Of late, large government infrastructure programs have gotten a bad reputation and not without some reason. There was the disastrous rollout of the Obamacare website and the collapse of several state-level health exchanges. There are manifold problems associated with the patient information systems at the Veterans Administration. The California high-speed rail line looks increasingly like an expensive ride to nowhere.
So, it is good to be reminded that there are large government infrastructure projects that are actually on time, on schedule and making a significant contribution to the nation’s welfare. One these is the Federal Aviation Administration’s Next Generation Air Transportation System (named like so many other big, long-term programs — NextGen). The nation’s skies are growing more congested every year. There are some 300,000 small private planes, 20,000 business jets and 7,000 commercial aircraft licensed to operate in U.S. airspace. Add to that military aircraft, foreign airliners and the growing number of unmanned aerial vehicles, and you have crowded skies. NextGen is a program to shift America’s air traffic control system from a ground-based system to a satellite-based system that will allow planes to fly closer together, take more direct routes, and get in and out of airports more efficiently. NextGen uses advanced sensors and computer-based traffic control systems to shorten routes, save time and fuel, reduce traffic delays, increase capacity, and monitor and manage aircraft with greater safety margins.
NextGen has two key components. One of these is the Terminal Automation Modernization and Replacement (TAMR) program intended to modernize the air traffic control systems at all of the nation’s major airports. The centerpiece of TAMR is the successful replacement of the current array of air traffic control technologies into a single, state-of-the-art platform, the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS). Unlike the existing air traffic management system which depends on ground-based radar, STARS uses advanced hardware and software to collect, fuse and display critical information on aircraft movements and the flying environment from a variety of sensors to manage up to 1,350 aircraft at a time. The system became operational at one of the FAA’s dozen or so large traffic control centers, Dallas-Fort Worth over a year ago. It is now being implemented at the Denver facility. The STARS system has been deployed at more than 100 FAA and Department of Defense air traffic control locations almost without issues. STARS is running at or below costs, is on schedule, has satisfied all 114 FAA requirements and the air traffic controllers give it high marks.
The other major element is En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM). The new system uses space-based navigation systems and data communications technology to provide significantly improved high-altitude en-route air traffic management. ERAM is currently operational at 16 of the FAA’s 20 Air Route Traffic Control Centers across the United States. ERAM will expand the number of aircraft each Traffic Control Center can handle by more than 70 percent. By reducing four legacy systems to one, incorporating advanced software, employing a broad range of sensors and providing improved position location for aircraft, ERAM will help make air travel safer, cheaper and swifter.
Even though both STARS and ERAM are on track, on cost and working well, the NextGen program is facing financial challenges. Simply put, fixing a 40-year-old air traffic control system turns out to have required more effort, meaning money, than the FAA originally estimated. This is no ones’ fault. It reflects the complexity of the task and that each traffic control facility operates a little differently from all the others. Over time, based on NextGen, everything should coalesce into a standard system.
For the past decade, NextGen has been flying below the radar screen, so to speak, performing successfully and bringing badly needed modernization to the nation’s air traffic control system. The results will be safer, faster and, hopefully, more pleasant air travel.
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