AMERICA'S air transportation system carried more than 750 million passengers in 2006, but that's just 75 percent of what the system is expected to carry by 2015. With a billion passengers a year in the offing, how will a system based on old technologies handle the load? According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the status quo will no longer fly. The FAA solution is the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or "NextGen,” based on satellite navigation and control and digital, nonverbal communication. It would replace a system in which traffic control involves handing off aircraft from one radar site to another as planes move through space. FAA officials say the current system, despite a remarkable safety record, is rapidly reaching its limit. In the first half of June, the number of canceled flights was up by more than 90 percent over the same period of 2006. FlightsStats.com says only 71 percent of flights arrived on time from June 1-15, down from 79 percent in 2006. "Excessive” delays (45 minutes or more) rose by 61 percent. These statistics aren't solely attributable to an antiquated control system. Weather, labor issues and the busy summer flying season must share the blame. And even the most high-tech system available can't prevent thunderstorms. NextGen's supporters, though, say a revamped system will reduce delays and cut fuel consumption and emissions. The price is steep: $4.6 billion just for the initial phase, which doesn't include equipping aircraft with compatible gear. Promised benefits include cutting by half the delays that occur in optimal weather conditions and at least some delay reductions when the weather's rough. The nation has little choice but to upgrade its sky traffic management system. Still up in the air is how it will be funded. Oklahoma City is a major employment center for the FAA, so NextGen's development will be more than a blip on the radar screen here.
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