“If I go first, I’ll have to bear the cost of updating the software, and when [NextGen is] turned on, I’ll have the oldest, most obsolete systems out there,” Chew said.
In addition, the FAA must clear through a jungle of procedures and retrain 15,475 air traffic controllers to deal with a system that will entirely replace the old one.
“A lot of the tough stuff is new procedures, is human-machine interface and human factors, moving from an air traffic control mind frame to an air traffic management mind frame” that puts greater responsibility in the hands of pilots, said Bobby Sturgell, former acting FAA administrator.
Congress has tossed more uncertainty into the mix by extending the current FAA funding plan 20 times rather than approving a comprehensive long-term spending plan that imposes strict NextGen deadlines on the agency.
“NextGen is threatened,” Chew said. “Everyone knows it. The FAA budget is under pressure. Even they will say that NextGen is on track, but it’s not.”
JetBlue, with $4.2 million in federal funding help, and Southwest Airlines, with federal incentives, have installed some of the technology, but other airlines are reluctant to move ahead.
“Absolutely I’m concerned about the schedule,” said Gary Kelly, chief executive of Southwest, which has spent $94 million on NextGen. “I’m concerned that we don’t have metrics in place to measure the progress. Any investment, any project, has to be evaluated based upon the risk of the return, and I’m not going to argue with you, this is a very high risk-return, because we’re not in control of the benefits.”
Although bells and whistles have been added over the years to the system that now manages 13 million flights a year, air travel relies on radar developed during World War II and a corps of air traffic controllers who monitor radar screens and relay instructions to pilots.
Radar comes with limitations. It doesn’t cover oceans or swaths of the country where mountains get in the way. Planes have to be kept three to five miles apart because they become a blip on the radar screen only every 11 seconds.
To keep planes safely separated at cruising altitudes, the nation is crisscrossed with a network of defined routes that look just like that map in the plane’s seat-pocket magazine that shows where the airline flies.
There are hubs in the sky — picture a traffic circle at 37,000 feet — and when airplanes reach them, they receive instructions to change course to another hub or their destination. If all the NextGen components were in place, pilots and air traffic controllers would receive precise position reports once every second. Pilots also would know the location, speed and direction of every plane around them, something they now get less complete information on by radio from controllers.