AD: What are some of the new technologies you are implementing that will make flying small aircraft easier and safer to navigate?
BH: Instead of counting on what he sees on the ground to guide him, a pilot could follow a â€œHighway in the Skyâ€? display, for example, that would project a preplanned â€œhighwayâ€? on a screen. â€œSynthetic visionâ€? would simulate the terrain below on the pilot's computer screen to help him â€œseeâ€? features both natural and man-made, regardless of time of day or weather, and reduce collisions with mountains, which occur more often than we'd like to think.
AD: How will air travel be dramatically different if SATS takes off?
BH: We think SATS will give consumers the ability to go from point A to point B on their own schedule, and from almost any point to almost any point, at one-third to one-half of what it costs to take today's commercial airlines.
AD: Does this mean we'll become part of the â€œjet set,â€? as in George Jetson's world?
BH: In 20 or 30 years it may be technically possible to fly from point A to point B without having a pilot onboard. It will be easy to fully automate flight at some point. You'd just say â€œDetroit,â€? and the airplane would take you there. That's a rather dramatic concept, but if you look way out at where this could lead, that is a possibility. We don't envision a world where everyone will have their own airplane or be a pilot. But flying in a small aircraft, either propeller or jet, no longer needs to be the province of a corporation or of people who have a lot of money.
AD: When will SATS-equipped aircraft and airspace systems be broadly available?
BH: It could be within 25 years, if the flight demonstrations planned for 2005 show that it all works and [the system is] well-received by government appropriators and key industry manufacturers. The rate of acceptance will depend, in large part, on national priorities at the time and economics, from the industry standpoint. The emergence of the earliest aircraft will occur within three to five years.
AD: How many planes do you envision?
BH: The market will probably start off with 200 to 500 new jets per year for the first few years. In 25 years, the fleet could grow to 50,000.
AD: How large is the future market for small-plane travel at short distances, 200 to 1,000 miles?
BH: Analysts estimate that if about 10 to 15 percent of current business travelers migrated from the commercial airlines to this alternative, 50,000 of these new jets would be needed â€” about 10 times the number of small aircraft available today â€” with each jet capable of seating an average of six passengers.
AD: Will flying small aircraft be less expensive than current travel choices?
BH: The technologies we're working on could lower the cost of intercity travel [200 to 1,000 miles] by opening up the market for entrepreneurial innovators to deliver SATS-derived transportation services to the marketplace.
AD: Could people's fear of flying post-9/11 prevent this market from growing?
BH: Our hypothesis is that the public's acceptance of something like this will evolve naturally. Those who start flying this way as children will grow up with a different level of comfort. At the beginning of the last century, when the first airplane flew, most people were afraid of flying. Now less than half are. It's not hard to imagine the same sort of adaptation occurring here.
If you want a direct flight to Atlantic City, N.J., from Newport News, Va., you're out of luck. The trip on a commercial airline includes at least one layover and takes four-and-a-half hours, although the cities are 180 miles apart.
That could change if NASA's five-year, $69 million program to revolutionize air travel gets off the ground. Today, planes fly to 500 places in the hub-and-spoke system, and unless a passenger is going from one major city to another, he may have to change plans or endure long layovers. Many of the 5,000 small airports and airstrips across the country that could be used to bring people closer to their destinations don't have the ground support or technology needed to guide small aircraft in all weather conditions. Through its Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS) initiative, launched in 2000, NASA aims to upgrade the technology onboard four- to 10-seater aircraft so that they will be able to fly travelers to more of these small airports, without the need for as much on-the-ground assistance. Such a system would put more commuters in the air for short jaunts, easing congestion on interstate highways and at major airports.
Bruce Holmes, manager of the General Aviation Programs Office at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., is a proponent of SATS. American Demographics' Sandra Yin spoke with Holmes to learn more about NASA's plans to change how we fly.