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Initial McTMA Test a Success in Northeast Corridor

December 15, 2004

As the busy holiday travel season goes into full swing, NASA is helping ensure future holiday air travel will remain safe and efficient.

In mid-November, NASA Ames Research Center located in California's Silicon Valley, MITRE Corp., McLean, Virginia, and the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA, Washington D.C., successfully conducted tests of the Multi-center Traffic Management Advisor, McTMA, at air traffic facilities responsible for the busy airspace over the northeastern United States. Initial results indicate that the McTMA system's scheduling capabilities helped air traffic managers prevent bottlenecks at the Philadelphia International Airport.

"McTMA is an advanced air traffic management system that makes possible a fundamental shift in air traffic control from distance-based to time-based metering of aircraft," said Tom Edwards, Deputy Director for the Aeronautics Directorate at NASA Ames. "Time-based metering has been shown to reduce airborne delays and improve coordination and planning between adjacent air traffic control facilities," he added.

At the heart of McTMA is a powerful "trajectory synthesis" engine capable of converting radar data, flight plans, and weather information into highly accurate forecasts of air traffic congestion. McTMA uses these forecasts, along with input from air traffic personnel, to generate a specific advisory-typically a small delay-for each aircraft predicted to encounter congestion downstream.

The tests, conducted with managers at the Air Route Traffic Control Centers in New York, Washington, Boston, and Cleveland, as well as the Philadelphia Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) and the national Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Herndon, Virginia, validated the McTMA "distributed scheduling architecture," a NASA innovation that it believes is key to future advancements in air traffic management.

"The evaluation successfully demonstrated the advantages of the McTMA departure metering capability over current techniques," said Tom Davis, Chief of the Terminal Area Air Traffic Management Research Branch. "During several periods at Philadelphia when airborne holding is routinely encountered, no such holding was observed when McTMA was in use."

Frequently, adjustments of just a few minutes on departure or en route can alleviate airborne traffic jams at the destination. The result is safer and more efficient operations for airlines and the flying public as the system produces a steady but manageable flow of air traffic.

"Future tests will seek to gradually expand the McTMA operational envelope to demonstrate multi-center time-based metering of departures, arrivals, and en route flows to multiple destinations," said Davis.

An earlier version of the system is currently being used to schedule arriving traffic at Dallas-Fort Worth, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Denver, Houston, Miami and Atlanta. As testing progresses, McTMA's time-based metering may be applied more generally to departures, arrivals, and en route traffic across broader airspace regions and more chronically congested air traffic corridors.

Testing of the newer McTMA system is scheduled to resume in the Northeast in February 2005. If fully successful, NASA and the FAA will work together to bring the technology into operation in the coming years.
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