By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 3, 2011; 10:16 PM
The federal government will pay $4.2 million to install new navigation systems on 35 JetBlue airplanes, hoping their enhanced performance will entice the airline industry to invest up to $20 billion in the new technology over the next decade.
The systems are the heart of the Federal Aviation Administration's plan to overhaul the way in which commercial air traffic is routed, moving away from ground-based radar to the use of Global Positioning System satellites.
Years in the planning, the system known as NextGen is expected to deliver an unprecedented level of precision that the FAA says will relieve air traffic congestion, allow more direct routing on flights, reduce flight delays and promote fuel efficiency.
"This is just good business, really, independent of the FAA investment," JetBlue Airways chief executive Dave Barger said Thursday. "I'll be delighted to make the rest of the investment."
The current system relies on radar to pinpoint planes so that air traffic controllers can guide takeoffs, landings and flight patterns that keep planes at a safe distance. But radar, a 20th-century technology that uses radio waves to detect objects, is less exact than GPS signals transmitted by satellites to ground stations.
Many planes are equipped with GPS technology, but NextGen is a multifaceted system that will link that data into an information system that will manage air travel from the time a plane pushes back from one gate until it arrives at the next.
NextGen's network of ground stations is to provide blanket coverage of the United States by 2013. By 2020, all commercial planes will be required to use the system, but selling the recession-strapped industry on its benefits is the FAA's challenge.
Although air traffic has declined during the recession, the skies around major hubs still are congested and air travel is projected to increase significantly as the economy recovers.
The administration estimates NextGen will reduce flight delays by 20 percent, save airlines millions in fuel costs and cut carbon dioxide emissions dramatically. If the investment in JetBlue, announced Thursday, proves all that, the FAA will have a persuasive argument with other airlines.
For the airline industry, the investment could run between $32,000 and $175,000 per plane for the basic system that will be installed in 35 JetBlue planes. The FAA estimates an additional $162,000 to $670,000 per plane will be necessary to buy the full package of equipment. The significant difference in cost depends on whether an older plane is being retrofitted or a new plane receives factory installation.
"It's better to come on board sooner and take advantage of these innovations," said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, who said similar incentives might be offered to other airlines. "We do have money in our NextGen budget to take these things into the field."
The federal investment in NextGen is expected to be between $15 billion and $22 billion.
Babbitt said Southwest Airlines already uses GPS to time the arrivals of its planes, and expects to save $60 million a year in fuel costs. The FAA said the newly equipped JetBlue planes will be able to use new, more direct routes to the Caribbean from Boston, New York and Washington.
Although the 2020 mandate would equip all commercial planes with GPS units transmitting signals to towers that, in turn, send signals to air traffic controllers, the more expensive complete NextGen package would do more. It would transmit data back to the cockpit that would alert pilots to the traffic, weather and terrain around them.
A Transportation Department inspector general's report in December raised questions about a key component of NextGen's development. The report said the $2.1 billion computer system that would process satellite data was having software problems that could increase costs by more than $65 million.
Babbitt said Thursday that those problems had been resolved and that the program was "back on track."
The complexity that requires phasing in use of the GPS-based system over 10 years also caused the inspector general, Calvin L. Scovel III, to issue a caution.
Citing experts, Scovel said that "80 to 100 percent" of planes in a given airspace must be equipped with NextGen to "realize benefits and limit the potential for introducing new hazards."
"Further, the nearly 11,000 new controllers FAA plans to hire through 2019 will have to first work with existing systems and procedures and then move to NextGen roles and responsibilities, which will require them to transition from controlling to managing air traffic," Scovel wrote, urging the FAA to invest in more training for controllers.