FAA touts DC NextGen implementation

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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is touting the implementation of equipment related to its proposed satellite-based airplane navigation system known as NextGen in the Washington area. 

The agency said Tuesday that it has completed work related to the NextGen project in the Washington Metroplex, which covers the airspace that surrounds Ronald Reagan, Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) airports. 

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said it would drastically ease air traffic congestion around the nation’s capital just in time for the expected rush of Thanksgiving holiday travelers. 

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“The National Capital Metroplex is the first in the nation to operate three NextGen approaches, each of which is dedicated to one of the region's three major airports — Reagan National (DCA), Dulles International (IAD), and Baltimore/Washington Thurgood Marshall International (BWI),” Huerta wrote in a blog post on the Transportation Department’s website.  

“As with last week's developments in North Texas, these new and improved routes mean increased safety, more on time arrivals, less fuel consumption, and reduced pollution-causing emissions,” the FAA chief continued. “Even better, the side-by-side trio is in operation ahead of the holiday travel period beginning this week. The whole point of NextGen is to get air travelers to their destinations safely and on time, and this is never more important than during the busy holiday season.” 

The FAA has been planning for years to discard the World War II-era radar technology that’s been used to manage airplane traffic for generations.

The agency says the new system will ease congestion in the airspace around busy U.S. airports by streamlining the arrivals and departures of flights. It also argues that navigating flights more efficiently will have environmental benefits because airplanes will use less gas and produce less smog.

The catch is that the NextGen system is expected to cost about $40 billion to complete and an original deadline of a 2020 nationwide implementation is rapidly approaching. Complicating matters further, the FAA’s current funding is scheduled to expire in September 2015, although lawmakers have already begun holding hearings about a possible extension next year. 

In the meantime, the FAA has adopted a piecemeal approach to NextGen that involves individual projects like the D.C. one. 

FAA officials said the installation of NextGen equipment at the capital area airports will save airlines 2.5 million gallons of gas per year and reduce carbon emissions by about 25,000 metric tons each year.

Huerta said the savings would be realized because planes would be allowed to change the way they approach the D.C. area airports for landings to a more fuel-efficient method. 

“When a plane makes a traditional staircase descent, it burns fuel at each step and requires clearance from air traffic controllers for each step,” he wrote. "Instead [with NextGen], the three parallel Optimized Profile Descents enable aircraft serving the capital area's major airports from the northwest to descend from cruising altitude to the runway in a smooth, continuous arc.” 

The FAA chief said the benefits that the benefits of NextGen would be extended to other airports in cities that are close to the nation’s capital. 

“By improving traffic flow to the three major airports, the DC Metroplex initiative also enhances the safety and efficiency of flights serving Richmond International Airport, Andrews Joint Base Airport, and at least nine smaller airports,” he wrote.