SEATTLE — Capt. Mike Adams demonstrated what the future will look like at the nation's airports as he pulled back on the throttles of his Boeing 737 flight simulator, setting the engines on idle to glide smoothly from his cruising altitude all the way down to the runway.
Starting in June, that's exactly what actual Alaska Airlines flights will be doing when the airline begins testing the use of satellite technology to land at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — all in the hope of saving fuel and reducing delays.
Alaska Airlines, one of the nation's smallest airlines, has taken some of the biggest steps in adopting a technology that allows its planes to navigate Alaska's hazardous terrain, weaving through narrow valleys and mountain peaks, and land at remote airports in some of the worst imaginable weather. Now it wants to demonstrate that technology at big, busy airports, said Adams, the airline's chief technical pilot.
Planes using the new technology will cut 30 miles from their approach to the airport by taking a more direct path to the runway. They will no longer need to circle overhead awaiting clearance to land. And pilots will not have to push and pull at the throttles — in effect, repeatedly stepping on the gas, then coasting — to maintain the altitude assigned by air traffic controllers as they begin a stairlike descent. For passengers, landing will feel more like coming down a slide.
"This makes much better use of the airspace," Adams said. "It improves efficiency and reduces congestion. That's the holy grail we're all aiming for."
The Seattle experiment is one of the first extensive applications of satellite technology after years of planning and political wrangling in Washington.
Replacing the radar-based air traffic control system, which the nation's airports have relied on since the 1940s, is an enormous and expensive undertaking. By one official government estimate, the price tag could reach $42 billion by 2025.
But the agency in charge of the program, the Federal Aviation Administration, has been hamstrung by political infighting that deprived it of a stable budget for five years. Congress finally approved a four-year budget for the agency in February, including $1 billion a year for the program, called the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen.
The program has already confronted trouble. A government audit found in February that half of the 30 critical contracts needed to build the new system were delayed and more than a third were over budget.
Airlines complain that the FAA has been slow to create new landing procedures that make the most use of satellite guidance. It takes five to 10 years to create these procedures because of lengthy environmental and noise impact studies, and the difficulty of coordinating flights in busy airspaces. The FAA is trying to speed up that process to three years.
The agency has approved tests using satellite-guided landings at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, and experiments are planned this year in Washington, Atlanta, Dallas and Charlotte, N.C. Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, JetBlue and American Airlines have been trying out aspects of satellite navigation.
Given the expected growth in air traffic in the next decades, airlines and regulators say there is an urgent need to modernize the existing air traffic control system. The FAA projects that the number of planes flown by domestic airlines will double in the next two decades, while the number of domestic passengers will reach 1 billion by 2024, up from about 732 million this year. Much of that growth will be concentrated in the biggest airports, most of which are already congested, particularly at peak hours.
Radar has proved to be reliable over the years. But air traffic controllers can be sure of the precise location of the planes they are directing only when their radar sweeps once every six seconds. To make up for that uncertainty, controllers keep wide buffers between flights. Satellite technology will eventually change that equation and allow planes to fly much closer to one another because they will broadcast their locations with more accuracy.
In effect, airports could increase capacity without building more runways because more planes could take off and land every hour.
For airlines, more efficient approaches and landings could mean significant fuel savings. The FAA projected that airlines using Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, one of the world's busiest, would fly 1.2 million fewer miles each year, saving as much as 2.9 million gallons of fuel and allowing 10 more planes an hour to take off.
But NextGen has also been slowed by disagreements between the airlines and federal regulators over which would pay the bill. Equipping a single plane with a GPS system can cost more than $340,000. That quickly adds up for airlines with hundreds of planes in their fleet, and with no immediate payoff for the upgrade. (New planes have the technology, but older models must be retrofitted.)
That is the sort of logjam that the Seattle experiment is seeking to break. It will use something called Required Navigation Performance, or RNP, which is like GPS in cars. The difference is that the plane's autopilot feature can guarantee that the flight will stay precisely on course, from takeoff to landing, even in bad weather or turbulence.
"Today's planes are a lot smarter than a lot of the equipment on the ground," said Sherry Carbary, the vice president of Boeing Flight Services. Alaska Airlines has used satellite navigation for its planes since 1996 in Juneau, where bad weather had often forced flights to be canceled or diverted to Anchorage.
The airline has spent $40 million in the last decade on both technology and pilot training. But it estimated the technology is saving $15 million to $20 million a year in allowing takeoffs and landings that would have been impossible before.