Airline leaders shift focus on air traffic control replacement

Airlines missed out when President Obama's economic stimulus package sailed through Congress earlier this year without federal dollars to urgently replace the nation's antiquated air traffic control system that keeps planes from colliding.

So now the industry's leaders are trying to make quick funding of the long-discussed Next Generation, or NextGen, air traffic control program a priority in the budget battle in Washington.

Their message: Planes need to fly in straight lines, guided by satellites, rather than taking longer, twisting routes over the current network of ground-based navigational radio beacon and radar sites that controls flights. Doing so, the industry claims, would save the USA's economy more than $40 billion a year through fuel and labor cost savings for the airlines and time savings for the 740 million fliers a year.

The savings, they claim, could begin showing up by 2012, maybe sooner, if the administration and Congress start providing the $20 billion needed to finally build a system that everyone agrees would be more efficient.

United Airlines CEO Glenn Tilton launched the airlines' lobbying effort on March 27 at an industry gathering in Phoenix.

There, Tilton, who is chairman this year of the Air Transport Association, the industry's big trade group, said the new system has "been too long coming" and the airlines "are growing impatient" with Washington's dithering on funding a project that has been discussed for a decade but has been slow to roll out.

Its deployment has been caught in ongoing concerns over how to pay for a system that will cost the government up to $20 billion and the airlines $20 billion for new equipment and training.

Some airlines have spent money upgrading their planes to be ready for NextGen, but funding it has been caught in Washington disputes over whether to raise fuel taxes, taxes on tickets or impose takeoff fees.

NextGen would replace a system that dates to the 1950s, when the federal government began building the current network of air traffic control radar sites around the nation.

The sites were located largely along paths that airlines already were flying. The paths tended to follow highways between cities so that pilots in pre-radar days could find their way, in part, by following the roads below.

Thus, a plane flying from Dallas/Fort Worth to Boston, for example, doesn't fly in a straight line. Typically, it flies east, passing over a string of Southern states until it gets east of the Appalachian Mountains. It then turns northeast toward Boston, swinging wide enough to avoid the congested skies around New York. Along the way, the plane flies over a series of radar stations and radio beacon sites that track its movement to keep it from colliding with hundreds of others in the air at the same time.

Tracking by satellite

The NextGen system would shift that tracking of planes to satellites using GPS and hundreds of small ground sensors to track digital signals broadcast by every airplane in the sky.

Now, it takes three sweeps of conventional radar — each taking 4.5 seconds, or nearly 14 seconds total — for an air traffic controller to determine a plane's location. And that's for planes that are relatively close to a radar site. Aircraft are kept miles apart to compensate for the imprecision in knowing a plane's exact location.

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