Air Transport World

Accelerating the ATC revolution. (air traffic control)

A revolution called "free flight" is about to replace the existing U.S. ATC system. Advocates claim that it will reduce delays and save the industry billions of dollars annually.

"Free flight" is exactly what the term implies. You take off when you want and fly to your destination by whichever route suits your purposes best. ATC--which free-flight advocates prefer to refer to as air-traffic management (ATM)--has nothing to say to you unless you are about to get in the way of somebody else who is doing the same thing.

The industry has undergone an almost unbelievably fast conversion to free flight. "The first time we walked in the door, the response was: 'Get out of here. Airplanes will run into each other," remarks one free-flight advocate. Capt. Bill Cotton, United Airlines manager-alr traffic and flight systems, has been working on free flight for "24 years, off and on," but says that most of the progress in getting the concept accepted has been made in the past two years. By now, almost every stakeholder in the business-- including the U.S. FAA--has pledged allegiance to the cause of free flight.

Cotton and others--particularly those associated with the oceanic Future Air Navigation System (FANS)-- have been working consistently on the details of free flight since the early 1980s. The concept is very similar to what a U.S. working group presented as its idea of FANS in 1983. The problem in the 1980s was that FAA remained committed to the National Airspace Plan, which was based on the old model of restricted airways and positive control.

A revolution needs opportunity and impetus providers. The opportunity arose last year, as FAA canceled most of the troubled hardware programs included in NAP. The revolutionary leaders were another United Airlines captain, Michael Baiada, and Michael Boyd, a Denver-based aviation consultant.

Baiada and Boyd did not invent free flight. But they co-authored a pull-nopunches report in 1994 on the case for free flight. In language directed at the MBAs and accountants who dominate airline management, the authors pointed out that the airlines are allowing their "production line"--aircraft carrying passengers--to be controlled by the government, even though FAA is a service provider and the airlines are its customers. …

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