Landing experiments at SeaTac

In the news recently, there has been increased discussion of Free Flight as a way to modernize air traffic control. But that's only one of the innovations being worked on.

In this Seattle Times article, reporter discuss the FAA's Next Generation project for landing planes.

Currently, the way I navigate in a new city, using GPS, is more technologically advanced than the way planes land at most airports. Most planes take long, gradual routes to reach a run way. The take steps down in altitude, rather than descending gradually, and they have to wait until some person miles away tells them to take that next step.

The Next Generation project, however, ties the planes autopilot into GPS navigation, combined with a preplanned approach route that lowers fuel consumption, exhaust generation, time, and impact on the surrounding community.

It sounds like a winner.

Alaska Airlines recently tested this solution at SEA.

"This is a perfect place to do this," said Mike Adams, the pilot in command of the August test flight. "Boeing is here. Alaska has a completely equipped fleet. Everybody is trained. We are so ready, we can't stand it any more."

Alaska projects reduced overflight noise for 750,000 Seattle-area residents, along with annual savings at the airport of 2.1 million gallons of fuel and 25,000 tons of carbon-dioxide emissions.

"There is nobody who loses here," Adams said.


The airline began using the new navigation system in 1996 to enable its planes to fly safely into Juneau, Alaska, approaching along a narrow sea channel surrounded by rugged mountains. Other airlines have since applied it in other areas, including Australia and Tibet.


The big challenge appears to be the bureaucracy of the FAA.

The FAA's Hickey, onboard the test flight, said it's too early to estimate when the agency might approve Alaska Airlines' Sea-Tac procedures for use by all airlines.

"NextGen is a long, long process of transformation from the current system to a future system that is far more efficient," Hickey said. "It's not a big bang. It's going to be a bunch of incremental approaches."

The NextGen plan stretches through 2025. Hickey said the Obama administration is looking at accelerating parts of it.


As someone who spend 90,000 miles a year sitting on airplanes, I certainly value safety, and I don't want anyone cutting corners, but more than a decade to fully implement something like this just doesn't make sense to me. Even the optimistic assessment from Alaska has it taking 5 years to implement at SEA.

"I think you could see us doing this with passengers in late-night arrivals in one or two years," he said. "And in daytime mainstream arrivals, potentially within five years."

Integrating these changes with airlines that have the advanced equipment that Alaska does could be challenging, but years?

Alaska has already been essentially doing this in Juneau since 1996.

The airlines are struggling now. Air Traffic Control is now facing a serious shortage of new controllers since all the new ones hired in the early 80s (following the disastrous PATCO strike) are now at retirement age.

Let's speed this up, save fuel, save money, reduce the ATC workload, and reduce the burden on airport communities.

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