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Budget battle threatens air control overhaul

June 28, 2013|By Hugo Martin

Air travel in the future will be faster, cleaner and less expensive if the Federal Aviation Administration’s $40-billion overhaul of the nation’s air control system is completed in the next seven years.

That’s a big if.

With the federal sequestration fight in Washington, FAA officials say funding for the project could be in jeopardy.

The plan, known as NextGen, replaces outdated radar-based technology with global positioning systems and digital communications to bring the country’s air control system into the 21st century.

By allowing pilots to fly more direct routes and giving air traffic controllers more accurate and up-to-date information, the system is expected to cut airline delays by 41% by 2020 compared with the delays without NextGen, according to a new report by the FAA.

The efficiencies in the system are also forecast to save 1.6 billion gallons of fuel and cut 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, with $38 billion in cumulative benefits to airlines, the public and the FAA, the report said.

Key to the system is that air traffic controllers using GPS will get more precise information on where planes are and what speed they are traveling, enabling controllers to better manage the 7,000 or so planes in the air, according to the FAA.

Because the current radar system is slower and less precise, controllers must add a bigger “safety cushion” of separation between planes.

In a recent speech, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta slammed lawmakers for failing to reach an agreement on future spending plans.

“Because of the financial uncertainty, we can hope for the best, but we have to plan for the worst,” he said. “This is not a sustainable course of action, and it’s no way to run a government.”

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