Thursday, August 09, 2001

System of future in use at airport

New traffic control unit to land in 2004

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ERLANGER — A half-second might not seem like much, but to air traffic controllers and pilots, it can be an eternity.

        That's why the new air traffic control system displayed Wednesday at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport's control tower is seen not only as a way to make the nation's air space safer but also more efficient. It's also a possible way to reduce delays.

        “There is no better equipment that can handle the demand in this country and the conditions we have,” said local controller Randy Weiland, a 17-year veteran. “The quicker we can see information and the more accurate it is, the better we can do our jobs.”

[photo] A tower display monitor from the STARS program was on display Wednesday at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
        The system, called the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS), is being installed at 190 civilian control centers and another 170 military towers in the next six years at a cost of $1.4 billion.

        The 3-year-old Cincinnati tower, which also handles air traffic for Lunken and Blue Ash airports, is to get the new system in fiscal year 2004 at an anticipated cost of $1.3 million. Under normal circumstances, the local tower handles about 1,800 takeoffs and landings daily; the nation's air controllers oversaw more than 181 million operations in 2000, or almost 500,000 a day.

        In addition to being faster, the new system replaces green and black screens with full color monitors, allowing planes experiencing an emergency to immediately show up in red.

        It also allows the radar rooms that are usually dimly lit to feature full overhead lighting, improving conditions for the controllers.

        It doesn't actually replace the radar itself. The system upgrades the interface between the controller and the information coming in from the radar — thereby improving weather monitoring.

        “It can show wind shear and microbursts and the exact locations of thunderstorms,” said Jack McAuley, STARS spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency responsible for installing the new equipment. “We can bring in planes more efficiently and perhaps get planes off the ground with escape routes that we can't see now.”

        Mr. McAuley said that because the new system would only oversee airspace, it wouldn't directly affect the number of close calls, or incursions, on the runways. Last year, Cincinnati had four such incidents, ranking among the highest national rates. One has occurred so far this year.

        “It will make everything more efficient and organized and help the controllers do their job in identifying where people are even better, and that can only help overall,” Mr. McAuley said.

        The improvements in efficiency could be so great that federal officials and the controllers' union are already studying whether they could shorten the current standard distances between planes that are landing or taking off.

        Such an action could expand capacity by allowing more planes to take off or land within a certain period of time, which could lessen delays. Last year was the worst on record for the nation's airlines when it came to on-time performance, although they have improved somewhat so far this summer.

        Cincinnati is home to Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines' second-largest hub and the main hub for Erlanger-based regional carrier Comair. The airport has ranked among the best of the nation's largest airports when it comes to on-time departures and arrivals for most of the year.

        Mr. Weiland, who handles legislative affairs for the national union, said he has already begun discussions with officials at the office of U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky to try to shorten “separation” standards. Mr. Rogers, a Somerset Republican, is chairman of the House budget subcommittee on transportation.

        The standards can vary by visibility and weather conditions but are generally three miles for planes that are landing and 6,000 feet for planes taking off.

        “This system would give us a faster return, and the faster and more accurate system we have, the more efficiently we can get the planes in and out,” Mr. Weiland said. “This could get it done.”

        The system, manufactured by Massachusetts-based Raytheon, has been shown previously in Washington and at an air show in Wisconsin. Wednesday was the first time it was displayed for controllers at an actual tower.

        The display coincided with the local tower receiving the FAA's Southern Region facility of the year award based on safety and on-time performance, among other factors. The Cincinnati tower, the third-largest in the Southern region and the 24th-busiest in the country, finished second for the overall national award to Boston.



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