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June 2005


SATS 2005:
Small Aircraft Transportation System Anything but Small


There was nothing "small" about the Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS) demonstration, held June 6 in Danville, VA. It was proof positive of SATS' enormous potential for the way we fly in the 21st century and is one of the first transformation keys to the Next Generation Air Transportation System.

Congressman Virgil H. Goode, Jr. whose 5th District includes Danville Regional Airport best summed up SATS' importance: "Over the years, I've heard a number of speakers say, 'The future is now.' Ladies and gentlemen. Look around you. The future of aeronautics in the United States is now."

The five-year, public-private SATS partnership is developing operating capabilities and enabling technologies necessary to make safe, affordable, on-demand air traffic travel available through the nation's small, often under-utilized public airports. So why is this initiative so important? To begin with, think increased capacity.

There are more than 5,400 rural and suburban airports and 98 percent of the population lives within 30 minutes of one. Unfortunately, these airports - many of which lack control towers or radar - became the Cinderellas of aviation. But in the Next Generation System, they will come back to life and help us increase capacity throughout the system.

And that's where SATS comes in. It's the technological glass slipper for these facilities.

Speaking at the demonstration, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey observed that SATS "will help provide the cockpit technologies, such as digital data links, GPS, synthetic displays of terrain and onboard conflict detection. The very kind of technology that will make smaller airports like Danville become more accessible to people. The more travel into and out of the smaller airport, the less stress on the bigger, busier airports. It's academic … and it's a lesson we can't afford to miss."

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin added: "The technologies and operating capabilities you will see demonstrated here today could be the precursor of a whole new kind of air travel. One where people can fly where they want, almost any time they want in all kinds of weather. This kind of personalized air travel could dramatically change how we live, how we work, and how we play."

The SATS project is focused on four operating capabilities that may help permit people and goods to travel faster and farther, anywhere and any time. They include:

  • Automated flight-path management systems that allow higher volume operations at airports that don't have control towers or terminal radar;
  • Guidance and display systems to allow pilots to land safely in low visibility conditions at minimally equipped airports;
  • On-board graphics and data displays to improve single pilot performance; and
  • Assessment of the effects of seamlessly integrating a large number of SATS aircraft into the national airspace.

These capabilities will certainly help increase airspace system capacity, but just as important is what SATS can do for smaller communities like Danville and thousands of others across the United States. Rep. Goode said, "The old joke in rural America was, 'you can't get there from here.' The new reality in any part of America is, 'with SATS, you can get there from here.'"

Indeed, SATS can link them together through point-to-point, go-when-you-want-to-go service. This bodes well not just for quality of life, but for the economic lifeblood of these communities. As Administrator Blakey concluded, "We've always known that good things come in small packages. What we're seeing today is proof that great things come in small packages as well."

Cooling Off the Long Hot (and Congested) Summer:
FAA Administrator Blakey Offers Long-Term Solutions

Ah summer! Get ready to pack the swimsuit, guidebooks and camera. But here's a question for you: What do Philadelphia, LaGuardia, Newark, Washington Dulles, Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale have in common? Answer: According to the DOT Inspector General, these are the six airports to watch this summer and beyond for big delays. Testifying at a May 26th Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Aviation hearing on capacity and congestion, Ken Mead warned that travelers could be in for a bumpy ride similar to the so-called "Summer of Waiting" in 2000. However, help is on the way in both the short- and the long-term.

FAA Administrator Blakey told the subcommittee what the agency is doing over the next 10 years to alleviate these problems through the Operational Evolution Plan (OEP) and other efforts. For example, the agency is bringing to bear innovative new procedures. One of these - "delayed triggering" - imposes minor delays on the ground to avert massive delays across the National Airspace System. Implementation this year of Domestic Reduced Vertical Separation Minimums also provided "a tremendous boost to air capacity because it essentially doubles capacity at high altitudes, adding six cruising altitudes or jet lanes above 29,000 feet." Additionally, the FAA is pouring a lot of concrete for new runways at congested airports.

The Administrator pointed to some of the technological advances that are also helping the FAA to maintain a safe and efficient air traffic system. One example of this is Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) - a precise navigation system that enhances the satellite signals from GPS to provide the accuracy and reliability for pilots to rely on GPS during flight. WAAS makes more airspace usable to pilots, provides more direct en route paths, and provides new precision approach services to runway ends, "Since WAAS became operational in July 2003, the FAA has developed 3,000 WAAS approaches. This is a significant accomplishment in modernizing how we use our airspace, and one which will have a lasting positive effect on capacity," she observed.

However, Gerald L. Dillingham, GAO's Director, Physical Infrastructure Issues told the subcommittee that the FAA acknowledges that the OEP is "not intended as the ultimate solution to congestion and delay problems." Indeed, Administrator Blakey told the subcommittee that in the longer term, "we know that these short and mid-term efforts will simply not be enough. The recent FAA aviation forecast provides further evidence that our current system, already coming under stress in some areas, will be stretched to its limit as future demand continues to grow." Harkening back to Secretary Mineta's landmark January 2004 Aero Club speech, she made the case and call for transformation of our air transportation system - starting now.

The Administrator detailed the vision of the future system: "Our overarching goal in the Next Generation initiative is to develop a system that will be flexible enough to accommodate very light jets and large commercial aircraft, manned or unmanned air vehicles, small airports and large, business and vacation travelers alike, and to handle up to three times the number of operations that the current system, does with no diminution in safety, security and efficiency. At the same time, the system would minimize the impact of aviation on the environment."

The Administrator's views on the need for transformation were shared by Mr. Mead. He testified that setting expectations for the JPDO is critical and that the reasons why this effort is so important go beyond the forecasted demand in air travel and mix of new aircraft:

    It is also important because much of FAA's current capital account focuses on keeping things running (i.e. infrastructure sustainment), not new initiatives. FAA's current air traffic control system will not be sufficient to accommodate future growth in traffic or the changes facing the aviation community. Key issues focus on what new systems are needed and how new systems, capabilities, procedures and changes in airspace management can transform the way air traffic services are provided. FAA needs to determine what the [JPDO] can do in 5- and 10-year intervals and establish corresponding funding requirements.

So for the short-term, air travelers may want to pack a little extra patience along with the SPF-30 sunscreen as new capacity enhancements are brought on line. But for the longer-term, we know we need much more to match the vision enunciated by Secretary Mineta and Administrator Blakey. And that's what the JPDO member agencies and their industry partners are already hard at work - creating the Next Generation Air Transportation System.

In Brief

The Joint Planning and Development Office briefed FAA's Commercial Space Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) on the Next Generation Air Transportation System last month in Washington, DC. COMSTAC welcomed its new members and discussed the state of the commercial space industry. According to Hoyt Davidson, CEO of Near Earth LLC, promising growth factors for satellites are government services, HDTV and broadband communications… and while there is an "impressive demand" for space tourism, more work is needed to make space vacations affordable and safe… The NGATS Senior Policy Committee meets in Washington, DC on June 17…If you haven't signed up for Airport 2025, now is the time. You'll have the chance to meet Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta at the welcoming reception for the Safe Skies Alliance meeting, and learn the latest about the NGATS initiative. The meeting is scheduled for June 28-30.

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