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The future of flight

Sunday, March 21, 2010; A18

THE FEDERAL government is spending billions to equip the nation's airports with the Next Generation Air Transportation System, known as NextGen. This satellite-based technology will make air travel faster, safer and greener. Yet some airlines are balking at having to pay for their end of the upgrade. But they will benefit from the implementation of NextGen and should ante up.

The global positioning system in your car -- even your Wii -- is infinitely more advanced than the 1950s-era radar system used to guide planes in and out of the nation's airports. Those radar blips make it impossible for pilots or air traffic controllers to know the exact location of aircraft -- either in the air or on the tarmac. This requires planes to fly at safe distances and take indirect routes to avoid collisions. Satellite equipment in cockpits and control towers that will link up with the NextGen system will give the precise locations of aircraft. The result can be more takeoffs and landings and more direct routes. The reduced congestion, fuel use and pollution will eventually improve air carrier profitability. But this isn't cheap -- between $25 billion and $30 billion, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, including an industry share.

New aircraft will come with NextGen equipment, but air carriers are resisting coming up with the billions of dollars it will cost to retrofit the existing fleet. The FAA is expected to require the equipment in most controlled airspace by 2020. The signal ground stations will be in place by 2013. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told an aviation industry conference this month that the White House was looking into the demands for financial assistance. He offered nothing more than an assurance that the administration wants to be helpful . Southwest Airlines was the first carrier, in 2007, to commit its own money to retrofit its fleet with the advanced navigation system. More than 60 percent of its aircraft will be NextGen-ready within the next few weeks. It's time for others to get on board.

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