Boeing 737s land at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport many times a day, but a recent 3 a.m. arrival was something special.
An Alaska Airlines jet touched down carrying 40 engineers and technicians who were on hand to witness a test run of the future of air travel.
Their landing was characterized by a short approach, a smooth descent, and minimal chatter between the pilots and air traffic controllers. In other words, it was anything but ordinary.
The flight, reported Sunday in The News Tribune and The Seattle Times, was a demonstration of a new satellite-based airplane navigation system pioneered by Alaska. The airline originally used the technology to assist its pilots in navigating some hairy approaches at Alaskan airports.
Now the system, developed by Boeing’s navigation unit and a Kent-based firm founded by two Alaska Airline pilots, could be at the forefront of the federal government’s overdue plan to modernize air traffic control.
Dubbed NextGen, the overhaul is key to easing gridlock in the skies. The current air traffic control system relies on World War II-era ground radar systems. The result is imprecise information that creates inefficiencies in the name of safety.
Jets begin their approaches many miles before necessary and descend in a stairstep approach to keep planes separated. Instead of gliding in with engines at idle, planes burn fuel to generate thrust and remain level. It’s a noisy, carbon-spewing way to land a plane.
Relying on satellite information rather than ground radar would allow planes to fly closer together while also reducing both flight delays and in-air near-misses.
The prospect of Sea-Tac emerging as a model for at least one aspect of the Federal Aviation Administration’s project could mean that Puget Sound area residents will see some of those benefits sooner.
At Sea-Tac alone, Alaska predicts the technology could reduce overflight noise for 750,000 Seattle-area residents, save 2.1 million gallons of fuel a year and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 25,000 tons annually.
If fuel savings aren’t enough to get airlines on board, the FAA is looking to sweeten the pot: Its NextGen plan calls for giving air space priority to the “best-equipped, best-served” operators.
But equipping planes with the necessary avionics and linking the plane’s autopilot system to satellite-based GPS is just the start.
The FAA also needs to update air traffic policies, create satellite-based landing paths and train air traffic controllers. The Inspector General of the Department of Transportation recently criticized the FAA for dragging its feet on such measures.
Mike Adams, the pilot of the recent test flight, told the Times, “We are so ready, we can’t stand it.” So are the countless people who live in Sea-Tac’s flight pattern, the travelers who suffer needless delays and anyone concerned about climate change.