FAA to award contract to upgrade air traffic system

The Federal Aviation Administration plans to award a $1 billion contract this week to upgrade the nationwide air traffic control system, and the technology it will use is "truly amazing," says Danny Seybert, president of Peninsula Airways (PenAir), the largest commuter airline in Alaska.

For the past five years, PenAir has operated under a special air traffic control system that FAA developed for western and southeast Alaska to improve flight safety. The system, called Capstone, relies on the Global Positioning System to control air traffic and provide moving maps that pilots in the cockpit can monitor to avoid collisions with other aircraft -- or with mountains.

Using Capstone as a model, FAA plans to make an award this week for the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast system, which will use precise navigation and location information provided by GPS.

Each aircraft equipped with an ADS-B avionics suite uses the GPS signal to automatically determine its location and transmits that location to other aircraft equipped with the technology in its vicinity. The aircraft also sends its location to ground stations, which relay the information to FAA air traffic control centers. The centers, in turn, feed the ADS-B data into cockpit displays of other aircraft, allowing pilots and controllers to graphically view the location of all aircraft in an area.

FAA has said that with ADS-B, pilots will have "much better situational awareness because they will know where their aircraft are with greater accuracy….and will be able to maintain safe separation from other aircraft with fewer instructions from ground-based controllers."

Seybert said that with an ADS-B connection, he can use his computer in his Anchorage office to monitor any of PenAir's eight aircraft that are equipped with the technology. (The airline's fleet includes 40 aircraft.) In the cockpit, the ADS-B helps pilots avoid a major cause of aviation accidents in Alaska: "controlled flight into terrain" -- that is, running into mountains. ADS-B avionics systems include moving map displays of terrain the aircraft is flying over, providing pilots with an electronic "eye in the sky" in bad weather. The system also provides visual and audible alarms, Seybert said.

FAA has provided limited ADS-B access in Alaska for the past five years under the Capstone program. The agency announced this month that it had signed an agreement with various organizations to fast-track use of ADS-B throughout the state. These include the Alaska Airmen's Association, which represents general aviation users in the state; Alaska Air Carriers Association; Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation; Helicopter Association International; and PenAir and Frontier Flying Service.

Dee Hanson, president of the Alaska Airmen's Association, said the agreement solves the "chicken-and-egg problem" associated with any new technology: Should FAA or airlines install the technology first? FAA has committed to a statewide rollout of the ADS-B ground infrastructure, while aviation groups in the state have committed themselves to install ADS-B avionics in 4,000 aircraft, which account for about 90 percent of the flying hours in Alaska. Seybert said the avionics cost about $30,000 per aircraft, a stretch for a private pilot, but not a huge investment for a commercial carrier.

Hanson said that installation of ADS-B infrastructure in Alaska is primarily a safety issue, because it will allow aircraft to see each other in areas lacking radar coverage.

Karen Casanovas, executive director of the Alaska Air Carriers Association, said statewide installation of ADS-B "will finally put us on par" with the rest of the country and help reduce the aviation industry accident rate in the state, which is the highest in the country. FAA reports that Capstone has reduced accident rates by 47 percent in western Alaska. Casanovas estimated that statewide use could cut the accident rate by a third. Casanovas said aviation users have requested $17.5 million from FAA to support ADS-B aircraft avionics installations in Alaska and estimated the total cost of installing the ADS-B ground infrastructure at between $200 million and $300 million. Three industry teams are vying for the overall $1 billion ADS-B contract: ITT, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. If FAA sticks to its schedule, award will come no later then the end of this week.

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