John Marburger, the president's senior science and technology adviser, introduced the plan in a speech before a congressional commission looking at the future of U.S. aerospace companies.
The proposal focuses on integrating defense, homeland security and civil aviation needs within a common system of communications, navigation and surveillance. Implementing the system would require technological help from the Department of Defense, NASA and private industry to provide satellite-based voice and data, satellite navigation and other capabilities to help assure safe flight.
But White House spokeswoman Anne Womack told United Press International that his statement was part of a "broad vision," of the relationship "between agencies that have a common interest."
"It was not a statement of policy," Womack concluded.
Nonetheless, attendees of the Aviation Week Homeland Security and Defense Conference in Washington said the proposal could provide a long-overdue revamping of the country's air-traffic-control system.
Louis Turpen -- chief executive officer of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority and former director of the San Francisco Airport for 14 years -- said U.S. aviation had the luxury of operating in two separate worlds before Sept. 11.
"I think unity of command is critical in ATC (air traffic control), I think it's critical in aviation security," Turpen told UPI. "What you're getting is two things; you could get the integration and the flow of money could spawn a 'replacement' system."
One insider familiar with discussions about the plan and civil and military aviation systems, told UPI one issue driving the effort is the need to deal with aircraft that have veered off their flight path -- like those in the Sept. 11 attacks -- without grounding the entire U.S. air fleet.
"When we had a truck bomb in Oklahoma, we didn't stop all people driving trucks," said the source, who asked not to be identified.
The primary requirement is for clear information or "situational awareness," said the source who noted that merging procedures would be the biggest challenge -- including the way in which known and unknown aircraft are handled.
But combining civil and military aviation systems was more a matter of sharing information -- a goal that was doable with modern technology -- and would not necessarily result in a single system with a single managing agency, said the source.
In fact, coordination of civil aviation internationally may not mesh well with the needs of military planners working with coalition partners, a reality that could push designs toward separate but fully coordinated systems.
Irwin Jacobs, CEO of telecom giant Qualcomm, said airlines' plans to fly less-structured routes using the Global Positioning System would require an ATC upgrade in any case.
"The coordination that's discussed here between military and commercial (operations) becomes even more important," Jacobs told UPI. "Having (ground) communication with all the aircraft and an additional channel for GPS information could provide that extra margin of safety."
It could cost in the vicinity of $200,000 per plane to install advanced two-way communications/data-transfer systems necessary for what the administration is proposing, Jacobs said. Some of those systems could provide fee-based services for passengers to defray some costs, he said.
Some conference-goers said they would need more details to fully understand what the president wants to do. Mike Ball, an executive with TRW's aviation solutions group and an Air Force veteran, said the country has had an integrated ATC system since 1958.
"The military doesn't run that much of an air-traffic control system in the United States. ... They're raisins in an FAA cake," Ball told UPI. "I'm not sure what they're talking about, perhaps continuing to leverage the sort of joint-use stuff we have, such as the long-range radars out there procured by both the DOD and FAA."
The Bush plan could, however, solve some of the organizational hurdles to improving U.S. ATC, Ball said, but nothing will happen in the near-term.
"The FAA has a very difficult time mandating equipage, particularly with the traditional aviation group lobbies," Ball said. "By using the national security guise, you could mandate equipage to put those things in fairly quickly -- three to five years. There are no silver bullets here, just as there aren't in aviation security."
Some of the stumbling blocks to quick implementation are a lack of places to install new equipment on planes, Ball said, as well as an immediate shortage of that equipment because of squabbles over technical standards.
(With additional reporting by Dee Ann Divis, Frank Sietzen and Kathy Gambrell in Washington.)