The Federal Aviation Administration said Thursday that is has completed the installation of an automated system for tracking airplanes that are mid-flight, which the agency said is a “foundational” project for its conversion to a satellite-based national aviation system.
The FAA has been planning for years to discard the World War II-era radar technology that has been used to manage airplane traffic for generations, and switch to a new system called NextGen that would use satellites to track flights.
The agency has struggled to meet deadlines and convince Congress to fully fund the program, but Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Thursday that the completion of a new En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) system is a “significant milestone” in the FAA’s current piecemeal approach to the conversion.
“Looking at the future of air travel, we know that there will be more planes in our skies and more people in our airports, and in order to meet this challenge we must integrate cutting-edge technology into our aviation system,” Foxx said in a statement. “ERAM is a major step forward in our relentless efforts to develop and implement NextGen. With this new technology, passengers will be able to get to their destinations, faster, safer, and have a smoother ride — all while burning less fuel to get there.”
The En Route Automation system is a computer program that wuld allow air traffic controllers to track more flights at a time.
The FAA has said the NextGen system 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, and an original 2020 deadline for implementing it nationwide is rapidly approaching. Complicating matters further, the FAA’s current funding bill is scheduled to expire in September, although lawmakers have already begun holding hearings about a possible extension later this year.
Republican leaders in Congress have argued several forms of non-governmental could better manage the transition, citing examples such as private nonprofit and public-private partnerships.
Some lawmakers are pushing to privatize at least some air traffic control functions that are currently performed by the agency as it considers a potential extension of the FAA’s funding.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the completion of the en route automation system is a big advancement for the current system of airplane navigation.
“ERAM gives us a big boost in technological horsepower over the system it replaces,” he said in a statement. “This computer system enables each controller to handle more aircraft over a larger area, resulting in increased safety, capacity, and efficiency.”