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A new state-of-the-art voice communication system was demonstrated at Salt Lake City Air Route Control Center Tuesday by the visiting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Showing reporters how the new voice-switching and control system works, David Hinson received and responded to instructions for a typical communications problem used to train air traffic controllers.The system was delivered to the center in late June and now is being prepared for operation, expected to begin in May.

"We in the United States handle over 50 percent of the world's air traffic," Hinson said. "This is a first step to put ourselves on the communication superhighway."

He said the first VSCS, which was built by the Florida-based Harris Corp., was implemented in Seattle, and Salt Lake City is the second location for the system.

Hinson estimates the total price tag for the program is about $1 billion. He said the new system will make airports safer.

The VSCS will allow controllers to better manage their workload by providing digital ground-to-ground and air-to-ground radio and telephone voice communications links between controllers and en route aircraft. The new system will replace 1950s technology consisting of relays, copious wires and vacuum tubes with a digital voice analog system and fiber optics.

Air route traffic control centers, of which there are about 22 in the United States, handle domestic flights once they are beyond the local air traffic control tower's tracking space. The centers play a critical role in monitoring and directing more than 5,800 flights each hour. The FAA's goal is to establish a VSCS in all of the air route traffic control centers, according to Hinson.

The Salt Lake center ranges from the Canadian border to New Mexico and from western Nevada and eastern Oregon to the western part of the Dakotas, according to Bill Monroe, VSCS instructor for Harris Corp.

"Some of the centers have been trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear," Monroe said. "This new system will be taking the centers from the 1950s into the 21st century."