WASHINGTON -- AAI Corp. in Cockeysville received a potentially massive government contract yesterday to produce automated electronic equipment enabling airports to provide updated weather reports every 60 seconds to pilots as they begin to land.
The new equipment marks a major advance in the safety of air travel, John A. Knauss, undersecretary and administrator of the Department of Commerce, said at a news conference here yesterday.
Elbert W. Friday Jr., an official with the National Weather Service, said weather is a factor in many crashes each year.
For AAI, the $18.9 million award from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is the first installment of a five-year contract that is expected to exceed $200 million.
Thomas Murphy, president of AAI, said it is one of the largest contracts in the history of the 40-year-old company.
The equipment is expected to begin arriving this summer at the first of 1,700 locations, including Baltimore-Washington International Airport and eight other smaller, regional airports in Maryland.
Mr. Murphy said sales abroad, including Europe and Asia, could be more than double those in the United States.
Adam Fein, AAI's director of corporate communications, called the technology "a whole new area of opportunity" for the company.
He noted that the same technology could be used to monitor road conditions, such as freezing bridges; by the Forest Service to determine forest-fire danger; and by farmers to determine the best time for planting and applying fertilizers.
Mr. Murphy said the contract also is "a very important move" in AAI's continuing effort to diversify, reduce its dependence on defense work and stabilize its work force of about 2,000.
Jeffrey A. Klein, an analyst with Ferris, Baker Watts Inc., said the contract to produce the Automated Surface Observing System is a giant step toward AAI's goal of having 20 percent of its business from non-defense sources by 1992.
Last year, 5 percent of the company's business was not related to defense.
Mr. Klein said the contract also gives AAI "a leg up on the competition" in applying the technology toother business opportunities.
The stock analyst noted that AAI stock has risen about 30 percent since late November, when it was learned that the company was in line for the award.
Ernie Sessa, the program engineer, said the electronic equipment along the airport runway takes a reading on weather conditions every minute and feeds that information into a computer in the control tower. The information is converted into a voice transmission that pilots can pick up as they approach the airport.
The equipment is designed to provide updated weather information 24 hours a day, seven days a week, something that is lacking at hundreds of airports across the country, said a Federal Aviation Administration official who attended yesterday's news conference.
The Navy has purchased 68 units for use at military installations.