Cab It to the Hinterlands!

This month NASA and friends show off the air-taxi system they hope will breathe new life into small-town airports

The Texas cattle-country town of Granbury (pop.: 5,718) is an ideal spot for weekend getaways. Located about 65 miles southwest of Dallas, it boasts a stone opera house built in 1886, a double-decker riverboat, a well-worn Jesse James legend–everything except regular airline service. But if an air-taxi demonstration in Danville, Virginia, this month goes as planned, tourists could soon be zipping in and out of Granbury as though it were Dallas.

The demonstration will showcase the latest technologies underpinning the Small Aircraft Transportation System, a point-to-point travel scheme devised by NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and the aircraft industry. The aim is simple: to enable hundreds of thousands of travelers to sidestep the nation´s overtaxed hub-and-spoke airports by kick-starting on-demand air-taxi service at the 5,400 or so tiny airstrips around the U.S.

SATS could relieve congestion at major hubs by as much as 10 percent by 2010, says Shahid Siddiqi, an aeronautical engineer with the National Consortium for Aviation Mobility, which represents the manufacturers, universities and airport officials that have teamed with NASA to develop the necessary technologies.

Less a single revolutionary system than a broad, high-tech initiative for change over the coming years, SATS could make small airports just as accessible as big ones–rain or shine. Today when visibility is low, the FAA permits only one aircraft at a time to approach or depart from any airport without a control tower or radar. The result is often lengthy holding patterns, ground delays or no service at all.

With new technologies, such as a GPS-based 3-D cockpit display that shows the positions of nearby aircraft, several planes can be routed safely through the soup. This collision-avoidance device, several versions of which will be available for lightweight planes next year, can coordinate with similarly-equipped planes to guide pilots toward the best traffic sequence. It can also communicate with a virtual air-traffic controller on the ground, sparing cash-strapped communities the seven-figure expense of installing a tower.

Other tools that will make flying air taxis easier include head-up displays that project instrument panels onto the windshield and forward-looking radar that generates images of oncoming terrain. All of these technologies will be featured at the Danville demo, where six planes, including a Cirrus SR22 single-engine prop and an Adam Aircraft A700 jet, will be on display, and several will take off and land under the supervision of a virtual controller.

Meanwhile, a few air-taxi firms are already gearing up for business. POGO Jet in Bridgeport, Connecticut, run by Peoples Express founder Donald Burr and former American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall, has ordered 75 of the $2.1-million A700s. And DayJet in Delray Beach, Florida, plans to buy several hundred of the new sub-$1-million six-seat Eclipse business jets.

Yet full deployment of SATS could take 20 years or more as puddle-jumpers and unequipped aircraft are upgraded with the new technologies. “This is a paradigm shift,” says Peter McHugh, the SATS program manager at the FAA. “Five years ago the FAA was not talking about small airports as part of the transportation system. There was no national strategy. Today there is.”