Fast Company

Whither FAA's "NextGen" Solution?

[Amadeus business travel expert Owen Wild recently handed off the Road Warrior baton to Mike Valkevich, who is Senior Global Account Manager, Global Customers IT Solutions at the North American headquarters of the global travel technology leader.]

I'm pleased to be joining the ranks of Fast Company bloggers. Business travel is my topic - what's hot, what you need to know, how to save time, money, and do things better, more efficiently, comfortably, and conveniently when you travel on business.

Business travelers recall the recent FAA computer glitch that precipitated airline traffic jams nationwide on November 19. It's a reminder that in the years since 9/11, while much effort has gone into air travel security, little progress has been made in realizing the much-heralded Next Generation Air Transportation System solution to America's aging air traffic control infrastructure problems.

If you're a business traveler, you will be excused for thinking that it is high time for the U.S. to stop relying on what a recent Wall Street Journal article characterized as "antiquated systems" that mix new hardware/software with "decades-old air-traffic-control technology." You will also be excused for feeling that perhaps the FAA isn't doing enough, fast enough to fix things.

This latest glitch recalled the FAA computer malfunction that occurred in August 2008 and which delayed hundreds of flights nationwide. As slow as air travel has been this past year, imagine what the picture would have looked like pre-recession. The mind boggles.

These recurring FAA computer blowups, in which a tiny tech glitch results in a ripple of delays down the line, remind me just a bit too much of the Great Northeastern Blackout of 1965 and its cascading shutdowns, all caused by a mistake in setting one relay. The culprit in this latest FAA breakdown was the failure of a single computer router at a center in Utah.

For a long time the FAA has been promoting the so-called NextGen air traffic control system as the solution to these computer glitches. NextGen features global positioning systems (instead of radar) to steer airliners and other state-of-the-art technologies that will shorten flights and cut the time planes are required to circle airports, sit on taxiways, and so on.

NextGen actually comprises five discrete programs: Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast, System-Wide Information Management, NextGen Data Communications, NextGen Network Enabled Weather and National Airspace Voice Switch. Among other improvements, NextGen would enable air traffic to zip in a straighter line from point to point; it would also allow airliners to fly more closely together. Currently, commercial aircraft fly zig-zag patterns over old-fashioned radar stations so air traffic control can track the flights.

NextGen has been in the works for close to two decades. Other countries have leapfrogged America in adopting these technologies. Here at home, NextGen is, as USA Today reports "years away from implementation." In fact, one member of the travel industry blue ribbon commission assembled by the Clinton Administration and which made NextGen its top suggestion for improving air travel in the U.S., recently pointed out that, as far as adoption of the system goes, "we still aren't really close to that happening."

Ironically, despite all of the work of several blue ribbon committees, one of the government's responses to the air travel industry's recent problems has been to form - you guessed it! - yet another advisory committee.

The biggest problem is funding, or the lack thereof. Although NextGen is projected to save the U.S. economy $40 billion annually - mostly through lower fuel and labor costs and productivity realized from reduced passenger delays - and although it is a federal initiative and a federal responsibility, the money just hasn't been there. In fact, although the stimulus program authorized nearly $800 billion in federal spending, the FAA is spending only $800 million annually on making NextGen a reality NextGen just did not merit much stimulus attention, according to a USA Today report.

Given current funding levels, NextGen won't be completed until 2025. Still to be decided is the financial role of the airlines in implementing the program. As The Wall Street Journal pointed out, the publicly traded U.S. carriers have a net value of less than $25 billion. And yet their share of the cost to equip their fleets to fly in the NextGen environment is estimated to be $20 billion. That's on top of the $18 billion in taxes that the airlines shell out each year.

Doesn't seem to compute, does it?






Road Warrior • Miami • www.us.amadeus.com

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