WASHINGTON (AP) — After a decade of work and billions of dollars spent, the modernization of the U.S. air traffic control system is in trouble. The ambitious program dubbed NextGen has encountered unforeseen difficulties at almost every turn.
The complex technology program was promoted as a way to accommodate an anticipated surge in air travel, reduce fuel consumption and improve safety and efficiency. The plan was to shift from radar-based navigation and radio communications to satellite-based navigation and digital communications.
The new system would handle three times as many planes with half as many air traffic controllers by 2025, the Federal Aviation Administration promised.
Planes would fly directly to their destinations using GPS technology instead of following indirect routes to stay within the range of ground stations. They would continually broadcast their exact positions, not only to air traffic controllers but also to other similarly equipped aircraft.
For the first time, pilots would be able to see on cockpit displays where they were in relation to other planes. That would enable planes to safely fly closer together, and even shift some of the responsibility for maintaining a safe separation of planes from controllers to pilots.
But almost nothing has happened as FAA officials anticipated.
Increasing capacity is no longer as urgent as it once seemed. The 1 billion passengers a year the FAA predicted by 2014 has now been shoved back to 2027. Air traffic operations — takeoffs, landings and other procedures — are down 26 percent from their peak in 2000, although chronic congestion at some large airports can slow flights across the country.
New landing procedures are impossible for some planes to fly. Aircraft-tracking software misidentifies planes. Key initiatives are experiencing delays.
And the FAA still lacks “an executable plan” for bringing NextGen fully online, according to a government watchdog.
“In the early stages, the message seemed to be that NextGen implementation was going to be pretty easy: You’re going to flip a switch, you’re going to get NextGen, we’re going to get capacity gains,” said Christopher Oswald, vice president for safety and regulatory affairs at Airports
Council International-North America. “It wasn’t realistically presented.”
Some airline officials, frustrated that they haven’t seen promised money-saving benefits, say they want better results before they spend more to equip planes to use NextGen.
Lawmakers, too, are frustrated. NextGen has enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Congress, but with the government facing automatic spending cuts, supporters fear the program will be increasingly starved for money.
“It’s hard not to be worried about NextGen funding,” 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 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.
The FAA has zeroed in on an element of NextGen that promises benefits soon: 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 for airlines.
Alaska, with a major hub in Seattle, estimates new procedures there will eventually cut the airline’s fuel consumption by 2.1 million gallons annually and reduce carbon emissions by 24,250 tons, the equivalent of taking 4,100 cars off the road every year.
In Atlanta, more precise navigation procedures have increased the number of departure paths that planes can fly at the same time, resulting in more takeoffs in a shorter period of time. That has freed up an additional runway for arrivals.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said NextGen is on track despite the troubles.
“It’s a significant transformation that we’re making,” he said. “I would hope it would be moving faster as well, but we have a very large, a very complex system, and we’re making great progress.”
Another important NextGen initiative would replace radio communications between controllers and pilots with text messaging and digital downloads. Radio frequencies are often crowded, and information sometimes must be repeated because of mistakes or words not heard. Digital communications should be safer and more efficient.
But airlines are reluctant to invest in new communications equipment for planes until the FAA shows NextGen can deliver greater benefits like fuel savings from more precise procedures, said Dan Elwell, a senior vice president at Airlines for America, a trade association for major carriers.
NextGen was originally forecast to cost $40 billion, split between government and industry, and to be completed by 2025. But an internal FAA report estimates it will cost three times that much and take 10 years longer to complete.
“When we’re talking about NextGen, it’s like we’re talking about the atmosphere,” Cassidy said. “It’s tough to pin down exactly what NextGen is in terms of the technologies and the cost of the technologies because, frankly, they’re changing all the time.”
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