The current Federal Aviation Administration funding bill that controls the development of the new air traffic control system is coming up for renewal in about 600 days. It is time to start thinking about keeping the new air traffic management system on track.
The American public should be brought into the discussion. The public should be educated about the benefits of the new air traffic management system and the dangers of doing nothing.
Already, here in the United States, the technology used to space airplanes and for pilot awareness is not as sophisticated as the GPS systems installed in cars and smart phones. Spacing of aircraft depends on how long it takes radar installed in the 60s to make a complete sweep. Pilots still spin dials in cockpits and depend on visual search to see other aircraft.
It is as though pilots are still using typewriters, compasses and landline telephones instead of computers, GPS systems and cell phones to guide airplanes. Yes, we are ahead of the days when airplanes followed bonfires to travel across the country, but not that far.
The United States that once was the shining example of leading edge technology, is now falling behind when it comes to controlling its air traffic. Canadian, European and Asian countries are all racing ahead of the US when it comes to modern air traffic control systems.
Our FAA does not have the leadership or clear goals to move us forward. And, the executive branch is not focused on this deterioration of our air traffic capabilities and not providing leadership. Plus, as airlines have developed “capacity discipline,” and dropped the number of flights to pre-2000 levels, the immediate needs of a crowded skies have faded. But, as the economy improves, the crowded skies will come back — then it will be too late.
Here are some issues that should concern consumers regarding the modernization of our air traffic management system. It is time that the government starts thinking like a consumer and stops studying this system to death.
• Time wasted in traffic vs. time wasted in the sky. Make the comparison using something that the normal public can relate to such as sitting in a traffic jam vs. cruising on the Interstate. How long does it take you to get to work?
• Time saving because of more efficient weather rerouting.
• Time saving on airline approaches. NextGen allows direct landings instead of looping through squared-off approaches.
• Number of planes in the air without NextGen and with NextGen. The capacity of the skies will be expanded. More landing will be possible. We consumers understand, “Wouldn’t it be nice to increase the amount of cars in a parking lot through technology?” We can increase the number of planes in the air with NextGen.
• Fuel usage with and without NextGen. When airlines save money on fuel, which makes up more than a third of airline costs, every bit of fuel saved goes right to the bottom line. Airfare costs without NextGen vs. Airfare costs with NextGen.
• Savings on maintenance on aircraft compared to maintaining your car. The savings keep coming. NextGen will cut hundreds of miles off many airline routes. That translates to maintenance savings as well as time saving.
• Less noise overall and better environmental stewardship. Even with changes in flight patterns, the overall environmental benefits are dramatic. Those complaining about changes in noise levels are complaining because they do not have an overall environmental picture presented to them as neighborhoods and communities. Carbon emissions are decreased. Flight paths are tightened reducing overall aircraft noise and new flight paths can spread noise factors improving the overall impact.
• Safety benefits. Pilots will be able to have dramatically enhanced situational awareness about nearby air traffic, weather and flight-restricted areas. The increased information for pilots and safety provided by NextGen is enormous.
• How planning ahead (long term planning and contracting) can save money.
Every consumer who has ever had a car repaired knows that if you buy a car piece-by-piece the cost is astronomical. That is what happens to NextGen when it is installed and developed piece-by-piece. Continued, steady funding is in the public interest.
• Fewer flight cancellations. Published studies show that 1 in 5 passengers suffers a trip disruption and the average trip disruption was 110 minutes. During recent weather cancellations, some passengers were delayed two or three days before being able to continue travel because of current load factors. Connecting flights are the bane of airline travelers not only because of the opportunities of lost luggage, but the increasingly shaky system of connecting flights. NextGen technology can help more than 40 percent of the passengers who are delayed by cancelled flights and missed connections.
• Control of drones. Air traffic problems are developing with increased use of unmanned aircraft. Some are as big as a 737! The FAA has been tasked with setting up a system to control drones in U.S. airspace. NextGen is an integral part of that control system.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 14 years with Congress, the Department of Transportation, and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the first consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.