...Technology Not The Whole Answer

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The FAA, often with help from NASA, is always at work on new technology to address congestion. In some cases, that's welcomed by controllers, when new systems increase their situational awareness. But some initiatives are practical and theoretical nightmares, according to Doug Fralick, NATCA's director of safety and technology. NASA and the FAA are currently working on the Distributed Air/Ground Traffic Management (DAG-TM) system that puts collision-avoidance information in the cockpit and lets pilots pick their own routes to "safely and seamlessly fit into the traffic flow." Fralick said pilots should stick to flying the airplane. Fralick said that using computers to "decide" when and where it is safe to fly is "far, far down the road."

He said it's currently impossible for programmers to design software that can accommodate the myriad circumstances that contribute to the go/no-go decision. "Things happen at airports," said Fralick, who was a controller at O'Hare for 14 years. "It's a dynamic world." And even if a system could be designed to safely allow pilots to make air traffic control decisions, Fralick said that would open a whole new can of worms. He said pilots' natural tendency would be to put more space between their and other aircraft, rather than to tighten up. And deciding among themselves who's first for landing might not always work so "seamlessly," he suggested. Fralick said Reduced Vertical Separation Minimums (RVSM), which reduce high-altitude en route vertical separation from 2,000 feet to 1,000 feet, will create all the en route capacity needed for now. The problem is (and always has been) at the airports.