LOUISVILLE -- There's an unusual hush in the cockpit of the hulking UPS Boeing 767 as it begins its descent 127 miles and 35,000 feet above the airport here.
Instead of a cacophony of air-traffic radio calls instructing the pilots which way to turn, the jet's computer-navigation system is following a programmed path to the runway with barely a word from controllers. The jet's engines are quiet, too, idling as the nearly 300,000-pound aircraft glides to within 10 miles of the runway.
The pioneering flight plan, demonstrated for a USA TODAY reporter, is made possible by a suite of new technologies that the Federal Aviation Administration hopes will become the foundation of air-traffic improvements over the next decade. This week, the FAA plans to award a $1 billion contract for the centerpiece of these new technologies, a system known as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B).
ADS-B will create a nationwide system to replace radar with a far more accurate aircraft tracking system based on the Global Positioning System. It also will build a high-speed data network that will allow aircraft to transmit information to one another and the ground as if they were on the Internet.
These new technologies may be the only way to save the aviation system from the growing stranglehold of record flight delays, according to federal officials and aviation experts. The system could eventually allow jets to fly much closer together while lowering the risk of plane collisions, they say.
At UPS, the goals are more immediate. The procedure saves money by burning less fuel, reduces noise and pollution and improves efficiency at the massive package-sorting hub here.
"Still pretty much in power idle," says Capt. Christian Kast as he prepares to take control of the plane to land after nearly 20 minutes of the steady, fuel-saving descent. "That's beautiful."
A hefty investment
The new technology has been embraced by many in the aviation world, but that hasn't stopped criticism. Airlines are concerned they will have to spend millions of dollars for new equipment but must wait years to see efficiency gains. Private pilots say they see few benefits for themselves. And the companies seeking the contract disagree over the best way to build it.
"It leaves us scratching our heads, saying, 'Where are the benefits? Where is the payback for this investment?'" says Basil Barimo, vice president of the Air Transport Association, which represents large airlines.
"There is a lot of anxiety," says Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor John Hansman, who has conducted extensive studies of how the new system will work. "People don't know what the standards are, don't know what piece of equipment to buy. Benefits won't accrue until everybody has it and you have the procedures to take advantage of it. And both of those will take time and a lot of effort."
Even so, Hansman says, the federal government has little choice but to upgrade the current outmoded system of radars and radios first introduced in the 1950s. Other nations, such as Australia, are already moving to the new technology.
"We can't not do it," he says.
Currently, radars sweep the sky to keep track of planes. But radars spin around as slow as once every 12 seconds. A jet at high altitude travels more than a mile in 12 seconds. That forces the FAA to keep planes at least 5 miles apart at those altitudes to prevent collisions.
By contrast, ADS-B will give controllers a plane's location once every second and with greater accuracy than radar. Planes use GPS devices to determine their location and broadcast it to ground stations or to other aircraft equipped with ADS-B.
It would be simple to allow planes to come within 3 miles instead of 5 at high altitudes once the system is in place, said Vinny Capezzuto, who heads the FAA's office overseeing the project.
ADS-B has another advantage: Radar can be viewed only by controllers on the ground, but ADS-B allows aircraft to track one another. That means a pilot in the cockpit could monitor other nearby flights, eventually choosing a route without help from controllers.
Finally, the FAA's plan for ADS-B also includes a high-speed data link between planes and the ground. This will give aircraft better weather information and a host of additional data to help fly more efficiently.
Capezzuto said he expects ADS-B to revolutionize flying in the same way that personal computers transformed business and entertainment.
"This is the linchpin that is going to move us into the next generation air-traffic system," he said.
However, even Capezzuto concedes that many of the benefits of ADS-B won't occur until 2020, when planes must have equipment that track other planes from the cockpit.
More landings, less fuel
At UPS' headquarters in Louisville, the cargo hauler is trying to create benefits from ADS-B far sooner. Because UPS' jets make up virtually 100% of flights after 11 p.m. here, it can put ADS-B to use almost immediately. The efficient, computer-guided approaches are just the beginning, says Capt. Karen Lee, the firm's chief pilot.
It is seeking permission from the FAA to choose the order of some of its arrivals, a task now handled by controllers. Because UPS is equipping its jets with a full set of ADS-B equipment, its pilots will be able to track the airline's other jets from a display in the cockpit.
Computerized navigation equipment will allow jets to follow each other in line, automatically adjusting speed to avoid getting too close.
The result will be a 10%-15% increase in landings an hour, fuel savings of 1 million gallons a year, a 30% reduction in noise and 34% lower nitrous oxide emissions, Lee says.
The airline also hopes to improve safety. One of the top risks to safety in aviation today is the potential for jets to collide on the ground, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. If the FAA approves, UPS later this year will begin using ADS-B technology to show pilots where other planes are on the ground.
"It is a tremendous step forward," Lee says.