FAA begins to roll out air traffic control system

After years of development and testing, the Federal Aviation Administration announced on Monday that it plans to begin deploying a nationwide air traffic control system that tracks aircraft by satellite rather than radar. Urged by an executive order issued by President Bush last week, the switch from testing to roll out of the new technology marks the first step in the agency's ambitious program to overhaul the nation's air traffic control system. FAA claims the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast system reduces the risk of mid-air collisions and weather-related accidents by giving pilots in the sky access to the same satellite and weather information that air traffic controllers view from their seats in towers. "The next generation of air travel has arrived," said FAA acting Administrator Robert Sturgell in a release sent out on Monday. "ADS-B is the backbone of future air traffic control." FAA has deployed the surveillance-broadcast technology in some parts of Alaska to provide better air traffic control coverage there and reduce accidents. But now, the agency plans to begin its ambitious effort to rollout the system nationwide, starting with installing 11 surveillance-broadcast ground stations in Florida. FAA chose that area because of its unpredictable weather patterns and because it can provide coverage to the Gulf of Mexico, where, in some parts, radar coverage is not available. "Today's decision is the green light for nationwide deployment of ADS-B," said FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto. "This is the first step in making NextGen a reality." FAA plans to deploy all ground stations by 2013. By then, the agency will provide satellite coverage in all areas where radar exists -- and in some places where no coverage is available, including the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, Takemoto said. The project is part of a larger program called NextGen, FAA's ambitious plan to replace by 2020 all of the nation's existing radar-based air traffic control system with a satellite-based system. The agency estimates the cost of the program to be about $20 billion. "NextGen is real, and as of today NextGen is now," Sturgell said. FAA has tested the surveillance-broadcast technology during the past several months. The test program in Alaska succeeded in reducing the number of deaths from crashes by 48 percent. Corporate shipping giant UPS equipped 107 of its jets that fly into Louisville International Airport-Standiford Field in Kentucky with the technology, resulting in "huge fuel and time savings at night," Takemoto said. Surveillance-broadcast technology allows pilots to save fuel by avoiding so-called step-down approaches when descending during a landing, allowing pilots to continuously glide into an airport. After the 11 ground stations are installed in Florida, FAA plans to install ground stations on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico to provide satellite-based navigation over the area. After that, the agency expects to deploy systems in Philadelphia, which presents challenges for FAA because of the large amount of air traffic there and crowded radio spectrum. ADS-B data is transmitted using radio signals. Funding for the program, however, remains a question. The 2007 FAA Reauthorization Act , which the House passed in September, provides funding for the agency from fiscal 2008 through 2011, and allows the administrator to use funds at his discretion for the NextGen program. But the bill stalled in the Senate, where lawmakers have questioned the agency's ability to manage such a large project. FAA has continued to plan and develop NextGen, but the lack of funding has hampered the program's development.

Monday's announcement comes on the heels of an executive order signed last week by President Bush ordering the agencies involved in the development of NextGen -- the Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security and Transportation departments -- to treat the project as high priority. Takemoto called Bush's statement "much-needed, high-level White House approval of what we're doing" and added that the order provided FAA with "much-needed validation."

Some aviation associations, however, questioned the timing of the order. "Why is the executive order coming 60 days before we have a new president?" asked Steve Lott, spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, which represents 230 airlines worldwide. "We just don't think the Bush White House has gone far enough."

Lott said his organization was disappointed it hasn't seen more progress on NextGen because the initiative was first proposed before Bush took office. He said the administration has focused on other measures to relieve air traffic congestion, including capping the number of flights at airports and auctioning off arrival and departure times at major airports during the most crowded periods of the day. But the association is hopeful that the Obama administration will focus more on delivering the NextGen system.

"A plan to roll out NextGen is not new, but we certainly welcome any attempt to revitalize or put new focus on that plan," Lott said. "We were also in favor of [Bush's] efforts to bring all those different agencies to the table."

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