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How to Land Planes – And Why America (as always) Lags

By Shlomo Maital   

 air traffic control radar – obsolete?

    It is human nature to want to do things the way they’re always done, because, well, doing things different (and better) means change, and change is often uncomfortable and requires some thinking. 

   Take, for instance, the way planes land.  With expanding air travel, and zero infrastructure investment in America, airports are congested and delays pile up. 

  The old way to land planes uses radar-based air traffic control.  Radar sweeps the air every 6 seconds.  Air controllers watch radar screens and tell pilots what to do.  A jet aircraft can go a long way in six seconds. (At 600 mph, it travels a mile in six seconds).  So air controllers keep wide buffer zones between flights.  Planes get ‘stacked’ and descend in ‘steps’, wasting expensive jet fuel.

   There is a better way.  Use satellite technology (GPS), which tracks position to within 10 meters.  Would you feel safer if your flight were tracked to  10-meter accuracy, rather than 1 mile accuracy?  Using GPS technology to land planes means far less congestion, less fuel wastage, less delay, and better use of airports and landing strips.  Planes simply reach the airport and land directly, guided precisely by GPS.  America’s Alaska Airlines will begin using GPS for landing  at Seattle-Tacoma Airport starting in June.  [Global New York Times, April 4, 2012, p. 17]. 

   Why, then, isn’t GPS landing technology adopted?  Well, of course, money.  It will take huge sums to replace radar-based air control with GPS air control – by one estimate, $42 b. by 2025.  The thing is, if you compute the rate of return, on fuel saving and safety, it’s worth it. 

   GPS landing technology is a strategic operations innovation.   Alaska Airlines is pioneering in it, because it has to land in very bad weather in small Alaska airstrips nestled between mountains.  The GPS “NextGen” technology is a battleground between Federal regulators and airlines about who will foot the bill.  New planes have this technology.  But older ones need retrofits that cost $340,000 per plane.  For fleets of thousands of planes, that’s a fortune.  As airline losses mount, reluctance to spend that cash grows. 

    Perhaps consumer pressure can help.  GPS technology is far safer, and less prone to errors, than air controllers’ radar.  Let air travelers ask their travel agents, is the plane you are booking me on GPS-equipped?  Why not?   Consumer pressure can perhaps accelerate operations innovation,  when the federal government lags.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
April 2012