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.

With the GPS-driven satellite system that's part of NextGen, planes would receive a satellite signal at the rate of one pulse per second, then triangulate that signal against the known position of small GPS ground stations to pinpoint a plane's position.

It also would instantly know a plane's altitude, speed and direction. That kind of precision would let planes fly more closely together, greatly increasing the capacity of the nation's airways.

There are other important technologies that make up the broader NextGen program. Each has a confusing, complicated name and a shorthand acronym such as RNAV, RNP and SWIM.

James Burnley, a Washington attorney who served as the last Transportation secretary in the Reagan administration in 1987-89, says the complexity of NextGen is one of the reasons the new system hasn't gained funding, despite its obvious benefits.

The acronyms alone can cause the eyes of even members of congressional committees with oversight over the FAA to glaze over, he says. To make their case for spending $20 billion quickly, the airlines need to talk in economic terms, not technical ones.

There's an economic case to be made. The congressional Joint Economic Committee reported last year that in 2007 air traffic control-related congestion and delays cost the U.S. economy $41 billion. That included $19 billion in extra operating costs on fuel, labor, aircraft maintenance and the lost use of delayed planes. It also included $12 billion in reduced productivity for the passengers traveling and $10 billion in added spending for food and lodging for travelers.

However, Burnley says, the airlines couldn't make that case quickly and clearly enough to get money for NextGen into the stimulus legislation — despite it being an upgrade to the nation's infrastructure that could provide long-term economic benefits.

Leadership up in the air

Burnley says that the NextGen cause wasn't helped when Ray LaHood, Obama's choice as the secretary of Transportation, hadn't been confirmed during most of the stimulus bill debate.

Nor had Obama named an administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees air safety and traffic control. Randy Babbitt, a veteran industry consultant and former national head of the Air Line Pilots Association, has since been nominated.

"No one was sure who it was that was going to lead in making the case for NextGen being sped up," Burnley said.

ATA spokesman David Castelveter says it would be wrong to characterize the airlines' push for full funding of NextGen as a "campaign."

"I don't know that we'll be using grass-roots efforts with letter-writing campaigns and advertising and those type of things," he says. "But there's certainly a big effort underway. It's our top priority because it's a way of spending government money in a way that's going to deliver billions and billions of dollars in benefits to consumers and the nation's economy."