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CNN Today

'Free Flight' May Solve Airport Congestion

Aired August 21, 2000 - 2:20 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: The airlines, the airports and the government are holding a round table this hour, tossing out ideas to make your flight smoother. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater called the summit to deal with the record number of flight delays this year. Close to 50,000 flights didn't make it on-time in June, the worst month ever for the airline industry. The air traffic system handled 635 million passengers last year in the U.S. By the end of the decade, the crunch could hit one billion.

Secretary Slater says there's been some improvement over 1999.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RODNEY SLATER, SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION: The objective was to turn around our performance last year, when we had the worst year on record as relates to delays and cancellations. We've actually seen some improvement over last year, in all but one month, June. Last year we had five severe weather days, this year, 19, 12 of them in a row. But again, we're just assessing the situation as relates to that effort and looking to the future.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ALLEN: Well, one solution to gridlock in the skies could be a new way to move airplanes. It's called "free flight."

CNN's Dan Ronan tells us how it works.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAN RONAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Imagine the sky as a giant interstate system. Commercial jets fly on designated routes between cities. When planes do cross, they do it at different altitudes, much like going under a bridge.

JOHN LANE, EMBRY RIDDLE AERONAUTICAL UNIV.: It allows controllers to set up lines of traffic in a very orderly way to know where the crossing points are.

RONAN: But many worry the country's 50-year-old air traffic system won't be able to handle the heavy volume of planes 10 or 15 years from now. So the FAA and the airlines are implementing a new system. RON MORGAN, FAA: We believe that it will -- free flight will answer that congestion problem for the foreseeable future. It will allow us to operate more aircraft safer than we do today.

RONAN (on camera): Free flight will place more responsibility on pilots here in the cockpit, allowing them to make decisions on their route, speed and altitude. The airlines say this additional freedom will save them billions of dollars each year in fuel and wasted time.

(voice-over): Although there would still be restrictions on airspace near airports, designated locations will be added in the sky, 10 to 15 miles away, giving pilots more options for taking off and landing. With free flight, experts predict safer skies and less congestion, even with more planes in the air.

KEN FLEMING, EMBRY RIDDLE AERONAUTICAL UNIV.: The air space is huge, and that's not the problem; there is no theoretical maximum.

RONAN: In order for free flight to work, the air traffic control system will need a substantial update, with global positioning satellites telling controllers where planes are. That complete system is still years away.

Dan Ronan, CNN, Daytona Beach, Florida.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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