4 Reasons NextGen is the Best Thing Since Free Bags

PHOTO: A plane is shown landing at Long Beach Airport, in Long Beach, Calif.Getty Images
A plane is shown landing at Long Beach Airport, in Long Beach, Calif.

A recent story caught my eye: The website Gawker took up a collection to purchase a video supposedly featuring a crack-smoking politician.

That's not anything I want to see (if in fact it exists); what intrigued me was the fundraising effort. Especially after reading about a powerful U.S. senator blasting fellow lawmakers for failing to provide enough money to complete NextGen.

NextGen (Next Generation Air Transportation System) is the modern air traffic control system that would replace the horse-and-buggy equipment we currently struggle with but it costs a bundle so maybe Sen. Jay Rockefeller should consider Gawker-type donations. Yes, I'm being sarcastic but yes, it is that important. We need NextGen and we need it ThisGen.

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If you're not familiar with NextGen, and you fly at all, it's time you learned. In a nutshell, it's a program to update our antique, ground-based radar system with a modern satellite technology. While some parts of NextGen are in place, thanks to "drop in the bucket" funding, we don't have anywhere near what we need and efforts to move forward have been described as "long stuck." Part of that's the money issue. NextGen isn't cheap.

I've seen estimates as high as $100 billion-plus, but without NextGen the consequences could be dire. Maybe even total gridlock in less than ten years. That's what the FAA has warned us to expect if we don't move full-steam ahead. Meantime, Anthony Foxx, the nominee for Secretary of the Dept. of Transportation has also talked about NextGen funding challenges but says it's his top priority.

Here are four reasons why it should be a passenger priority, too.

1. The GPS factor

Don't we need an air traffic control system as good as our smartphones? Most of us know the GPS satellite navigation system developed by the military is embedded in many common electronic devices. The beauty of this Global Positioning System is satellites 11,000 miles away tell us where we are within a matter of inches.

Lots of useful applications like those instant, customized weather reports you get no matter where you are. Even better, air traffic controllers can determine the precise location of a plane and pilots will also be able to truly "see" all that is around them for the first time.

And don't we want to stay technologically even (or even ahead) of Europe, which is going forward with Single European Sky, its own sweeping air travel modernization plan?

2. Avoiding gridlock and delays

Locating planes is not all that precise at the moment, which is why the FAA currently requires planes "stay three miles apart in the sky." This can create big hassles during unpredictable weather or other tricky situations. And for you and me, it can spell D-E-L-A-Y.

I've seen reports that will warm the hearts of road warriors everywhere, in which the FAA predicts flight delays dropping by 35 percent thanks to air traffic controllers being able to put the planes they watch on more direct, efficient routes. Of course, those fewer delays aren't expected until 2018 but that's only five short years away. But only if everyone in the air travel system pulls together on NextGen.

Look, we know this technology works because it's already replaced the old radar surveillance in "beaconless" regions like the Rockies and the Gulf of Mexico but we need it everywhere.

3. Safety

There is no question our airspace is very safe; the figures prove it to the most white-knuckled of fliers, but why not make it even safer? Precise positioning can make the 'near miss' or close call a thing of the past. In the air and on the ground as well. Plus, you'll get to the gate faster. The airlines like all this too and that's a good thing because they're picking up part of the tab for this, but it will save them money in the long run.

4. Help save the planet

No question that NextGen can save fuel, and who knows, maybe even save the planet.

Consider that Denver International has just implemented new NextGen arrival and departure procedures which, as the Denver Post points out, allows planes to land "using a smooth, continuous descent versus the traditional stair-step approach" which can save airlines as much as 800 pounds of fuel each flight. Maybe that doesn't sound like much but Denver has 1,700 flights a day. Think of the flights at all the airports in the U.S. Do the math.

So, come on, Congress, stop bickering. You managed to solve the FAA sequester problem which threatened to slow summer travel to a crawl in just about two weeks. So come on, politicians, airlines, airports, everyone: Time to get serious. NextGen is needed ThisGen.

The opinions expressed by Rick Seaney are his alone and not those of ABC News.