Unclogging the Skies For 1 Billion Passengers

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There will be a projected one billion annual airline passengers by 2021, which will challenge modern air traffic control.

Some 713 million airline passengers took to the skies over the U.S. last year and the Federal Aviation Administration predicted today that the number would soar to a whopping one billion 10 years from now and would more than double in 20 years. More passengers mean more planes flying more flights and that, warns the federal government, means gridlock in the air and at airports on the ground unless the U.S. opens up a few extra lanes on the highways in the skies.

The FAA calls those extra lanes "NextGen", short for Next Generation Air Transportation System, a state-of-the-art satellite-based air traffic control system that would replace the current decades-old radar-based one and allow the rising number of planes to fly closer together on more direct and precise routes, effectively opening up those extra lanes and averting an otherwise unavoidable aviation traffic jam.

"Only a modernized air transportation system will be able to keep up with our forecasted demand," FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said in a statement this morning.

NextGen has been in the works for years and will take more than a decade to fully implement, but many NextGen technologies are already in use today: Just this month, JetBlue became the latest airline to announce it will start using NextGen-related systems now -- 35 of the airline's planes will be equipped with new avionics equipment that will allow them to start flying those more precise, satellite-based flights on routes from New York and Boston to Florida and the Caribbean next year.

NextGen, of course, is not cheap. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office estimates that the system could cost as much as $160 billion over the next 15 years. Inaction, however, also has its costs -- The FAA projects that without the new system in place, the inevitable gridlock would not only infuriate passengers, it would also cost the U.S. economy more than $40 billion a year by 2033.

Carter Yang is a Washington, D.C.-based producer for the "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric." He covers aviation, transportation, and homeland security.

  • Carter Yang

    Carter Yang is a Washington, D.C.-based producer for the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley. He covers aviation and transportation.