So it's summer vacation season, and I'm flying home on a trans-Atlantic flight headed for Dulles Airport outside of Washington, D.C. I foolishly think we'll cross the ocean directly and land in Virginia. Instead, I watch the onboard displays as we fly over Nova Scotia, then head west over Lake Ontario and upstate New York, do a loop around Harrisburg, Pa., do a flyby over Baltimore, and eventually land in Virginia. No storms, no rerouting, no explanations from the pilot—so what's up with that?
When I got home, I found out. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, the 1950s-era radar in the control tower only shows your plane once every 11 seconds as a "blip" on the air traffic controller's screen—a plane can travel a mile and a half in that time period—and so the pilot must keep your plane three to five miles from the nearest aircraft. Here's the catch: The pilot can't see the other aircraft. Only the air traffic controller can, because the radar is at the airports, not in the cockpits of the planes.
So the pilot flies the plane miles out of its way, burning hundreds of gallons of jet fuel and eating up extra flight time, in order to be handed off from control tower to control tower, on various radio frequencies, stair-stepping its way into a long descent to the right airport. When you're over the ocean, you're off the radar. That explains the crazy flight pattern over as much land as possible on my trans-Atlantic flight. The airlines may sell you a ticket for a "direct" flight, but there are no direct flights. They don't have the navigation system to do that.
In fact, our family car, a mid-range Honda, has a better navigation system than your average jumbo jetliner. A dashboard GPS system came standard on my 2008 model, and I pay Honda every year for updates. (I bet within a few years it will include live traffic updates and real-time weather, as iPads now do.) Most people with navigation systems in their cars would say they get where they're going quicker, use less gas, and are not wrestling a map in their laps. The automakers saw an opportunity in consumers like me who'd be willing to pay a little more in exchange for shorter trips, more convenience, and a safer journey. The government really had nothing to do with it.
Right now, 15,000 air traffic controllers guide 50,000 flights a day, according to the AP. The number of passengers traveling on U.S. airlines is predicted to grow from 737 million to over 1 billion annually over the next decade. More of us will be flying more frequently, and that's an opportunity for the airlines. I'd bet there are a lot of consumers like me who'd be willing, again, to pay a little more in exchange for shorter trips, more convenience, and a safer journey. But there's a problem. With airlines, the government has everything to do with it.
The Federal Aviation Administration has a program to replace ground radar stations with GPS technology, called the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen. Pilots will broadcast their exact locations via satellite, not only to control towers but to other planes. That will allow planes to take off, land, and fly closer to each other; fewer planes will be diverted, kept waiting on the tarmac, or be put in a holding pattern. Instructions and real-time weather information will be transmitted to pilots digitally rather than through a mishmash of radio frequencies. NextGen will save time, fuel, and money. Noise will be cut, as will millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Air travel will be quicker and safer. Ticket prices will go down, because fuel costs and late departure fines will drop.
Sounds like a no-brainer, but the obstacles are huge. The program will cost up to $42 billion, to be shared by the government and the airlines. But FAA involvement is the bigger problem. The airlines are concerned that the FAA won't be able to meet its deadlines for building the ground-based stations and satellite links to make the system work by 2025. They're already behind schedule and over budget in setting up the precursor to NextGen; Congress has yet to approve a final plan. Because the airlines are not in control of NextGen's execution and funding, they are understandably reluctant to invest.