Modernization of the U.S. air traffic control system has proven a complex task over the past two decades, a challenge befitting rocket scientists. Maybe that’s why Boeing employs Michael Lewis as director of Business Development for Boeing Air Traffic Management initiatives, which works to ensure the airliner OEM is at the forefront of the ATC discussion. Lewis spent 18 years with NASA, directing numerous “leading edge” aviation development programs — from flight control research to wind shear detection. In 1998, he was named director of NASA’s Aviation Safety Program. He equates the task now before us as the equivalent of NASA’s Apollo program in the 1960s.
Next to Lewis’s Northern Virginia office outside Washington sits Neil Planzer, the well-heeled Boeing front man who appears frequently on the conference circuit, pressing for movement in the ATC battle. Together, they head up an initiative that seeks to serve as a catalyst for change, and to ensure Boeing is in synch with the global ATC system. There’s much work to do, he says.
AIRPORT BUSINESS recently interviewed Lewis for his insights on where ATC is today, and what needs to be done to get it where it needs to be. Following are edited excerpts ...
On the status of the ATC system today in the U.S. ...
“Today’s paradigm of how air traffic control works has about run out of steam and has reached the limits of its scalability.
“A human-controlled system, voice communicated, radar surveillance-based system by one person talking to one pilot at a time inherently can only take so much growth. A controller can handle a dozen to 15 or so airplanes at a time; if you get more than that you have to start subdividing the sectors. And at a certain point there’s a diminishing return on subdividing the airspace.
“Our view is that there is in fact a better way to do this; a more modern way to do this that takes advantage of technologies that are by and large here today — in terms of precision navigation, more accurate and high-speed surveillance, digital data communications, and an operational concept that takes advantage of all those things.
“There’s plenty of sky available; there’s not a fundamental limit on how many airplanes can be flown at a time. But we do need to get away from the operational paradigm that we’ve been using.”
On the role of controllers 20 years from now ...
“We’re not trying to get the human out of the picture, but it will move from a controller managing the position and vector of every aircraft to the controller managing trajectories, and much more controlling by exception as opposed to active participation. The airplane and its flight management system and the FAA’s ground automation are now well able to very accurately predict where the aircraft wants to be, where it’s going to be, very precisely.
“So the controller’s job, I think, is going to morph into manipulating those trajectories, and being well supported by the automation that will look ahead further in time and alert the controller to potential conflicts, and have the controller intercede more or less only when those conflicts arise.”
On the effect of the ongoing battle between FAA and the controllers union on the pubic discussion of ATC ...
“The system in operational concept discussions gets merged with union and management, the waters do get muddy. I think it’s pretty clear to all concerned that we have 14,000 to 15,000 controllers today; if in 20 years we’re thinking about handling double today’s operations, we won’t need or can’t afford 28,000 controllers. That is, keeping everything the same and just scaling it up. First, it’s operationally not feasible to do that; it’s certainly not affordable; and from a technology standpoint, it’s not necessary.”
On the controllers’ charge that they are not being brought into the modernization discussion by FAA ...
“The air traffic controllers’ perspective is fundamental to making these kinds of changes and they can and should be involved.”
Higher, faster, and farther have long been the goals of aircraft designers; less obvious has been the quest for quiet.
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