"Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of Air Traffic Control"
J. Randolph Babbitt, Burien, Washington
July 11, 2011

Seattle Tracon Press Conference


Thank you, Mark (Reeves) for that introduction. It’s great to be in Seattle again and here at the Tracon.

This month we’re celebrating the 75th anniversary of air traffic control in the United States. I can’t think of a better place to talk about the future of air traffic control than here in Seattle, where we have some very innovative programs under way.

We’ve made, in this industry, countless advances in air traffic control since the 1930s when the first air traffic controllers began to plot the progress of flights using radio reports from pilots.

Air traffic control has gone from guiding airplanes with bonfires to beacons to radar and now space-based satellite technology.  

The advances have helped the aviation industry achieve and maintain an unparalleled safety record.

It really is amazing when you think about it. Our system has grown from three control centers in the 1930s to hundreds of federal airport traffic control towers today. Our system hums each day with 15,000 air traffic controllers handling 50,000 flights a day.

And with NextGen – that’s the Next Generation Air Transportation System – we’re going to see even greater advances in safety and efficiency moving forward.

NextGen is the next milestone in aviation innovation.

Just as radar revolutionized air traffic control in the 1950s, NextGen is revolutionizing air traffic control now.

Seattle is on the cutting edge of NextGen procedures and technology. This is the future of air traffic control.

Our “Greener Skies Over Seattle” program here will use NextGen procedures and flight paths that take advantage of the superior accuracy of GPS. 

Alaska Airlines is joining the FAA, the Port of Seattle and Boeing to further develop GPS-based procedures at Seattle Tacoma International Airport.

The project should save literally millions of gallons of fuel annually, cut noise and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

We estimate that airlines using GPS-enabled procedures at SeaTac will save about $6.8 million annually at today’s fuel prices. And that number is only going to get larger as more airlines equip.

With the “Greener Skies over Seattle” initiative, aircraft will emit less carbon dioxide – about 22,400 metric tons less per year. That’s like taking more than 4,100 cars off the streets of the Seattle region. And that’s just by using procedural changes.

This is possible because GPS-based arrival and departure procedures allow aircraft to fly more direct routes, thus reducing fuel burn and in the process, reducing emissions.  And new precision arrivals allow aircraft to descend quietly towards the airport with engines idle, thus saving fuel.

Actually, Alaska Airlines has long been a pioneer in NextGen and has seen the benefits already. It is the only U.S. carrier to fully equip its entire fleet for high performance GPS-based procedures. This allows aircraft to navigate precisely through mountainous terrain in low visibility conditions.

The company estimates it would have cancelled 729 flights last year into Juneau alone due to bad weather if it were not for the GPS-based approaches. Those were passengers who got in. No diversions. No ground holds. That means tremendous savings for the carrier and benefit for the passenger.

And in the state of Alaska, NextGen has demonstrated a great safety improvement in the general aviation community. We outfitted general aviation planes with state-of-the-art NextGen cockpit displays to help navigate around mountains that cut off large areas from radar coverage. This gave pilots better weather information and a clearer view of mountainous terrain. It cut the accident rate almost in half.

  Today when you visit the Tracon training area you’ll have a chance to see what air traffic controllers see on their screens. You’ll understand what it’s like to think three-dimensionally and solve problems in seconds.

Air traffic controllers are like a professional basketball team. They always anticipate where the ball will be before it gets there. Aircraft arrive at the airport at a rate of about three miles a minute. If the aircraft is a mile away, it’ll be there in 20 seconds. You have to think quickly and work ahead.

With NextGen, air traffic controllers will have more information about more aircraft on their screens. They will have more tools to better manage the airspace. They’ll be able to better line up aircraft for landing at the airport without delays. And it will be easier to route aircraft around weather.

We’re at an exciting time right now in aviation. We’re creating a new template for our air transportation system. I’m happy that you came out today to visit with us and see for yourselves how it works. And I’ll be happy to answer any questions.

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