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Problems dogging new high-tech air traffic system

Associated Press Modified: September 12, 2012 at 12:49 pm •  Published: September 12, 2012

WASHINGTON (AP) — A high-tech overhaul to the nation's air traffic control system is mostly on track to completion, but has yet to produce the benefits that airlines and passengers were told to expect, federal investigators said.

Progress in moving from preparation to execution has been slow as the Federal Aviation Administration replaces its World War II-era radar technology with a GPS-based system, Transportation Department inspector general Calvin Scovel told a House subcommittee Wednesday.Lacking return on their investment, airlines are reluctant to continue making the multibillion-dollar equipment upgrades needed for the new system to work.

After years of delays and cost overruns, the FAA has improved its handling of the modernization program, known as NextGen, Scovel said, and the investment will be worth the taxpayer cost in the long run.

But the agency still hasn't established its overall costs or timeline and major computer glitches persist. Plus, completion of a program to better coordinate areas near big cities with multiple airports has been pushed back 15 months. Eight cities, including New York, have been dropped from the program.

Further delays are certain if Congress doesn't act to avert automatic budget cuts set to go into effect Jan. 2.

Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari and the FAA said they've learned from the mistakes that plagued the program early on and are now working closely with the aviation industry to ensure they deliver as many near-term benefits as possible without losing focus on the long-term goal: getting the U.S. ready for an increase in air travel, which is expected to nearly double over the next two decades.

By 2020, the new system is expected to reduce delays by 38 percent compared with the current system; airlines, passengers and taxpayers are estimated to save $24 billion.

The FAA plans to spend $2.4 billion over the next five years on a collection of six programs that the agency says will revolutionize air travel by moving from an outdated, radar-based system to one that uses satellite technology for precision tracking.

The aim is to move planes faster and more efficiently by making routes more direct, eliminating many weather delays and enabling planes to fly safely at closer distances. Once fully in place, the modernization program will save 1.4 billion gallons of fuel and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 14 million metric tons, the agency says.

But here's the rub: Planes must be equipped with new technology, such as navigational equipment, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars per aircraft. NextGen, however, doesn't start yielding full benefits until a critical mass of planes have the new technology, so nobody wants to go first.

A program to use government resources to help finance the cost of new technology was included in an FAA funding bill signed into law in February. But Congress hasn't appropriated any money for that program, the Government Accountability Office says.

Most of the previous scrutiny of the modernization effort has focused on ERAM, the main computer system air traffic controllers will use to identify and track aircraft, except right before takeoff and landing. After a four-year delay and a cost overrun of $330 million, the computer system is up and running in nine cities and on track to be used in all sites by 2014.

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