- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2000

With the loss of lives in the Concorde accident, air passengers across the United States are again asking themselves about the future of air travel.
Although air is still, by far, the safest way to travel (it has the lowest accident rate of any other form of transportation), the rapid increase in the volume of air travel that we are experiencing is resulting in more frequent aviation accidents. This situation could get worse in the future as air travel is expected to nearly double in the next 10 years and to triple in the next two decades.
While the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration are taking important steps to improve safety and airway-system capacity, much more is needed to deal with all of the challenges that loom in the future of aviation and air travel. It is time for us to take a serious look at U.S. aviation needs of the future. The challenges loom large: not enough capacity in our hub airports, too much airplane noise and pollution, too many flight delays and declining market share for U.S. aircraft manufacturers.
There are nine major problems that must be solved. None of them can be solved without the cutting-edge aeronautics research that is typically done by the. Much of this research is now dramatically underfunded or canceled. Further budget cuts could also reduce or eliminate vital research on aviation safety and airway-system capacity.
1. Air traffic, capacity and flight delays. The national airspace system will exceed capacity within the next decade. Domestic air passengers are projected to increase from the current 599 million passengers per year to more than 1.8 billion passengers per year by 2020. With that load, same-day travel anywhere within the continental United States will be doubtful, and delays will increase.
2. Safety. Air travel currently is the safest way to travel. If air-miles traveled continues to increase as projected and the accident rate remains unchanged, we will see major accidents with dramatic loss of life, such as the Concorde, grow to once-a-week occurrences. We can and must do better.
3. Noise. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year to insulate buildings and houses near airports. This is a "wearing gloves to solve a leaky pen" approach that is too expensive and inefficient. About 600,000 Americans suffer noise levels higher than 65 decibels in their homes, and the noise level can increase to 80 or 90 decibels when airplanes take off and land. We must make airplanes that are quieter without increasing pollution.
4. Pollution. Aircraft are the fastest growing generators of greenhouse gases in the transport sector, with a 57 percent rise in carbon-dioxide emissions between 1985 and 1995. Airplane emissions destroy the ozone layer. Cleaner air travel is needed, and that will take more engine research as well as lighter materials.
5. Military readiness. Technology used in today's U.S. military airplanes is based on research performed decades ago. Many of the wind tunnels used for aeronautics testing at NASA's research centers were built in the 1940s, and the newest, most advanced wind tunnels are now overseas. New technology is needed to solve the military challenges ahead, as well as those for commercial aviation.
6. Protection of secrets. New civil and military aircraft must now be tested abroad because of the poor state of U.S. facilities. This dependence on foreign test facilities threatens industrial and military security. American aeronautics research will continue to decline if testing facilities are not dramatically improved.
7. American jobs. Currently, the aviation industry is a leading contributor to the nation's economy. The industry directly employed more than 900,000 people in 1998. An additional 2 million people were employed in support fields. Even in its weakened state, the broader aviation industry contributed a net positive $41 billion to the nation's balance of trade in 1998. This was greater than all other exports combined. Less than 10 years ago, the United States had more than 70 percent of the world market for the manufacture of commercial aviation. Now, the United States is falling behind in the aeronautics race. Today, Airbus Industrie, a European Union consortium, commands more than 50 percent of that market. England, Germany, France and Japan have all been increasing their expenditures on aeronautics research while our spending has been declining.
8. Cutting lost time. Most air traffic (85 percent) is now funneled through 65 airports, but there are 5,400 public-use airports in the United States. The hub-and-spoke system causes long delays at the hub airports as air traffic increases. The technology is within reach to provide 24-hour-a-day sunshine and mapping in the cockpit that will reduce congestion by giving air travel the freedom to use all of U.S. airports, not just a select few.
9. Shipping of products. Air-freight traffic is expected to increase by 6.6 percent annually for the next 16 years. This is a significantly faster rate than air-passenger traffic will grow over the period. More companies than ever are demanding just-in-time inventory with small delivery windows. China's predicted ascendance on the world trade scene in the coming years could support a very large subsonic freighter. By the year 2015, Boeing believes air-cargo service could account for almost 40 percent of the total international cargo business. We are not, however, ready to meet those needs.
The problems of the future need new solutions that can only be achieved by high level scientific research. This research can only be done with an eye on the national good, and not just on a short-term industry or political fix. The nation needs new aviation solutions that will help leapfrog our ability to sustain economic growth and connections in the future, and that means a new generation of airplanes and aviation systems that are safer, quieter, cleaner, faster and better able to handle capacity needs.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, working with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Defense, is the place where those solutions can be created. After all, essentially every plane flying on Earth today has some advancement that was invented by NASA. Funding for NASA research, however, has been gutted by one-third over the last two years.
The Senate is now considering the NASA budget for aeronautics research in the coming year, and that budget deserves our support.


Anna Van Buren McNider is on the core team for the NASA Aeronautics Support Team (NAST), which works to ensure that proper emphasis and focus is placed on securing increased sustained support for NASA aeronautics research.

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