Thu Oct 31, 2013, 06:47 AM
liberal N proud (47,687 posts)
Air traffic control modernization hits turbulence
Oct. 31, 2013 3:14 AM ET
WASHINGTON (AP) — Ten years after Congress gave the go-ahead to modernize the nation's air traffic control system, one of the government's most ambitious and complex technology programs is in trouble.
The Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, was promoted as a way to accommodate an anticipated surge in air travel, reduce fuel consumption and improve safety and efficiency. By shifting from radar-based navigation and radio communications — technologies rooted in the first half of the 20th century — to satellite-based navigation and digital communications, it would handle three times as many planes with half as many air traffic controllers by 2025, the Federal Aviation Administration promised.
Lawmakers, too, are frustrated. NextGen has enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Congress, but with the government facing another round of automatic spending cuts, supporters fear the program will be increasingly starved for money.
"It's hard not to be worried about NextGen funding ... because it's a future system," said Marion Blakey, who was the head of the FAA when the program was authorized by Congress in 2003 and now leads a trade association that includes NextGen contractors. "There is a temptation to say the priority is keeping the existing systems humming and we'll just postpone NextGen."
In September, a government-industry advisory committee recommended that, given the likelihood of budget cuts, the FAA should concentrate on just 11 NextGen initiatives that are ready or nearly ready to come online. It said the rest of the 150 initiatives that fall under NextGen can wait.
"You can't have an infrastructure project that is the equivalent of what the (interstate) highway program was back in the '50s and the '60s and take this ad hoc, hodgepodge approach to moving this thing forward," said Air Line Pilots Association First Vice President Sean Cassidy, who helped draft the recommendations.
The threat of funding cuts comes just as NextGen is nearing a tipping point where economic and other benefits should start to multiply if only the FAA and industry would persevere, said Alaska Airlines Chairman Bill Ayers, a supporter.
Responding to industry complaints, the FAA has zeroed in on an element of NextGen that promises near-term benefits: new procedures that save time and fuel in landings while decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. Planes equipped with highly calibrated GPS navigation are able fly precise, continuous descents on low power all the way to the runway rather than the customary and time-consuming stair-step approaches in which pilots repeatedly decrease power to descend and then increase power to level off.
Last spring, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport became the first large airport where airlines can consistently use one of the new procedures. Known as HAWKS, the procedure shortens the approach from the southwest by about 42 miles. Multiplied over many planes every day it adds to up to significant savings, an enticing prospect for airlines, which typically operate on razor-thin profit margins.
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Air traffic control modernization hits turbulence (Original post)
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