Fri, Oct 17, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Outdated network costing airlines billions in time and fuel

Critics say the Bush administration has been slow to push a system that could triple air traffic capacity, improve safety and curb greenhouse gas emissions

By Michael Tarm  /  AP , CHICAGO

A World War II-era air traffic network that often forces planes to take longer, zigzagging routes is costing US airlines billions of dollars in wasted fuel while an upgrade to a satellite-based system has languished in the planning stages for more than a decade.

The US$35 billion plan would replace the current radar system with the kind of global positioning system (GPS) technology that has become commonplace in cars and cellphones. Supporters say it would triple air traffic capacity, reduce delays by at least half, improve safety and curb greenhouse gas emissions.

An Associated Press analysis of US federal and industry data found that if the new system were already in place, airlines could have saved more than US$5 billion in fuel this year alone.

But funding delays and the complexities of the switchover have kept the project grounded. The government does not expect to have it up and running until the early 2020s, and without a major commitment, supporters warn that even that goal might be not be attainable.

“The United States has been to the moon and back. I think the public deserves that same level of effort for our national airspace system,” Robert Sturgell, the acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), said in a recent interview.

The planned satellite-driven network, dubbed NextGen, would save fuel by ditching radar technology that is more than 50 years old and enabling GPS-equipped planes to fly the shortest route between two points: a straight line.

NextGen could save airlines at least 12.5 billion liters of fuel a year — or more than US$10 billion annually by 2025, based on today’s fuel prices, FAA projections show.

Currently, jetliners move in single-file lines along narrow highways in the sky marked by radio beacons. Many of the routes gently zigzag from one beacon to the next, sometimes forcing cross-country flights to follow sweeping arcs and waste hundreds of liters of fuel.

It’s “the equivalent of using an electric typewriter when others are using computers,” said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transportation Association. “It’s a huge, huge drag on productivity.”

Some private and commercial aircraft already are equipped with GPS devices that pilots use to determine their position, but the NextGen system would dramatically expand use of the technology by creating a nationwide GPS network for air traffic.

Building the network involves gradually putting together the new system while still relying on radar for day-to-day operations.

Gerald Dillingham, director of civil aviation issues at the US Government Accountability Office, likened the process “to changing a tire on a car that’s going 60 miles [100km] an hour.”

Hank Krakowski, the FAA’s air traffic system head, called it “one of the largest project management challenges the federal government has had since we put somebody on the moon.”

Airports also have to make improvements to accommodate the expected increase in air traffic.

US airlines have struggled in recent years, in part because of rising fuel prices. Ten airlines have shut down and others are facing bankruptcy. Their financial troubles mean less-frequent flights and fewer amenities for air travelers, who must pay more for tickets, luggage, drinks — even pillows.

A report on NextGen released last month by the Government Accountability Office said major problems remained, including a lack of detail about just how the system would work and a shortage of the kind of highly skilled managers needed to see the project through.

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