Probably no single issue will have a greater impact on our air travel system than the NextGen (Next Generation) air-traffic control (ATC) system slowly being implemented by the FAA, airlines and other airspace users. And emphasize the "slowly" part: Even the nominal 2025 completion date looks iffy. This isn't just my own conclusion. Last week, in Washington, I met with Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance and consumer representative on the Advisory Committee on Aviation Consumer Protections, and his organization is also strongly advocating for faster installation of NextGen.
The basic objective of NextGen is to improve the safety, capacity and efficiency of the nation's airports and air traffic control (ATC) systems. And to accomplish that goal, NextGen will switch air navigation from ground-based radar technology to satellite-based GPS technology. With appropriate auxiliary equipment, GPS can measure location with a precision as low as a few inches, and location within a few feet is more than sufficient to guide airplanes to their landings -- far better than the best radar can do. When fully implemented, NextGen systems will provide some important advantages:
-- Reduced delays due to improved ability to avoid weather problems and, at many airports, to land and take off under conditions not possible with radar-based ATC systems.
-- More direct landing and takeoff paths, resulting in shorter flight times, reduced noise, and reduced fuel consumption.
-- Increased airport capacity due to the ability to accept land simultaneously on parallel runways spaced too close to permit radar-based instrument landings. That's a critical problem at San Francisco, the country's eighth busiest (by passengers) and a substantial problem at others.
Full NextGen implementation requires complete coverage of the U.S. with required local installations -- still not complete -- and hardware installations on all planes using U.S. airspace. So, despite these obvious advantages, the FAA has seen some serious push-back from the industry. Full NextGen capability will require installation of two types of systems on each plane, and airlines and general aviation operators are concerned about the cost:
-- ADS-B Out continuously notifies ground controllers of an airplane's precise position. It's the least costly of the two systems, and many of the world's airlines have already installed it. ADS-B Out allows those ground controllers to keep track of planes with far greater accuracy and therefore to accommodate more of them in a given airspace.
-- ADS-B In gives each pilot the same information as the ground controllers get -- the position of all aircraft in his or her vicinity. Finally, says Leocha, we can go past the visual "12 o'clock high" technology of "see and be seen" that pilots must rely on today. So far, use of ADS-B In is limited.
It should come as no surprise that airlines want the government to pay for NextGen installations, which the government is unsurprisingly resisting. The airlines will benefit, says the government, and airlines should pay. Obviously, the final arrangement will be subject to a lot of pulling and hauling and political input.
What you can do: As users of the air transport system, you have a big stake in NextGen.
-- If you agree, I suggest you ask your senators and representative to get with the program and provide adequate funding.
-- You can educate yourself about the details of NextGen by looking at the FAA's official site at http://www.faa.gov/nextgen/implementation/media/NextGenImplementationPlan2013.pdf. It's a bit technical but worth the effort of plowing through the details.
-- You can also keep up with developments by logging onto the Consumer Travel Alliance at consumertravelalliance.org and visiting its blog at consumertraveler.com.
Without NextGen, you can look for more delays, cancellations and congestion as traffic continues to grow. NextGen is our best hope to make air travel better, not worse, in coming years.
I'll be covering other important consumer issues in upcoming columns.
(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at firstname.lastname@example.org. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)
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