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.
So why is the government in charge? Most taxpayers and air travelers would prefer to have the airlines on the leading edge of technology, not government bureaucrats. Wouldn't it be smarter for the FAA to set tough regulatory parameters to ensure safety, noise levels, controller training and the like—as the Food and Drug Administration does, for example, with drug trials for pharmaceutical companies—and then get out of the way?
There may be ways to form investment pools or even government-backed loans for private investors to fund such a system, so that the FAA is not the primary source of funding. There would be plenty of future profits in exporting such a system and issuing updates. Here's another idea: Announce that from now on, all baggage and ticket-change fees will go directly toward funding the system. Last year alone, the airlines made $3.4 billion from checked bags and another $2.3 billion from changed reservations. With demand projected to skyrocket over the next decade, those figures will only increase. I'd complain less about getting nickel-and-dimed by the airlines if my money was going to replace a 50-year-old navigation system on the plane my family was about to board.
Lead, follow, or get out of the way: Right now the FAA is not doing any of those. It's time to get the government out of the way. And it's time to allow private enterprise do what it does best, which is to bring innovative products to consumers.