Thereís a "SATS" in your future
At the recent aviation summit held in Washington, D.C., conferees worried about flight delays, overcrowding and rising ticket prices. Here is both reality and hope:
The largest cost factor in airline operations is jet fuel. For the last eight years, Washington choked down domestic oil and gas production. That can be changed.
Weather will always be a factor in on-time performance. But as weather forecasting becomes less art and more science and Global Positioning System (GPS) instrument approaches become even more accurate, on-time performance will improve.
Crowded flights are the result of airline deregulation in 1979 which allowed the airlines to scrap most direct flights and go to a hub-and-spoke system. For a time, ticket prices dropped. Now, a nation of 275 million people is addicted to even cattle-class air travel.
The flight-delay problem is mostly man-made. The airports serving many of our major hub cities are now too small and too few. This is particularly true from Boston down to New York to Atlanta and west to Chicago. Too much aluminum (airliners) and too little concrete (airports).
This man-made problem wonít be fixed. Powerful environmental coalitions will not permit the expansion of our key hub airports nor will they permit the construction of additional airports. New or expanded hubs wonít happen.
But something else will happen. It is a NASA-sponsored program called the Small Aircraft Transportation System or SATS. The goal of SATS is to reduce public travel times by half in 10 years and by two-thirds in 25 years
No, SATS is not based on pie-in-the-sky Buck Rogers technology that is far off in time and beyond economic reach. The navigation systems, the collision-avoidance systems, the weather collection and dissemination systems are already available and their costs are plummeting.
In fact, this observerís Piper Turbo Arrow III will soon have a color, moving-map GPS navigation system that also provides real-time weather, real-time radar, automatic position reporting and even out-going and in-coming email in the cockpit. Cost? About $3,000 and it is so simple the aircraft owner can install it.
The penultimate piece of the SATS system is the production of 350-mile-per-hour, six passenger, jet turbine aircraft that cost about the same as one of todayís 200-mile-per-hour, twin-engine aircraft from Wichita, Kansas, or Vero Beach, Florida. Several SATS aircraft, using the Williams J-44 jet engine or Vietnam Era helicopter engines, are nearing FAA certification and production. The manufacturers of these small jets do not plan to compete with Cessna or Beechcraft or Piper. They plan to compete with the airlines.
When SATS is in place, the hub-and-spoke system so loved by the airlines and so terrible for passengers will see much less traffic. Using a SATS aircraft, you will be able to fly directly from Town A to Town B without going through Hub C.
Hundreds of SATS air-taxi companies will be created. When you want to fly from Town A to Town B, you will contact a SATS travel broker who will tell you the seat cost of your trip. Fly alone and you pay for all six seats. But within a lot less time than the normal 7-day and 14-day advance purchases demanded by the airlines, SATS travel brokers will help fill the other five seats. On the day of your trip, you go to your community airport, get in your air-taxi and fly directly to Town B. The SATS travel brokers arrange your return travel as well.
Earlier, I said the SATS jets were the penultimate piece of the SATS puzzle. The ultimate piece is your local airport. It is one of over 5,400 already-existing general aviation airports that make SATS a sure bet.
Some, but not all, of these 5,400 airports will need improvement. The FAA, the state aviation agencies and local governments will fund those costs from aviation fuel, airline ticket and local taxes just as they do now. The alternative is airline gridlock.
William Hamilton is a nationally syndicated columnist and a featured commentator for USA Today.