Just not enough…ADS-B can’t solve flight delays alone

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The FAA issued a notice of proposed rule making calling for aircraft to be equipped for satellite-based traffic control by the year 2020, amid Congressional, media and public clamoring for quick solutions to the worst period of flight delays in the history of aviation.

Even the outgoing FAA administrator acknowledged that many of the delays are the result of scheduling by the airlines, indicating that little relief will be seen for the carriers with the new air traffic control system unless there are more airports, more sensible scheduling, or both.

What does all this mean to general aviation?

First, regardless of the outcome of the present FAA reauthorization bill and the threat of user fees, the airlines are sure to come back with stronger and nastier approaches to getting general aviation out of what they consider “”their”" skies.

Second, there is little chance airport development will come in time to alleviate the problems the airlines cause themselves with scheduling and hubbing. This means the government will have to step in. The most popular quick solution considered now is peak time pricing at major airports. If this occurs, general aviation is certain to be caught up in the net and face added charges for landing fees at some airports. The airlines oppose peak time pricing and can be expected to call for more restrictions on general aviation.

The new proposed rule from the FAA calls for all aircraft operating in controlled airspace after the year 2020 to be equipped with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B). Costs for the equipment, which would replace ATC radar, are estimated by the FAA to range from $4,328 to $17,283, plus $2,250 to $5,000 for installation in a piston-engine aircraft. Equipping turboprops would start at around $13,000 and pure jets around $4,000 at the low end going to several hundreds of thousand dollars at the top, but installation costs for those aircraft would be minimal. (See separate story on page 13).

This so-called “”NextGen”" (next generation) air traffic control system, to replace radar, allegedly will permit aircraft to fly closer together by providing position information to controllers more quickly than radar does now. ADS-B would transmit position information 10 times faster than radar. However, skeptics see little value in spacing aircraft closer, even in terminal areas, if landing slots and gate positions are still limited by too few airports and poor scheduling practices.

This year, airlines are hitting new highs in delayed and cancelled flights, causing Congress to step in. Transportation leaders in the House held a news conference to criticize the FAA’s planning for 13 years ahead while ignoring immediate problems. Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the committee on transportation and infrastructure, Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), chairman of the aviation subcommittee, and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), a member of the subcommittee on aviation, said delays have been worse the first half of this year than in any period since the Bureau of Transportation Statistics started keeping records. The three pointed out that the FAA reauthorization bill pending in Congress would force the FAA to bring the airlines together for schedule reductions and, if voluntary efforts failed, to take administrative actions.

Air traffic controllers highlight the delays but cite staffing as a major reason. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) says the FAA is at an 11-year low in the number of experienced controllers while delays have skyrocketed. Delays reached near the 728,000 mark in the first five months of 2007, according to NATCA, compared to fewer than 286,000 in 2002. NATCA also states that business jets are not the cause of delays.

Although delays to air carriers might seem to be a problem for the airlines, steps taken by government to control traffic are bound to have a direct impact on general aviation.

Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.

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