The Federal Aviation Administration’s plan to switch the nation’s airplane navigation to a satellite-based system could change the way passengers experience airline travel — if it is ever cleared for take-off.
The FAA has been planning for years to discard the World War II-era radar technology that’s been used to manage airplane traffic for generations.
The agency says the new system, known as NextGen, will ease congestion in the airspace around busy U.S. airports by streamlining the arrivals and departures of flights. It also argues that navigating flights more efficiently will have environmental benefits because airplanes will use less gas and produce less smog.
The catch is that the NextGen system is expected to cost about $40 billion to complete.
Making the financial picture even worse, the agency is dealing with a $200 million sequester budget cut that eliminated money that would have gone toward the conversion.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has expressed confidence that the potential of the satellite-based navigation system would eventually be realized, despite the funding challenges.
“We are very bullish on the work that is involved in NextGen and basically bringing our airspace from World War II-radar technology to 21st Century GPS technology,” Foxx said during an event in Washington earlier this summer.
“We think it will make airspace more efficient, create more capacity in the airspace and make airspace cleaner that way,” Foxx continued.
The FAA’s original plans called for the NextGen system to be installed by 2014 at the busiest airports in the U.S., and nationwide by 2020.
To make the NextGen system fully operational, the agency will have to convince airlines to spend about an additional $20 billion to upgrade their airplanes’ computer systems in addition to coming up with their own portion of the funding for the conversion. Foxx touted incremental steps that have been taken to nudge the national aviation system away from radars in a speech at the National Press Club on July 21.
“We continue to make progress on NextGen,” he said. “I was in Houston a couple of weeks ago and we just rolled out 60 or so functions that are NextGen orientated.”
The Transportation chief admitted the full implementation of the satellite-based navigation system would likely take longer than originally anticipated.
“Even if we get it deployed in the U.S., there’s a lot of work to see it deployed around the world,” he said.
Convincing other nations to get on board with moving to a satellite-based airplane navigation system will likely be helped by the mid-flight disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 earlier this year.
Safety groups pushed for airplanes to be equipped with GPS tracking units after the Boeing 777 airplane went missing with more than 200 passengers on board in March.
“The loss of MH370 points us to an immediate need. A large commercial airliner going missing without a trace for so long is unprecedented in modern aviation. It must not happen again,” International Air Transport Association (IATA) CEO Tony Tyler said during a June aviation conference.
“IATA, [the International Civil Aviation Organization] and experts from around the world are working together to identify the best recommendations for improved global tracking,” Tyler continued. “By September, we will deliver draft options to ICAO.”
The Malaysia Airlines plane has still not been found, despite a months-long search.
Despite the potential boost for its case, the lack of funding for the full implementation of the NextGen system still presents problems for the FAA.
Republicans have suggested that the administration should seek more private money to build the new air traffic control system.
Foxx has suggested that the FAA’s funding picture could be complicated by the ongoing debate in Washington about federal surface transportation spending.
“I think that [FAA] conversation is going to be more complicated if we’re still trying to deal with highways and transit next year,” he said. “We need to get this done now so that we can clear the space to deal with and focus on aviation.”