NASA Ames Research Center  + Visit the NASA portal Site Accessibility Notes
 Air Transportation Problem

Response to:
Austin High School -- Team 1 Levels of Flight

Katharine Lee
Assistant Branch Chief,
Terminal Area
Air Traffic Management Research Branch
Ames Research Center

Austin Team 1:

It's true that larger planes use more fuel than smaller ones. But newer, larger planes today have better engines than they used to, and so may actually be more fuel efficient (the same way that newer cars have better gas mileage than ones that were made 30 years ago). Can you think of ways for new airplanes to use less fuel?

Richard Mogford
Manager, Human Measures and Performance Project
Ames Research Center

You have done a good analysis of the problems. It is good not only to look at the airport and airplane factors, but also problems passengers and goods have getting to and from the airport. Right now, we seem to have enough fuel for all our airplanes, but some day this will be a problem because it will get more expensive to use fossil fuels.

We have a CD called "Gate to Gate" that we could send you that has a guided tour of how the air traffic system would work. We will send you a copy of this CD.

Your idea of making access to airports is very good and shows an appreciation of the problems passengers have even before they board a flight. We are trying to look at this in another way in our Small Aircraft Transportation System project where we are working to make use of small airplanes operating out of small regional airports. This would help relieve some of the pressure on larger airports. See this web site:

Your idea of assigning "Levels of Flight" to different classes of air carriers is innovative. However, some aircraft cannot operate efficiently at all levels since it can be more fuel efficient to operate at some higher altitudes. Aircraft may slowly climb during their flights ("step climb") to achieve greater fuel efficiency as they get lighter (i.e., since they have burned fuel). How would segregating the types of aircraft make it possible to put more airplanes in the system? You have made a good point about the problem of aircraft climbing and descending. This can create a lot of work for controllers near airports.

Your interest in the job of the controller is right on. The controller handles everything from the ground and this can make for a lot of work and each controller has some maximum workload limit. They do not as of yet have a lot of computer automation that would help them do their jobs, or do parts of their jobs for them. There has been some discussion of segregating airspace and having some airplanes handle their own air traffic control above a certain altitude. This might help the controller. Proper rules of the road and other procedures are also really important. Again, you have hit on all the right issues.

See the first web site below for a demonstration of a flight deck system we are working on that might let pilots fly around weather and other problems more efficiently.

Here is another site to look at:

You could contact David Wing at NASA Langley for more information on the Langley work. Address your questions to:

What do you think?

Please send more information on how your proposal would improve capacity. Would it also be safe?


 FirstGov  NASA
Curator: Allison Pasciuto
NASA Official: Mark León
Last Updated: January 2005
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