Within a decade, airline pilots may be able to fly where they want, as fast as they want and at the altitudes they want under an air traffic control plan announced by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The new system, called “free flight,” will let pilots choose their routes, taking advantage of favorable winds and avoiding storms as they cross the nation.
Air traffic controllers, who now dictate most routes, will still keep watch to make sure planes don’t come too close.
“Free flight really means a more flexible way of managing air traffic,” Federal Aviation Administrator David R. Hinson said Friday.
“I think we now have a blueprint for the future of the air traffic control system,” said Robert W. Baker of American Airlines.
“Free flight is synonymous with benefits for everyone,” added David Watrous, chairman of the government-industry panel that developed the plan. He said benefits will include improved safety, faster travel and reduced operating costs for airlines.
But Hinson noted that instituting the plan is a long and complicated project expected to take at least 10 years.
Complex electronic gear will keep air traffic controllers informed of where planes are and allow them to step in and order route changes when aircraft approach one another too closely.
While free flight will be available to all pilots, it will have the greatest impact on airlines.
Currently, most airliners follow directions from ground-based controllers crossing the country from one check point to another, often in zigzag paths that waste time and burn unnecessary fuel.
Having them follow these paths lets the controllers know where the planes are and keeps them at least three miles apart horizontally and 1,000 feet apart vertically.
With free flight, planes will no longer be confined to those narrow jet routes around the country.
They will be able to “go where they want to as fast as they want to at the altitude they want to,” explained Lane Speck of the FAA.
Controllers will monitor the traffic and step in only to make sure the planes keep a safe distance apart and avoid prohibited airspace and to prevent congestion in high-traffic areas, he said.
Free flight will use radar, global positioning systems and electronic communications to track planes and allow the pilots and controllers to be aware of two egg-shaped zones around each craft.
No aircraft will be allowed to enter the smaller protected zone around a plane, Speck said. When the larger alert zone of one plane conflicts with another the pilots and controllers will be alerted to act to avoid problems.
“This is truly dynamic air traffic management,” he said. The size of these zones will vary depending on the size and speed of the planes involved.
Allowing the planes to leave the current jet routes will spread them out and make conflicts less likely, Speck said.
Hinson said it is possible that free flight will allow planes to fly closer together than is currently permitted, but that will have to be determined in the future.
Free flight doesn’t mean an end to air traffic control, though.
“We think the automation will assist humans, not replace them,” he said.
Indeed, Hinson noted that projections call for the number of people flying in the United States to increase from 550 million to 1 billion in 20 years, which will result in a need for more traffic controllers to help handle the extra flights, even with free flight in place.
Airlines have been anxious to begin free flight and a version of the system has been tested over the South Pacific ocean by Northwest, United and Qantas airlines.
That test uses satellite radio links to keep air traffic controllers in Oakland, Calif., informed of the position of planes.
In addition, the National Route Program permits planes crossing the country above 33,000 feet to select their own routes.
That is expected to be lowered to 29,000 in a phased process.
Airlines have estimated the National Route Program saves them as much as $40 million a year by allowing them to choose faster routes.
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