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Snags set back air traffic control system update

October 31, 2013 • National News


Capt. Oscar Vela stands on a rooftop at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Monday, Oct. 28, 2013, in Seattle. The modernization of the U.S. air traffic control system, one of the government’s most ambitious and complex technology programs, is in trouble. The Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, was sold to Congress and the public by the Federal Aviation Administration a decade ago as a way to accommodate an anticipated surge in air travel, reduce fuel consumption and improve safety and efficiency. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

WASHINGTON (AP) — After a decade of work and billions of dollars spent, the modernization of the U.S. air traffic control system is in trouble. The ambitious and complex technology program dubbed NextGen has encountered unforeseen difficulties at almost every turn.

The program was promoted as a way to accommodate an anticipated surge in air travel, reduce fuel consumption and improve safety and efficiency. By shifting from radar-based navigation and radio communications — technologies rooted in the first half of the 20th century — to satellite-based navigation and digital communications, it would handle three times as many planes by 2025, the Federal Aviation Administration promised.

Planes would fly directly to their destinations using GPS technology instead of following indirect routes to stay within the range of ground stations. They would continually broadcast their exact positions, not only to air traffic controllers, but to other similarly equipped aircraft. For the first time, pilots would be able to see on cockpit displays where they were in relation to other planes. That would enable planes to safely fly closer together, and even shift some of the responsibility for maintaining a safe separation of planes from controllers to pilots.

But almost nothing has happened as FAA officials anticipated.

Increasing capacity is no longer as urgent as it once seemed. The 1 billion passengers a year the FAA predicted by 2014 has now been shoved back to 2027. Air traffic operations — takeoffs, landings and other procedures — are down 26 percent from their peak in 2000, although chronic congestion at some large airports can slow flights across the country.

Difficulties have cropped up nearly everywhere, from new landing procedures that were impossible for some planes to fly to aircraft-tracking software that misidentified planes. Key initiatives are experiencing Login to read more

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