What Is NextGen, and Why Are We Still Waiting for It?

NextGen is shorthand for Next Generation Air Transportation System, and it will be the biggest upgrade to the United States air traffic control system since World War II. The current air traffic control network relies on radar and radio communications, but NextGen uses satellite technology and digital communications. NextGen will allow air traffic that is safer, uses less energy and lowers airlines’ carbon footprint. It could also reduce flight delays by 35 percent by the year 2018.

FareCompare readers are savvy air travelers, and should be encouraged that the technology upgrades powered by NextGen will mean better on-time performance and fewer annoying delays and cancellations, getting more fliers to their destinations with fewer hassles. So why can’t you take advantage of the latest in flight control today? The answer, as you might have guessed, is politics.

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What’s Holding Things Up?
Both the government and the airline industry believe that NextGen is the future of air travel, yet NextGen has been a political football since 2003. Congressional bickering and balking by some airlines over the cost of outfitting aircraft with the necessary equipment have slowed the adoption of this major improvement in air traffic control technology. The following chart lists specific NextGen technological improvements, as well as the old technologies they replace, and benefits to airlines, consumers and the environment.

NextGen Technology Old Technology it Replaces (if applicable) Benefits
Airport Surface Detection Equipment, Model X Radar Ground Control Precise GPS location of aircraft, surface vehicles, and obstacles on the ground.
Automatic Dependent Surveillance ? Broadcast (ADS-B) Radar GPS accurately identifies aircraft location throughout flight.
Traffic Management Advisor (TMA) Calculates precise routes and minimum safe distance between aircraft, allows for more efficient air routes.
Oceanic Trajectory Based Operations (TBO) Efficient transoceanic routes, significant fuel and carbon footprint savings.
Tailored Arrivals Individualizes flight path to destination airport to avoid delays caused by weather and other conditions. Significant fuel and carbon footprint savings.
Optimized Profile Descent Stepped Descent Smoother, continuous airport approach results in significant time, fuel and carbon footprint savings.
Digital Communications between controllers and pilots Radio Communications Frees up parts of radio spectrum, allows complicated instructions to be provided electronically, reducing errors.
System Wide Information Management (SWIM) Manages flight-related information among all parts of airspace communications, results in better-managed air traffic flow.

While Congress continues to debate funding of NextGen, some parts of the system are already being rolled out in places. JetBlue has equipped 35 of its jets with NextGen technology. Parts of Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, and the cities of Louisville and Philadelphia have installed ADS-B avionics for more precise in-flight tracking of planes. Tailored arrivals have been used some 250 times in San Francisco on 747 and 777 aircraft, saving over 27,000 gallons of fuel.

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Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says that until Congress passes a long-term FAA bill, NextGen will remain stalled in mid-air. With costs estimated at over $20 billion, the technology remains dependent upon a government trying desperately to cut spending.

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Published: November 17, 2011