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NASA SATS Seeks to Alleviate Congestion, Connect Smaller Communities
Contributed by: David Gelles, Staff Writer

   Oshkosh, WI - NASA is currently engaged in research that it hopes will eventually relieve congestion in major hub-and-spoke airports and allow for speedier, more efficient short-distance travel.

Currently in the third of five years of planned development, the Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS), envisions a greater utilization of the nation's 5,400 public-use landings facilities. It also hopes to integrate a larger numbers of small aircraft into the National Airspace System.

98% of the American population lives within 20 miles of one of these airports, yet 75% of airline traffic passes through major hub airports. This discrepancy, and the resultant sluggishness and congestion in air traffic, is the motivation behind SATS.

At this week's EAA-sponsored AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, SATS was prominently featured in NASA's exhibits. Sally Johnson, Manager for Airborne Enabling Technologies, expounded on the program's motivation. "We don't know the future, but we believe more people will be making use of general aviation aircraft and airports, business people in particular. We also think fractional ownership, the internet, and air taxis will help."

SATS also foresees advantages such as same-day package delivery, swift medical outpatient surgery, and more convenient family leisure. All of these, NASA believes, will be enhanced by a network that makes greater use of the general aviation infrastructure.

The program will use advanced communications technologies to eliminate the need for regional control towers and ground-based radar systems. More control will be given to individual pilots in hopes that a greater volume of air traffic might be diverted even the smallest of neighborhood airports. SATS also hopes to function in nearly all weather conditions.

Ms. Johnson said that the SATS would work in tandem with the Federal Aviation Administration. "Standard approach conditions and FAA regulations will still exist, and normal flight patterns will remain in place."

However, new hardware will be needed in planes participating in SATS. "Cockpit traffic display, and onboard conflict detection and alerting will be needed," Ms. Johnson said. "And for low visibility flying, onboard guidance systems."

The SATS five-year, $69 million dollar research plan is halfway through, and is focusing on four operating capabilities: high-volume traffic at airports without control towers, technologies enabling all-weather operations, integration of SATS into the mainstream air traffic control, and improved single pilot ability to coordinate takeoffs and landings in increasingly complex national airspace. NASA is also employing an FAA employee at their research facility in Langley, where SATS is based, to ensure smooth integration into national airspace.

Research is being paid for by NASA and a consortium of partners that include state agencies, universities, airports, and transportation service providers. Funding for the functioning of SATS, however, will not be covered by the government. "Hopefully the users will pay for it," Ms. Johnson said. As for the expected cost of travel within the system, "SATS travel will be more expensive than travel within the `hub and spokes' system; probably around the price of a first-class ticket."

When asked if the research will be completed on time, Ms. Johnson said, "Yes, absolutely. The only question is how aggressive the technology can be. We hope to beat the goal."

If NASA lives up to its word and pilots and the FAA cooperate with the implementation of SATS, general aviation may soon have a widely expanded platform, and the majority of America's dormant airports may enjoy and increased profile in nationwide travel.

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