The Next Generation of Air Traffic Control

Apr 12, 2011

I love the opportunity to celebrate an accomplishment rather than focusing on challenges.  Saturday presented that kind of opportunity in the form of the dedication of the new Air Traffic Control System Command Center just outside of Washington, DC, in Vint Hill, Virginia.

With the dedication of this Command Center, the nation added an infrastructure element to the Next Generation Air Traffic Control System (NextGen) that drives increased productivity and greater mobility for passenger, freight and business aviators, and, of course, reinforces the top priority of the FAA: the commitment to safety. 

Every day, the Command Center will ensure that the nation’s airspace is used to its maximum potential by regulating the flow of traffic to minimize delays and congestion. The 270 specialists working there 24-7 are the ones who can make real-time adjustments and optimize the system when weather, equipment outages or runway closures throw a monkey wrench into the best laid plans.  Try to imagine a room full of people focused like lasers on computer screens working behind the scenes to make continual adjustments so that your flight can take off or land, holding conference calls with the full array of stakeholders – passenger, cargo, business and military – every two hours to review changing conditions, and, when there is a natural disaster like a hurricane or volcano, huddling together to develop and implement strategies to minimize disruption to the national and global networks.

It’s amazing stuff – the kind of thing that reminds me why I love doing infrastructure policy because you can really see the effects of policy and investment in action.  I’ll think about that when I fly from Philly to Columbus to Raleigh to Washington this week.

And it’s just the kind of flexibility and operational strategies that are needed to handle a growing economy that will bring with it more air travel and air cargo.

Think about this:  on any given day, there are already approximately 7,000 aircraft in the air over the United States.  Somehow there has to be more capacity squeezed out of the National Airspace System (click on that link if you want to pick up some great terminology to drop on your next flight) to facilitate safe, reliable, predictable air travel.

When fully implemented NextGen will speed up trips with more direct routing and enable safe arrival and departures of more aircraft per hour.  By doing so, there is a tremendous benefit for travelers, whether for business or pleasure.  It’s critical for the on-time arrival of high value cargo.  It’s essential for business aviation.  That’s going to boost aviation’s already significant contribution to the U.S. economy:  today, civil aviation accounts for $1.3 trillion in economic activity—5.6 percent of the U.S. economy—which supports 12 million jobs.

So congratulations to the FAA, which brought in the project on time and on budget, and let’s keep pushing forward to accelerate implementation of the Next Generation Air Traffic Control System.

p.s. Don’t miss the live webcast of the 10th Annual Aviation Summit at the Chamber on April 27th.  Unfortunately we’re sold out for in-person attendance, but don’t worry, I’ll try out the flight simulator and tell you all about it!

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