Hailing a private jet might become as easy as catching a cab in the future,but some aviation officials said the question of security might form wrinkles in an otherwise smooth plan.
A research program led by NASA,the Federal Aviation Administration,the National Consortium for Aviation Mobility,and up to 130 other organizations is paving the way in future aviation by introducing new air- and ground-borne technology to smaller aircrafts,in hopes that in a few decades,a cross country flight taxi system will be in place.
With the Small Aircraft Transportation System,or SATS,researchers hope it will be possible for a person to call a flight taxi service,tell the company his or her location and destination,and meet a pilot with a private plane or jet at a small airport by 2025,said Keith Henry,project spokesman of the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton,Va.
SATS proponents said they hope to destroy the stigma that only an elite class of people can afford to charter a plane.
“The goal is to make flying a small airplane,whether pilot or passenger,affordable or at least comparable to flying business class in an airplane or driving an SUV across country,” Henry said.
A new four-passenger,single-engine,propeller airplane starts at about $500,000,and a new eight-passenger,twin-engine jet costs about $4 million,he said. However,several companies that have begun using SATS technology now are selling planes for $200,000,and jets for about $900,000.
But the attacks on Sept. 11,2001 have made most Americans think twice about boarding a plane. And since the system was initially developed before the terrorists struck,security is not a top priority among researchers.
“Security is not an issue that is being worked on in the SATS lab,” said Jack Sheehan,executive director for NCAM. “We're not spending any money to do this – we're treating it as secondary.”
What is being worked on in the lab is incorporating advanced technology that would allow for the elimination of control towers and radar facilities at small airports,and also would allow pilots to secure safe landings in almost any weather condition,Henry said.
Proponents said increasing personal mobility and access to all areas of the country is the first priority of the program.
“There are a lot of small communities that would benefit greatly (from this system),if they had reliable air transportation into their small airport…many of them don't have that today because the technology just isn't there,” Henry said.
Another goal of the program is to ease congestion in major airports by providing travelers with an alternate form of transportation.
The number of people using commercial airlines has decreased significantly in the past year,according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. This year,about 331,200 less flights took off between January and April from all American airports,than did in 2001.
Some researchers said they attribute this decline in the past year to the events of Sept. 11,but also said that before the attacks,the demand for travel already had been decreasing because of the slowdown of the economy.
James Fallows,private pilot and author of “Free Flight”,a novel outlining the new era of aviation through small jets equipped with turbine engines and manned by professional pilots,said the combination of these factors will make more people turn to alternate travel options.
“As airline travel becomes less attractive as it gets slower,any alternative to the airline becomes attractive,” he said. “This includes trains,driving,and point-to-point chartered travel.”
However,some commercial pilots said they are skeptical about SATS' ability to take off.
“Theoretically,it would work,but I don't see how it could be cheaper (than flying commercial airlines),” said David Browning,a Delta pilot from Crescent Springs,Ky. “Also,the air space to handle that volume (of small planes) doesn't exist – it would oversaturate the ability of the air space.”
Browning also said he is concerned about the issue of security with the system.
“All it would take is two terrorists and a box full of equipment (explosives) to get onto (one of these) airplanes,” he said.
The Transportation Security Administration,whose mandate is to provide security for America's aviation system,said as of now,security precautions would not change.
“Pilots would undergo screenings and background checks,” said Dave Steigman,TSA spokesman. “Nothing would be different.”
But security systems are being developed for the future of aviation,Steigman said. The problem is determining what the state of security will be in 30 years.
“What will security be at that time?” he said. “We're looking at the broad-range,SATS is just one among many technologies that are being developed.”
Some researchers said they believe flying smaller aircrafts instead of larger ones will be safer because people will know their fellow passengers.
Sheehan likened the idea to a car pool.
“If you're in a car pool going to work,you may not be best friends with (the people you're riding with),but you ride every day to work with them,and you know who they are,” he said.