In Alaska’s skies, the future of air traffic control

This exciting advancement, called NextGen, is the comprehensive initiative to modernize the nation’s air traffic control (ATC) system from outdated ground-based radar to a more accurate satellite tracking system. NextGen also incorporates other technologies, which will increase efficiency in our skies and provide air traffic controllers and pilots with better communications and awareness of weather and surroundings.

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Although the use of Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites to assist in navigation is not a new concept, America’s ATC system uses the same radar technology to bounce a signal off a moving aircraft developed and widely deployed in the post-World War II years. 

Radar has been crucial to navigation and aviation safety for over 60 years. But it is a less precise technology than satellite tracking and cannot adequately meet the needs of our increasingly congested airspace. The need for NextGen modernization has never been more apparent. 

In my home state of Alaska, we are acutely aware of the benefits of NextGen. Over 160 Alaskan communities have no road or ferry access, and rely entirely on aviation to keep geographically isolated communities connected. Alaska has six times more pilots and 16 times more planes per capita than the rest of the country. 

This reliance on aviation, combined with extreme weather, rough terrain and the absence of radar coverage for vast areas of the state, contributed to an unacceptably high rate of aviation accidents. Alaska’s unique aviation environment made it a prime candidate for testing advancements in aviation technology.

The technology at the heart of NextGen, known as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), was first tested in Alaska in an effort to reduce aviation accidents as part of the Capstone Program in 1999. 

That program, a cooperative effort between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the state of Alaska, and the Alaska aviation community, equipped planes with ADS-B avionics. These advanced avionics can continually transmit flight data, including aircraft identification, altitude and airspeed to air traffic controllers and other nearby aircraft. 

The avionics also allow for display of an aircraft’s location on a moving map relative to terrain, weather and other aircraft.  The technology provides greatly increased situational awareness for pilots from highly accurate real-time data. 

It also provides air traffic controllers with more precise information with which to manage aircraft operations in their airspace.  Should an aircraft crash, ADS-B can provide a precise location where contact with the aircraft was lost, greatly assisting in search and rescue efforts.

The results of Alaska’s Capstone Program were astounding. Between 2000 and 2004, the test areas in Southwest and Southeast Alaska experienced a 47 percent reduction in aviation accidents in aircraft equipped with Capstone avionics. The success of the Capstone Program led the FAA to commence planning the implementation of this technology nationwide. 

The benefits of NextGen are not limited to safety. This new technology also will reduce aircraft emissions by facilitating more direct routing and flight paths between airports. The greater precision provided by NextGen will increase the capacity and efficiency of our nation’s airspace by allowing air traffic controllers to safely reduce separation between aircraft. 

This new capacity will be needed to meet the expected growth of demand on our national airspace in the coming decades.  Additional capacity also will reduce delays and relieve gridlock at our busiest airports. 

In 2008, the Joint Economic Committee of Congress estimated that air travel delays cost the U.S. economy a staggering $41 billion annually. Once implemented, the cost savings realized by NextGen will far outweigh the cost of deploying this technology.

Two months ago, I joined more than 30 of my Senate colleagues in calling for the passage of legislation reauthorizing the FAA. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee reported out a strong FAA reauthorization bill, making increased investments in NextGen and accelerating implementation throughout our national airspace by 2018. The Senate should make passing this legislation a top priority in 2010.

It will take continued collaboration and leadership from the FAA and the aviation industry to make full NextGen implementation a reality. Success also will require continued investments in our airport infrastructure to make sure that we can accommodate increased demands on our air travel system. 

In this effort, we also must find ways to incentivize aircraft owners and operators to equip their airplanes with expensive NextGen avionics.

The technology is ready, and America is up to the challenge.
 
Begich is a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.