By all accounts, the airline industry hasn’t had it easy since the turn of the millennium.
Between 9/11 and subsequent terror-related close calls, the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak, surging fuel prices and the long-lasting economic downturn, efforts to make even a modest amount of money by hurtling people aloft from Point A to Point B hasn’t been a consistently successful venture. The latest proof: the bankruptcy of AMR Corp., the parent of American Airlines, one of the most iconic names in the aviation business.
And though Congress recently avoided a shutdown of surface transportation programs before pushing through another short-term extension for federal transportation policy and spending, one innovative federal project is nonetheless moving forward — holding the prospect of pushing the government’s most essential role in airborne commerce out of the 1960s and thereby helping move the industry toward a more sustainable future. It is the NextGen air traffic control system, which will at last allow the airlines to benefit from the same GPS satellite-based navigation that has been guiding so many of the nation’s drivers for the better part of a decade.
Visitors to just about any air traffic control tower in the United States are generally struck by two observations: The first is that the controllers are generally very, very busy at almost all times. The second is that the giant radar screens and all the other technology in the room look as though they were ripped from an episode of “Mad Men,” the TV drama set in the 1960s.
Indeed, while strides have been made in improving transportation technology on the ground — the nation’s roads, rails and transit systems have made great, if not always consistent, moves toward modernity in recent decades — things aloft haven’t been nearly so quick to change. Fliers to any city in the Northeast, particularly before the recent economic malaise that eased up ever-increasing demand for passenger air travel, were especially familiar with how bad things were.
A flight from Washington, D.C., to New York, for example, would almost guarantee passengers with window seats a phenomenal bird’s eye view of the Big Apple — and from several vantage points over many minutes, as the pilot invariably circled at several thousand feet while awaiting a precious landing slot. Add in even a bit of bad weather, a minor mechanical delay or some other tangential kerfuffle, and the delays started to get really long, really fast. And delays are more than an annoyance for the passengers; they mean cascading problems for the airlines — none more devastating than when business travelers swear off flying such short hops because they’ve come to view a train or car as more reliable.
NextGen promises to break that cycle. Currently, pilots radio in their positions to air traffic controllers, who keep track of which plane is where using radar and old-school maps. Because it’s an inexact science, miles of buffer are needed to keep pilots, passengers and cargo safe, which is the frequent frustration of circling over a destination, waiting for a time to land.
At a recent Senate Budget Committee hearing, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood touted the $1 billion that President Barack Obama asked for in his fiscal 2013 budget for NextGen growth and implementation as a crucial investment in the nation’s infrastructure, one that would have the power to make those days of circling high over New York and other big metropolitan areas mostly a thing of the past. “Through the use of satellite surveillance, new methods of routing pilots, planes and landing procedures,” he told the panel, “NextGen will change how Americans fly.”
That might seem like a big promise for an industry that essentially relies on half-century-old radar technology and an army of eagle-eyed air traffic controllers to keep millions of passengers each year safe and on their way in a relatively orderly fashion. But NextGen’s effects are already starting to be seen and experienced by the airlines and the passengers who fly them, and the results are looking pretty positive.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest commercial aviation facility — and the largest hub of Delta Air Lines, one of the best-connected aviation outfits on Capitol Hill — in late February became one of the earliest test cases of just what NextGen promises to do for aviation.
Along with the airport in Charlotte, N.C. — itself a hub for US Airways — Atlanta is now part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s “Metroplex initiative” that seeks to bring the benefits of NextGen to the busiest American airports. Instead of having air traffic controllers manually monitor and direct planes via radar and radio communication, satellite-based navigation will allow pilots to make more direct approaches to busy airports, eliminating the dreaded purgatory of circling the destination airport while waiting for a landing slot.
The result for passengers is a quicker flight and, subsequently, fewer delays, cancellations and overall frustration. Michael Huerta, who is the acting FAA administrator while awaiting Senate confirmation, said the new flight patterns would make air traffic control options “more flexible” for airlines (important for thunderstorm-prone areas such as Atlanta) as well as help in “decreasing our carbon footprint on the environment.”
But the effect on the struggling airlines’ bottom lines will also be key: For the Atlanta/Charlotte rollout alone, the FAA estimates airlines participating in the program stand to reduce by 6.6 million gallons the amount of fuel burned each year, saving them almost $18 million. And because they have long been operating on sometimes razor-thin profit margins, the increased efficiencies could be key, particularly as the FAA looks to expand the program’s reach.
When the agency has completed its rollout of the Metroplex initiative to seven such areas in the next three years, airlines stand to collectively save more than $60 million annually on jet fuel costs alone, and that’s assuming what some industry economists say is a fairly conservative outlook on future oil price gyrations.
But the big boon will be seen in how NextGen will dramatically boost the capacity of the nation’s busiest airports — particularly along the East Coast — as the economic recovery spurs more demand for passenger air traffic. Though the housing crash and subsequent market meltdown did no favors for either leisure or business travel demand, recent figures released by the FAA show growth is expected to continue, particularly in the long term.
By 2024, one year before NextGen is slated to be fully implemented in the United States at airports of all sizes, more than 1 billion passengers are expected to be flying on U.S. air carriers, with much of that growth coming through big-city hubs handling international traffic, which itself has shown the biggest subsector growth, even as domestic travel has sputtered a bit. And that’s key because most big-city airports are essentially hemmed in to their current facilities that themselves are often surrounded by dense development, making the task of adding capacity-increasing runways and taxiways an out-of-the-question solution.
In announcing the updated statistics last month, LaHood reiterated the agency’s commitment to improving air traffic control procedures to deal with the extra crush of passengers. “Our investment in NextGen is the key to getting passengers and cargo to their destinations more safely, faster and with less impact on the environment,” he said.
Of course, fulfilling that goal under a Congress that’s seeking to distance itself as far from a spendthrift label as possible won’t be easy. Current estimates show that upgrading all that old-school technology on the ground and on aircraft is expected to cost $42 billion by the time the system is supposed to be in place, and the airlines themselves haven’t been shy about saying they’d like the government to pitch in as much as possible.
Airlines for America, the industry lobbying group formerly known as the Air Transport Association of America, has, in years past, asked for high-speed rail appropriations to be redirected toward NextGen funding, noting that, according to the group’s estimates, airline delays cost the nation an average of $40 billion annually in lost costs and productivity. And this year, after finally securing a long-term reauthorization measure for the FAA — after 23 extensions over more than four years — the group made full implementation of the NextGen program a key component of its National Airline Policy, a post-FAA reauthorization wish list for ways Congress and the White House can help boost the industry’s long-term viability.
In the meantime, with lawmakers strapped for cash, FAA leaders are taking a new approach to implementing the larger innovation of NextGen technology. By rolling out the satellite-based technology through the Metroplex initiative, the FAA will be focusing the efforts — and benefits — of NextGen on the areas where it’s needed most. Aside from the Charlotte/Atlanta program, the air-traffic-heavy regions of New York; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; North Texas; Houston; and Northern and Southern California will be the early beneficiaries; officials say they’ll be online by 2015.