NASA Engineer Helps Nation's Air Traffic Flow Smoothly
NASA Engineer Helps Nation's Air Traffic Flow Smoothly Image of Heinz Erzberger
Photo Credit: NASA Ames Research Center

At any given time, there can be as many as 7,000 aircraft flying in the skies above the United States. In the next 20 years, that number is predicted to double putting a strain on the National Airspace System.

Fortunately, a visionary scientist at NASA is working on the solution. 'Visionary' is a strong adjective but it fits NASA senior scientist Dr. Heinz Erzberger.

Long before Congress passed legislation to create the Next Generation Air Transportation System by 2025, Erzberger was quietly building a research base and developing groundbreaking technologies designed to transform air traffic control operations and increase aircraft safety and efficiency.

After joining NASA's Ames Research Center in 1965, Erzberger provided the fundamental vision for advancing the science of air traffic control. Using the increasing power and sophistication of computers, Erzberger began to create the center terminal radar approach control automation system, a growing suite of decision-support tools. These tools are designed to help air traffic controllers manage traffic flow, by providing them timely information about aircraft in the system, including predictions and advice on sequencing aircraft and avoiding conflicts.

The automation tools include the Traffic Management Advisor that aids in managing aircraft approaching their destinations. Tools such as Direct-To and Conflict Detection help with the routing of aircraft to their destinations. These tools are designed to automate certain functions that controllers had to previously estimate manually. The automation gives controllers increased options that allow aircraft to fly the most efficient routes and to prevent traffic congestion around airports.

Various automation tools have been adopted by the Federal Aviation Administration and installed at some the nation's busiest airports. At Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, for example, operational data has shown up to a 25 percent reduction in reported delays. National deployment of the Traffic Management Advisor will soon be complete. Another tool, Direct-To, in trial deployments has demonstrated potential flight-time saving of 1,000 minutes per day in the Fort Worth airspace.

FACET Saving a few minutes from a single flight or reducing taxi times at the airport may seem minor, but multiplied by the thousands of flights per year, the economic benefits are substantial. It is estimated that full implementation of the decision-support tools developed under Erzberger's leadership can save several hundred million dollars in fuel savings, aircraft wear and tear, and reduced delays for airline passengers annually.

Image right: A screen shot of the FACET animation depicting 24 hours of air traffic over the United States.
+ View the FACET animation

Not surprisingly, Erzberger is a recognized leader in the field, garnering an international reputation for scientific and engineering excellence and outstanding technical leadership. He is a much sought-out speaker at technical and industry events and has been recognized by NASA and technical organizations, such as the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers with numerous awards and honors.

Recently, Erzberger received the 2005 Distinguished Presidential Rank Award. Each year, the President of the United States honors a small group of federal employees for their exceptional long-term accomplishments. Award winners are chosen through a rigorous selection process. They are nominated by their government agency, evaluated by boards of private citizens, and approved by the president. The evaluation criteria focus on leadership and results.

Although Erzberger is retiring from NASA after 41 years of service, he plans to continue his research to develop cutting-edge technologies to improve the safety and efficiency of air travel for Americans as an Ames Associate. Because of Erzberger's work, NASA is recognized as the world leader in air traffic management technology.

For more information, please visit:

The NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate at:


The Center TRACON Automation Systems (CTAS) at:


Jonas Dino
NASA Ames Research Center