Weird Ideas I Continue to Believe

The End of Air Traffic Control. I’ve written about this going back at least 11 years.

Allowing planes and pilots to operate in the skies much like cars, with technology and communications that allow them to direct themselves while coordinating with each other…offers some of the best hope for increasing the total capacity of the skies for air travel.

I realize it’s so far afield from how we currently do things that it’s almost unimaginable.

We’re already into the eleven figure range of spending on the FAA’s ‘NextGen’ air traffic control project, and have made only the smallest incremental improvements.

Is a radical rethink possible? Will my thinking here have any more merit or traction in 20 years than it does today?

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Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Gary, what’s ours this thought? It’s a core discussion topic at today’s US Chamber of Commerce Aviation Summit 2015 (#aviation15)

  2. Is there really a capacity problem in the skies (as opposed to in the terminals)? Wouldn’t an easy solution be just to fly bigger planes? The US skies aren’t filled with 777s and 380s.

  3. @gary – I blame autocorrect. Meant: what spurs the thought today?

    @anon – it’s not just aircraft capacity, also physical space limitations. With new technology providing better tracking and coordination of aircraft, separation between aircraft could be decreased…in theory.

  4. I think your thoughts are correct in solving at least some of the problems. The idea of semi-autonomous agents versus centralized control would help here as it does in other places where interaction between devices is shifted closer to the problem space. The agents would communicate with each other as they enter into range and they would then have the ability to coordinate actions and report their decisions to the central server. The agents would do this automatically without any human intervention and could have levels of control based upon agents not taking agreed upon actions or unable to come to agreement.
    The airplanes are just large single purpose robots and if we can have self driving vehicles on our roads we can certainly do the same to at least the degree of spacing and order in traffic control situation.

  5. @Trevor – ah, searching for a different post I stumbled upon one I wrote in February 2004 mentioning this. Actually nothing more than that!

  6. Your 2004 post was an interesting read, although I’m not sure I’d use the term privatized to describe Canada’s ATC. NAV CANADA is an independent non-profit organization, more like an NGO than what most would think of as a private corporation. It’s a model that seems to work well for infrastructure management, better than either government or private for-profit operation.

    With regards to today’s question, I think you’ll have to keep dreaming. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in transport safety over the last fifty years, it’s that you want as little individual control over the process as possible. Human beings make terrible drivers, lousy pilots, and only passable air traffic controllers. We are the weakest link!

    In a system where planes operate like cars, pilots will operate like drivers. Decisions will be made based on personal needs rather than on what’s best for the system as a whole. Imagine, for example, if pilots had to decide amongst themselves who should have priority for takeoff or landing?

    Increasing automation in the tower and the cockpit have both made aviation much safer. What we need is a highly computerized, highly centralized, highly automated system overseen by human controllers and pilots who are there primarily in case of emergencies.

  7. Arcanum, here is the line from the wikipedia article on Skynet

    “The strategy behind Skynet’s creation was to remove the possibility of human error and slow reaction time to guarantee a fast, efficient response to enemy attack.”

  8. I think a fully automated system would be much safer and more efficient than what we have today. Of course this is AFTER the test phase where all the kinks are ironed out. I wouldn’t want to fly during that test phase! 🙂

  9. A.S., what you mean is ‘as long as I’m not on the plane or in the car.’ For that matter I’d like a fully automated surgeon, politician etc…for the guy behind the tree.

  10. If anything, we need more runways. The billions invested on NextGen would buy a lot of infrastructure.

    When your flight is delayed, is it because of congestion on the Victor 12 airway or because SFO had to slow down arrivals to a single runway?

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