Blakey: Skies need 21st century technology

Air traffic controllersat work in the JFK airport Air traffic controllersat work in the JFK airport control tower in 1969. Too little has changed since those days. Photo Credit: NEWSDAY/Jim Baird

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Marion Blakey, president and chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association trade group, served as the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration between 2002 and 2007.

In the 1950s, American cars had no seat belts; drunken driving got you a small fine; and many state highways were dirt or gravel. It's hard to imagine now that we have air bags, anti-lock brakes and a national highway system. Yet, incredibly, another crucial area of transportation still uses 1950s-era infrastructure: the air traffic control system.

U.S. air traffic controllers still use basically the same radar-and-radio system developed some 60 years ago, with equipment in some cases decades old. If a controller from 1980 could time-travel to today, he could start working again with little problem. And while the solid design of these systems has kept air traffic safely aloft for a very long time, it's time for Congress to back a much-needed transformation.

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The imprecision of radar and radio wasn't a problem when air traffic was relatively sparse. But our skies are growing more crowded: American airplanes carried 712 million passengers in 2010; that number is projected to rise to a billion by early next decade. More passengers mean more planes in the air at the same time, especially in highly traveled corridors like the New York City area. And more congestion means more passenger delays, more wasted time and fuel, and less margin for error.

As a result, air travel experts say the system could start to collapse, as ever-rising traffic causes gridlock in the skies and runways. And while air fatalities thankfully have come down in recent years, near-misses have not.

The Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, is a technological solution painstakingly created by the Federal Aviation Administration in cooperation with aviation experts and industry representatives. Adopting it nationwide would bring a long overdue upgrade of our air travel surveillance, communications, navigation, weather and data technologies and equipment.

This will take several years of steady, stable funding by Congress -- a challenge in the current budget climate, but one that will reap great rewards. Full implementation is expected to cost up to $25 billion of federal money over two decades, as well as a significant contribution from the airlines. President Barack Obama included some NextGen funding in the infrastructure component of the jobs bill he announced last week.

At NextGen's heart is a better way of measuring every aircraft's location: using satellites rather than radar. Right now, the GPS system in your car or smartphone is far more precise than the radar systems tracking airplanes. NextGen would convert almost every U.S. cockpit and control tower to GPS, allowing aircraft to operate closer to each other while actually increasing safety over the current system.

This will have three main benefits. Today, air travel is like driving with red lights at every intersection. Because planes move fast and radar is imprecise, air traffic controllers have to keep aircraft miles apart -- even in crowded airspace -- to avoid collisions. Flying with NextGen will be like driving through synchronized traffic lights. The system would make flying more reliable and efficient, reducing delays by at least 25 percent.

NextGen would also significantly reduce aviation's environmental footprint. By cutting delays and making flight paths more precise, fuel usage would drop by nearly 1.4 billion gallons annually by the time NextGen is fully implemented in 2025 -- even as traffic increases by almost 50 percent. One airline recently estimated the savings at 10 percent of its yearly fuel usage. And aircraft greenhouse-gas emissions will be down by 12 percent.

Most important, NextGen will enhance safety by giving pilots and controllers access to the same real-time information and vastly upgrading their ability to communicate. It's hard to think of a workplace relationship in which accurate information and communication are more crucial. But pilots communicate primarily with controllers, not with each other, by radio technology first developed in 1905. They can't share text and data -- as a backup to verify a flight-course correction, for example -- and they don't see the air traffic display controllers see. In crowded airspace, pilots sometimes have to wait precious minutes to make critical radio calls because of all the chatter. NextGen would fix these problems.

Since the Wright brothers rose above the sands of Kitty Hawk, America has been second to none in the skies thanks to our national commitment to innovation and excellence. It's time to renew that commitment.

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