Nobody likes a traffic jam, including owners of jets loaded with people or packages that fly in or out of Memphis International Airport every 90 or so seconds.
Waiting at the end of the runway or in an airborne holding pattern is bad for business and the environment.
It’s one reason Memphis airport super-users FedEx and Delta jumped on board the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen program to modernize the air traffic control system.
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Industry officials say the federal program to create a new air traffic control system is at a crossroads, making delays possible.
They’ve helped make Memphis a proving ground in early initiatives to implement the Next Generation Air Transportation System, which involves switching to satellite-based technologies from a 75-year-old radar-based system.
The finish line is still 14 years out, but FAA officials say the new system will ultimately make air travel safer and more reliable. It will enable planes to fly more directly from Point A to Point B with less wasted motion, by feeding controllers, flight crews, airlines and airport operators better information on what’s going on in the airspace.
Under NextGen, planes would no longer have to fly indirect routes to stay within range of ground radar stations. Planes would continually broadcast exact global positioning system readings, providing data for cockpit displays showing a plane’s relative position to other planes and those planes’ flight paths.
Although the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority has no direct involvement in NextGen, airport officials consider it vitally important to the future of the world’s second largest cargo airport and, on the passenger side, a Delta hub.
“If you enhance the technology on the ground and in the air, you can certainly increase the capacity of the system,” said airport executive vice president Scott Brockman. “If the system gets a benefit, clearly the airport gets a benefit. It’s an all-for-one type of scenario.”
FedEx spokesman Jim McCluskey said, “We are supportive of NextGen because it’s a harmonized air traffic system. It’s a coordinated blend of equipment, policy and procedures. It does allow more operations to coexist in the same air space, increasing safety and providing the airlines with the most optimal routing. All this leads to savings, if you look at time and fuel, and it helps make the aviation system greener.”
McCluskey added that in FedEx’s view, “One critical thing is that the FAA delivers a system that is useful to the airlines and that is developed in a cost-effective and expeditious way.”
An Associated Press report described NextGen as a program at a crossroads because of tight federal and airline budgets.
The tab for NextGen is estimated at as much as $22 billion for the government and another $20 billion for the airline industry through 2025. The House wants to reduce FAA’s budget authority by $1 billion a year over the next four years, while the Senate has favored higher funding.
FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said Memphis has already sampled a handful of NextGen initiatives. They include an effort to more evenly space jets awaiting departure, called collaborative departure queue management or CDQM; testing of ground-based GPS receivers that more accurately pinpoint locations of approaching aircraft; and implementation of satellite-based navigation for arriving flights that are properly equipped.
The airport will add satellite-based navigation for departing flights by February and introduce an enhanced technology guiding descent of arriving jets by next July, Bergen said.
The latter improvement, known as Optimized Profile Descent, is billed as a big fuel-saver because it allows planes to make a continuous descent at lower engine speeds, rather than descending in stairstep fashion.
The newly commissioned Memphis Tower was designed before NextGen began, Bergen said, but the tower and associated radar facility can handle any new NextGen initiatives.
The 336-foot-tall tower includes the latest airport surface detection equipment, a ground radar system that tracks planes and vehicles on the airfield. The antenna atop the tower provides dramatically better field coverage.
The FAA tried out collaborative departure queue management at Memphis with FedEx and Delta and concluded it had the potential to chop 5,000 hours a year off taxiing times between gates and runways. Rather than manually keeping track of paper strips listing planes awaiting takeoff, controllers shared airfield surveillance data electronically and used computers and software to space departures during peak times.
Bergen said the queue management system was suspended for 90 days because of the FAA’s switchover from old tower to new tower June 20, but it will return in August.
The FAA estimates NextGen will reduce total flight and ground delays by 35 percent and provide $23 billion in benefits through 2018, saving 1.4 billion gallons of aviation fuel and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 14 million tons.
The agency says bigger system capacity is critical if U.S. passenger volume grows as predicted, from an estimated 737 million this year to more than 1 billion a year in the next decade.