers - are more worried about whether the new technology will do much to ease delays at all. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association says the main reason for the delays isn't the technological infrastructure, but the simple fact that there is no landing space for the planes, and over-scheduling by airlines.

Government officials say they cannot wait any longer to start building the system. The rest of the world is developing similar networks, and they may be the only way to keep pace with expected air traffic growth. The number of takeoffs and landings at towered airports in the United States is projected to grow by 1.4 million a year until 2020, according to the FAA. By 2015, more than 1 billion passengers a year are expected to board commercial flights, up from 740 million last year.

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