In an effort to reduce flight delays and save fuel, the Federal Aviation Administration officially switched to a new air traffic control system Thursday for the 20 regional centers that direct high-altitude planes between airports.
The nearly $2.5 billion system called En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) has three times as many sensors to track planes more precisely, which enables planes to fly safely while closer together.
The project’s benefits include allowing planes to fly more direct routes at speeds monitored more closely from the ground.
“Here’s the bottom line: ERAM will use satellite technology to give us a much more precise picture of air traffic and it will allow us to more efficiently manage flights from takeoff to touchdown,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in announcing the upgrade at Reagan National Airport.
ERAM is part of the multiyear, multibillion-dollar NextGen program to shift air traffic control from ground-based radar to satellite tracking. The FAA, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and manufacturer Lockheed Martin tested aspects of ERAM for days or weeks at a time, toggling back and forth with the previous computer system, to ensure it was safe before it went online permanently.
ERAM replaces the former plane tracking system called Host, which dated to the 1960s.
“As of today, Host is history,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.
In 2010, when the system was originally supposed to be deployed, government auditors criticized the project as four years behind schedule and over its $2.1 billion budget. An overhaul of the program and budget revision in 2011 added $330 million to the cost and projected completion last year.
Huerta said congressional budget wrangling called sequestration caused an additional seven-month delay and added $42 million in costs.
“We did hit the milestones that we laid out, when you adjust for that,” Huerta said.
The 20 regional air traffic control centers typically monitor flights above 18,000 feet. But digital flight plans filed under ERAM enable controllers to track aircraft gate to gate, while offering suggestions for the best flight speed and path to avoid weather and congestion.
Better tracking enables each of the regional centers to track 1,900 aircraft a time, rather than the previous 1,100, according to FAA. The precision also enables controllers to safely space planes three miles apart, rather than the previous five miles, FAA said.
“It is an extremely reliable system,” Huerta said.
Because ERAM coordinates flights more precisely, the nationwide system could help cope with a catastrophic outage such as the September fire that knocked out the regional center in Aurora, Ill., causing thousands of flight cancellations, Huerta said.
But Huerta said neighboring control centers still need improved communications and trained controllers to direct flights where an outage occurs.
“The system provides for a great deal more flexibility, but that’s not the only thing we need to control air traffic in another facility,” Huerta said.
“It’s an important tool in the toolbox.”