Cruise Control: Satellite System to End Circling Above Airports

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Reuters

Alaska Airlines has taken cruise control to completely new heights. As part of a June pilot project (see what we did there?), the airline will debut testing of satellite technology that will manage the descent of airplanes when landing at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and eliminate the need for time-wasting and fuel-guzzling circling.

Using traditional radar navigation, in place since 1940, air-traffic controllers get an accurate picture of where every plane in the sky is, but only every six seconds. With satellite technology, controllers can keep constant tabs on each plane, and planes then no longer need to circle and use a stair-step descent into the runway. Instead, the technology manages all the flights coming into an airport, allowing planes to adopt a direct, slide-like drop to the destination.

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Gone will be the days of the jerky start-stop feel (and that sensation that the plane’s engines have lost all power) as planes can simply glide right down to the runway, also chopping off about 30 miles of approach flying.

The technology might not be all that new, as the airline has used it for years in the state of Alaska where the satellite technology can auto-direct a plane to the runway with pinpoint accuracy, even in zero-visibility weather situations. But pulling a country out of a 70-year technology brings with it a price tag, and approval process that has proven daunting. Not only must flight patterns be reconfigured, but also all airplanes must get equipped with costly tracking devices (expect to shell out $340,000 to retrofit an older plane not already equipped) compatible with the new technology. The Federal Aviation Administration has been sluggish in getting the nation on board with a process the New York Times says will cost $42 billion by 2025. Seattle will be the first major airport to test out the system.

If descents in Seattle get a bit smoother—and save airlines money in less fuel and less delays—expect this new technology to fly off the shelves; if the government can get the funding off the ground.

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