Cost could delay air traffic control overhaul

AP Photo/David Goldman

This story was written by The Washington Post's Ashley Halsey III.

Southwest Airlines Flight 658 pushes back from the gate and shows up as a blip on a radar screen in the tower at Dulles International Airport just before 7:30 a.m. Wednesday.

For the next 90 minutes, the plane will move as a blip across one radar screen after another, as a system introduced in the 1950s tracked and guided its progress to Chicago.

The safety of the Boeing 737 and 118 passengers will fall to at least 10 air traffic controllers and their radar displays -- at Dulles, and in Warrenton, Leesburg, Indianapolis, Aurora and Elgin, Ill., and at Midway Airport.

The limitations of that radar, which sweeps like the beam of a lighthouse, will require Flight 658 to fly miles out of its way and burn about 67 additional gallons of jet fuel. Because a jet plane can fly more than a mile and a half in the time it takes for that radar beam to come around again, the plane must be kept three to five miles from the nearest aircraft.

The pilot probably has a more sophisticated guidance system in his car than in his plane.

Now the Obama administration has embarked on the single most ambitious and expensive national transportation project since completion of the interstate highway system: a program called the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen).

The NextGen concept sounds simple: Replace an air traffic system based on 60-year-old radar with a satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS) network that would be far more versatile and efficient. In reality, it is an extraordinarily complex undertaking, threatened with delay by airline fears that the government will not deliver the system in time to justify their expenditures.

NextGen demands the largest investment ever made in civil aviation: between $29 billion and $42 billion for equipment, software and training by 2025. The cost would be shared by a federal government struggling with budget constraints and an airline industry that has been drained by years of recession and high fuel prices. Those tensions over funding threaten to slow the launch of NextGen, despite near-universal support for the program, and delays could prove costly.

NextGen is touted as the antidote to gridlock in the air travel system, forecast to be serving 1 billion passengers a year by 2021, up from 713 million last year.

With GPS precision, planes would be able to travel packed skies in safety at much closer distances. They would be able to fly direct routes, unlike in the current system, which relies heavily on flying to waypoints before turning to a final destination.

Direct routing would save airlines billions in fuel costs and minimize pollution. It would permit far more precise choreography of planes at airports, reducing the amount of fuel wasted waiting for takeoff or burned because planes waiting to land are ordered into holding patterns.

For passengers, NextGen would cut flight delays, eliminate time spent on the runway waiting to take off, shorten the flight time once airborne and bring fuel savings that promise to keep ticket prices lower.

As for evidence of the rapid pace of technological advancement, one need look no further than GPS. The technology is advancing so quickly that some car buyers opt against the factory-installed unit for fear that it will be outdated in a year or two.

Airlines have the same issue.

"If I go first, I'll have to bear the cost of updating the software, and when [NextGen is] turned on, I'll have the oldest, most obsolete systems out there," Chew said.

In addition, the FAA must clear through a jungle of procedures and retrain 15,475 air traffic controllers to deal with a system that will entirely replace the old one.

"A lot of the tough stuff is new procedures, is human-machine interface and human factors, moving from an air traffic control mind frame to an air traffic management mind frame" that puts greater responsibility in the hands of pilots, said Bobby Sturgell, former acting FAA administrator.

Congress has tossed more uncertainty into the mix by extending the current FAA funding plan 20 times rather than approving a comprehensive long-term spending plan that imposes strict NextGen deadlines on the agency.

"NextGen is threatened," Chew said. "Everyone knows it. The FAA budget is under pressure. Even they will say that NextGen is on track, but it's not."