Acting FAA administrator Michael Huerta said the agency is optimistic about strong, long-term US air passenger traffic growth despite a near-term stagnation in capacity expansion. This includes US carriers reaching the milestone of 1 billion passengers carried annually by 2024, up 36.9% from 730.7 million passengers flown by US airlines in 2011, according to FAA.

But air traffic management must be aggressively modernized to meet those demand expectations, Huerta told FAA's annual Aviation Forecast Conference in Washington Thursday. "We will beef up performance-based navigation [PBN] activities," he said. "We will expedite the development and deployment of NextGen [ATC]" (ATW Daily News, Jan. 13).

Huerta said the four-year FAA reauthorization bill passed by Congress last month (ATW Daily News, Feb. 8) gives the agency the necessary funding "stability" to move forward on NextGen. He noted that there are 23 metroplexes in the US to/from which airlines operate. "In each of those, we know we need to do things to improve the airspace [design]," he said, adding that the agency will reduce the length of time it takes to implement new airspace procedures at major airports from 5-10 years to 3 years.  

Airlines operating into Atlanta will fly an aggregate of 1.2 million fewer miles per year once the airspace around the airport is fully redesigned, Huerta said. "The way [aircraft] descend now requires leveling off at every stage," he explained. "I like to think of it as the equivalent of stop-and-start driving … [Using PBN] aircraft glide down like sliding down a banister."

Huerta said that NextGen, once fully implemented, will reduce flight delays nationwide by 38% and save 1.4 billion gallons of aircraft fuel per year. "We are creating today a new template for how we manage air traffic here in the United States and around the world," he stated.