At Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University on Florida's east coast, neat young students wearing aviator sunglasses criss-cross the manicured campus lawn, heading from one class to the next, or on their way to simulator training or the actual flight line. Most of them dream of becoming airline pilots, flying the big iron. In the center of campus sits a life-size stainless-steel sculpture depicting the very event that propelled them toward their chosen careers nearly 100 years ago: the exact moment when Orville Wright, lying on his stomach, lifted off the ground in the first Flyer. His brother Wilbur stands off the airplane's right wing, having just let go.
If the brothers could only see the mess they created.
The U.S. air traffic system has reached critical mass. In 2001, 570 million passengers boarded airliners, and, despite September 11, that number is expected to grow between 3 and 5 percent annually over the next decade. That's considerably more people than the current system can handle. "In airlines, capacity and demand are on the verge of crossing each other," says the FAA's Peter McHugh, who is working on a NASA-led team that is developing a plan to solve the problem.
The solution, McHugh is quick to point out, won't be found in adding more airports and airplanes. That will only exacerbate the congestion, which is already an all-too-easily roused menace. A problem at one major airport-a security breach, say, or stormy weather-backs up air traffic at all the other major airports. As a result, passengers arrive late, some missing their connecting flights. The current "hub-and-spoke" air traffic system is, well, the hub of the system's flaws. As it works now, you fly a packed airliner from one spoke, say, Kansas City, to the hub, a larger airport such as Chicago's O'Hare. Then you board another crowded jet to the second spoke-Indianapolis, for instance-where you arrive between five and 10 hours after you began your journey. The system is cost-effective and thus very popular with airlines: Most passengers and cargo head through 29 hub airports on their way to one of 600 spoke airports. Passengers, though, hate it. The system may help keep their ticket prices low, but fatigue, wasted time, and the bitter irony of traveling aboard a state-of-the-art commercial jet airplane while averaging only 88 miles per hour, door-to-door, is more than many can take. "The average traveler goes 33 percent out of their way," says Embry-Riddle researcher Ken Stackpoole. "That eats up a lot of time."