Obama signs FAA bill set to usher in progress on new air traffic control system

After 23 funding extensions and a two-week partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration in the summer, President Obama signed into law Tuesday a long-term funding bill for the nation’s aviation system.

The law provides $63.4 billion for the FAA over four years.

With long-term federal commitments in place, aviation experts say the pace of progress toward a new $42 billion system that could revolutionize air travel should quicken.

Airlines that are expected to invest up to $10 billion of their own in the complex navigation system known as NextGen were reluctant to commit as the FAA lurched from one short-term to funding extension to the next since the last long-term bill expired in 2007.

The airlines worried that without the certainty of long-term federal funding, the intricate new system might not be ready for use once they equipped their planes with the required technology.

“This critical effort to shift from our antiquated air traffic control technology to a GPS-based system will improve air traffic efficiency and safety, reduce fuel burn and pollution from aircraft, and bring costs down for consumers,” said House Transportation Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.).

The new bill also will provide funds for a critical element on the NextGen program: retraining of air traffic controllers in a system far different than the 60-year-old one now in use. NextGen is seen as essential in keeping the U.S. industry competitive with its foreign counterparts and preparing for a projected huge increase in air travel in the next four decades.

“This four-year bill will provide the funding stability we need to develop and train our next generation of controllers, along with the next generation of equipment and procedures,” said Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “It also ensures that the controllers and technicians who use this equipment and procedures every day will continue to be involved in their development.”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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