FAA or Your Car: Whose Computer Has More Muscle?

car faa

Just how old is the air traffic control system that keeps our skies safe?

That was the question many people were asking after a Federal Aviation Administration computer glitch Thursday morning caused widespread cancelations and flight delays across the country.

It was the second major failure in 15 months, leading some to say it's about time the country upgraded an air traffic control system that dates back to the 1960s.

"We're using technology that is not nearly as good as what most Americans have in their car," said Geoff Freeman, senior vice president of U.S. Travel Association, which represents airlines, hotels and others in the travel industry.

VIDEO: Glitch Causes Major Flight Delays
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The Federal Aviation Administration has a plan to revolutionize air traffic control with a GPS-based system called Next Generation, or NextGen, which has been delayed and isn't expected to be completed until 2025.

Over the last decade, the FAA has scrambled to make incremental improvements to the current ground-based system, but its age is showing.

Freeman called Thursday's problems "another black mark against our national travel system."

"We, as a country, have not put our money where our mouth is and developed a world-class aviation system that we can be proud of," he said. "The delays, the cancelations, the breakdowns in the system are a clear sign that Washington has not taken this problem seriously. Millions of travelers are paying the price for it. Our economy is paying the price for it."

The current air traffic system relies on radar, a series of beacons on the ground and radio communications between pilots and air traffic controllers. Controllers tell pilots over the radio what direction and altitude they should take, guiding them from one ground-based way-point to another.

But the system is not 100 percent accurate. Controllers have a good idea of where a plane is but not a precise location. So, safety buffers are built in.

Jets are usually kept to certain corridors -- or highways -- in the sky. These corridors often do not provide the most direct route, but help prevent jets from colliding. Jets also typically have to keep four to five miles behind other planes. That often leaves planes slowing down or taking routes that are not the most efficient.

The NextGen system would switch from a ground-based system to a satellite-based one similar to the GPS in your car. Using such a system, planes can fly much more precise paths in the sky, learn how close nearby planes are and help planes fly in weather conditions that can slow current air traffic to a frustrating halt.

The new system would also vastly improve the landing process. Currently, planes approach airports in a number of steps; going from 30,000 feet to 20,000 and then cruising, say, 20 miles before descending quickly to 10,000 feet. That pattern is now necessary to keep airplanes separated.

But to stay level at one elevation, the plane's engines must generate thrust. A satellite-guided approach would allow planes to glide into the airports with the engines at idle, conserving fuel and reducing noise.

Most say that today's air traffic system is safe but that safety comes at the cost of speed and efficiency. The hope is that with NextGen, travelers would get both.

"We're America. We can find a way to walk and chew gum at the same time," Freeman said. "We can make the process more efficient. We can use a world-class air traffic control system that reduces the amount of space between planes that enables planes to fly a more direct route to their destination."

The catch, of course, is who is going to pay for all of it. New equipment would be required in planes and at airports and control centers. Some airports are already testing some of the technology and some airlines, such as Alaska, are putting it in their planes. But there are still several funding and legislative issues in Congress to be resolved.

"We basically have in many cases the equivalent of an Atari ping pong game as the technology running our air traffic control system. You have 1980s computers running a lot of this stuff," said Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com and an ABCNews.com columnist.

Seaney advocates moving up the time frame for implementing NextGen.

"I know the government wants to do everything kind of slowly," Seaney said.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Thursday that the country's aviation system is "in shambles" and the FAA needs more resources to prevent such problems from continuing.

"If we don't deliver the resources, manpower, and technology the FAA needs to upgrade the system, these technical glitches that cause cascading delays and chaos across the country are going to become a very regular occurrence," he said in a statement.

Daniel Baker, CEO of FlightAware, an online flight tracking and planning service, said the biggest problem with the current system is just how far apart each plane has to stay.

The GPS system, he said, is "much more precise than radar."

"The air traffic system control today was never designed to cope with as much traffic as there is with airline passengers, private planes and cargo flights," Baker said. "There's just way, way more than was ever anticipated."

But don't expect a new system to be perfect.

"You could have a new system that could crash in the same way," he said. "You're always going to have situations where there are computer problems."

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