The Federal Aviation Administration is creating a new air traffic system that officials say will be as revolutionary for civil aviation as was the advent of radar six decades ago. But the program is at a crossroads.
It’s getting harder to pry money out of Congress. The airline industry is hesitating over the cost of equipping its planes with new technology necessary to use the system. And some experts say the U.S. could lose its lead in the manufacture of high tech aviation equipment to European competitors because the FAA is moving too slowly.
Seventy-five years ago this week the federal government, spurred by the nascent airline industry, began tracking planes at the nation’s first air traffic control centers in Newark, N.J., Chicago and Cleveland.
The original group of 15 controllers, relying on radioed position reports from pilots, plotted the progress of flights using blackboards, maps and boat-shaped weights. Air traffic control took a technological leap forward in the 1950s with the introduction of radar. That’s still the basis of the technology used today by more than 15,000 controllers to guide 50,000 flights a day.
Under FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System program, known as NextGen, ground radar stations will be replaced by satellite-based technology. Instead of flying indirect routes to stay within the range of ground stations, as planes do today, pilots will use GPS technology to fly directly to their destinations.