The Next Generation Air Traffic System

A recent New York Times article focused on the issue of replacing our current air traffic system. Much of the technology used today was developed during World War II when there were far fewer airplanes in the sky than now. It’s a huge credit to air traffic controllers that flying is as safe as it is.

There are several ways a plane’s position is currently detected by Air Traffic Control (ATC) and other pilots. One is by radar. In radar-controlled airspace, ATC can detect a plane’s altitude, latitude and longitude, and speed. In remote areas like the Yukon and Alaska, radar isn’t available. In the future, using what they’re calling the Next Generation Air Traffic System, GPS technology will replace radar. Planes flying anywhere in North America will then be visible to controllers.

Currently, the only way a pilot can detect another plane without the aid of ATC is by use of their plane’s transponder which silently and continually broadcasts their plane’s altitude and location. Transponders on other airplanes detect this signal, and if there’s a potential conflict, both transponders will alert the pilot. A few caveats however, in some remote areas like the Yukon, it’s not required that the transponder broadcasts the plane’s altitude. And, many planes have a simplified transponder that won’t tell the pilot much more beyond the fact that there’s another airplane somewhere nearby. The Next Gen system will change that and all pilots will have the exact location of any traffic in their vicinity.

I have to believe that any major changes to our current air traffic system will affect flying on a global level. For commercial flights to operate in North American airspace, they’ll have to use the same systems as American-based aircraft. Presumably, then, those countries will adapt the new system which in turn will force general aviation planes to use it as well. The costs across the planet will be astounding.

The Times article makes the case that to replace the current system, the expense (an estimated $2.1 billion for the FAA alone) is only one concern. The other problem is hiring enough controllers to staff the towers. For every five controllers now on the job, by 2015 they’ll have to hire an additional four to compensate for those who retire or change jobs in the meantime.