New Surveillance System Is Key to Modernization

Posted July 15, 2007 at 11:00pm

Last month, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported record airline delays. Weather and increased air traffic volume are major factors in these holdups, but the aviation industry’s consensus opinion is that the outdated, aging air traffic control system also is to blame. Failure to modernize our air traffic control system will result in crippling bottlenecks at our nation’s airports, to the great inconvenience of the traveling public and at a cost of roughly $30 billion annually to our economy.

The vision of modernized air traffic control is to increase airside capacity by taking advantage of new technologies and new air traffic management. The backbone of the modernized system will be the satellite-based surveillance system, the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, that will replace our aging and costly radar infrastructure. The vastly improved positioning information provided by ADS-B will allow for safe handling of more flights. The difference will be something similar to wiping the fog off your glasses while you drive. With a clearer picture of where others are, air traffic control can safely put more planes in the air and guide them to their destinations more quickly.

In addition to ADS-B and other new technologies, the modernized system will change the roles of the Federal Aviation Administration’s employees. The shift will be one from the 1940s-era tactical control of individual aircraft to modern air traffic flow management. Taking advantage of automated information-sharing between air traffic controllers and pilots will free up their time to safely manage more aircraft. Conflict prediction and resolution software currently being tested will allow controllers to more quickly react to and resolve multiple conflicts rather than simply guide one or two aircraft along at a time while manually disentangling route conflicts.

Achieving the goal of modernizing our air traffic control system to the next-generation air traffic control system is no small task. The effort dates back to the first Reagan administration and has involved the departments of Transportation, Defense, Commerce and Homeland Security along with NASA, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the FAA. Over the years, modernization has been a very long and costly endeavor, but only now are we on the cusp of actually making NextGen a reality. This fall, the FAA will announce the contract winner for ADS-B.

Going forward, it is important that the FAA build on its successes and begin to institutionalize the performance-based business atmosphere instituted over the past few years. The history of the modernization effort is laden with cost overruns and schedule slips. While unanticipated problems are certainly understandable, a culture of delay is unacceptable. Over the past five years, largely because of the efforts of Administrator Marion Blakey and former Chief Operating Officer Russ Chew, the FAA has vastly improved its performance record on modernization projects. To achieve the goals of NextGen, it will be critical for the FAA to maintain the pace.

An equal challenge to staying on-cost and on-budget is developing the flexibility necessary to integrate new technologies. Building and implementing NextGen will not happen overnight, nor will it be done with a single flip of a switch. It will be critical for the FAA to proceed in a step-by-step fashion that takes advantage of emerging technologies over the next twenty years. Critics say such flexibility will stall progress because it will delay any actual decision-making, but a careful balance must be achieved. Given the high cost of equipment that airlines and general aviation operators will bear, it is important to make sure users only have to equip once.

Another key will be cooperation between the FAA and industry stakeholders. The manufacturers, airlines, operators, airline employees and FAA employees all share an interest in the success of the new system and will contribute immensely to its effective operation. As such, it is critical that the FAA include the aviation stakeholders in the development of the new system. While no single sector should be able to hold the development hostage, each group could provide valuable insight on how to achieve the operational goals of NextGen. Only with such collaboration will the FAA be able to deliver the best service to the flying public.

Congress, too, has a shared responsibility with the FAA for the successful transition to the NextGen air traffic control system. To ensure that NextGen is in place in time to handle the projected increase in demand, it is important that Congress do two things.

First, we must be sure to provide the necessary resources and funding to the agencies responsible for implementing the NextGen air traffic control system. Congress must give these agencies the tools they need to execute the mandate.

Second, Congress must rise above parochial politics when it comes to decommissioning obsolete facilities and consolidating sites. To realize the cost-saving benefits built into NextGen’s overall budget, the closure of outdated facilities is necessary, no matter whose district such closures might affect. Aviation experts should determine what facility needs are best for the system as a whole and make recommendations to Congress for approval. Such an approach is the most sensible way to make the technical and difficult decisions associated with facility closures and should be included in this year’s FAA reauthorization bill. We simply can’t afford to build a new system on top of the old one.

As frequent fliers, Members see the effects of the aging system every week, and the flying public is paying the price. Efforts toward more modern air traffic control systems are advancing around the world. As the birthplace of aviation, the United States cannot afford to slip into the “observers’ seat.” Timely modernization of our air traffic control system will bolster our leadership and competitiveness in the growing worldwide aviation industry and serve as a platform on which our vendors can sell in the world market. Modernization of the air traffic control system is as important to the success of our economy as it is to the success of your constituents’ family vacation.

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