Next generation air traffic system aimed at cutting cost, pollution

Program will benefit both industry and environment, say experts.

Reducing the cost and environmental impact of air travel and expanding traffic to smaller airports are some of the key benefits expected from the implementation of the Next Generation Air Transport System.

Several speakers touted the ability of NextGen technologies to make air travel more efficient and less harmful to the environment at a Thursday meeting hosted by the Joint Planning and Development Office, the agency established to facilitate NextGen. Officials from the Personal Air Transportation Alliance in particular advocated expediting NextGen's development and implementation.

"The acceleration of NextGen technologies will result in reductions to costs, energy use, carbon emissions and noise," said Bruce Holmes, chief strategist of NextGen systems for Dayjet, a commercial aviation operation and member of PATA. "It will also allow for the safe expansion of underutilized air space."

NextGen represents a large-scale transformation of the control system in response to the expected two- to three-fold increase in air travel demand by 2025. Much of that change will occur as a result of the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast system (ADS-B), currently under development. When completed, the ADS-B will use precise navigation and location information provided by GPS satellites to give pilots and air traffic controllers more precise, real-time information regarding their position and those of nearby aircraft. The $1.8 billion contract for developing ADS-B was awarded to ITT in August 2007.

One of the main benefits expected from this technology is the use of trajectory-based flight paths, which allow pilots to choose their own path rather than following the existing grid-like system. The shift should result in significant decreases to both flight time and distance, which in turn will result in less energy use, pollution and noise emission from aircraft.

"Trajectory-based operations are where we want to go," said Holmes. "We recognize that with NextGen, there will be more demand to secondary and tertiary markets. We will be able to provide air travel where there was none before."

For example, Jack Olcott, president of the General Aero Co., pointed out that aircraft currently departing from Morristown, N.J. and heading southwest interfere with traffic to one of Newark International Airport's runways. "We can avoid this problem" with the new technologies, Olcott said. Holmes added that with real-time information about the location of planes, his company's fleet could run with "Swiss watch-like precision."

One challenge is coordinating the NextGen system with the new air traffic management systems being developed in Europe and Asia. "Accelerating NextGen can only be to our benefit. It shows the rest of the world that they can have confidence in our plans," said Carey Fagan of the Federal Aviation Administration and co-chair of the global harmonization working group within the Joint Planning and Development Office. "I do believe there is a strong need to make sure there is harmony between technologies we develop here and the rest of the world."

Other areas that NextGen is expected to improve include capacity, airflow and separation management -- which ensures adequate space and delay between aircraft. Dr. Karlin Toner, director of NASA's airspace system program emphasized that improvements are needed to the air traffic systems as well as to the aircraft themselves. "We really believe it's not just about the air traffic management system or the vehicles. In order to get to NextGen, we have to consider both together to get the improvements we need."

Ken Ross, president of North American Jet Charter Group, emphasized the importance of the United States taking the lead in the development of new air traffic technologies. "The world wants to go to a more efficient air traffic control system," he said. "We want that to be American technology," he said, claiming it would greatly benefit the U.S. economy.