- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 7, 2002

Airlines should be able to cut a few minutes off each flight and save fuel because of a new computer system controlling flight paths in the Mid-Atlantic, the Federal Aviation Administration said yesterday.
The software in the $225 million "Free Flight" system allows air-traffic controllers to guide pilots along the most direct routes while still avoiding turbulence or other airplanes ahead.
Ultimately, the efficiency improvements could result in lower airfares, said Jane F. Garvey, FAA administrator.
Prototypes of the Free Flight technology tested for the last three-and-a-half years at air-traffic control centers in Memphis, Tenn., and Indianapolis saved airlines $1.5 million per month for flights through their airspace.
"With more direct routes, Free Flight helps bring shorter flights to passengers," Mrs. Garvey said. "This technology helps pilots, controllers and the person sitting in row 15, seat B."
The Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center in Leesburg, Va., is the sixth regional center to receive the new computer system. It took over flight control over the Mid-Atlantic on April 12. Other centers with the system are in Kansas City, Cleveland, Chicago, Indianapolis and Memphis.
The Leesburg air-traffic control center oversees about 7,500 flights per day throughout a 180,000-square-mile area from New Jersey to the north, South Carolina to the south, West Virginia to the west and east over the Atlantic Ocean. So far, 80 of the center's 409 air-traffic controllers have been trained to use the Free Flight system.
The FAA plans to have the system operating in all 21 regional air-traffic control centers by the end of 2004.
Time savings through the airspace of any one air-traffic control center might be as little as one minute, or 10 minutes in a coast-to-coast flight.
"That adds up in fuel costs and your on-time performance," said Dave Perkins, an FAA project manager.
The computer system was developed under contracts with Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp. and McLean-based MITRE Corp., both high-tech defense contractors.
The software allows controllers to project any possible problems that might arise along a flight path 20 minutes into the future and adjust the path to avoid them. The 600,000 lines of software, along with the information fed to the system from other sources, are programmed to update controllers on weather, other flights in the area, the availability of equipment and flight delays.
Previously, air-traffic controllers relied on mental calculations and paper "flight strips" listing each airplane under their control to determine a flight path.
Contractors said the FAA pressured them to deliver the system quickly after good results from early tests in Memphis and Indianapolis.
"It was a very aggressive schedule," said Diane DeSua, Lockheed Martin's program director. Recently, the company has received inquiries from European countries about installing the same system there, she said.
Even the sometimes-contentious aviation labor unions described the Free Flight technology as an improvement.
"It's definitely leaps and bounds over what we've had before," said Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.


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