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Petri: Air Radar System Needs Updating

Stepping into an air traffic control tower in the United States today is like stepping into a time machine. The equipment used to guide aircraft across the most crowded airspace in the world isn’t much different from when Gerald Ford was president, the Concorde was just being introduced into service and Viking I first landed on Mars.

U.S. air traffic control still relies on the same antiquated, radar-based system that was developed in the 1970s. The Next Generation Air Transportation System is the transition from this old air traffic control system to a modern, satellite-based system that promises safety, efficiency and economic and environmental benefits. When the NextGen transition is complete, the National Airspace System will be able to accommodate more fuel efficient operations with fewer congestion delays, more capacity and improved safety. In turn, passengers will enjoy a safer and less stressful flight.

The environmental benefits of NextGen will be enjoyed by everyone. With NextGen, aircraft operations will be more efficient, allowing airlines to save both time and fuel. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, reduced fuel consumption means reduced carbon dioxide and other emissions that contribute to poor air quality. Through NextGen, the FAA is also pursuing measures to allow for continued growth in aircraft operations, while still achieving a net reduction in emissions.

One of the near-term benefits of NextGen is the development of more precise air traffic control flight procedures at our nation’s airports. These procedures, which are currently used at some airports, hold a lot of promise for reducing fuel burn and emissions by allowing for more direct routes into and out of airports. With widespread use, the procedures also hold promise for increasing capacity at airports as well as increasing air traffic controller productivity.

NextGen is not only beneficial, it is essential. To remain competitive in a global marketplace and continue to be the world’s leader in aviation, the U.S. must transition to a more modern, safer and more efficient air traffic control system.

When NextGen is fully implemented, pilots will have access to real-time information about airspace, including the location of other aircraft flying in their vicinity, weather forecasts and the safest and most direct route to their final destination. Today much of this information is conveyed via voice communications between air traffic control and pilots. While safe, this is a labor-intensive, antiquated and inefficient system. NextGen will allow air traffic controllers to more efficiently manage the system using modern navigation and communications technology. Passengers will be flying in a safer system with fewer delays and a significantly reduced emissions impact.

However, transforming a system that operates all day, every day and can never be “turned off” will be a challenge. The FAA is tasked with the job of maintaining the existing air traffic control system, while at the same time implementing NextGen by transitioning to a new satellite-based system and securing its operation. Additionally, the FAA must ensure that the nation’s air traffic controllers are properly trained and equipped to manage flights with NextGen technologies and tools.

But none of this can take place without a true commitment of resources and a focused effort on the part of the federal government, the FAA, the aviation industry, aircraft operators and Congress. Subcommittee on Aviation Chairman Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) and I have conducted a series of oversight hearings on FAA’s management of NextGen, and we will continue to be vigilant as the effort continues.

The House and Senate are in pre-conference negotiations on the FAA reauthorization bill. This legislation contains many good provisions, including those in support of accelerating and funding NextGen. It is vitally important that the FAA reauthorization bill be completed as soon as possible, not only in order to move NextGen forward, but also to put in place much needed airline safety and pilot training requirements. We must not let a few controversial provisions contained in the House bill hold up this legislation. Now is the time for Congress to act and put air traffic control modernization and safety first.

Air traffic control modernization and other important safety programs addressed in the FAA reauthorization bill are critical upgrades that will bring our aging aviation infrastructure into the 21st century and benefit every American.

Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) is the ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation.

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