Plane Answers: Is “Free Flight” the answer to ATC delays?

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!


I know a lot has been written lately about airport delays, I have also read something about “Free Flying.” With TCAS is ATC obsolete? Should ATC be more focused on ground operations, to get planes in the air? I know from most recent articles the ATC system is operating on antiquated systems and in need of a massive overhaul. I am interested to hear your opinion, is “Free Flying” in our future?


Thanks Justin,

We’re not able to navigate or adjust our spacing using our Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). This device, which is almost like a radar screen showing the other traffic within 40 miles of our airplane, is solely to keep us from running into someone. Think of it as a backup to the Air Traffic Control system. And just like passengers aren’t generally interested in pilotless airplanes, pilots may not be interested in a world without controllers directing traffic and keeping us safe.

The ability for airplanes to fly directly to a destination is one thing that would shorten travel times, but it’s important to put the benefit in perspective. The FAA is hoping to develop a system that would allow for a direct routing versus today’s system of waypoints and VOR’s that define a more jagged path, but it will only save a few minutes of flight time.

The FAA is even more interested in the ability to space flights closer when near the airport using a new technology called NextGen. Why are they so excited about this?

Because it’s low hanging fruit.

Even at $20 billion, it just might offer the best answer to the capacity problem. Using computers and GPS, we can have more direct flights and airplanes can take care of their own spacing as they approach the airport. Take a look at this video on “NextGen” by David Pogue for CBS News that explains what the FAA is trying to do (after the jump):

While they make the small airplane owners look like the bad guys in this story, it’s hard to see any reason to force Cessna 182 pilots to pay $6,000 for a box that will help ATC control traffic around a hub like DFW or ORD, an area that most general aviation (Cessna) pilots avoid anyway.

Unless we start doing formation takeoff and landings on ultra-wide runways out of JFK and other saturated airports-a highly unlikely scenario-we’re not going to see delays improve without capacity reductions or huge investments in new infrastructure. So the next step is to improve the infrastructure at airports by adding gates, revising taxiways and adding more runways. The trouble is, people living near these airports equate that to more traffic and subsequently, noise. And it’s yet another cost.

At airports with most frequent delays, airlines need to ‘bump-up’ the size of airplanes. A 19-seat Beech 1900 takes up nearly the same airspace that a 747 does. It might take the government to step in and mandate a minimum size of aircraft at these ultra-saturated airports, but this could be an effective way to fix the problem. The smaller airplanes might begin flying more point-to-point trips from lesser used airports in the same way Southwest does now.

We’re going to get some short term relief from the airlines that are cutting back later this year for economic reasons. But that’s no reason to sit back and wait until we’re near gridlock once again to fix the problem.

Thanks for the great question, Justin.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Friday’s Plane Answers feature.