New Air Traffic Control System at Crossroads

Paying the estimated $22 billion for the government and another $20 billion for the airline industry through 2025 - may be FAA's biggest hurdle.

"We need to see a realistic strategy for funding NextGen," she told FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt at a May hearing. "To date, the FAA has filled its budget request with a laundry list of programs and development activities, and a vague promise that somehow the agency will achieve its goals by 2018. But that approach is not enough this year."

If funding is reduced, some elements of NextGen could be delayed. There is no date for completion of the entire program, which officials say is constantly evolving.

Airlines support NextGen, but they're wary of FAA's track record of changing directions after investments have been made. FAA began its modernization program in 1981. It was branded as NextGen in 2003.

"We want to leverage the technology we have today before we add more technology and more cost," Delta Air Lines Inc. CEO Richard Anderson told reporters in April.

Airlines also want proof NextGen is ready to produce tangible benefits, that it "is not just a big sales program by the avionics (aircraft electronics) sales people," he said.

And, airlines want the government to help underwrite the cost of equipment they're going to be required to buy.

"This is not a cost the airlines can, or should, absorb," Glenn Tilton, chairman of United Continental Holdings Inc. told an aviation luncheon in Washington in November.

Airlines should "recognize you as an industry get benefits from this," Huerta said. "Those benefits are something you should be prepared to pay for."

Yet, some sort of federal help - loan guarantees, for example - may be reasonable, he said.

"The very valid question they are asking is, shouldn't the government have a stake in the game as well?" Huerta said. He heads an FAA-industry task force expected to develop a recommendation in September.

Some airlines are moving ahead. Alaska Airlines is using GPS precision landing procedures at Juneau International Airport, where mountainous terrain and frequent low visibility conditions were routinely forcing cancellations. The airline estimates it would have cancelled 729 flights last year into Juneau if not for the new approaches.

Results have been mixed elsewhere. Southwest Airlines has spent $175 million on equipment and pilot training so it could make use of optimized landing approaches. But so far only 11 of Southwest's 72 U.S. destinations are set up for the advanced procedures. FAA hasn't yet approved new procedures for the remaining airports. And there's no timetable for when they will come online. It can take the agency as long as two years to approve a new procedure for a single runway.

Southwest wants to see more results before making further investments, spokeswoman Brandy King said.

The U.S. isn't alone as it transitions to a new air traffic system. Much of the world is adopting GPS technology. But the U.S. accounts for nearly 40 percent of global air traffic and has a robust private aircraft community not found in most countries, adding complexity to the program.

The FAA has set a deadline of 2020 for airlines to install key equipment that will tell controllers and other aircraft the location of their planes. But the agency has been slow to set technical standards and a deadline for other equipment that will be necessary to realize the full benefits of NextGen, industry officials said.

The European Union is further along in developing equipment standards, industry officials said. As a result, the world may wind up adopting standards developed by the EU, rather than the U.S., said Hans Weber, president of TECOP Inc., an aviation technology management firm in San Diego.

In the past, "we've basically set the standard worldwide for air traffic management. Our companies were always first to market, giving them better profit margins," Weber said. "That's what we're at risk of losing. We are risking default to the Europeans."


AP Airlines Writer Joshua Freed in Minneapolis contributed to this report.



Federal Aviation Administration

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

We Recommend