Unpacked: The Past, Present and Future of Air Traffic Control


Welcome to Unpacked, where we demystify hot topics in the airline industry! This time we’re talking about the past, present and future of air traffic control.

Even if you don’t know much about air traffic control, you’ve probably heard the term, and you probably know something about a person on the ground who talks to planes in the sky. But how does it all work? What does it all mean? Let’s cue David Bowie for inspiration and begin our countdown into the world of air traffic control.

Air traffic control, or how people on the ground help navigate planes in the skies, is a bit of the chicken versus the egg debate. Whereas many of our highways were built in the U.S. in the 40’s and 50’s in order to encourage and accommodate the increase in cars on the road, the opposite is the case with air traffic.

Planes took to the skies with increasing frequency in the 60’s and 70’s and the infrastructure followed. That means the highways in the sky that we’ve built can’t handle the amount of traffic that they see very well. That’s why your plane might be on time arriving into the New York or Washington D.C. air space (the most congested in the country) but circle for 20 or 30 minutes before it’s able to land.

The current system for monitoring flights consists of ground radar technology, which means people all across the country (and the world) are watching and talking to planes that come in and out of the air space within that region. The air traffic controller on the ground receives an indication that a plane has entered the air space and calls to that plane using the radar technology (a signal travels from the ground to the cockpit, to that little black box that you may have heard of) and the pilot sends a message back saying, “Hi, yes, I’m here. I’m JetBlue Flight 383 headed for Los Angeles.” The signal takes 12 seconds to travel from the ground to the plane, a lapse in time that can lead to delays.

By 2020, all U.S. airlines are required to update their technology to accommodate a much-improved satellite-based navigation technology, called Auto Dependent Broadcast (ADB). Signals will be sent from satellites to all planes and to those folks in air traffic control on the ground ten times faster, within two seconds time. The new satellite navigation means that every cockpit will also be equipped with the technology to see other planes in their air space, creating additional situational awareness.

The initiative is being fueled in large part by the intelligence gathered on the Next-Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) airspace modernization program as well as the NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC) of which Dave, our CEO, is currently the Chair. We’ve long partnered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on its role in upgrading the nation’s air traffic control system. We’ve assisted in providing data, equipping aircraft with NextGen systems, and utilizing new satellite-based streamlined approaches into our home at New York’s JFK airport. We’re excited by the FAA’s initiative to upgrade the air traffic control system, which promise greater efficiency for our crews, and a better experience for our customers.

We’ll be equipping 35 of our planes by early 2013 with the new ADBS technology. That means we’ll be the first of our kind in the congested New York air space to utilize the navigation equipment for the 21st Century. The new technology allows for increased flexibility with flight routes, including the ability for planes to fly around one another more easily, potentially creating new roads in the air and alleviating some of that congestion. That also means shorter flying times, fewer delays, and less fuel burn which is better for everyone in terms of pricing and the environment.

Check out our previous editions of Unpacked and stay tuned for the next up!