Thursday, June 4, 2009

Common GPS could help better track airline flights

Common GPS could help better track airline flights
GPS tracks phones, cars, but not planes; Air France crash renews call for end to radar systems

CHICAGO (AP) -- Get lost in the woods and a cell phone in your pocket can help camping buddies find you. Drive into a ditch and GPS in your car lets emergency crews pinpoint the crash site. But when a transcontinental flight is above the middle of the ocean, no one on the ground can see exactly where it is -- in the air, or worse, in the water.

The disappearance of Air France Flight 477 and its 228 passengers over the Atlantic Ocean this week has critics of radar-based air traffic control calling on the U.S. and other countries to hasten the move to GPS-based networks that promise to precisely track all planes. Current radars are obsolete more than 200 miles from land.

"The technology's there -- we've had this stuff for 15 years and little's happened," said Michael Boyd, a Colorado-based airline analyst. "My BlackBerry can be used to track me, so why can't we do it with planes?"

U.S. officials have discussed setting up such a network since the 1990s and the technology is being tested in parts of the country, including Alaska and off the Gulf Coast. A few carriers, like Southwest, already use GPS to help planes make quicker landings that burn less fuel.

But full implementation, estimated at a cost of $35 billion, has languished amid funding delays and disputes over technical complexities. Although Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said the project will be among the Federal Aviation Administration's top priorities in the Obama administration, the existing radar system is likely to remain for at least another decade.

"It's a crude system they're using now," said Robert Poole, an aviation expert with the free market-oriented Reason Foundation. "For 100 dollars, you can run down and buy a GPS system, put it in your car and know exactly where you are. But planes don't have it."
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