If you're like most people, there's a thought that runs through your mind anytime you're checking into a flight, passing through airport security, changing terminals at the last minute, trying to sort out a missed connection, or standing close to anything an airline has touched: "There has to be a better way to do this." And you would be right. Southwest Airlines took a big step toward the future of commercial flight this week by implementing GPS satellite-guided landings.
The upgrade -- which is running upwards of $175 million -- won't remove the pilot from the landing process, but it will make landing an aircraft more precise and efficient. Rather than being guided into an approach by ground-based radio signals, jets will make more exact approaches, which should marginally trim fuel costs (and emissions) and, in theory, lead to faster landing clearances.
GPS-based landing has several advantages of the ground-based systems. For one, radar -- which is what air traffic controllers use to locate incoming planes in the sky -- degrades over distance and can't see too far out into the open ocean. Planes can also make a smooth, straight descent from cruising altitude to runway, rather than the "staircase" descent airliners make now (planes must get clearance each time they move to a lower altitude; this wastes a lot of fuel, not to mention time).
The move by Southwest to GPS is part of a larger vision called NextGen that the FAA is trying to implement by 2020; Delta, United and Alaska Airlines are also phasing in other aspects of NextGen, but Southwest is the first to aggressively start rigging up their rides with GPS.
Anything that can trim cost, time, and congestion at our overcrowded airports seems like a good thing for everyone involved, though it's a bit disconcerting that the military -- which sought GPS tech in the first place -- is actively seeking a replacement for the tech. The Air Force foresees serious security concerns with GPS jamming and third-party interference with GPS signals. And if I'm riding in coach, I certainly don't want anyone to have access to that GPS signal but the pilot and his friendlies on the ground.
Still -- and Southwest is emphasizing this point -- the pilot, not the GPS computer, is the one landing the plane. And since it doesn't look like anyone is working terribly hard to solve for air travel inefficiencies experienced on the ground, it's nice to know someone is taking steps to make the actual flight a bit more efficient.
GPS may help, but what about the inevitable error in calculation of position that is inherent in that technology?
Just another stepping-stone to shark-mounted laser guided landings.
GPS accuracy can be increased by supplementing the satellite signals with signals from ground based stations as well, as would be the case around an airport. Perhaps the article should have mentioned this aspect as well.
The had better keep some ground-based signals around, because some day a big solar flare will knock out the GPS satellites right as someone is on final approach.
Im beggining to wonder if the amount of fuel used to research this technology is going to be made up in the end product of these "more precise" landings. Otherwise, im happy to see that we could be cutting down more on human mistakes in the air and landing.
Personally, I think this GPS system is going to be very efficient. My experiences from Flight Simulator prove that. Often during approach, the AP keeps messing up, like when you reset the heading, the altitude hold goes off. It becomes very annoying, especially for people like me, who are careless about things. So I think this GPS unit will do a great amount for those careless pilots out there. Plus, isn't it much better to just perform one simple proccess on approach than a whole bunch of complicated AP adjustments?
Just a comment on trireme's concern, I think a solar flare will be notified much earlier by NASA or the FAA, and I bet all flights will be cancelled by the time it reaches earth. And what do you think the odds are for that to happen? However, I totally agree with you on the effects of solar flares. It will a disaster.