By Jon Hilkevitch
Tribune Transportation Writer
August 27, 2000

O'Hare International Airport is set to begin testing a satellite-based tracking system for inbound airplanes that is designed to dramatically increase airport capacity without adding runways.

Aviation experts say the new technology, which is intended to eventually replace the radar now used by air-traffic controllers, will allow airlines to keep to their schedules better, even when pilots cannot see the runway because of bad weather.

The airlines also expect it will let them pack in more flights: Although planes are now required to stay at least 3 miles apart as they approach O'Hare, the new technology holds the promise of closing the distance between some aircraft to perhaps as little as 1 mile--a near-collision under today's regulations. The technology could reframe the debate on the need for new runways at O'Hare and a third airport near Peotone.

Even if flights increase, the new system, the Local Area Augmentation System (LAAS), holds out the hope for decreasing noise pollution by doing away with the endless procession of planes over the same cities and neighborhoods, day in and day out.

"The installation of a global positioning satellite [GPS] landing system will allow us to be more flexible, to decrease the separation distances between aircraft and increase the capacity," said James Miller, a senior specialist in flight operations technology at United Airlines, which is participating in the trials.

"When you cannot build another runway for whatever reason, it is the test technology being developed now that will reduce both the travel time and the safety risks for passengers," Miller said.

The new space-based system, which is being tested only in Chicago, will finally provide an opportunity for the airlines to use sophisticated avionics instruments that have been installed as standard equipment on new commercial jets for years but have sat idle because the air-traffic control systems lacked the corresponding guidance hardware.

And radar screens in control facilities, which currently monitor the altitude, speed and direction of planes, will eventually be replaced by equipment providing pinpoint accuracy and opportunities to take greater advantage of limited runways.

Critics of expanding operations at O'Hare, however, contend that the absence of new-fangled precision instruments isn't what has produced the disappointing results in the city's "fly quiet" program. And they cast serious doubt on a plan that relies heavily on flying more planes closer together instead of building a third regional airport, as the state has proposed near south suburban Peotone.

"This new initiative may give the O'Hare expansionists an incremental bump, but it won't meet the long-term needs of the region. Only new runways at the [proposed] south suburban regional airport can do that," said Joe Karaganis, the attorney for the Suburban O'Hare Commission, whose membership includes northwest and west suburban municipalities.

A purported benefit of LAAS is that by flying tailored, curving approaches toward runways from as far as 30 miles out, airline pilots will have a better tool for avoiding noise-sensitive areas.

But many officials and residents in the suburbs near O'Hare said it appeared to them that the LAAS techniques would simply create noise complaints in new places.

"I'm afraid the result will be more flights, more pollution in the region and a fanning out of the jet noise to communities that are nowhere near O'Hare," said Park Ridge Mayor Ron Wietecha. "I applaud innovation, but what we may have here is our greatest fear being realized--an attempt to shoehorn more flights into an airport whose capacity for safe operations has already been exceeded."

But city aviation officials vowed that nothing sinister is going on.

"The department competed to take the lead in the LAAS program because we wanted to be proactive about relieving noise and helping the airlines maintain their schedules so that planes are not flying late into the night every time the weather is bad," said Joe Santos, director of the city's Aviation Department's advanced technology program.

"It is an exciting time for the nation's aviation industry," Santos said, "and our hope is that we can move the process along."

The new all-weather navigation system, which has been installed at O'Hare and Midway Airports and is ready to be unveiled this week, is able to track the position of aircraft to within a few centimeters--or as one expert put it, "accurate to within the radius of a tennis ball."

Current satellite-signal technology, by comparison, is accurate to only about 10 meters--a margin of error safe for planes flying in the vast expanses on oceanic routes but unacceptable in the crowded airspaces near airports.

O'Hare and Midway will be the nation's first test beds for LAAS. Chicago contracted with the Federal Aviation Administration and Honeywell to test the system. The fledgling partnership is aimed at developing technologies that will modernize air-traffic operations to relieve congestion and safely accommodate the strong projected growth in commercial air travel.

Steve Zaidman, an associate administrator for research and acquisitions at the FAA in Washington, said it was too early to predict how many more flights that O'Hare, which accommodated 897,290 flights last year, could handle. He said a combination of upcoming technologies would determine the airport's ultimate capacity.

Some of the anticipated benefits of LAAS include allowing pilots to have an awareness of their precise location at all times and air-traffic controllers being able to utilize advanced arrival procedures--considered too risky under the current radar-controlled format. Such benefits would eventually end some of the lengthy delays that in the past two years have reached crisis proportions at the nation's busiest airports.

Chicago's investment in the LAAS experiment is between $800,000 and $1 million, said Aviation Department spokeswoman Monique Bond, adding that the cost will rise.

The LAAS project will be introduced during a two-day technology symposium, being hosted by the Aviation Department, that begins Tuesday. Other participants involved in the program include the FAA, NASA, the airlines and technology companies that serve the aviation industry.

One ground station at O'Hare and another at Midway will communicate with aircraft and a constellation of 24 satellites orbiting Earth during the initial LAAS test period. The ground stations will monitor the signals and correct the information if necessary.

The FAA plans to deploy the technology at 160 airports in the U.S.

While data is being collected for LAAS, flights operated by United Airlines and Southwest Airlines, which are participating in the project, will continue to communicate with ground-based radar that aviators have relied on for decades.

The new system lays the foundation for other aircraft-tracking technologies that would greatly reduce the risk of collisions on the ground. The existing airfield monitoring system does not, for example, differentiate an airplane from an airline refueling truck on a controller's screen. O'Hare officials hope to persuade the FAA to make Chicago the test site for that satellite-driven system too.

"We eventually want to have every single aircraft and ground vehicle equipped with satellite receivers," United's Miller said.