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Bite the bullet on NextGen

With the world’s airlines struggling to survive the twin hazards of high fuel prices and dwindling passenger demand, it could be argued that proposals for satellite-based air-traffic control should be placed firmly back on the shelf where they have languished for up to a decade.

The main barrier to adoption of this new technology is cost. It is estimated that some US$35 billion is needed in the US alone to move the aviation system from radar and voice-based controls that date back to the 1950s, to established 21st Century satellite-based technologies, many of which are already used successfully in a host of terrestrial and marine applications.

What would it buy?

Of course US$35 billion is an enormous sum of money, but the potential advantages it would buy, in terms of increased air capacity, more efficient routing, fuel savings, cuts in pollution, major improvements in safety and greater predictability of service, would provide a profound boost to the US economy.

At a time when the outgoing Bush administration is prepared to commit up to US$250 billion to investments in the country’s banks, it is certainly worth considering whether there are more enlightened ways to spend a mere faction of that money.

After all, the Federal Aviation Administration estimates that the so-called NextGen technologies will generate savings of US$10 billion per year. I would wager that a three-and-a-half year payback period is better than the Bush administration can expect from its bank investments.

This time last year, the US aviation system was creaking at the seams as old technology struggled to handle record numbers of passengers. There is ample evidence to suggest that when the economy recovers, flight demand will resume once more. Given current technologies, there is every chance that the US will once again face severe flight delays, compromises in safety, inefficient use of planes and facilities, and unnecessarily high levels of pollution.

Sticking plaster solution

Certainly, few would argue that the problem will be solved by the Federal Aviation Administration’s plan to auction slots at New York’s airports. Such an approach is tantamount to putting a sticking plaster on a broken leg – it may make things look better in the short term (though that is arguable), but it will never provide a resolution to the problem.

With flight demand down at present, the US has an unrivaled opportunity to introduce 21st Century aviation technologies and to enable it to compete effectively in future. It is time the incoming president, be it McCain or Obama, took a look at what could be achieved by backing NextGen. Perhaps equally importantly, they should also consider the consequences for the US economy of struggling a few more years with outdated 1950s technology.



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