In 1919 a young Army lieutenant colonel took part in the “Cross-Country Motor Transport Train,” a convoy of military vehicles from New York City to San Francisco.  This was no joy ride as the procession took 62 days, with trucks, tanks and other vehicles constantly slipping off America’s unpaved roads into ditches, getting flat tires or damaged axles.

Thirty-seven years later, US President Dwight Eisenhower drew on the lessons he learned from that trip—plus the Allied forces’ use of the advanced German autobahn network to speed World War II’s conclusion—to propose the Interstate Highway System.

Today, when we look at a US national air transportation system that in many ways is still dependent upon mid-20th century era radars and other technologies, the same message applies: the system needs to modernize.

That’s the vision of an ongoing effort to upgrade the US national air transportation system called NextGen. NextGen is improving aviation safety, security, efficiency, quality and affordability using new ground- and satellite-based communications, navigation and surveillance technologies to accommodate and encourage growth in air transportation.

When NextGen is fully implemented—hopefully by 2025—airline passengers will notice significant changes in the way they fly.  With new tools aiding our pilots and air traffic controllers, those frustrating delays while taxiing to the runway will diminish, flights will be smoothly diverted around rough weather and routes will be more precise—saving time, fuel and money.  

Many of these benefits are already being seen with NextGen systems such as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, Required Navigation Performance and DataComm advanced flight controller and crew communications having a positive impact around some of the US’ busiest air traffic corridors. For example in Atlanta, GPS-enhanced wake turbulence categories and separation standards have reduced average taxi time by 2.5 minutes.  In Memphis, a new airplane routing system that allows for shorter gaps between takeoffs of similar types of aircraft has resulted in a 17% increase in traffic.  And at Sea-Tac Airport, use of NextGen-related precision routes by Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines have reduced flight times by four to eight minutes.  

The potential long-term benefits of NextGen are considerable. A Deloitte study predicts that its full implementation will provide more than $281 billion in net benefits to the economy by 2035; in 10 years, it will save 27 million hours in flight delays and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 216 metric tons.  FAA studies project that NextGen will reduce flight delays by 35%, even as the number of passengers in the US rises from nearly 850 million to a billion.

Despite the progress that has been made so far, there remains considerable frustration about technical issues—such as the recent glitch that snarled East Coast traffic over an August weekend—and over the time it is taking to implement the system.  But it is important to note that with any major infrastructure development system, problems will occur and will be solved.  To the end of smoother implementation, last year the FAA and industry reached agreement on specific near-term priorities (i.e., Performance Based Navigation, Surface Operations, Multiple Runway Operations and the Controller Pilot Data Link Communications aspect of the Data Comm program), and are focused on continuing progress while increasing transparency and accountability.

Funding is also an issue as under the rigid strictures of the Budget Control Act of 2011, FAA’s long-range Capital Investment Plan is being underfunded by almost a billion dollars a year.  Congress can play an important role in moving the program forward by lifting the budget caps on FAA and by passing the FAA’s Reauthorization Bill, thus providing clear guidance and support for the next stages of the program.  

NextGen, and those it will serve, deserve our support.  The US has a well-deserved reputation as having the safest air transportation system in the world.  But just as Ike saw from his experience with the US highway system, it can be made even better.

The views expressed here are the author's own.  ATW welcomes commentary submissions by experts on issues of interest to the global air transportation industry. To submit a commentary, e-mail with full name, title and contacts.