Americans are fascinated by aviation. The wonder of it, the ability to fly from one coast to the other or across an ocean in hours – much less than half-a-day really – safely and routinely, and in comfort. We’ve lived with this jet-age reality for more than 60 years. In the early days, radio omnidirectional navigation aids dotted the landscape, and air traffic controllers huddled over terminal approach radar scopes issued voice commands to sequence airplanes for landing.
As is the norm today.
In 1975, U.S. commercial carriers moved 200 million passengers per year. Today, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reports that number is almost 1 billion passengers per year, and the International Air Transport Association expects that number to double by 2040. Air charter service companies are proliferating, and the industry is back to where it was pre-recession, and growing at 4.5%.
The dramatic rise and projected increase in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones – 1.3 million of them registered today – places a new demand on our national airspace. Companies are devising business strategies to move packages and people via the air. You might take an airborne taxi within the next five years, and flying cars are envisioned for the general public by the end of the 2020s. Private space travel? Expect it this decade.
The evolution of aviation is exciting – and lucrative. The airline industry today helps drive $1.5 trillion in U.S. economic activity and millions of American jobs. Indeed, the government and commercial demand for our airspace is significant and every projection shows increase. The U.S. depends on aviation as an important driver of our economy.
However, as user demand has increased, our overworked and at times overwhelmed human air traffic controllers, despite their high degree of training and professionalism, struggle to operate and maintain antiquated radars and radios. Safety is never compromised, so volume is managed, resulting in delays that passengers experience and inefficient expenditure of fuel that passengers pay for – an estimated $28 billion in direct costs to passengers, airlines and airports in 2018 alone.
To meet the increased demand on our airspace infrastructure that the FAA and industry saw decades ago, the FAA initiated the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen. Using global positioning system tracking and digital cockpit communications, NextGen leverages machine learning and artificial intelligence to precisely track and sequence aircraft to safely increase the number of takeoffs and landings per hour to meet demand and save fuel in the process.
With full implementation of NextGen, an airliner is pushed back from the gate at the right time, to start engines and taxi to the runway with minimal delays instead of waiting in a long queue of airplanes. Once at the runway the airplane is granted a quick takeoff clearance because the NextGen system expects it, with routing and climbs to altitude more efficient than the stair-stepping level-offs so often used to coordinate airplanes to their assigned altitudes today. At cruising altitude, NextGen “sees” thousands of miles ahead, hours ahead, and can assign and update tiny speed or heading changes to efficiently sequence the airplane at the destination. Approaching the destination, NextGen helps eliminate the stair-step descent with fuel-efficient ramp-downs that start at greater ranges to save more fuel, avoid bottlenecks, and expedite on-time arrivals.
Human beings in air traffic control centers perform admirably and can often sequence aircraft as just described, but with projected increased commercial and general aviation demands, the injection of UAVs and flying cars/taxis, and the continued deterioration of decades-old radars and radios, NextGen is far from a discretionary budget nice-to-have.
Another aspect of aviation that appeals to people is the fact-based honesty of it. Demand for our airspace will double in the foreseeable future with known and significant new demands placed on it. The existing infrastructure is outdated, inefficient, expensive to maintain, overly dependent upon human decision-making and unlikely to meet known future demands.
Another fact is the FAA has mandated that commercial carriers and private general aviation pilots must – as of this month – have equipped their aircraft with automatic dependent surveillance broadcast systems. That the industry, and especially private pilots, must bear this cost while the partially complete NextGen system is not delivering promised and needed safety enhancements is a failure of government. Congress must act.
Machines and structures of all types have service lives, as does our current airspace infrastructure of radars and radios. The NextGen system is designed to meet current and future demands, and must be fully implemented through dependable and steady federal funding streams. Our national economy and security require this modernization, and our citizens deserve it.
Miller is a retired Navy fighter pilot, current defense consultant, and bestselling author.
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