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'NextGen' Air Traffic System Has Yet To Take Off

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The government is trying to modernize the nation's air traffic control system, but cost overruns, software problems and management concerns are making some wonder whether the so-called "Next Generation" system may take another generation to complete.

The radar screens in the nation's aircraft control towers are based on technology dating to World War II. Many of the routes airliners fly were laid out at a time pilots followed bonfires for navigation at night.

The promise of NextGen, as explained in a video on the Federal Aviation Administration's website, is to bring all that into the 21st century.

"You will appreciate the increased safety, environmental benefits and reduced delays as the Next Generation Air Transportation System is adopted," the video says.

What sounds so whizzbang in the video isn't really all that different from the satellite-based GPS navigation systems many Americans have in their cars, but adopting that technology to the airline industry has been a challenge.

The Transportation Department's inspector general reported that one of the key software components of the system is running more than $300 million over budget and might not be fully phased in for another five years.

Airlines, too, have been investing in elements of the new system. One, in particular, would enable aircraft to land in a more efficient, fuel-saving manner — better than the way planes land now.

"You can actually feel it, where a plane will lose altitude and it will drop, say 5,000 feet, and then it will stay steady for a while at the same altitude and then it will drop again," says Steve Lott with the Air Transport Association, the airline industry lobbying group. "It's this stepped landing approach that is not particularly efficient, and using satellite technology, we can have a smoother landing."

Lott says the airline industry wants the FAA to allow more use of the advanced navigation procedure, for which many aircraft are now equipped. The deputy administrator of the FAA, Michael Huerta, told a congressional panel recently the agency is working on making that happen.

"In the year ahead, what we really want to do is focus on how can we improve the quality of these procedures, and how can we see the very real benefits associated with reduced fuel consumption, reduced time and corresponding environmental benefits as well," he says.

But Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says until Congress approves a long-term bill for the FAA, the NextGen program will remain in a holding pattern.

"We're stuck in mid-air because of the fact that Congress won't pass an FAA bill. As soon as they pass a bill, we've got a big, bold vision for Next Generation technology," he says.

The government's share of the NextGen program is estimated to be more than $20 billion. That's another big concern of its supporters — coming up with that cash at the same time the government is desperately looking for ways to cut spending.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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