Next-generation control tools are on FAA's radar

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Chicago Tribune (IL) - Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Author: Jon Hilkevitch, Tribune Reporter

With so much attention in Chicago focused on building new runways at O'Hare International Airport, business and community leaders received a primer Tuesday on what's being done to rebuild the U.S. airspace system.

They came away from a meeting at O'Hare hosted by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., with an understanding that pouring concrete for new runways will provide very limited benefits if planes continue to operate under an antiquated air-traffic control system that dates to World War II and poorly utilizes the vast expanses of airspace.

In the future, pilots will fly routes using the global positioning system that more closely approximate a straight line, instead of the meandering patterns that planes must follow today to stay in contact with navigational beacons on the ground.

"We have GPS in many of our cars to drive down the road. It only makes sense that we use that for aviation also," Lipinski said.

As a result of new technologies that will be introduced over the next 15 years, U.S. airlines anticipate big improvements in on-time performance and reducing fuel consumption, which in turn will cut emissions that harm the environment.

"Passengers will notice being on time more often," said Michael Romanowski, director of the Federal Aviation Administration's NextGen Integration and Implementation office in Washington.

NextGen is shorthand for Next Generation, the FAA's emerging program that incorporates scores of technologies aimed at moving air-traffic control from a ground-based radar system to a satellite-based network.

But the program will cost billions -- some estimates range up to $70 billion -- to fully deploy by 2025. Meanwhile, critics point out that the FAA has over-promised and under-delivered on new air-traffic technologies in the past.

The Government Accountability Office last year warned that the FAA faces major challenges implementing NextGen, ranging from delays in approving new procedures to concerns by the airlines about investing in new equipment aboard their fleets.

But Romanowski said NextGen promises to deliver efficiencies and safety improvements beginning at the point a pilot releases the parking brake and the plane is pushed back from the gate. The savings will continue while taxiing on the airfield, where today an airliner typically burns more than 100 gallons of fuel.

In addition, using GPS to precisely track the location of aircraft to a margin of error that's equivalent to the diameter of a tennis ball will allow air-traffic controllers to safely direct more planes per hour onto runways and through the airspace.

Air routes, the equivalent of highways in the sky, will also be expanded under NextGen to ease crowding and allow planes to fly more closely to each other without jeopardizing safety, he said.

Today on popular routes, such as between Miami and Chicago, planes spaced five miles apart often clog the entire corridor, forcing pilots to alternate between reducing speed and speeding up because of traffic in front of them.

This year, the FAA is scheduled to deploy two NextGen technologies to serve planes flying in and out of O'Hare and Midway Airport. One involves the FAA sharing data with the airlines about aircraft movements on the airfield to improve efficiency and airport capacity. The other will use satellite-based surveillance to track the movement of planes flying at high altitudes across the Chicago region, Romanowski said.

Experts call those near-term improvements NowGen, and the cash-strapped airlines are eager to take advantage of such technologies immediately.

But many of the NextGen programs are still being tested and won't be ready for widescale deployment until about 2018, FAA officials said.

The FAA expects savings totaling $22 billion nationwide by 2018, which is the midpoint of the NextGen rollout. Full deployment of NextGen is scheduled for 2025, the FAA said.

The improvements can't come soon enough for an industry that, while hurt badly by the recession, is projected to grow dramatically starting in a few years. The FAA says the number of passengers on U.S. airlines is forecast to hit 1 billion annually by 2025, up from about 750 million last year.