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New air traffic technology could save time and fuel
March 22, 2011
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  • By Jenalia Moreno
    March 19, 2011

    The highways in the sky need upgrading to avoid gridlock and save fuel.

    And as part of this year’s spending bill, Congress is debating the Federal Aviation Administration’s budget, which includes funds to continue implementing the Next Generation Air Transportation System, commonly known as NextGen.

    But some in the new Congress, who ran for office advocating smaller government and reduced federal spending, are hesitant to get on board.

    NextGen takes the nation’s airspace from a ground-based system of air traffic control to a satellite-based system. When complete, it will allow planes to fly on more direct routes, saving fuel.

    “It will move us from radar to satellite, from radio to data communications, from traditional airways to streamlined routes,” FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt told a House aviation subcommittee last month. “Knowing what the future holds, it is imperative that we transform our national aviation system and the FAA over the next 15 years.”

    Freshman Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., recently voted against the agency’s reauthorization bill because of the “nation’s rising debt” – although the Senate ultimately approved the bill and the House could vote on it next month.

    There have been 17 extensions of the FAA’s programs since the last comprehensive legislation expired in 2007, with the most recent extension set to expire at month’s end. A House subcommittee voted to extend it through May.

    “While there has not been a gap in the authorization of the FAA’s programs, there is always uncertainty about the passage of the next extension. We can no longer afford to operate in a continued state of uncertainty,” Babbitt said.

    Senate Democrats said in a recent report that slashing the FAA’s budget would stall the agency’s effort to “upgrade the nation’s decades-old aviation control system.”

    The FAA projects it would cost the government $15 billion to $22 billion and the aviation industry $14 billion to $20 billion between now and 2025 to phase in the various phases of NextGen.

    Rep. Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill., proposed grants and loan guarantees to help airlines meet the costs, saying, “We can’t handle the air traffic of tomorrow with technology that dates back a half-century.”

    The longer it takes, the more expensive it gets, said Calvin Scovel, the Department of Transportation’s inspector general. One analysis found some NextGen capabilities may not be in place until 2035 – raising the cost above the $40 billion previously estimated, Scovel said.

    “Every time we delay something, we have airplanes out there burning a lot more gas,” said Capt. David Newton, a Southwest Airlines expert on NextGen. “I think it’s very expensive to wait. “

    Airlines and the agency have been adding some of the technology in recent years, with the FAA investing $1 billion a year on NextGen – which comprises 28 separate programs.

    In Houston, a new system is being used to move air traffic more efficiently over the Gulf of Mexico.

    But airlines are reluctant to buy equipment needed on their end until they are assured the government will also modernize its equipment.

    “If we do the upfront investment in technology and the government doesn’t do its share, then we’re just carrying around a bunch of expensive technology that burns fuel with no benefit,” United CEO Jeff Smisek said recently.

    NextGen could reduce the number of delayed flights by 21 percent – 200,000 flights nationwide, based on 2009 numbers, the Senate reported. That would work out to about 5,500 fewer delays at Bush Intercontinental Airport, the Democratic Policy and Communications Center said.

    Flight delays cost the airline industry and passengers $31.2 billion in 2007, according to the National Center of Excellence for Aviation Operations Research in a report sponsored by the FAA.

    Date: 2011-03-19