Upgrades needed to keep up with more passengers and prevent delays, officials say

Travelers could face increasing delays if air traffic control systems aren’t upgraded in the next decade to deal with the expected growth in air traffic, according to federal officials.

Domestic passenger traffic is expected to nearly double to 1 billion passengers annually in the next decade, according to the federal Committee of Transportation and Infrastructure.

In anticipation, federal officials are pushing for improvements to air traffic control technology that could ensure more planes take off and land on time, in all weather conditions.

San Francisco International Airport has experienced a 6 percent increase in passengers since 2002. During that same period, between 17 percent and 33 percent of all SFO flights have been delayed, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

The main reasons for delays are lateness from other airports and the area’s characteristic fog, said Ivar Satero, deputy director of airport design and construction.

In foggy weather, SFO is unable to land two aircraft side by side, so planes are forced to line up and land one-by-one, decreasing landings from 60 to 30 per hour.

“Seventy-five percent of the time, our weather is clear,” Satero said. “We’re talking about addressing the 25 percent of the time that results in delays for our passengers and the new technology that could take a bite out of that.”

The Federal Aviation Administration seeks to phase out ground radar and replace it with orbiting satellites, similar to global positioning systems found in new cars, said Jim Coon, majority staff director for the aviation subcommittee.

In 2004, SFO invested $20 million in bad weather landing technology, allowing the airport to complete as many 38 landings per hour during foggy weather. However, the technology in ground radar and can only be used when visibility due to fog is roughly four miles, Satero said. If visibility is more than four miles, FAA regulations say the technology cannot be used.

As the federal government decides how to spend about $9.6 billion nationwide through fiscal year 2009 to upgrade and replace these systems, some of which are 50 years old, SFO officials are hoping the unique weather may qualify the airport as a prime candidate for other new technology.

The San Francisco Airport Commission earlier this year approved a technology study into this issue, which should be completed sometime this summer, Satero said.

Federal officials are still unsure exactly how much to spend in the next decade, and budgeting will likely be the main item to hash out when the committee discusses this issue again, Coon said.

tramroop@examiner.com

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