A little bit about NextGen Air Traffic Control Part 2

Yesterday, I explained what we’re dealing with now in the United States for air traffic control.  Today, I’ll explain what NextGen ATC can do and why airlines want it so badly.


Since developing an air traffic control system in the 1950’s, our technological capabilities have expanded exponentially.   We have fast, compact computers, excellent software, GPS, better radio systems and a better understanding of how best to move aircraft.  It’s time to develop a system that makes use of these capabilities.  One reason the FAA has been so unsuccessful is that each time its walked down a path with a set of technologies, the technologies became obsolete before they could even fully test them in a new system.


Now our technologies are more compact and object oriented and can be used in more of a “plug and play” system and that means it is time to get going.  Our current GPS system can navigate aircraft with an accuracy of less than 10 feet of error.  We know that we can and will develop future GPS systems that will be even more precise but our current system is perfect for our needs and if it does become obsolete, the next system can be “plugged in” to the new system we’re designing.  The same is true for virtually all the other systems we’ll have.


Using the precision of GPS and the computing power we now have available, it’s possible to design a system that requires less than a mile of “margin of error” for our ATC system.  We can have planes take off and land every 45 seconds or less now.  In addition, our aircraft can fly “blind” with such a high degree of precision, it’s possible to land the aircraft in completely blind weather conditions that otherwise would ground almost all aircraft today.  Because our system relies on this new technology, we don’t even have to slow the pattern of traffic when weather occurs because this precision lets us navigate, communicate and aviate with complete comfort.


Aircraft can be allowed to fly more directly from departure point to destination without following all those intermediate pinpoints first.  Because we’ll no longer need so much separation between the aircraft to keep the same margin of safety, more aircraft can fly on those routings too.  That means substantial savings in fuel for airlines and fuel is the second highest expense an airline has.  Not only does it save fuel and raise the capacity of the airways, it helps prevent bottlenecks at congested airports by raising the capacity to land and take off using this precision. 


Will this stop delays?  No, not completely.  At the end of the day, the pilot still has to land the aircraft and the aircraft still can only land within its specification of conditions.  If it is too windy, it will still be too windy.  If there are thunderstorms right in front of a runway with microburts in them, its still too dangerous to fly through those.  Delays will still happen but they’ll happen with less frequency and intensity. 


Currently, when aircraft near an airport, say within 80 to 100 miles, they begin working their way down from high altitude to progressively lower altitudes to be ready to land when they arrive.  If you looked at the profile of this approach, it would appear to be an inconsistent set of stair steps leading downwards more and more.  It’s inconsistent because it is at the whim of conditions, traffic and the ATC controllers ability to manage traffic.   The result is that aircraft reduce power, go lower, stabilize at a new altitude, raise power and await permission to lower their altitude again.  The do this over and over again until they’re at the height at which they can land at the airport.   This practice is the same for take-offs as well although generally there aren’t as many “steps” to climb up. 


Problem is, this approach is slow and uses a lot fuel.   Each time those engines have to spool up to power to hold an altitude, a massive amount of fuel is used.  Just like in a car, the more you change the throttle position, the more fuel gets used. 


Airlines have been practicing something called a continuous descent.  This kind of descent means they’ll start descending a bit later in the approach but they’ll essentially pull the throttles to “idle” and kind of “glide” down one continuous slope until they land generally only applying some power in the last mile or two of the approach.  They’ve also been practicing take-offs like this as well.  But by practicing, I mean they’ve proved the concept and proved it saves *massive* amounts of fuel and is actually less stressful for the pilots as well.  Mostly this has been done with long haul flights taking off from coastal cities and going to coastal destinations elsewhere in the world.  How much fuel does it save?  It can save tens of thousands of dollars of fuel on a flight using a large, widebody 4 engine aircraft. 


It can save thousands of dollars even on smaller, single aisle aircraft flights too.  NextGen ATC will allow these approaches and departures to become the usual as opposed to the extremely unusual.  Again, that saves fuel, time and allows more aircraft to flow in and out of an airport than ever before. 


This is why airlines want it so badly.  Improvements such as this could literally save them tens of millions of dollars on annual fuel costs.  Airports with congestion problems could, for the most part, become uncongested.  With this precision, we can design how aircraft approach airports in busy areas such as NYC and allow for safer, better flights in those areas.  There is no downside to this at all except the cost.  Over the next 2 decades, such a new system will cost about $35 Billion dollars. 


Is it worth it?  Absolutely.  In fact, $35 Billion dollars is rather cheap all in all.  Our economy is highly depedent on our air systems and it will be choked a bit if we continue on with our present system. 


Is the FAA capable of contracting for and implementing such a system?  Certainly.  Contrary to most media criticisms, the FAA biggest problem was the advancement of technology rather than the implementation.  Yes, they are a large, monolithic agency but they also have a vested interest in getting this done.  There is a growing shortage of ATC controllers and this kind of system would help with that shortage tremendously. 


Will it get done?  Yes, I think so.  Our technologies have reached a stage of maturity that allows us to design a system that can accomodate new technologies in the future and avoid becoming obsolete even before the new system is turned on.  We really only got there about 6 to 8 years ago.  Now we can do it and we can do it safely and pretty efficiently.  It’s still a big job but it’s a relatively straight foward job now.

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