WASHINGTON -- The radio airwaves that pilots and air traffic controllers use to communicate are nearly filled to capacity, threatening the ability of the aviation system to expand to meet growing demand for air travel, according to Federal Aviation Administration, airline and union officials.
The lack of radio frequencies is quickly becoming as important a factor in aviation congestion as the lack of runways and limited airspace, these experts say. Moreover, technological advances to increase the system's ability to handle more communications are not expected to come soon enough to prevent the even greater crunch of delays and cancellations that will occur when all of the FAA's radio frequencies are being used to the maximum extent possible.
Complicating the situation is a dispute between the FAA and the airline industry over how to solve the problem. The airlines argue that time is running out and are pushing for a system now being used in Europe, which could be in place in five years but would probably be outdated in less than 20 years. The FAA and some other aviation groups prefer a long-term digital solution that could solve the problem for generations but would take nine to 12 years to implement.
"There is a brick wall somewhere in the future," said George K. Sakai, program director of the FAA's Office of Spectrum Policy and Management. "It's hard to predict where. But it's near."
Aviation insiders have known for a decade or more that a day of reckoning was coming, but a solution has been delayed by the need for research and development of new technology, the need for worldwide agreement through United Nations agencies, and the need for consensus within the U.S. aviation community and the FAA. Now it appears those delays have pushed a solution beyond the inevitable frequency crunch.
"It is impossible to overstate the seriousness of this problem," said Anthony J. Broderick, former FAA associate administrator for regulation and certification who has served as an adviser on the frequency problem. He said the air traffic delays of last summer are only "tiny hints of what is going to become an everyday affair soon."
Broderick said the air traffic system is already suffering. FAA Administrator Jane Garvey must make the frequency problem a top priority, he said. Otherwise, the aviation system soon will not be able to handle any growth.
"By 2005, it is absolutely clear you'll have gridlock, and it may come several years earlier," Broderick said. "Any flight involving a connection will become a daylong excursion."
Radio is the lifeblood of aviation control. One major airport requires dozens of frequencies.
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