Better Cooperation in Air Travel

September 13, 1991

The future of world aviation rests on good communications and close supervision of aircraft movements. It should come as no surprise that a panel working for the International Civil Aviation Organization concluded satellites offer the best way to provide that supervision. While air transport is growing rapidly everywhere, it is beyond many developing countries to finance the massive infrastructure which smoothes aircraft movements in the United States. Satellites, which can reach remote areas and easily cross borders, offer standardization unmatched by ground-based national systems and are the obvious way to overcome barriers of cost, flexibility and coverage.

The United States and the Soviet Union have apparently resolved to move quickly on improvements. Federal Aviation Administration chief James Busey, in a speech before the ICAO, has offered free use of the U.S. Global Positioning System satellites as the foundation for a world-wide system. Mr. Busey, defusing fears this was an attempt to control system development, noted that he and his colleagues had already begun talks with the Soviets on ways to integrate their satellites into the system.

FAA and Soviet specialists are working on common electronics specifications and minimum operational standards for civil aircraft communications. Joint flight tests, using U.S. and Soviet satellites, are under way over the North Pacific, he said.

The Global Positioning System, with its 21-satellite fleet by 1993, represents a multi-billion-dollar investment. Its ability to work with other navigation systems and accurate positioning of transponders within 100 meters has already resulted in new, more precise control of railroads, trucks and other ground vehicles as well as aircraft. A world-wide system with added communications abilities might revolutionize air transport, giving even less well-equipped airfields instrument-landing capabilities.

Not only would that open many areas of the world to better air transport, it could facilitate replacement of ground-based communications systems, freeing up broadcast frequencies for other uses. It could even allow new, more precise determination of the location and times of arrival of shippers' parcels en route.

There is much left to be done in the way of standards-setting and agreements over manufacturing of associated ground station gear. But a good start has been made. It's a grand demonstration of what happens when world leaders start shaking hands instead of waving fists.

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