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FAA to equip some JetBlue planes with NextGen GPS technology

The Federal Aviation Administration plans on using GPS technology for more accurate and efficient air traffic control. (Feb. 3)
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.

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