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GPS-guided flight control holds promise, but some balk

Fuel economy to rise, but system costly; airlines wary over rollout

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post / July 5, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Southwest Airlines Flight 658 pushed back from the gate and showed up as a blip on a radar screen in the tower at Dulles International Airport just before 7:30 a.m. Wednesday.

For the next 90 minutes, the Boeing 737 would move as a blip across one radar screen after another, as a system introduced in the 1950s tracked and guided its progress to Chicago.

The limitations of that system required Flight 658 to fly miles out of its way and burn about 67 additional gallons of jet fuel. Because a jet plane can fly more than a mile and a half in the time it takes for a radar beam to sweep across the screen, the plane had to be kept 3 to 5 miles from the nearest aircraft.

The pilot probably has a more sophisticated guidance system in his car than in his plane.

Now the Obama administration has embarked on the single most ambitious and expensive national transportation project since completion of the interstate highway system, a program called the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen).

The NextGen concept sounds simple: Replace an air traffic system based on 60-year-old radar with a satellite-based, Global Positioning System network that would be far more versatile and efficient. In reality it is an extraordinarily complex undertaking, threatened with delay by airline fears that the government won’t deliver the system in time to justify their expenditures.

NextGen demands the largest investment ever made in civil aviation: between $29 billion and $42 billion for equipment, software, and training by 2025. The cost would be shared by a federal government struggling with budget constraints and an airline industry that has been drained by years of recession and inflated fuel prices.

NextGen is described as the antidote to gridlock in the air travel system, which is forecast to be serving 1 billion passengers a year by 2021, up from 713 million last year.

With GPS precision, planes would be able to travel packed skies in safety at much closer distances. They would be able to fly direct routes, instead of the current system, which relies heavily on flying to waypoints before turning to a final destination.

Direct routing would save airlines billions in fuel costs and minimize pollution. It would permit more precise choreography of planes at airports, reducing the amount of fuel wasted waiting for takeoff or burned because planes waiting to land are ordered into holding patterns.

For passengers, NextGen would cut flight delays, eliminate time spent on the runway waiting to takeoff, shorten the flight time once airborne, and bring fuel savings that promise to keep ticket prices lower.

“It’s going to be like pulling out of your garage and all the traffic lights are green,’’ said Marion Blakey, president of the Aerospace Industries Association and former administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Advocates say the United States will lose its competitive edge in the global transportation economy unless the government pumps $11.5 billion into the program in the next seven years and airlines pony up an additional $7 billion to $10 billion. The cost of delaying even by less than five years has been calculated at $20 billion.

NextGen has virtually no credible enemies - not in the administration, not on Capitol Hill, and not in the airline industry.

But in addition to enormous investment required to launch the new system, there is a confluence of history and technology that creates hurdles to progress.

Airlines fear that the FAA won’t meet its timetable for creation of the network of ground-based stations and satellite links that will make it all work.

“The FAA’s track record on deployment hasn’t been good,’’ said Russ Chew, a former airline executive and former chief operating officer for the FAA.

GPS technology is advancing so quickly that some car buyers opt against the factory-installed unit for fear that it will be outdated in a year or two. Airlines have the same issue.

In addition, the FAA must navigate a jungle of procedures and retrain 15,475 air traffic controllers to deal with a system that will replace the old one.

Congress has tossed more uncertainty into the mix by extending the current FAA funding plan 20 times rather than approving a comprehensive long-term spending plan that imposes strict NextGen deadlines on the agency.

Although JetBlue, with $4.2 million in federal funding, and Southwest Airlines, with federal incentives, have installed some of the technology, other airlines are reluctant to move ahead.

“Any investment, any project, has to be evaluated based upon the risk of the return, and I’m not going to argue with you, this is a very high-risk return because we’re not in control of the benefits,’’ said Gary Kelly, chief executive officer of Southwest, which has spent $94 million on NextGen.

The heart of NextGen is a GPS-dependent device known as ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast). Installing it in cockpits is estimated to cost airlines between $2.5 billion and $6.2 billion.

Until an estimated 80 percent of planes are equipped with ADS-B, the system won’t work as intended. The FAA has mandated that airliners be equipped with ADS-B transmitters by 2020.

The single biggest incentive to airlines would be persuasive evidence of an immediate return on their investment in fuel savings and fewer delays.

One suggestion has been to allow NextGen-equipped planes to land and take off first. Given that a jetliner can burn through $1,000 in fuel in less than a half-hour, circling the airport in a holding pattern becomes an expensive proposition.