Business Aviation Flight to the future
商业 航空业 飞向未来
Modernising creaking air-traffic systems will be a huge task
THESE days a $15,000 car comes with GPS satellite navigation fitted as standard.
But a $150m airliner still has to be guided through the skies by spoken instructions from a bloke with a radio in a control tower.
That is because air-traffic management (ATM) systems are stuck in the 1950s.
Instead of flying straight, planes must zigzag from one ground beacon to the next, and ascend and descend in steps, at each stage obtaining permission from the ground.
The controllers' radar only shows planes' approximate positions, so they must space them well apart.
All this wastes fuel and causes congestion and delays.
The average flight in European airspace is 50km (31 miles) longer than it need be.
So the world's aviation authorities are seeking to modernise the whole system, streamlining the routing of flights and providing much more real-time information to pilots and controllers.
This could lead to huge orders for electronics firms, which is why, in his recent jobs speech, President Barack Obama called for $1 billion of extra cash to speed up America's ATM-modernisation project, NextGen.
A study by consultants from McKinsey of Europe's equivalent project, SESAR, finds that its costs should be dwarfed by the fuel savings and the economic boost from squeezing more flights into Europe's busy skies.
America stands to make similar gains.
It is in everyone's interest to invest in modernisation, but the airlines are wary: several times in recent history they have bought expensive kit only to find they cannot use it because controllers have failed to upgrade their equipment to match.
These sorts of ambitious projects to introduce new technology, with countless participants, are prone to cock-ups.
Those involved in ATM modernisation want to avoid what happened when mobile-phone standards were set, with different countries ending up with incompatible systems.
To guard against that risk, the UN's International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has just held a summit in Montreal, at which it divided the long list of ATM modernisation projects into manageable chunks, on which the world's aviation authorities will try to agree standards, one at a time.
The process has started well, though developing countries are said to worry about rich countries imposing costly programmes on them.
Agreeing on technical standards will be difficult enough. Harder still, says Nancy Graham, an ICAO official, will be paying for it all.