I wrote about the FAA's "NextGen" solution to the problem of airline traffic jams back in December — actually, it was my first blog post. December 2009 was when the FAA had promised to have its ERAM, or En Route Automation Modernization operational. ERAM is a computer system that AP reporter Joan Lowy describes as "troubled." The system is designed, she said, "to handle aircraft flying at higher altitudes between airports, rather than planes taking off or landing." Although not technically part of the FAA's NextGen program — the program that is supposed to modernize America's air traffic control system — it's a key part of it.
As troubled as ERAM is, the system it will replace is so outmoded that the computer code underpinning it is becoming a lost language. The FAA doesn't expect its problems with ERAM to delay the nationwide migration to NextGen. Still, you'll remember the computer outage that occurred last November. The cause was the failure of yet another system that will support NextGen.
Many business fliers are aware that the basic navigational system that guides commercial airliners uses World War II era technology, including radar. NextGen, by contrast, is based on GPS. As accurate as the satellite-based system is, however, it's not necessarily any faster than ground-based radar. The nice thing about radar is that it is proven technology. Radar is simple and reliable; unlike NextGen's support systems, it almost never breaks. GPS and Java technology are nowhere near as dependable. NextGen is a high-performance system that can falter rather easily — witness the current problems.
The idea behind NextGen makes sense — i.e., no longer bound by the limitations of radar, plans can fly straighter, shorter routes from point to point. Yet even if NextGen can be made as reliable as radar has proven over the past half century or more, it only addresses part of the air traffic control problem. For example, it doesn't address the chronic understaffing of the air traffic control corps. NextGen purportedly will lessen the need for air traffic controllers, which is a good thing, given there are so few of them. I'm not sure that NextGen is the solution that the air traffic controllers would come up with if they had their druthers, though.
We all know the adage "don't bring a knife to a gunfight," but you probably don't want to bring a prone-to-glitches laser rifle, either. NextGen might be the Next Big Gun, but newer doesn't mean better and we're talking about the safety of hundreds of lives here. Reliability counts. Nobody ever saw a little rotating animated hourglass show up on their circular green radar screen.
I actually worked in enterprise telecommunications when we were first trying to convince corporations to use VoIP rather than T1 PBX systems or regular copper POTS lines for phone service. It was a tough pitch, because VoIP was more expensive, way less reliable, and rife with features nobody cared about. One might argue that the popularity of the Cisco 7000 series of desk phones, which are attractive and easy to use, helped drive down the adoption of enterprise VoIP. It wasn't the merits of the technology or cost savings that was the major influencer. It was a disheartening time, because while we knew our technology was newer, we weren't sure it was better. When I think of certain elements of NextGen, I think of VoIP — you know, that some elements of NextGen (but not all) may just be plain old wide-eyed, soap-boxy, innovation-hawking. That's worrisome.
Another ingredient overlooked in the solution to the airline traffic jam is the need for more runways and gates. Even if NextGen makes flying more efficient, the problem is not solved if there is no place to land and park the plane. Airport expansion has always been problematic. So if the facilities to handle takeoffs and landings don't keep up with the expanding number of flights, NextGen will only ensure that you'll arrive sooner in the airport's waiting line of aircraft stacked up and circling overhead.
Much of NextGen is predicated on the assumption that air traffic will go up-and-to-the-right forever, which, in 2008 and 2009, we clearly saw was not the case. Airlines are ceasing operations; airlines are merging; airlines are struggling to stay afloat. All of us have flown on nearly empty planes in the past year. It is generally held that the industry will recover, but attaining 2007 levels will be tough. Going much beyond that that may not happen for quite some time.
The more I learn about NextGen, the more I question how the FAA is managing the program, which is estimated to cost $40 billion by the time it is finally implemented in 2025. One development that gives business fliers hope is that Alaska Airlines has successfully adopted one part of the NextGen system called RNP, or required navigation performance, which enables planes to cut fuel use and land more efficiently. Of course, demand for runway space at airports Alaska Airlines calls home is somewhat less intense than at, say, LaGuardia.
I recall an ACTE (Association of Corporate Travel Executives) Conference in Washington, D.C., in 2008 at which the FAA chairwoman told the audience that the industry had enjoyed a year with zero safety incidents. How often does any of us have a perfect year? She said this is something they could never brag about, however, because it is the FAA's Number One goal, not just a pleasant side benefit. I can't speak to how badly the existing air traffic control system needs to be replaced; I'll leave that to the experts. But I will point out that, in terms of safety, NextGen has some very big shoes to fill. Very shiny shoes.
Can the FAA roll out a NextGen network that will do the job?
And if so, when?
Those are questions still without answers.
Road Warrior • Miami • www.us.amadeus.com