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Reprint Courtesy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

February 15, 1996

New air-traffic system praised after D/FW test

G. Chambers Williams III

D/FW AIRPORT -- For a few hours yesterday, airplanes landed at a rate so fast it seemed that D/FW Airport's new runway had opened. That was not actually the case.

Instead, the FAA was testing a new computer program that thinks like a controller and decides when and where arriving aircraft will land at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, experts said. The system worked so well that the airport's capacity to handle arriving airplanes rose immediately from 102 an hour to at least 144, said air-traffic experts who conducted the tests.

But the system -- known as FAST, for Final Approach Spacing Tool -- will not be used full time at D/FW's Terminal Radar Approach Control facility any time soon. Months of evaluation of the system and negotiations with the controllers union remain, officials said yesterday.

In April, tests will begin for a similar system at the Fort Worth Air Route Control Center just south of D/FW, whose controllers are responsible for guiding aircraft from about 230 miles out until they are close enough to be handed off to D/FW controllers.

In yesterday's tests at the D/FW radar facility, which controls planes up to 75 miles away, the FAST system worked "swimmingly well" during the 8, 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. "pushes" of incoming aircraft, said Ron Nichol, site coordinator for the system.

American Airlines officials and the controllers union agreed with that assessment.

"It worked really well, and we were very pleased with it," said Mark Pallone, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Union local at the D/FW radar facility, known as TRACON.

Union representatives have been involved from the start in the four- year development process for the system, a radical departure from usual Federal Aviation Administration procedures, Pallone said.

Because the computer program is designed to think like a controller, NASA developers observed controllers at work and consulted them throughout development, said Tom Davis, the NASA engineer in charge of the project.

The program for the Fort Worth center -- called TMA, for Traffic Management Advisor -- is designed to track incoming aircraft and provide more accurate predictions of when they will arrive about 75 miles out, where they are handed off to D/FW radar controllers, Nichol said.

By more precisely tracking the incoming aircraft, the system allows center controllers to space the planes closer together along designated "highways" in the sky, increasing the number of aircraft that can approach D/FW at any given time. Airplanes are kept three to six miles apart depending on the type of aircraft and its speed.

The TMA software takes into account each airline's operating characteristics in predicting when the aircraft will arrive at the handoff points, Nichol said.

The system should allow an average of two minutes to be shaved from each arriving aircraft's flight time, significantly cutting flight delays at D/FW, said Jim Karlovich, a center controller and union representative assigned to the TMA program.

Eventually, TMA and FAST will work together to control aircraft more precisely by computer, rather than human guesswork, from 230 miles out to the point where they touch down on a D/FW runway.

Unlike the FAST test, which lasted a few hours yesterday, the TMA test will go from April to August and can be left in place indefinitely, Nichol said.

"I'm hoping we can remain a prototype site and work with NASA in the continuing development of the program," Karlovich said. "I'm really enthusiastic about it. I think it's such an enhancement that we need to begin getting it out to controllers as soon as we can."

The FAST test was conducted on the airport's "south flow," which meant that wind conditions were right for aircraft to land to the south, which occurs about 70 percent of the time at D/FW. Separate software is being developed for north flowing traffic and will be tested at D/FW in late March, Nichol said.

The data from the FAST tests will be evaluated at NASA's Ames Research Center in San Jose, California, where the system is being developed. That information will be forwarded to FAA officials in Washington, D.C., who will decide whether to buy and install the system at D/FW and other U.S. airports.

The system, if accepted by the FAA, should be in operation at 15 to 20 airports by 2000, said NASA's Davis. He declined to give cost estimates, saying that the manufacture of the software and necessary equipment will eventually have to be put out for bids from private contractors.

FAST and TMA are part of an integrated air-traffic control software program called Center-TRACON Automation System, which is being developed by NASA to help take some of the decisions made by human controllers and turn them over to computers. A third component, called Descent Advisor, will add the computer's input on the rate of descent for aircraft as they approach airports.

"The whole idea is to have computers that can think like controllers," said Jo Ellen Casilio, the FAA's control-tower manager at D/FW.

That component and TMA are being tested at Denver International Airport, Davis said.

FAST is being tested at D/FW because of the airport's heavy traffic. It could save airlines at D/FW up to $100,000 a day in operating costs by cutting flight delays, calculations show. American Airlines officials say each minute of operation of one of their aircraft costs an average of $39.50, so a minute's saving spread systemwide would add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in a month.

D/FW now has the third-largest number of delays among U.S. airports while ranking second in the number of takeoffs and landings. On average in 1995, D/FW's flight delay was six minutes for each aircraft.

©1996 Fort Worth Star-Telegram
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