Categorized | Airlines

Five ways to improve air travel…

Posted on 26 October 2011

Regardless of which airline you choose, you’re likely to be confronted by a flight delay or cancellation that saps your time, money and patience. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, more than 20% of domestic flights were delayed in 2010, and each month thousands of regularly scheduled flights are either canceled or chronically delayed 70% of the time or more.


Now consider that the United States, for all its power and wealth, is dependent upon an outdated air traffic control network that relies on radar rather than satellite-based technology. And further consider that the solution has been a political football, and the punting has continued for years now, ever since a new methodology was proposed in 2003.


Benefits abound


It’s called the Next Generation Air Transportation System – better known as NextGen — and by employing satellite and data technologies it’s designed to reduce flight delays 35% by 2018. The Federal Aviation Administration site provides more background information—in both text and video formats—than most air travelers would ever need.


For consumers, the simple fact is the FAA promises that modernizing the nation’s antiquated air traffic control system would bring immediate and lasting advantages. Here are the top five benefits for air travelers:


1. A more efficient airline network with fewer flight delays, both in the air and on the ground

2. Fewer flight cancellations, providing passengers with savings in both money and time

3. Less time en route from Point A to Point B, aided by more direct flight paths, thus reversing the “padded flight times” trend I wrote about here in 2009

4. An enhanced level of safety “to better predict risks and then identify and resolve hazards”

5. Fuel savings and a reduction in aviation’s carbon footprint, not just by lowering fuel emissions but also by curbing noise


What’s more, these efficiencies and economic benefits would also flow to airlines, corporate customers and communities as well, thereby strengthening the nation’s economy.


So the only pressing question concerning NextGen would seem to be: What’s holding it up? The answer, of course, is funding, and neither the U.S. Government nor the airline industry has quite resolved this issue. In the meantime, the traveling public keeps waiting for NextGen.


Footing the bills


Support for NextGen crosses party lines and transcends political ideologies. As far back as 1997, Vice President Al Gore was calling for air traffic control modernization that would “make the notion of ‘highway lanes in the sky’ as obsolete as the bonfires that used to guide early fliers.” The Reason Foundation points out that “the technology the (FAA) uses to navigate $200 million jets is less advanced than the GPS technology drivers use to navigate $20,000 cars.”


A key roadblock has been Congress. Critics on both sides of the aisle complain that the lack of long-term and sustained funding for the FAA is crippling big-picture capital improvement projects such as NextGen. Last summer, Congressional bickering prevented an extension of funding for an FAA Reauthorization bill and led to a temporary “shutdown” of non-essential FAA funding. That incident underscored that the FAA has been working without a long-term reauthorization since 2007, and has been temporarily funded more than 20 times in five years.


Such dysfunction only serves to keep all of us flying through a technological time warp while other nations modernize their own air traffic systems. Little wonder the National Air Traffic Controllers Association has called for “clarity and accountability” and states: “Right now, NextGen is little more than a very ambitious research and development project.”


But the airlines bear responsibility as well. The industry’s largest trade group, the Air Transport Association, has repeatedly called for more NextGen funding from Congress. Of course, the stickier issue is the investment the airlines themselves need to make by equipping their own aircraft. This dance between government and industry has been playing out for years now; in 2010, for example, US Airways CEO Doug Parker was quoted in news reports as saying, “Our position is so long as we have to pay for [new equipment], we prefer not to have it.”

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