The bewildering disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 demonstrates that current systems for tracking aircraft are badly out of date, U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., says.
“There’s more GPS in the phone in your pocket than on most of our 21st century airliners – that’s frightening,” says Esty, who serves on a Congressional subcommittee on aviation.
The mysterious loss of the Malaysian widebody jet has prompted Esty to step up her campaign to get the Federal Aviation Administration, aircraft manufacturers and the major airlines to adopt the GPS-based “NextGen” air traffic monitoring system.
Several years ago, Bradley International Airport became a pioneer when it was part of an American Airlines test flight from Dallas to Greater Hartford using components the system. But making it a part of day-to-day air travel across the country is still years away at least.
The FAA and the national pilots union have endorsed NextGen, saying it would provide safer flying, long-term aviation fuel savings, more direct flight routes, and vastly more efficient airports that could expand service without adding runways. The system would base flight patterns on satellite-coordinated positioning systems, which theoretically allow more planes into the same airspace – and direct them to fly much more directly – than signals from WWII-era radar installations on the ground.
“Successful implementation is a combination of technology, airline enthusiasm, pilot training, controller training, and a stakeholder environment,” Capt. Sean Cassidy, first vice president of the Airline Pilots Association, told an aviation forum last fall. “NextGen must be NowGen.”
But the upfront cost is estimated in the billions of dollars, and neither the federal government, the airlines or aircraft manufacturers have been willing to absorb it. Esty believes the Malaysian Airlines loss could spur action because it illustrates how far technology has evolved since the invention of ground-based radar, which is the heart of the current air traffic control system.
Esty has been promoting NextGen investments through her position on the Aviation Subcommittee of the U.S. Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. She toured air traffic control facilities at Bradley in April to hear how various components of a NextGen would enable planes to be moved more efficiently before takeoff, on departure, in flight, on final approach and even taxiing to the gate. All of that adds up to burning less fuel, emitting less pollution and accommodating additional flights at big-city airports that are already running at or near the peak capacity that a radar-based system allows.
“We know that relative to GPS, radar is not as accurate – we’d be seeing our planes’ precise positions in 3-d, not just approximate locations every eight seconds,” she says. “This can save 10 percent of the fuel that’s being burned – that’s a really big win for the environment. There’s less circling and less noise for people who live near airports.”
Connecticut stands to reap a special gain, because it’s one of the states with manufacturers on the forefront of aviation technology, she says. General Electric subsidiaries are deeply involved in NextGen design and development, so a widespread transition to the new system could create high-quality jobs in the state, she says.
“And as we license and develop it, other countries will want and need it – and Connecticut will have the expertise and the defense contractors with the technologies that could be adopted for it,” she says.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has been generally supportive of the technological component of NextGen, but advises on its website that “Right now, NextGen is little more than a very ambitious research and development project.” It cautions that FAA in the past has muddied the issue by lumping NextGen into a wide-ranging series of potential overhauls of the entire aviation system, some of which air traffic controllers oppose.
The FAA supports NextGen technology, and puts forward a detailed case at http://www.faa.gov/nextgen/. But federal funding has been slim, and Esty wants the agency to do more to motivate the private sector to act.
“So far the FAA has not prioritized getting this done, and the (budget) sequestration didn’t help,” she says. “But in light of what happened with the Malaysian Airlines plane, this is on people’s minds now. The estimates are that search so far has cost a quarter of billion dollars already. We need to see this is about safety, and also about national security.”
Esty is working to build bipartisan support for a system of incentives for manufacturers who put NextGen equipment on new planes and for airlines that retrofit existing fleets. She also wants penalties for laggards; the system becomes cost-efficient when at least 75 percent of the planes in U.S. skies have it, and Esty says the leaders in making that happen deserve a benefit.
“We need a system of carrots and sticks,” she says. “And we need to know that it’s not costless for us to not take action.”