2007 was a bad year for airline delays as illustrated in this graphic shown as a recent NASA Airspace Systems Program meeting. Credit: NASA
Almost anybody who has traveled on a plane lately would probably agree flying isn't what it used to be. Between cancellations, delays, cramped cabins and airline financial woes … passengers are feeling the pinch as the industry faces tough challenges.
In fact, the just-released Annual Quality Rating survey gave the U.S. airline industry its worst performance rating in 18 years. That's how long two university researchers have studied U.S. Department of Transportation yearly statistics on lost baggage, arrival delays, consumer complaints and how often passengers are bumped.
NASA researchers are working with industry and other government agencies to develop new technologies to help improve the national air transportation system. Their research is part of a coordinated effort called NextGen. A group of them recently met in Austin, Texas to share ideas and technical knowledge about the future of air traffic management.
"We have two projects," said Karlin Toner, director of NASA's Airspace System Program. "One is NextGen Airportal that focuses on integrated surface, arrival and departure solutions. The other is NextGen Airspace that studies ways to balance demand and capacity, looks at safe, efficient separation for aircraft and focuses largely on en-route airspace."
Karlin Toner, director of NASA’s Airspace Systems Program Office, welcomed meeting participants to Austin. Credit: NASA
NextGen is led by the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO), which coordinates the research and development activities of six government agencies including NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration. Its deputy director, Bob Pearce, stressed to the crowd of 220 in Austin that the United States needs to transform aviation and air traffic technologies to keep up with the growth of cargo and passenger air travel.
"In the 1960s we had about 60 million passenger emplanements," said Pearce. "Now we're up to 600-700 million. That's a factor of 10 growth over 40 years. And we predict a about a billion emplanements by 2015."
His own experience in flying to Texas illustrated the importance of ongoing and future research efforts.
"I left my office in Washington, D.C., Monday about four p.m. and I arrived Tuesday around 7 p.m. so it took a long time to get here," Pearce said. "You can forgive the fact that's there's a really bad weather system sitting over a city and causing all kinds of havoc. It's the chaos in the system that gets you annoyed … the fact that you don't know what's happening. You don't know when you're going to get some place. It’s that problem we're here to solve."
But the researchers and the industry know the problem won't be solved overnight.
Joint Planning and Development Office Deputy Director Bob Pearce shared plans for NextGen, the transformation of the air transportation system. Credit: NASA
Many questions must be answered. Among them are what's the balance between technologies on the ground and in the cockpit; what role automation should play versus the human; and how will new ideas be implemented.
That's where NASA comes in. It has a long history of aeronautics research, especially when it comes to long-term solutions, not only for efficiency and capacity, but also safety and even how aircraft look and fly. "We really want to drive what long-term NextGen research and development is," said director Toner. "I think the folks in this room are absolutely the right people to be having that discussion."
Some of the concepts NASA is studying include technologies that would help flight crews and controllers make more efficient routing decisions, graphical cockpit displays and digital datalinks that would give pilots more traffic, weather and airport surface information and more automated traffic flow management systems.
As researchers look at new technologies JPDO deputy director Pearce gave them one last piece of advice: don't leave out the users of the transportation system … the passengers. "If as a passenger I can't get information, if I don't know what's happening in the system and it doesn't seem reliable and predictable to me, I'm going to end up being frustrated," said Pearce. " I shouldn't have to be at the airport to figure this out. I should be able to understand what the system is doing and how it's operating from wherever I am, so I can try to plan my schedule accordingly."