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September 13, 2012

A slow shift from World War 2 Radar to GPS for US Air Traffic Control

WSJ - A high-tech overhaul to the nation's air traffic control system is mostly on track to completion, but has yet to produce the benefits that airlines and passengers were told to expect, federal investigators say. Progress in moving from preparation to execution has been slow as the Federal Aviation Administration replaces its World War II-era radar technology with a GPS-based system.

Lacking return on their investment, airlines are reluctant to continue making the multibillion-dollar equipment upgrades needed for the new system to work.

After years of delays and cost overruns, the FAA has improved its handling of the modernization program, known as NextGen, Scovel said. But the agency still hasn't established its overall costs or timeline.

By 2020, the new system is expected to reduce delays by 38 percent compared with the current system; airlines, passengers and taxpayers are estimated to save $24 billion.

The FAA plans to spend $2.4 billion over the next five years on a collection of six programs that the agency says will revolutionize air travel by moving from an outdated, radar-based system to one that uses satellite technology for precision tracking. The goal is to move planes faster and more efficiently by making routes more direct, eliminating many weather delays and enabling planes to fly safely at closer distances.

Once fully in place, the modernization program will save 1.4 billion gallons of fuel and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 14 million metric tons.

Planes must be equipped with new technology, such as navigational equipment, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars per aircraft. NextGen, however, doesn't start yielding full benefits until a critical mass of planes have the new technology, so nobody wants to go first.

Most of the previous scrutiny of the modernization effort has focused on ERAM, the main computer system air traffic controllers will use to identify and track aircraft, except right before takeoff and landing. After a four-year delay and a cost overrun of $330 million, the computer system is up and running in nine cities and on track to be used in all sites by 2014.

But software glitches persist, including some that send data to the wrong aircraft. Those issues have had a domino effect, throwing off implementation of other NextGen elements that depend on the computer system and eating up FAA dollars intended for other functions.





In 2008, major U.S. commercial air carriers burned 19.7 billion gallons of jet fuel, while aircraft owned and operated by the Department of Defense consumed another 4.6 billion gallons of jet fuel.

Technology should enable the design of new aircraft that burn 33 percent less fuel than today’s airplanes by 2015, 50 percent less by 2020 and at least 70 percent less by 2025. It also should enable the adoption of new air traffic management operations that save up to 6 percent of annual commercial aviation fuel consumption by 2035.

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