WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has embarked on the single most ambitious and expensive national transportation project since completion of the interstate highway system, a program called the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen.
The NextGen concept sounds simple: Replace an air traffic system based on 60-year-old radar with a satellite-based, global-positioning system network that would be far more versatile and efficient.
In reality, it is an extraordinarily complex undertaking, threatened with delay by airline fears that the government won't deliver the system in time to justify their expenditures.
NextGen demands the largest investment ever made in civil aviation: between $29 billion and $42 billion for equipment, software and training by 2025.
The cost would be shared by a federal government struggling with budget constraints and an airline industry that has been drained by years of recession and inflated fuel prices.
NextGen is touted as the antidote to gridlock in the air travel system, which is forecast to be serving 1 billion passengers a year by 2021, up from 713 million last year.
With GPS precision, planes would be able to travel packed skies in safety at much closer distances.
They would be able to fly direct routes, instead of the current system, which relies heavily on flying to waypoints before turning to a final destination.
Direct routing would save airlines billions in fuel costs and minimize pollution.
It would permit far more precise choreography of planes at airports, reducing the amount of fuel wasted waiting for takeoff or burned because planes waiting to land are ordered into holding patterns.
For passengers, NextGen promises to cut flight delays, eliminate time spent on the runway waiting to take off, shorten the flight time once airborne and bring fuel savings that should keep ticket prices lower.
"It's going to be like pulling out of your garage and all the traffic lights are green," said Marion Blakey, president of the Aerospace Industries Association and former administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Advocates say the United States will lose its competitive edge in the global transportation economy unless the government pumps $11.5 billion into the program over the next seven years and airlines pony up an additional $7 billion to $10 billion.
The cost of delaying the system even by less than five years has been calculated at $20 billion.
Airlines, however, fear that the FAA won't meet its timetable for creation of the network of ground-based stations and satellite links that will make it all work.
"The FAA's track record on deployment hasn't been good," said Russ Chew, a former airline executive and former chief operating officer for the FAA. "The FAA could be perfect in meeting NextGen deadlines, but (private investors) are looking at past history."
In addition, the FAA must clear through a jungle of procedures and retrain 15,475 air traffic controllers to deal with a system that will entirely replace the old one.