O K guys, you are all pretty much missing the point.
As far back as 1991, the FAA was becoming extremely worried about the lack of airspace in various parts of the "lower 48".
It carried out a number of studies and deduced something revolutionary was needed if, by 2010, the skies of America were not to be like the George Washington Bridge on a Friday teatime.
In December 1994 I was running a conference in London on the privatisation of air traffic control.
I invited a speaker from the FAA for the US perspective and they confirmed details. I sent an attendee list, as a courtesy, ten days before the conference to the FAA at Independence Avenue and received a fax asking if, because the conference had attracted around 100 people including the CEOs of every major ATC provider plus equipment supplier CEOs, they could substitute the speaker so they could announce a revolutionary scheme.
Intrigued, I agreed and December 8 1994, at an hotel on the northern edge of Heathrow, Mr L Lane Speck, Director, Air Traffic Rules and Procedure Service, FAA announced (to the sound of over 100 very highly paid jaws dropping in disbelief) the inception of Free Flight (variously spelled Free Flite or Freeflite depending on which department put out releases).
Without going into all the detail, this was a revolutionary ATC system whereby ATC would no longer "control" but would "monitor".
A flight would leave a Terminal Area and fly its own course to its destination TMA using an upgraded TCAS, monitored by an upgraded Conflict Alert System and backed up by aircraft to aircraft communication, thus putting into reverse President Eisenhower's Airways and later Jetways and VOR system introduced after the Grand Canyon accident.
The first slide shown in the presentation said:
"We must dare to think "unthinkable thoughts". We must learn to explore all the options and possibilities that confront us in a rapidly changing world. We must learn to welcome and not fear the voices of dissent. We must dare to think about "unthinkable" things. Because when things become "unthinkable" thinking stops and actions become mindless."
The "unthinkable" was to be introduced to restructure te National Rote Program to support the concept of Free Flight to simplify the use and management of system wide fuel efficient and minimum time track routing opportunities.
As of July 1994, the planners forsaw an initial stage from January 1995 of the system going nation wide above FL390 over a 30 day period. The next stage was during February 1995 to bring the level down to FL370, to FL350 by the end of March, and then to FL330 west of the Mississippi by end of April, to the East by the end of May.
By the end of September 1995 the level was down to FL290 and the new system would then be handling all traffic at FL290 and above using equipment then current.
As you can imagine, Lane Speck's conference slot (the last of the afternoon) went on way past finishing time and his table was oversubscribed at dinner.
The whole basis of the argument for free flight was to free up airspace, use technology to prevent log jams and pre-empt the problems forseen by more frequent flights between the most popular points in the US by smaller aircraft ( a prediction now come true with RJs on erstwhile 737 flights, 737s on erstwhile 757 flights and a seemingly unending growth spiral).
Well the trial got under way but not as expansively as first mooted. Certain city pairs were selected plus certain entry points to gateway routes for traffic entering the US.
By 1997 a great deal of negotiation and planning had been done and a lot of figure work had been put before the relevant bodies to show the overall cost and impact predictions if the system were to be implemented at the optimum level, i.e. to involve ALL traffic above 5,000 feet.
It was at this point that I became involved again as Mr Speck invited me to Washington to discuss launches of the project to a range of bodies.
Before I could get there, someone in the FAA was called to account by Congress as the cost to the industry for new TCAS, conflict monitor equipment and training was being quoted in the tens of billions of dollars range.
The FAA retrenched somewhat and proposed trials in Hawaii and Alaska where all flights would have to be properly equipped, the monitoring equipment would be installed and, because of the good traffic mix in both States (without too much congestion!) a realistic live scenario could be watched.
By the time I reached Washington in March 1997, the idea was before a Congressional Committee. The FAA had increased its traffic estimates based on the orders for RJs and smaller medium haul aircraft and they were confident the trials would go ahead and I was given an outline brief to prepare a number of launch meetings.
That all ground to a halt that summer when Congress refused, not to think "unthinkable things", but to pay "unthinkable sums of money".
The equipment manufacturers were (obviously) for the idea. The GA lobby wasn't, airlines had mixed thoughts and continued ordering RJs as if the system would be implemented before the 2009 "meltdown".
I gather it still survives in a much modified form in upper airspace but the RJs are causing mighty congestion by both their frequency and slower rate of climb/overall speed as everyone nose to tails it from VOR to VOR.
Just today I found the following on AvFlash:
BIG AIRPORTS AND BIG JETS -- GARVEY ON BIG ATC PROBLEMS...
Jane Garvey addressed some of the nation's key airport operators last week to announce that changes to air traffic control procedures are imminent. After meeting with major carriers, the FAA has realized that
Boston, Chicago and Washington each can destroy the flow of traffic across the entire country if their systems are compromised, whether by technical problems or just airplane overload. While Garvey made no attempt to pretend she'd stumbled across the universal miracle cure, she did put forth a list of 21 procedural changes meant to loosen the knots.
Proposals range from better stacking of arriving aircraft to negotiating the use of military airspace during bad weather.
So we are still looking at the airports to solve the problem. Yet what the FAA said 6 years ago is still true, the problem is in the air.
If business people demand regular flights on smaller, slower jets, if airlines continue to schedule departures in waves, if hub and spoke ops continue to expand, by 2009 the prediction will come true, air fares will be through the roof as pax pay for 3 hour sectors (gate to gate) with only 50 minutes in the air.
Common sense, the cost of fuel, the cost of crew, maintenance and the cost of purchasing smaller aircraft to serve the still rapidly growing market will eventually force the airlines to buy bigger. En route charges being imposed by the FAA, not to mention multiple landing fees will eventually price the small aircraft and frequent schedule out of the market on the major trunk routes.
But the killer of the RJ and the birth of the VLA on US jetways will be the day when TV and radio stations give flight logjam bulletins on an hourly basis as they do traffic flashes for drivers today.
For cost, environmental reasons and for the sheer need to be able to get there, people will be forced to accept less frequent service on bigger airplanes - period.
Free Flight MIGHT have put off that day for a good number of years. It looks now if only the VLA can.