Air Traffic Control Modernization and NextGen

The United States has the largest, busiest, and most diverse aviation system in the world. The FAA has been investing in upgrading our national air traffic control system with new technologies to meet the growing demands on our aviation system. NextGen is a series of initiatives designed to make our aviation system more efficient. [1]

The current National Airspace System (NAS) is controlled through the use of surveillance radars, voice radio systems, limited computer support systems, and numerous complex procedures. [2] The current system lacks pinpoint accuracy, forcing planes to fly farther apart and limiting the number of flights that can be in the same area. [3] As the number of flights filling up our airspace has continued to increase, the need to for a new system has become a necessity. The FAA predicts that the number of U.S. air passengers will continue to rise by 2.8% per year, with a total of 1.3 billion traveling by 2036. [4]

What is NextGen?

In an effort to address challenges our nation’s aviation industry’s economic health and safety, the FAA has embarked on implementing Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen. This is a comprehensive overhaul of our nation’s air traffic control system aimed at increasing capacity and reliability, improving safety and security, while at the same time reducing the impact on the environment. [5] According to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association there are over 87,000 flights criss crossing the US every day. Today, when quick access to information is a norm, NextGen will ensure that pilots and air traffic control operators receive the correct information.

The new system would have two primary upgrades

Satellite based navigation using Global Positioning System (GPS) technologies; and ADS-B, or Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast technology. [6]

By implementing NextGen upgrades, the NAS will provide numerous safety and efficiency upgrades to air travel, providing controllers and pilots much needed technology updates. The combination of GPS and ADS-B towers will:

  • Improve the ability of air traffic controllers in planning arrivals and departures far in advance;
  • Reduce the separation between flights, allowing for more direct and fuel-efficient routes;
  • Support common separation standards, both horizontal and vertical, for all classes of airspace, allowing for greater capacity; and
  • Provide real-time plane-to-plane surveillance capability along with weather, terrain maps, traffic and aeronautical information. [7]

Benefits of NextGen

With the implementation of NextGen, the benefits will be felt from businesses to frequent flyers to those who rarely travel.

Upgrades as part of NextGen ensure that our nation’s aviation industry remains a vital economic tool. According to the FAA, civil aviation contributes $1.3 trillion annually, generating more than 10 million jobs across the country. [8] According to a recent study, failure to address the need for improvements to the current air traffic control system would cost the United States economy $22 billion annually by 2022, with the figure growing to $40 billion per year by 2033. [9]

Improving our air traffic control system ensures that that a vital business tool operates efficiently. A FAA-sponsored study found that in 2007 the estimated total cost of delays associated with air travel totaled $32.9 billion (including $8.3 billion in increased airline operator expenses, $16.7 in passenger time lost, and $3.9 in welfare lost), reducing the United States GDP by $4 billion.[10]

Besides improving one’s travel experience, NextGen initiatives are also helping improve the global environment. By increasing the efficiency of travel, NextGen is reducing the amount of fuel used and decreasing carbon dioxide and exhaust emissions from aircraft.

According to the FAA, NextGen improvements will reduce travel delays by 38% by 2020, with reductions providing an estimated $24 billion in cumulative benefits. [11]

The FAA estimates that carbon dioxide emissions will be reduced by 14 million metric tons. [12]

In the first year of full implementation, the annual savings from NextGen will include 29 million metric tons of carbon emissions, 3 billion gallons of fuel, and a reduction of 4 million hours of delays. [13]

The FAA estimates that the full implementation of NextGen could reduce aircraft greenhouse emissions by as much as 12% by 2025. [14]