Volpe Center Highlights
Improving the Safety and Efficiency of Air Travel (FAA)
Summer is the season for vacations, but for too many travelers, it is also the season for delays. Crowded flights, busy airports, and severe thunderstorms all contribute to challenging conditions for the nation's air traffic controllers, pilots, and airlines. The Volpe Center is working alongside the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and private industry partners to improve the safety and efficiency of air travel through the Enhanced Traffic Management System (ETMS) and other advanced air traffic control tools.
Improved Version of ETMS Released
Many air traffic delays are attributable to severe weather (such as thunderstorms) en route or low visibility at the destination airport. On May 17, 2001, the Automation Applications Division, under the direction of Mr. Dick Bair, introduced an improved version of ETMS, the real-time operations system used by the FAA and airlines to manage traffic through the nation's airspace. This release contains major improvements that will increase efficiency and facilitate Collaborative Decision Making (CDM), the FAA's high-priority initiative to improve operational service through sharing of information between the airlines and the FAA's Air Traffic organization. CDM is an innovative process that enables decisions regarding landing priorities and rerouting to be made by airlines or by the airlines and FAA together.
Flights destined for an airport where visibility is low are often held before they leave the ground, in order to avoid circling the airport when they arrive. The improved system contains information on changing airport weather conditions, known as Runway Visual Range (RVR) data, at 45 high-activity airports. Formerly, visibility data was only available directly from the traffic control tower at each airport. Now that this RVR data is available in real time nationwide, airlines and the FAA will be notified immediately that conditions at the destination airport are improving, thus enabling them to make decisions accordingly. Positive results of this common situational awareness were noted immediately. The day the new system was installed, Northwest Airlines noted to the Volpe Center how the immediate availability of RVR data allowed the airline and FAA to quickly agree on ending a ground delay and resuming regular service.
"The up-to-the-second information helped Northwest Airlines to deal effectively with our part of the solution to the dreaded fog event."
The new version of ETMS also includes a Simplified Substitution Process for airlines to request priority handling of certain flights. In earlier versions of ETMS, scheduling determinations were based primarily on the scheduled arrival time of each flight. Now, if a certain flight has many passengers who need to make connections or a crew near the end of its shift, the airline has a much simpler method to easily override the time-of-arrival list and give that flight a higher priority than others operated by the same carrier. This feature has special significance at hub airports, where it will help airlines to reduce the number of missed connections attributable to weather delays.
In order to improve safety and efficiency en route, the new version of ETMS also allows traffic managers to identify Flow Constrained Areas, where severe weather such as thunderstorms may require rerouting of through traffic. Early identification of these Flow Constrained Areas will allow air traffic controllers to plan ahead and avoid bottlenecks where multiple flights are attempting to avoid the same storm.
ETMS Road Show Training Brings Air Traffic Controllers Up to Speed
While ETMS is developed and operated here at the Volpe Center, it is used by air traffic managers throughout the country. These managers interact with the system through the Traffic Situation Display (TSD), a graphical display of air traffic, weather, alerts, and statistical information. To improve the efficiency and capabilities of the system, the Volpe Center developed a two-hour, computer-based instruction course for on-site training of air traffic managers. As part of its Spring/Summer 2001 plan for delay reduction, the FAA asked the Center to conduct a more intensive training program for Air Traffic Control Supervisors and Controllers-in-Charge at 21 FAA Air Route Traffic Control Centers around the country. This represented a new audience for ETMS beyond the traffic managers. The Volpe effort was managed by Dr. Sylvia Harris and supported by Ms. Justyne Johnson and Ms. Christine Risko, all of the Telecommunications Division. They assembled a team of eight trainers; each trainer completed 160 hours of preparation at the Volpe Center or FAA sites. This Volpe team provided training sessions and computer-based instruction to 665 TSD users at 16 sites over a five-month period. In order to achieve the best results, the team conducted small-group training sessions with no more than three students per trainer. The training sessions received high marks from trainees and air traffic control personnel. In particular, the small-group sessions and the ability to receive immediate answers has helped the Air Traffic Control Supervisors and Controllers-in-Charge to use the TSD to its maximum capabilities. The training also gives the controllers the ability to adapt to new versions of ETMS, such as the new model rolled out in spring 2001 after training was completed.
Improved Airport Surface Surveillance System Demonstrated
Volpe's recent work to improve airport surface surveillance includes the ADS-B, which enables controllers to view information about each plane's carrier affiliation, size, destination, and other characteristics as well as its real-time surface location. ADS-B is a primary component of FAA's Safe Flight 21 architecture.
While the Volpe Center and the FAA are using ETMS to improve in-flight air traffic management, other efforts are underway to improve the safety and efficiency of airport ground operations. The Volpe Center's Airport Surface Division is supporting the FAA's Safe Flight 21, a joint government/industry effort to implement advanced traffic management systems and technologies. To meet Safe Flight 21 surface-surveillance objectives at the Memphis International Airport, the Division is expanding on its highly successful Airport Surface Detection Equipment (ASDE) tracking, data fusion, and surveillance display system. The Center began overseeing the development of the ASDE system, which relies on radar data to locate planes and other vehicles on the tarmac, in the 1970s. Volpe staff continue to enhance the system, which has been implemented at several large airports. On June 13, Ms. Sharon Woods (lead software engineer) and Mr. David Setser (Volpe project manager), both of the Division, demonstrated the capabilities of a new system at Memphis International Airport. This new system, known as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), integrates the existing ASDE radar data with vehicle and flight data. Rather than just seeing a green dot on the screen, airport surface traffic controllers can view information about a plane's carrier affiliation, size, destination, and other characteristics. The presentation in Memphis, the first large-scale public demonstration of ADS-B, was co-sponsored by the FAA and Federal Express, which uses the Memphis Airport as one of its major shipping hubs. Because a large portion of arriving and departing Federal Express flights occur between midnight and 6:00 AM (when traffic controllers in the tower cannot see the airfield because of darkness), the development of a vehicle-specific traffic management system will significantly improve the efficiency of the ground operations.