Washington View: GPS needs to control our air traffic to save time, money

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photoDon Brunell

The next time you’re on a commercial airliner, think about this: The GPS navigation unit in your car is more advanced than the technology used by air traffic controllers.

The radar-based air traffic control technology used today is almost 60 years old. While it worked well with fewer, slower-moving aircraft, today’s modern jetliners can fly more than a mile and a half in the time it takes for a radar beam to sweep across the screen.

Because of that, planes must be kept three to five miles apart. Airplanes forced to fly in wide arcs waiting their turn to land burn excess fuel and add several minutes to the length of the flight. That may seem trivial until you multiply those losses by more than 18 million flights a year.

Congestion and weather delays tied to the limitations of radar cost airlines and consumers almost $10 billion in 2010, a cost that’s projected to grow to $22 billion a year by 2022 and $40 billion by 2033.

Much of that cost would be eliminated by switching to a GPS-based air traffic control system.

Global positioning systems are space-based global navigation satellite programs that provide precise and real-time location information in all weather conditions anywhere on earth. By utilizing GPS, airliners would be able to safely fly much closer together and take direct routes to their destinations rather than being redirected into holding patterns waiting to land. The ability of GPS technology to provide real-time weather information will also reduce weather-related delays and diversions.

Congress approved a new GPS air traffic control system known as NextGen in 2003, but it will cost taxpayers and the airline industry more than $40 billion to implement — a daunting task, especially in this era of massive deficits and shrinking profits.

Nevertheless, it’s an investment worth making especially because the size of the world’s passenger aircraft fleet will double over the 20 years.

NextGen would greatly improve the efficiency of airline travel, reduce costly delays, cut fuel costs and reduce air pollution. The program enjoys broad support on Capitol Hill and in the White House.

Bureaucracy concerns

So, what’s the problem? The cost — and concerns about the federal bureaucracy.

NextGen will cost taxpayers an estimated $22 billion for the government portion of the system and another $20 billion for the airline industry through 2025. Before it appropriates the funds, Congress wants detailed budgets and specific timelines from the Federal Aviation Administration for each phase of implementation.

Commercial airlines are also wary.

JetBlue and Southwest Airlines have installed some of the GPS technology on their planes, thanks in part to government incentives and grants. But only 11 of Southwest’s destinations are set up for the new procedures. According to the Associated Press, the FAA hasn’t yet approved new procedures for the remaining airports, and there’s no timetable for when they will happen. The AP reports it can take the FAA as long as two years to approve the new procedure for a single runway.

Adding to concerns, the FAA has been slow to set technical standards for the required equipment, and the agency must still develop a program to retrain more than 15,000 air traffic controllers. Because GPS technology advances from one year to the next, airlines are worried that a slow-moving federal bureaucracy could leave them saddled with outdated technology.

Still, some airlines are moving ahead. Alaska Airlines is using GPS precision-landing procedures at Juneau International Airport, where mountainous terrain and bad weather routinely cause delays and cancellations. Alaska estimates the new system prevented 729 flight cancellations into Juneau last year.

This is an opportunity for the FAA to demonstrate that it understands the importance of efficiency, precise information and a timely response — in our air traffic control system and in our federal bureaucracy.

We look forward to seeing that.

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state’s chamber of commerce.