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A Call for Curtains Up on "NextGen" Air Traffic Control Technology

08/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Call for Curtains Up on "NextGen" Air Traffic Control Technology

The last time the United States modernized its air traffic control system, Dwight Eisenhower was President, Cassius Clay had not yet won a professional boxing match, and Barack Obama was still in diapers. And so word that Randy Babbitt, the new head of the FAA, is planning an upgrade of air traffic control through a program called "NextGen" comes as very welcome news.

The problem is that the FAA plans to slowly roll-out this technology at small, low-capacity airports to make sure the technology works properly, even though it has existed for a decade and is being used around the world. Babbit has called this NextGen's "off-Broadway" introduction. Babbitt should be commended for his vision on NextGen. But we need a Broadway debut. NextGen, which will replace old-fashioned air traffic control radar systems with a satellite-based technology similar to a car's GPS, should be implemented as soon as possible at America's busiest airports - those in the New York Tri-state metropolitan area.

Why New York? Because our three big airports are the source of most air traffic congestion in the entire country. This congestion costs billions of dollars a year in lost travel time, staffing costs, and excess fuel consumption. Earlier this year the Partnership for New York City found that air traffic congestion costs the New York Metro region $2.6 billion annually. These losses are felt across the board by travelers ($1.7 billion), airlines ($834 million), and shipping companies ($136 million). But it is not just the New York Metro region that takes a hit. Because three-quarters of American flight delays originate in the New York area, these delays - and costs - cascade across the continent.

NextGen is the solution. Using it, pilots will no longer have to fly indirect routes in order to remain within an airport's radar range. The technology provides uninterrupted, real-time information to air traffic controllers and pilots with exceptional accuracy. Using NextGen, planes can follow pre-determined flight patterns with a deviation no greater than the wingspan of the airplane. Such precision means safer and more efficient take-offs and landings and shorter flight paths that save fuel, time, and money.

Implementing NextGen won't be cheap. Current estimates indicate it will cost the federal government some $20 billion to install it in airports nationwide. However, the Partnership estimates that if no action is taken on airport congestion, delay costs will total a staggering $79 billion by 2025. Additionally, half the U.S. fleet is already equipped to interface with NextGen technology.

America is spending heavily to stimulate economic recovery. Nowhere would investment in public infrastructure have a bigger or faster payback than in relief of congestion at the big international airports serving the New York metropolitan region. Senator Charles Schumer has led the charge on making this case. The FAA should heed his call and make this region the priority for NextGen. Fifty years without modern air traffic control is not an anniversary anyone wants to celebrate.