An Answer to Flight Delays?

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Mark J. Terrill / AP

A technician in the air traffic control tower at Los Angeles International Airport

It's an air travel scenario that has become all too familiar for Marion Blakey, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). A severe thunderstorm hits a hub airport like Dallas-Fort Worth, grounding all of the planes there for two hours. Soon those delays spread to airports nationwide, and flights that weren't even bound for Dallas could be canceled. By that point, tens of thousands of passengers might be affected and millions in revenue lost by the airlines. And when the next storm hits, it will happen all over again.

"We are at a breaking point," Blakey says of the U.S. air transportation system. Flight delays will reach record highs this year, and they are expected only to worsen as more passengers fly in the coming years. There are many factors contributing to record flight delays: more passengers, more regional jets that hold fewer passengers, fewer air traffic controllers and airline labor disputes. But a significant reason for flight delays is congestion or breakdowns within the National Aviation System (NAS), which includes airports and the air traffic control centers. In June, problems with NAS caused 32% of all flight delays, according to the Department of Transportation. Some media reports put that number as high as 85%, which might be plausible considering that the Department of Transportation doesn't always have accurate data.

To alleviate NAS-related delays and prevent a system-wide failure, Blakey, whose term ends on Sept. 13, is calling on Congress to fund a new air traffic control system. She argues that the current system is outdated and overloaded and will break down by the year 2015 if action is not taken now. Her proposal, dubbed "NextGen," will cost an estimated $22 billion and will take until 2025 to fully implement. The proposal was crafted earlier this year by a task force that included representatives from the departments of Transportation, Defense, Homeland Security, Commerce, NASA, the White House, and aviation experts from the private sector.

In a bold move, Blakey tacked on a request for NextGen funding to the FAA reauthorization bill, which determines the FAA's budget, that Congress must pass by Sept. 30. If Congress does not pass the bill by then, the FAA will stop collecting taxes and would only have enough money to function for two months. But lawmakers and aviation experts agree that NextGen must be funded. When Congress returns to session in September, figuring out how to fund NextGen will be a top priority.

The current air traffic control system in the U.S. uses radar technology from the 1950s that makes for inefficient routes and dangerous conditions during storms. Planes must fly a specific flight path so that they can be guided by air traffic control centers stationed on the ground. One cross-country flight, for example, could pass over two dozen air traffic control centers. Radar also takes up to 36 seconds to get an accurate read on a plane's position.

NextGen, rather than radar, uses satellite technology to give the real-time position of a plane. That gives planes more flexibility to leave the designated flight path — or "highways in the sky," as Blakey calls them — and chart their own routes that are either more direct or that dodge a storm system. The end result is that flights on average would be shorter and fewer planes would have to be delayed or canceled because of bad weather.

The satellite technology has already proven successful overseas and in the U.S. The European Union has upgraded to satellite technology in its air traffic control systems. Package delivery company UPS uses the technology in many of its planes and at its hub in Louisville, Ken. The FAA has also been testing it since the late 1990s in Alaska, which had a high accident rate because of the rough terrain in the state. Since the satellite technology was installed on small planes in Alaska, its accident rate there has declined 40%, says Blakey.

But these successes won't necessarily make NextGen a silver bullet. First is the question of safety. Because the satellite technology lets aircraft maintain shorter distances from each other, planes will be able to fly closer together. Blakey insists the planes will be at safe distances, but for air traffic controllers that's not enough. "We have 1100 fewer air traffic controllers working today than we did on Sept. 11," says Doug Church of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, a union currently in a labor dispute with the FAA. Air traffic controllers are already overworked, Church adds, and NextGen does not address the staffing issue.

The second problem is one of logistics. While NextGen's technology would open up the skies to more planes, airports are still limited in terms of space, explains Darryl Jenkins, an aviation expert who consulted the White House during the 1990s and now teaches at Ohio State University. "As long as we are constrained at the airports, we are still going to have problems in the entire system," he says. "We need more runways." Blakey agrees that runways are great in a lot of circumstances, and she points to how a new one at Atlanta's hub airport has eased congestion in the immediate area and nationwide. But NextGen does not include plans for more runways, and Blakey says that's because of space constraints and local politics.

The most pressing problem is funding — how to pay for a project that will total at least $22 billion and could reach as high as $40 billion. The first five years of NextGen will cost $4.6 billion alone. Both the airlines and the FAA argue that Congress should revise how the FAA is funded, specifically by requiring owners of private planes to pay more to fly. One recent report found that commercial airlines are paying for 94% of the airways but using only 73% of them. "The CEO of Google has a Boeing 767 — should he be paying a fraction of what the airlines pay to use the airways?" says David Castelveter, spokesman of the Air Transport Association, the largest airline trade group.

Perhaps the most telling statistic of all is that the American economy is losing $9 billion a year because of flight delays and cancellations. If a new air traffic control system is not implemented, that number will more than double by 2022, according to the Department of Transportation. "This is a problem that needs fixing right now," says Blakey. It's one delay that the FAA does not want to see.