Making the Connections

26th Jun 2001

To improve air travel, technology can help not only with its products but also with a deeper organizing principle.
The information economy was supposed to alleviate travel woes. Virtual meetings would replace long treks on the airlines, and telecommuting would reduce the need for real commuting on jammed roads.
Obviously things have not worked out exactly that way. Indeed, if there is any observable connection between high-speed communications systems and laborious, real-world travel patterns, it`s a paradoxical one. The more people are able to communicate without traveling - by e-mail, fax, cell phone, wireless PDA - the more they feel compelled to travel as well. The last decade`s rise in the information industries has coincided with worse traffic jams and more overcrowded airports than ever before. The slowing of the tech economy has led to noticeably lighter traffic in the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle - but like the slowdown itself, that travel relief is temporary.
We will leave for another day the most profound aspect of this puzzle: Whether technology will ever offset the human need for face-to-face contact or the tendency of even the most modern industries to concentrate in a few favored locales. For now, in honor of the impending Fourth of July travel ordeal and the summer snarls to follow, the subject is the way the information industries may, at last, become part of the solution to the travel problems they helped create. Their impact will be most evident in the overburdened airline system, and it is likely to occur in two stages.
The first stage began in June, when the Federal Aviation Administration announced its plans to spend $11 billion over the next decade to improve airline flow. After a look at the details of this plan, it is tempting to ask, “What took so long?” In effect, this project will move the air-traffic system from parity with the commercial technology of the 1960s to that of the mid-1990s. But the FAA has a good excuse for its caution. It is legally responsible for ensuring the safety, not the on-time performance, of air travel, so like operators of server farms or power-generating systems it must err on the side of proven technology. In the 1990s the FAA was humiliated by the failure of an ambitious, costly program to modernize its computers in one giant leap. Therefore it is actually proud of the piecemeal, nonrevolutionary nature of these new proposed improvements.
Much of the FAA`s program involves applying to air travel the advances in computing power, sensor technology and high-speed networked communication that industry has taken for granted through the Internet age. For instance, as planes travel the most heavily trafficked corridor, the FAA now keeps them far apart - up to 5 miles horizontally and 2,000 feet vertically - largely because of doubt about exactly where they are. Improved sensing devices will allow more planes to fly closer together with no loss of safety.
Wireless data transmissions should allow the FAA by 2010 to eliminate the most antiquated part of the entire air-traffic system. This is the voice-based, CB-style radio system through which controllers relay instructions to pilots, and in which any one person`s transmission blocks out everyone else. In the new system pilots will still be able to talk to controllers, but most navigational and weather information will go over a “digital data link” in high-speed, wireless bursts.
Because they`re based on well-established technology, the FAA`s new systems should work. And when they work, they should, by the FAA`s estimates, increase national air traffic capacity by nearly a third in the next decade. That`s all to the good. But the FAA also estimates that demand for air travel will grow much faster than that over the same period, so its improvements won`t even keep up with likely congestion.
This is where the information economy can have a second influence, not only with its products but also through its deeper organizing principles.


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