WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Aviation Administration is creating a new air
traffic system that officials say will be as revolutionary for civil
aviation as was the advent of radar six decades ago. But the program is at a
It’s getting harder to pry money out of Congress. The airline industry is
hesitating over the cost of equipping its planes with new technology
necessary to use the system. And some experts say the U.S. could lose its
lead in the manufacture of high tech aviation equipment to European
competitors because the FAA is moving too slowly.
Seventy-five years ago this week the federal government, spurred by the
nascent airline industry, began tracking planes at the nation’s first air
traffic control centers in Newark, N.J., Chicago and Cleveland.
The original group of 15 controllers, relying on radioed position reports
from pilots, plotted the progress of flights using blackboards, maps and
boat-shaped weights. Air traffic control took a technological leap forward
in the 1950s with the introduction of radar. That’s still the basis of the
technology used today by more than 15,000 controllers to guide 50,000
flights a day.
Under FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System program, known as
NextGen, ground radar stations will be replaced by satellite-based
technology. Instead of flying indirect routes to stay within the range of
ground stations, as planes do today, pilots will use GPS technology to fly
directly to their destinations.
Planes will continually broadcast their exact positions, not only to air
traffic controllers, but to other similarly equipped aircraft within
hundreds of miles. For the first time, pilots will be able to see on cockpit
displays where they are in relation to other planes and what the flight
plans are for those other aircraft. That will enable planes to safely fly
When planes approach airports, precise GPS navigation will allow them to use
more efficient landing and takeoff procedures. Instead of time-consuming,
fuel-burning stair- step descents, planes will be able to glide in more
steeply with their engines idling. Aircraft will be able to land and take
off closer together and more frequently, even in poor weather, because
pilots will know the precise location of other aircraft and obstacles on the
ground. Fewer planes will be diverted.
Pilots and airline dispatchers will be able get real-time weather
information. Computers will spot potential weather conflicts well in advance
so that planes can be rerouted. And, controllers will do a lot less talking
to pilots. Many instructions now transmitted by radio will instead be sent
digitally to cockpits, reducing the chance of errors.
Together, the suite of new technologies and procedures being phased in will
significantly increase the system’s traffic capacity, FAA officials predict.
That’s critical if the number of passengers traveling annually on U.S.
airlines grows from an estimated 737 million this year to over 1 billion a
year in the next decade, as the FAA forecasts.
And, the FAA predicts, NextGen will save significant time, fuel and money.
It also will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and noise.
“It really is a revolution in air transportation,” Deputy FAA Administrator
Michael Huerta said in an interview. “The decisions we’re making in the next
several years will set the foundation for the next 75 years of air traffic
Paying the tab for NextGen — estimated at as much as $22 billion for the
government and another $20 billion for the airline industry through 2025 —
may be FAA’s biggest hurdle. The program has widespread support in the Obama
administration and Congress, but it isn’t immune to budget cuts in the
current climate of austerity. The House wants to reduce FAA’s budget
authority by $1 billion a year over the next four years, while the Senate
has favored higher funding.
Even longtime NextGen supporters like Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairman
of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s transportation subcommittee, warn
that full funding is no longer automatic.
“We need to see a realistic strategy for funding NextGen,” she told FAA
Administrator Randy Babbitt at a May hearing. “To date, the FAA has filled
its budget request with a laundry list of programs and development
activities, and a vague promise that somehow the agency will achieve its
goals by 2018. But that approach is not enough this year.”
If funding is reduced, some elements of NextGen could be delayed. There is
no date for completion of the entire program, which officials say is
Airlines support NextGen, but they’re wary of FAA’s track record of changing
directions after investments have been made. FAA began its modernization
program in 1981. It was branded as NextGen in 2003.
“We want to leverage the technology we have today before we add more
technology and more cost,” Delta Air Lines Inc. CEO Richard Anderson told
reporters in April.
Airlines also want proof NextGen is ready to produce tangible benefits, that
it “is not just a big sales program by the avionics (aircraft electronics)
sales people,” he said.
And, airlines want the government to help underwrite the cost of equipment
they’re going to be required to buy.
“This is not a cost the airlines can, or should, absorb,” Glenn Tilton,
chairman of United Continental Holdings Inc. told an aviation luncheon in
Washington in November.
Airlines should “recognize you as an industry get benefits from this,”
Huerta said. “Those benefits are something you should be prepared to pay
Yet, some sort of federal help — loan guarantees, for example — may be
reasonable, he said.
“The very valid question they are asking is, shouldn’t the government have a
stake in the game as well?” Huerta said. He heads an FAA-industry task force
expected to develop a recommendation in September.
Some airlines are moving ahead. Alaska Airlines is using GPS precision
landing procedures at Juneau International Airport, where mountainous
terrain and frequent low visibility conditions were routinely forcing
cancellations. The airline estimates it would have cancelled 729 flights
last year into Juneau if not for the new approaches.
Results have been mixed elsewhere. Southwest Airlines has spent $175 million
on equipment and pilot training so it could make use of optimized landing
approaches. But so far only 11 of Southwest’s 72 U.S. destinations are set
up for the advanced procedures. FAA hasn’t yet approved new procedures for
the remaining airports. And there’s no timetable for when they will come
online. It can take the agency as long as two years to approve a new
procedure for a single runway.
Southwest wants to see more results before making further investments,
spokeswoman Brandy King said.
The U.S. isn’t alone as it transitions to a new air traffic system. Much of
the world is adopting GPS technology. But the U.S. accounts for nearly 40
percent of global air traffic and has a robust private aircraft community
not found in most countries, adding complexity to the program.
The FAA has set a deadline of 2020 for airlines to install key equipment
that will tell controllers and other aircraft the location of their planes.
But the agency has been slow to set technical standards and a deadline for
other equipment that will be necessary to realize the full benefits of
NextGen, industry officials said.
The European Union is further along in developing equipment standards,
industry officials said. As a result, the world may wind up adopting
standards developed by the EU, rather than the U.S., said Hans Weber,
president of TECOP International Inc., an aviation technology management
firm in San Diego.
In the past, “we’ve basically set the standard worldwide for air traffic
management. Our companies were always first to market, giving them better
profit margins,” Weber said. “That’s what we’re at risk of losing. We are
risking default to the Europeans.”