Editorial: Give pilots extra gear to avoid a midair scare
A near-collision between three planes in the dark sky off New York City last year offers a dramatic illustration of how urgently the NextGen air-traffic control system is needed.
A collision avoidance system currently in use saved the day for the planes' crews and passengers aboard American Airlines Flight 951 as it left Kennedy Airport en route to São Paulo, Brazil. But the new NextGen technology should make flying safer by alerting pilots more quickly when they are headed for what could be a midair crash.
The Federal Aviation Administration should hold firm on, if not accelerate, its Jan. 1, 2020, deadline for every airplane flying in controlled airspace to be equipped with the new technology to beam its position to controllers. But the FAA should go further by mandating the use of associated equipment that would enable pilots to receive real-time information on the location, speed and course of planes flying nearby. There should be incentives for airlines to add all the gear sooner rather than later.
Flight 951 was 88 nautical miles east of New York City Jan. 20, 2011, when it just missed colliding with two Air Force cargo planes headed to Wrightstown, N.J. Flight 951, headed southeast and climbing, and the cargo planes, headed northwest and descending in formation, were being guided by two different air-traffic controllers, according to a recent report by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Due to a misunderstanding between the two controllers, the planes were all at 22,000 feet and hurtling toward one another. And the controller handling Flight 951 lost track of the plane for a key 57 seconds while confirming flight-plan instructions for the pilot of another plane.
Calamity was averted when a traffic collision avoidance system that relies on a transponder signal from plane to plane sounded an alarm in the cockpit of Flight 951, when it was just seven miles from the cargo planes. After split-second evasive maneuvers, the planes passed a nerve-rattling 2,000 feet apart. In a similar situation, the new NextGen satellite-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast system (ADS-B) would allow pilots to avoid much of the heart-pounding drama.
The mandated portion of the ADS-B system will pinpoint the position of aircraft for controllers. It's an improvment over the current radar-based system in which signals can decay over distance and need to be refreshed every few seconds. The ground infrastructure for the ADS-B system is in place along the East Coast and is already in limited use. The ground component is scheduled to be complete nationwide by 2014.
That infrastructure will also serve the unmandated portion of the ADS-B system designed to allow pilots to receive information to dramatically improve their ability to avoid midair collisions. It would enable them to track all ADS-B-equipped planes in the air within a 15-mile radius, continuously and in real time on a cockpit screen. Even if a controller is distracted or makes a mistake, pilots would know key moments sooner when they're headed for trouble.
Quickly outfitting all planes to take advantage of every facet of the system will make the skies safer for all.