FAA modernization effort reaches key milestone

An air traffic controller looking at an En Route Automation Modernization, or ERAM, display. (FAA)

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The Federal Aviation Administration officially launched a new air traffic control system last week that manages high-altitude flights between its 20 regional centers and forms the technological foundation for the multibillion-dollar Next Generation Air Transportation System, better known as NextGen.

During a press conference announcing the move to the En Route Automation Modernization, or ERAM, system, FAA officials said the $2.5 billion program will improve air traffic controllers’ visibility of aircraft across the country and will save time and fuel by allowing aircraft to fly more direct routes at closer intervals.

“ERAM gives us a big boost in technological horsepower over the system it replaces,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said. “This computer system enables each controller to handle more aircraft over a larger area, resulting in increased safety, capacity and efficiency.”

The first ERAM system went online at Utah’s Salt Lake City Center in March 2012. The final installation was completed last month at the New York Center.

The switch to ERAM comes less than two months after lawmakers criticized the FAA’s pace of modernization, and raised the prospect of pulling support for the decadelong initiative and calling for a more fundamental restructuring of the agency. The FAA has been operating under a $63 billion funding bill passed in 2012. That funding is schedule to run out this year, five years short of the 2020 deadline for aircraft operators to install NextGen-compatible avionics on aircraft, which was established by the 2012 FAA Reauthorization Act.

ERAM is considered the backbone of operations at the FAA’s 20 en route air traffic control centers. It is the brains behind the display screens used by air traffic controllers to safely manage and separate aircraft.

“ERAM is a major step forward in our relentless efforts to develop and implement NextGen,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. “With this new technology, passengers will be able to get to their destinations, faster, safer and have a smoother ride – all while burning less fuel to get there.”

ERAM was designed to be the operating platform for other NextGen technologies, including:

  • Performance Based Navigation, or PBN: Controllers are already using ERAM to make use of Performance Based Navigation (PBN) procedures that enable controllers and flight crews to know exactly when to reduce the thrust on aircraft, allowing them to descend from cruising altitude to the runway with the engines set at idle power, reducing flying time and fuel consumption.
  • Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B: The FAA is moving steadily toward replacing the old system of ground-based radars to track aircraft with one that relies on satellite-based technologies. ERAM already receives information from aircraft equipped with ADS-B and displays that data on controllers’ screens. This technology has made it possible for controllers to provide radar-like separation to aircraft that previously operated in areas where no radar is available, such as the Gulf of Mexico and large parts of Alaska. ADS-B will replace radar as the primary means of tracking aircraft by 2020.
  • Data Comm: To reduce congestion on radio frequencies, the FAA and the aviation industry continue to develop Data Comm, which will allow controllers and pilots to communicate by direct digital link rather than voice, similar to text messaging. ERAM is already equipped to handle this technology.

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Michael Huerta, NextGen
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