Oct. 16--Every flight over the Gulf of Mexico is a test of old-fashioned aeronautical skills and faith.
Ground-based radar that guides aircraft throughout U.S. air space does not extend into the Gulf, making the nation's Third Coast a giant blind spot for air traffic controllers.
To track high-altitude commercial aircraft as well as low-flying helicopters servicing more than 5,500 oil platforms in the Gulf, controllers use a grid system to plot aircraft based on positions most recently reported by radio rather than their actual real-time locations.
But soon Houston-area air traffic controllers will have eyes over the Gulf.
The Federal Aviation Administration, through private contractor ITT Corp. in McLean, Va., is installing and operating a satellite-guided network of information broadcasting towers on oil platforms throughout the Gulf.
"We've used radar for the past 50 years and it has served us well, but it has reached its limits," said Jim Linney, the FAA program manager overseeing the upgrade of the Gulf system.
The project is part of a $20 billion nationwide upgrade of the air traffic control system from radar to GPS.
With this next generation air traffic guidance system, called NextGen, controllers will be able to pinpoint aircraft locations and speed up the travel times over the Gulf.
That will especially help commercial helicopter services, which deliver crews, supplies and emergency help to oil platforms and other locations offshore.
"Pilots in the air will have the same information that the FAA air traffic controllers have on the ground; this is a fundamental shift in how we manage air traffic," Linney said.
Houston is among five locations nationwide getting early installation of the technology that makes it all possible, called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast.
It uses electronics on aircraft in combination with satellites and ground receivers to transmit aircraft location information to traffic controllers and to other aircraft.
Officials hope that air travel will become faster and safer when the traffic management system is expanded to heavily congested areas. The other four early installation sites are in Seattle, Philadelphia, Louisville, Ky., and Juneau, Alaska.
Early tryouts of the technology, however, underscore the difficulties of modernizing the nation's air traffic control system.
Glitches in a new computer system key to the NextGen project surfaced during a test last week in Salt Lake City. The Associated Press reported that the automated computer program misidentified aircraft until a human controller caught the mistake.
That computer system is scheduled to be operational by the end of 2010 in about 20 regional air traffic centers, but the full conversion is not expected to be complete until 2025.
A main purpose of NextGen is to boost safety while reducing the kind of delays that create aircraft gridlock on the ground.
That is an attention-getting mission in a climate where passengers have seen the degeneration of customer service in air travel.
But solving that problem is not as simple as installing new equipment and flipping some switches.
Additional funding for NextGen modernization is requested in the FAA re-authorization bill before Congress. Also tied to that bill is a proposal to require airlines to release passengers from delayed and grounded aircraft within certain time limits.
Kate Hanni, founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers Bill of Rights, which is leading the effort to get airline customer-service policies written into law, said issues that plague air travel can be broken into three main parts:
--Maintenance and readiness of aircraft;
--Limited airport capacity;
--Airline scheduling and tarmac-delay policies.
NextGen will alleviate some of problems related to airport capacity, but airlines must address the other two issues, Hanni says.