FAA has talked a great deal about transitioning to a satellite-based NextGen ATC system, which would allow carriers to use RNP procedures supported by ADS-B and other technology to operate more direct flight paths, increasing system efficiency and reducing airline fleets' fuel burn and carbon dioxide emissions. But the US Congress repeatedly has stalled trying to determine how the $45-$75 billion transition to NextGen will be funded.
Specifically, the heavy cost of equipping aircraft remains a sticking point: While SWA has made a strong commitment, the vast majority of the US industry is unwilling and/or financially unable to finance equipage. And the government has shown no desire to provide funding for aircraft equipage.
Asked by ATWOnline at SWA's media day in Dallas last week whether the LCC's investment is too far ahead of the government and other airlines, Chairman, President and CEO Gary Kelly said, "We were disappointed as an industry that we did not get federal stimulus money [earlier this year to help fund the NextGen transition]." He added that moving to a more modern ATC system "is complicated. It's a combination of money, politics, technology, procedures, unions. There's not one single logjam, there are multiple logjams. . .There needs to be the willpower to make these changes."
US Air Transport Assn. VP-Environmental Affairs Nancy Young said the lack of progress on NextGen is "largely [on] Congress and it's largely a question of how these improvements will be paid for." She argued that owing to the $787 billion stimulus package enacted by Congress and President Barack Obama earlier this year, the US is in a "policy position" where it is politically difficult to invest additional taxpayer money in areas, such as NextGen, that were not covered by the stimulus.
"The choice could have been made to put some of that [RNP-capable] equipment on aircraft" as part of the stimulus, she said. "It's extremely frustrating because. . .even if you never get on an airplane or ship a package, NextGen would be a benefit to you because aviation is such a driver of the economy."
Boeing MD-Environmental Strategy Billy Glover asserted that lawmakers are unable to craft a strategy for funding NextGen because they have difficulty grasping the complexity of revamping the ATC system. He noted that each airport requires its own unique set of RNP procedures.
"The problem is the airports," he explained. "Every one of them is different. So it's not just a matter of flipping a switch in Washington. Implementation has to be systemwide and account for unique regional differences with equipment in place to account for those differences. So this takes a lot of thinking. It's not something we're not capable of doing, but the policymakers in Washington may not have this big-picture approach that we in the industry have."
SWA, an airline that depends heavily on its ability to get aircraft into and out of airports efficiently, wants the benefits of a new ATC system as quickly as possible and says it's willing to spend the money necessary. Earlier this year it operated a 737 demonstration roundtrip between Dallas Love Field and Houston Hobby using RNP procedures, yielding 904 lb. of CO2 savings. Based on data gathered during the demonstration flights, it estimated that "carbon reduction in one year of flying RNP procedures between Dallas and Houston could equal a reduction of approximately 8.42 million lb. of CO2." In addition, fuel used per roundtrip between the airports would be reduced by 8%.
"We want [RNP] procedures a lot faster than [FAA] can possibly develop them," SWA RNP Project Lead David Newton said. "We need the FAA. We need other airlines to be involved. . .It helps to have other airlines because it helps to have FAA see [industry] impetus to get this done."
VP-Flight Operations Chuck McGill noted that Southwest has done nearly everything it can--from engine washing to blended winglets to last week launching a "green plane" featuring lighter seat and carpeting materials into revenue service on a trial basis--to make its 737s more fuel efficient. "We've pulled everything we can out of that airplane," he said. "So what's left? That's where RNP comes in. . .There's a lot of work to be done. FAA has the lion's share of that work. Southwest will be the first airline ready to go and we'll hold FAA to that. . .We're paying to play."
Young said SWA is "in effect saying, 'Catch up with us FAA'. . .It's really incumbent on Congress and FAA to move forward." Glover added that there is already "technology on airplanes that is being underutilized," a situation he believes would be exacerbated if the NextGen transition is not adequately financed.
"How the new equipage is funded is clearly an open question," Kelly said. "We want to be treated fairly at Southwest based on what we've spent compared to what our competitors have spent. There's no clear answer yet." He added that if equipping aircraft would benefit FAA and the National Airspace System as much or more than it would benefit airlines, "there's an argument to be made for using taxpayer money."