NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

FedEx Implements New Landing System Before FAA

March 21, 2001

The Federal Aviation Administration has been working for years to perfect a landing system designed to untangle air traffic. But it is the private delivery company, FedEx, which is about to put such a system into operation.

FedEx is using Boeing 727 aircraft to test its system -- which relies on navigational satellites of the Global Positioning System.

  • GPS provides enough information to position a plane within 30 feet -- which is adequate for guiding a plane on flights between cities, but not for a landing.
  • But the new FedEx system augments the satellite signals with extra signals from ground-based radios, pinpointing the plane's location when landing to within three feet.
  • That is so precise that planes' rubber-tire skid marks build up in the same place on the runways -- leading FedEx officials to observe that the rubber will have to be scrubbed off more often.
  • While the system is still only approved for daytime flying in clear weather, those familiar with it expect it will lead to a cheaper and more precise way to guide landings through thick fog or low clouds.

FedEx has two middle-of-the-night rush hours at least as intense as any passenger hub. It sometimes must launch 12 aircraft in six minutes, making the benefits obvious.

But the FAA -- which let a contract for a similar system in 1995 and promised delivery by 1998 -- has had a difficult time applying enhanced global positioning to aviation. It is still working on it, however.

Source: Matthew L. Wald, "FedEx Ahead of U.S. in Bid to Improve Airport Landing System," New York Times, March 21, 2001.

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