With what seems like a continuous increase in airfare, baggage fees and a reduction of convenience services, airlines have been slowly losing the fanfare of travelers over the last decade. In an effort to re-attract the attention and spending power of passengers and reduce costs for airline operators struggling to survive the economic slump, the Federal Aviation Administration and airlines nationwide are looking to NextGen technology for solutions. Promising more direct flights, increased safety for staff and passengers, a reduction in the number of delayed flights and an increase in the number of flights that can be managed using the same or fewer resources, NextGen is a move to convince airlines and airports to let go of their stubborn dependence on outdated technology.
The most notable push of the NextGen program is to transition commercial jets to using current satellite GPS technology instead of radar navigation. Once the transformation is complete, airlines expect to save big money on fuel, be better able to anticipate and schedule airplane arrival and departure times, have real-time tracking of flight paths and a reduce in the amount of radio chatter needed to orchestrate the millions of flights that cross U.S. skies every year.
It all sounds very impressive, and in truth it is easy to understand how making such a change has potential to revolutionize the airline industry. But what do the changes really mean for frequent fliers? In coming years it is going to mean a lot of construction at major airports as they redesign to accommodate the anticipated increase in number of flights that can be handled, and a clamoring by airliners to find revenue streams to support the financial strain of updating their fleets en mass.
The transition from radar to satellite tracking isn’t as simple and cost efficient as installing $200 Garmin units in U.S. cockpits. As FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt stated in his November 30th speech at the Williams Trophy Luncheon in Washington D.C. , ” Southwest committed to upgrade its 737 fleet with required navigational performance capabilities – RNP. They committed to train their aircrews for the performance based navigation operations made possible by NextGen.
“This wasn’t a decision for the faint of heart. They’ve equipped all of their aircraft to be performance based navigation capable. That was $175 million. They’ve trained 6,000 pilots to fly the approaches. In about a month, pilot training should be complete and their pilots will be approved to conduct RNP routes and approaches that require authorization. As part of its internal training plan leading toward operational approval for RNP use, Southwest has a self-imposed requirement to log approximately 3,200 RNAV GPS approaches.”
The good news for travelers is that the anticipated savings in fuel and operating costs once upgrades are complete will save airlines tens of millions of dollars each year, potentially helping air travel to once again become a means of travel that passengers can afford. While the actual improvement to passenger services, timeliness and savings are ultimately up to the airlines to implement and manage, the improvements that NextGen has set out to achieve will set commercial airliners up for an opportunity to join other travel industries in embracing the technological advances of our generation.
FAA Speech: “Driving Toward NextGen”