Navigating the airspace of the future

The agency’s Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), launched 10 years ago this summer, is an important component of increased system capacity. As a program that is already delivering tangible economic returns for the country—by supporting increased levels of air travel in all weather situations, cutting down on delays, reducing aviation’s environmental impact and promoting economic growth—WAAS has earned and deserves Congress’ continued funding and support.

How does WAAS work? The 38 WAAS ground stations in North America track GPS signals to identify imperfections in signal quality, correct those disparities and then transmit a GPS correction signal to the WAAS-capable receivers now in more than 65,000 cockpits. The result is precision navigation that provides the location accuracy needed for pilots to safely change altitude and flight path in any kind of weather or terrain situation.

WAAS offers many benefits for pilots and passengers. These include a vertical-guided landing approach, which allows for a smoother descent, reducing risk and cutting down on fuel costs.

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Additionally, by relying on precise GPS signals, pilots can reduce the degree to which unpredictable weather conditions wreak havoc with their travel arrangements, allowing them to land safely at their preferred destination. Fewer weather delays allow companies—ranging from FedEx and UPS to local family-owned stores—to know their products will arrive on time, reducing their need to stockpile inventory.

WAAS-enabled aircraft also can fly into remote regions in states such as Alaska and to small communities that would otherwise be difficult to reach. This is especially important given that consolidation by major airlines has made air travel inaccessible to many people.

And WAAS-enabled planes can cut flight times between departure and destination by providing the most efficient route to pilots during the entire duration of their flights. These direct routes shave minutes and gallons of fuel off their historic flight profiles.

Despite these obvious benefits, only 1,500 of the nation’s 5,000 public airports to which general aviation aircraft fly have WAAS-enabled runways. It’s critical for Congress to continue to fund WAAS expansion until it is available at every public airport across the country, allowing for a truly integrated aviation system.

Without continued funding and a push for widespread adoption of WAAS, today’s pilots will face challenges keeping up with the evolving traffic levels and airspace requirements. Additionally, efforts to advance the NextGen modernization program that is essential to the future of the U.S. National Airspace System will ultimately be delayed, if not derailed.

As a pilot—and as the president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), which represents more than 80 airplane, rotorcraft and associated manufacturers—I believe the availability of satellite-guided precision navigation systems like WAAS is the cornerstone of both safety and efficiency. These are top priorities for anyone who has ever set foot in an airplane or rotorcraft.

GAMA and its member companies strongly support the proliferation of proven navigation technologies that provide greater connectivity to a wider range of airports. During these uncertain economic times where all government spending is being scrutinized and reassessed, it makes sense to complete—and in some cases accelerate—programs that are already providing huge returns on investment. The unwise alternative is to spread cuts across all programs, many of which are far off in the future—which, in the end, raises costs and delays benefits to the operator community. WAAS is a winner and we, as a nation, would be wise to preserve and nurture this important investment.

Bunce is the president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufactures Association (GAMA), the international trade association representing over 80 of the world's leading manufacturers of general aviation airplanes and rotorcraft, engines, avionics, components and related services.

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