Published September 28, 2015
Imagine you're at the airport when a thunderstorm hits, only instead of hours of delays, and a messy overnight rerouting through Wichita, your plane is smoothly redirected on a minor detour and you arrive home in Cincinnati only 10 minutes behind schedule, greeting your bags on the carousel and your kids at the dinner table.
That's the dream of the Federal Aviation Administration, which is about a third of the way through a massive overhaul of America's air traffic control system. Instead of the cumbersome radar and radio system used to direct airplanes that's been in place for more than half a century, the FAA's NextGen control system relies on an array of digital technology linking satellite-based GPS systems directly to the cockpits of jets anywhere in the U.S.
With the FAA handling some 90,000 flights a day, and the number expected to grow to 125,000 by 2035, airlines and regulators want to move away from the current ground-based radar system as quickly as possible. Work on NextGen began in 2007 aiming for completion by 2030 at a total cost of $32 billion. Of that, $17 billion will come from the FAA via passenger ticket and other fees, with airlines and other plane owners spending about $15 billion to equip their aircraft with updated technology.
The FAA has already installed the first phase of NextGen, called ERAM, the En Route Automation Modernization system. It lets air traffic controllers track 1,900 aircraft at a time, up from 1,100, and lets all 20 flight control centers have access to all flight plans filed in the system. It gives controllers the exact position and altitude of each plane in the air literally every second, replacing radar updates that occurred only every seven to 12 seconds. That's saving airlines - and passengers - money by allowing planes to fly more direct routes, and fly closer together. Delays are reduced and the need for expensive new runways is also reduced - or at least postponed.