Boeing's Air Traffic Proposal Draws Skeptical Response

Boeing's Air Traffic Proposal Draws Skeptical Response

John Hayhurst

The Boeing Co.'s offer to help overhaul air traffic control systems in the United States has drawn a skeptical response from the companies already building such systems and from the federal agency responsible for the safety and smooth operations of commercial flights.

Government and industry officials said the Boeing plan, which aims to increase aviation capacity by 50 percent by moving to a satellite-based air traffic control system, will not alone solve the major problems that cause flight delays and inhibit the number of flights.

In addition, they said the satellite-based system is much more expensive than the plan that the Federal Aviation Administration already has in place to address the problems.

"The system is not as ancient and creaky as many critics charge," said FAA spokesman William Shumann.

And while a modernized air traffic control system would be safer, more reliable and able to handle more growth in traffic, it would not significantly reduce delays or expand the capacity of the National Airspace System, he said. Weather, not air traffic equipment, is the most significant cause of airline delays.

What is needed to expand capacity is not just a new air traffic control system, but also more runways, more realistic flight scheduling and better weather forecasting, said Shumann and industry officials.

He characterized the Boeing proposal as "intriguing, but we know very little about the specifics."

Doug Church, a representative of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, agreed with Shumann's assessment, saying that problems with air traffic capacity are not caused by the number of planes in the air, but by the number of planes on the ground.

"That's the issue that's not addressed in Boeing's proposal," he said.

Boeing's plan to introduce its air traffic control proposal this spring was first revealed Jan. 30 by the Washington Post. Boeing in November 2000 formed an air traffic management division to undertake the project. Washington Technology is owned by the Washington Post Co.

Boeing is known for its aerospace, commercial and military aircraft businesses. Its commercial airplane business alone generated $31.2 billion of the company's $51.3 billion in revenue for 2000, through the sale of 489 commercial jets.

John Hayhurst, president of Boeing's air traffic control division, said the company has a lot of experience in undertaking big financial commitments, regularly developing new commercial aircraft, for instance, without assurance of recovering its investment.

"We are fully prepared to look at a number of alternatives which might be more attractive to both the federal government and to us than the traditional cost-plus-fixed-fee contract," Hayhurst said.

He declined to put a dollar value on the investment that Boeing believes would be needed, saying estimates would be included in the proposal. But the FAA already has an annual information technology budget ? which includes upgrading the current air traffic control system ? of $2.1 billion.

For instance, Lockheed Martin Corp. has a five-year, $1 billion contract for the new Display System Replacement ATC computer system, which replaced 20- to 30-year-old equipment with new workstations, display computer hardware and software and a new user interface.

Before news of Boeing's proposal became public, Boeing officials had already begun working to smooth the way, meeting with key members of Congress and companies doing business in the air traffic control industry. Company representatives, for example, have briefed Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, a McCain spokesman said.

Boeing's payoff could be huge. A 50 percent increase in air traffic capacity could generate billions of dollars in new revenue through the sale of additional aircraft.

"Our commercial airplane business is clearly dependent upon the long-term growth in air travel. It creates more business for us, we sell more airplanes," Hayhurst said.

But Don Antonucci, president of Lockheed Martin Corp.'s air traffic management division, said the prospective price tag for the proposed air traffic control system could be prohibitive.

Just retrofiting all aircraft to use a satellite-based system could run in excess of $100 billion, according to some estimates. "More money than I will ever be able to count in my life," he said.

Hayhurst dismissed Antonucci's figure as speculation. Boeing would be mindful of costs that might have to be borne by airlines and other users of the aviation system, he said.

Frustrated airline passengers who have been caught by flight delays and cancellations may welcome Boeing's proposal. But skepticism about the company's plans arises from a fundamental observation: The company has no direct experience in providing elements of the existing air traffic control system.

"We have not been in the air traffic control business," Hayhurst said. "On the other hand, I think what's needed here is a more comprehensive approach to solving this problem."

Boeing has years of experience in major systems integration projects, he said, including developing new aircraft, operating the global positioning system satellite system and working on the international space station.

One industry observer with experience at both the FAA and in the industry said the biggest challenge facing Boeing is not the engineering, but the air traffic control culture. "Boeing is an outsider," the source said.

Hayhurst is not sure he accepts the hypothesis that Boeing is an outsider. "Clearly we've not been a key player in air traffic management, but if you look at the key players in the U.S., Boeing has a long relationship with the FAA through our design and manufacture of airplanes," he said.

Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md., and the Raytheon Co. of Lexington, Mass., are among the top contractors for the FAA, especially for improvements to the existing air traffic control system. According to research firm Federal Sources Inc., McLean, Va., which tracks government IT contracts, in 2000 alone Lockheed Martin received more than $138 million from FAA, with Raytheon receiving about $68.4 million.

Lockheed Martin's Antonucci said he agrees that as air traffic continues to grow in the United States, there is a need to increase the capabilities of the system. But the FAA has a sound plan to do that with its National Airspace System 4.0 architecture, he said, which sets priorities, based in part on technology availability and also on funding.

Nevertheless, he said that his company and Boeing have worked together on many programs and competed against each other on many others, and left open the prospect of working together again on Boeing's sweeping new proposal.

Raytheon officials had little to say on the proposal. "Once Boeing makes their specific plans publicly available, we would explore complementary capabilities the two companies bring to air traffic management," said James Carter, vice president and general manager of Raytheon's Command, Control and Communication Systems.

Computer Sciences Corp. of San Diego, another of the FAA's large contractors, also has met with Boeing officials and intends to have future meetings, said Harry Part, CSC vice president, transportation systems.

Boeing realizes that addressing problems of flight delays and air traffic capacity requires more than a modernized air traffic control system, Hayhurst said. Consequently, the Boeing proposal will also take into account airport and runway issues.

"We think that it's not just an equipment solution," he said. "We're going to need to address procedures [and] airspace design, and we're trying to look at this from a holistic approach."

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