In aviation, safety comes first. Or does it really?
While flying, have you ever had one of those unforgettable "close encounters of the worst kind?" Or were you just too busy reading, sleeping or watching a movie to notice? On the other hand, you may have been unfortunate enough to have lost a husband, wife, child or other member of your family, close friend or personal acquaintance in an air related disaster. Most of us assume that our government is doing everything it can to protect public safety. That is not necessarily true.
Fewer than 800 people die each year in air related disasters compared to over 40,000 killed on the nation's highways. About 27 mid-air collisions occur and as many as 1800 near-misses are reported to the FAA. Near-misses are defined as when airplanes un-intentianally pass within 500 feet of each other. Because of the hassle and paper work involved, this kind of incident often goes unreported. This seems to indicate that the actual numbers of near-misses reported may not be accurate.
Over half the world's 420,000 civilian aircraft fleet is based within the continental United States. By the end of this century, the Air Traffic Control (ATC) system will be dangerously antiquated. Unless new technology is brought on-line soon to solve system capacity problems, public safety is at risk.
Over the past several years, reports from the press and the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) confirm a rapid increase in the number of aviation incidents detrimental to safety. Such reports have cited as culprits, power outages, computer failures, backup systems down, and an over-burdened ATC radar system. Without warning, radar screens shut down; surveillance and communications are lost; blocks of vital aircraft information inadvertently disappears from controller displays. When the system blinks, ground-based ATC controllers scramble. Controllers and pilots have been warning the FAA and Congress that the current ATC system is unsafe and inadequate. In many places throughout the country and the world, the air traffic management system has already surpassed its capacity.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) admits it has no practical short-term solution in sight. To add to its difficulties, the FAA's inability to advance new technology has fallen under sharp criticism. Programs vital to safety have proven too expensive, too complicated, or have simply grown obsolete before they could be implemented. Primary examples of systems that, despite the billions of dollars expended, have not materialized as planned include: the Micro-wave Landing System (MLS), Airport Surface Detection Equipment (ASDE), the Air Traffic Management System (ATM) and the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). In other words, the highly centralized Air Traffic Control (ATC) superstructure which has served military and civilian aviation so well and for so many years now appears to be its own nemesis.
Over the years, the need for reliable aircraft collision avoidance equipment has been well documented. Examples for needing collision avoidance equipment include: The collision of two airliners over the Grand Canyon (6/30/1956, 128 killed); Collision of two commercial sight-seeing aircraft in the Grand Canyon (5/19/1986, 25 killed); San Diego collision of PSA 727 and a light twin (9/26/1978, 136 killed); Collision of Air Mexico DC9 and a light aircraft over El Ceritos (8/31/1986, 67 aboard the aircraft killed, 24 killed on the ground, 10 houses destroyed); The collision of a commuter turboprop and light aircraft over Salt Lake City (1/15/1987, 10 killed). Publicity surrounding two runway incursion disasters, one at Detroit and the other at Los Angeles, and statistics enumerating approximately 20 mid-air collisions and 550 near misses each year point out the need for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to be aggressive in advancing collision avoidance technology to improve aviation safety.
In 1987, the U.S. Congress passed the Airport and Airway Safety Expansion Act requiring the FAA to equip all civil aviation air carrier aircraft with Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance (TCAS) equipment by the end of 1991. At an October 8, 1991 U.S. Congressional Investigations and Oversights Subcommittee Hearing (102-41) "To Review The Status of the Airborne Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS):" mixed reviews were received from pilots and from air traffic controllers. Not only had TCAS costs become prohibitively high to general aviation, but a number of unresolved technology issues persisted. Among the list of TCAS deficiencies are: sudden appearances of "ghost" or phantom images, high false alarm reports, saturation of air traffic control radar frequencies, and limited densities of TCAS II units that can operate safely in an aging interrogation dependent transponder medium. Disturbing is the fact that some of these deficiencies appear during taxi, departure, approach, and landing phases where the system's integrity is vital to safety. This has created a serious problem, not only for pilots, but for air traffic controllers.
Recognizing this dilemma, FAA Administrator David Hinson and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena, have developed a strategic plan for the 21st Century. They have vowed to reform the FAA's current technology procurement procedures and practices so that technology advancements might be brought forth more quickly. In actual practice, the monolithic FAA bureaucracy and its strongly entrenched industrial alliliates are not responsive to new ideas.
Thanks to a company named TERRASTARR, a permanent low-cost solution to managing air traffic is now available which replaces the aging radar and saturated voice channels with high-speed digital navigation, surveillance and communications. This system is called SCAN (Surveillance, Communications And Navigation, and sometimes Surveillance for Collision Avoidance Navigation). With the failure of its TCAS III system, the FAA now seems to be undergoing a radical change in philosophy and is advocating a new concept in air traffic management. To bring about the new changes called "free flight" a modification of the TCAS transponder into a TCAS IV GPS "squitter" is required. In other words, the FAA is now advocating the same concepts and principles which have already been patented and developed by the TERRASTARR SCAN system.
Implementation of SCAN would make air transportation far safer for passengers and the work-load much easier on pilots and air traffic controllers. SCAN's many benefits would allow the FAA's free flight and autonomous aircraft control concept to be fully implemented before the year 2000 saving $3.5 billion annually in unnecessary fuel costs. It would also eliminate the majority of airport departure and arrival delays, greatly improve search and rescue operations and result in a probable 50% reduction in the number of air related fatalities.