Wednesday, April 04, 2012

FAA NextGen a Cure for Houston's Congested Airspace

HOUSTON - Houston, fasten your seatbelts! The Federal Aviation Administration is testing new equipment and procedures here.

They’re calling it NextGen and billing it as a solution to our congested airspace. NextGen replaces reliance on ground-based radar with an increasing role for satellites and computers.

In some ways, Houston airports will be a proving ground for NextGen technology, which is intended to save time, save fuel, and literally smooth out your flight – from takeoff to landing.

Most of these changes will be invisible to you.

They’re designed to put more planes in the air – faster - by providing multiple paths to cruising altitude. That’s critical, say federal officials, so more passengers can get where they need to go.

“Our current air traffic control system simply can't accommodate the anticipated growth,” said Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari. “It's like building more cars without building the highways that they would drive on.”

And speaking of highways, most air routes are still dictated by land-based considerations since radar and communications are handed off from one site to the next during flight.

The NextGen technology uses computer networks and GPS to generate more direct routes.

“We're creating new airways that will have the effect of reducing bottlenecks, improving safety and efficiency and fostering the flow of commerce,” said Acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.

That brings us to landings. Today, commercial aircraft perform “step down” descents, like bumping down a staircase.

That will change to a smooth, linear descent, like sliding down the banister.

The aircraft’s final approach will change as well. Instead of flying an elongated pattern, planes will perform a much shorter and more direct hook-shaped approach, shaving time and saving gas.

“Here in Houston,” said Huerta, “we estimate that aircraft will fly something on the order of 650,000 fewer nautical miles each year.”

And the calculated savings? About 3 million gallons of fuel and more than $9 million. Not to mention 31,000 metric tons’ worth of carbon footprint.

However, anybody who’s ever followed GPS directions onto a nonexistent street may reasonably wonder: is it safe?

According to the FAA, it is.

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