Snags set back air traffic control system update

By Joan Lowy

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Oct. 31 2013 2:47 p.m. MDT

The threat of funding cuts comes just as NextGen is nearing a tipping point where economic and other benefits should start to multiply if only the FAA and industry would persevere, said Alaska Airlines Chairman Bill Ayers, a supporter.

Responding to industry complaints, the FAA has zeroed in on an element of NextGen that promises near-term benefits: new procedures that save time and fuel in landings while decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. Planes equipped with highly calibrated GPS navigation are able fly precise, continuous descents on low power all the way to the runway rather than the customary and time-consuming stair-step approaches in which pilots repeatedly decrease power to descend and then increase power to level off.

Last spring, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport became the first large airport where airlines can consistently use one of the new procedures. Known as HAWKS, the procedure shortens the approach from the southwest by about 42 miles. Multiplied over many planes every day it adds to up to significant savings, an enticing prospect for airlines, which typically operate on razor-thin profit margins.

Alaska, with a major hub in Seattle, estimates new procedures there will eventually cut the airline's fuel consumption by 2.1 million gallons annually and reduce carbon emissions by 24,250 tons, the equivalent of taking 4,100 cars off the road every year. Fuel is the biggest expense for most airlines.

In Atlanta, more precise navigation procedures have increased the number of departure paths that planes can fly at the same time, resulting in more takeoffs in a shorter period of time. That has freed up an additional runway for arrivals, said Dale Wright, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association's safety and technology director.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta says NextGen is on track despite the troubles.

"It's a significant transformation that we're making," he told The Associated Press. "I would hope it would be moving faster as well, but we have a very large, a very complex system, and we're making great progress."

But even use of the GPS-based procedures has been slowed by unforeseen problems. It takes several years to develop each procedure airport by airport. At large airports, new procedures are used only sporadically. During busy periods, controllers don't have time to switch back and forth between the new procedures, which most airliners can use, and older procedures that regional airliners and smaller planes often must still use. Consequently, older procedures are used because all planes can fly them.

At six large airports in Chicago, New York and Washington, only 3 percent of eligible flights have used the new procedures, Calvin Scovel, the Transportation Department's inspector general, told a congressional hearing in July. Many other NextGen initiatives "are still in the early stages of development," he said.

Another important NextGen initiative would replace radio communications between controllers and pilots with text messaging and digital downloads. Radio frequencies are often crowded, and information sometimes must be repeated because of mistakes or words not heard. Digital communications are expected to be safer and more efficient.

But airlines are reluctant to make additional investments in new communications equipment for planes until the FAA shows NextGen can deliver greater benefits like fuel savings from more precise procedures, said Dan Elwell, a senior vice president at Airlines for America, a trade association for major carriers.

Southwest Airlines spent more than $100 million in 2007 to equip its planes to use the new procedures. The airline expected to recoup its investment by 2011, but is still not there, primarily because of the FAA's slow pace, said Rick Dalton, Southwest's director of air space and flow management.

NextGen was originally forecast to cost $40 billion, split between government and industry, and to be completed by 2025. But an internal FAA report estimates it will cost three times that much and take 10 years longer to complete, Scovel said. FAA officials have largely stopped talking about end dates and completion costs as the technologies that make up NextGen continue to evolve. The agency currently spends about $800 million a year on the program.

"When we're talking about NextGen, it's like we're talking about the atmosphere," Cassidy said. "It's tough to pin down exactly what NextGen is in terms of the technologies and the cost of the technologies because, frankly, they're changing all the time."

Hopefully the FAA can make a "mid-course correction" to get NextGen on track, said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., a supporter. "We shouldn't give up on the effort because I think everybody understands there is a lot of benefit to it."

But he's concerned that more delays in the program "could force us to rename it LastGen."

Follow Joan Lowy on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AP_Joan_Lowy

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