Issues persist in FAA's flight system

U.S. Federal Aviation Administration seal

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: The news of this morning's glitch in the air traffic control system would have been unwelcome any time. Coming as it did just before one of the busiest travel weeks of the year, it was a reminder of the limitations of our current system of getting planes from one place to the other. For more on what happened, and what the future might bring, we have reached aviation consultant Hans Weber in San Diego. Welcome to the program.

HANS WEBER: Thank you.

Ryssdal: We should say at the front, sir, that you have done some consulting work with the FAA over the years, yes?

WEBER: Yes, that's correct. But not on traffic management, but on aircraft safety.

Ryssdal: That being the case, why does it feel like these outages -- this is the second one in 15 months -- why does it feel like this keeps happening?

WEBER: Many of these system components go back to the 50s. This particular component that looks like it failed is a newer one that goes back to just a few years ago, but it interfaces with a lot of old systems. As old systems get old, they become less reliable. One major problem is for many of the old systems, the replacement and repair components are not necessarily easily available anymore. They're out of production.

Ryssdal: Well then, what does that say for our ability to prevent this from happening again? Do we have to replace the whole architecture, the whole infrastructure?

WEBER: That's the goal. We have a plan in this country to replace the entire system with a new one.

Ryssdal: How do we go about speeding up that replacement? Is it just a matter of getting more, bigger, faster computers and slapping them into a rack some place?

WEBER: No, it's a matter of implementing a completely different architecture. The current system is basically ground based. Ground-based radar keeps track of airplanes, which is not very accurate, so the airplanes have to be spaced far apart. And the controllers control every move of each airplane. There's no autonomy, basically. The future system is satellite based, every airplane will use a GPS receiver and will broadcast down to the ground information about its exact location, which is going to be 10 to 20 times more accurate than the current radar location information. And that information will be received at ground stations and then from there will go to the air-traffic controllers. This kind of system will not only tell the air traffic controllers, with much greater accuracy, where all the aircraft are. But in addition, aircraft will receive this information from other aircraft in the vicinity, so each aircraft itself will have a display of what's going on around it. So that will, in fact, provide pilots more autonomy to select the most efficient flight patterns.

Ryssdal: What do you suppose the price tag might be for this system?

WEBER: Yeah, the government-supplied infrastructure, the tag is estimated at about $20 billion. And then the other part, which is the equipage on aircraft, or the necessary avionic instrumentation on aircraft to receive these signals and transmit the signals, that is estimated to cost like another $20 billion, roughly.

Ryssdal: If we don't get it done by 2020 or even shortly before, what's at risk, what happens?

WEBER: We will suffer more and more economic damage. We will be going back to 2000, where the air traffic system began to be overloaded, and we had significant delays in the system. Plus, these delays will get worse. Plus, we will be suffering bad economic consequences, and our competition worldwide, our aviation industry has historically benefited from the fact that the FAA has basically set the standards for the whole world. And our aviation industry was always the first to market with new avionics equipment, so as we lose that lead our industry is going to lose the ability to command a higher profit margin for newly introduced, newly deployed technology.

Ryssdal: Hans Weber in San Diego, Calif. He's the president of TECOP International. It's an aviation consulting firm. Mr. Weber, thanks so much for your time.

WEBER: You're most welcome.

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