Failing to modernize air traffic control

Attempts to update air traffic control has failed even as technology remains decades out of date

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America’s air traffic control system has essentially not changed much since the 1960s — and that’s more than a little alarming. Numerous attempts to upgrade the system have failed, so the nation still relies on decades-old technology at a time when American aviation is suffering from some of the worst delays in its history. And the situation will only get worse, say experts: Airlines have turned to smaller airplanes and are putting them in the sky more often — with the load expected to either double or triple by 2025. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) first moved toward a modernization program in 1981, but attempts to make major technological leaps forward have fallen short, despite the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has listed modernization of air traffic control as a “high risk” project since 1995; One attempt at modernization went so poorly that it has been taught to students as “a case study for failure,” according to an FAA press officer. Experts have said that multiple obstacles hindered previous efforts — such as an FAA culture resistant to change, a shortage of technical expertise, and cumbersome federal budget rules. The Bush administration and Congress agreed on a new concept in 2003 known as NextGen, a computerized system relying on global satellite positioning that significantly boosts capacity by enabling planes to safely fly closer together on more direct paths. NextGen, which is expected to cost between $15 billion and $22 billion by 2025, could face a host of challenges. Despite the potential for saving up to $10 billion annually on fuel, air carriers have raised objections and expressed wariness at relying upon unproven technology. Air traffic controllers, who historically have had a rocky relationship with the FAA, would face fundamental changes in their job duties under NextGen. And lawmakers face opposition over how to fund the program, whether through increased taxes on fuel and tickets or by instituting a per-flight user fee. An FAA spokesman told the Center that the agency is optimistic about its latest effort. Unlike past modernization attempts, he said, NextGen is comprised of a "portfolio of separate stand-alone products," meaning that if one part does not work effectively, it will not compromise development of the entire system.

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An FAA Reauthorization Bill that would allow the agency to spend billions from the aviation trust fund has been held up for well over a year, making both the funding and the continued development of NextGen an issue for the Obama administration. “The next president needs to make the NextGen initiative a national priority,” said House Science and Technology Chairman Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat. The GAO reiterated its recommendations in a presidential transition report released in November 2008. While the agency gave the FAA credit for “significant progress… in implementing businesslike operations and procedures related to system acquisitions,” GAO auditors warned that the effort remains “enormously complicated due to the technological complexities, numerous stakeholders, and broad scope.” President Bush signed an executive order in November that “accelerated the implementation of NextGen” according to the FAA, which later that month “gave the green light to nationwide deployment” of NextGen’s satellite surveillance system. “NextGen is real and, as of today, NextGen is now,” said the FAA’s Acting Administrator Robert A. Sturgell. The FAA now hopes to complete the program by 2013.

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