FAA Urged to Focus NextGen Air-Traffic Project on New York Skies

(Bloomberg) -

The new head of a panel advising the government on modernizing air-traffic control is calling on the U.S. to take on one of the most difficult political and technical challenges: the crowded skies around New York.

Seventy-eight percent of airline delays start in the region and efforts to improve the aviation system need to start there, FedEx Corp. Chief Operating Officer David Bronczek said at a Wednesday meeting of the NextGen Advisory Committee in McLean, Virginia.

“It’s time to be bold and aggressive,” Bronczek said before the group, which is advising the Federal Aviation Administration.

Efforts to use NextGen’s global-positioning technology and other tools to create more precise flight paths have run into opposition from New York politicians concerned about aircraft noise, while also generating technical challenges due to the proximity of the area’s three major airports. Some airlines advocated shifting the FAA project — and its estimated cost of $30 billion — to a nonprofit corporation in a Feb. 9 meeting with President Donald Trump.

There’s no point in rolling out NextGen to areas of the country that don’t need it as much as New York, Bronczek said.

NextGen is an amalgam of multiple new technologies designed to improve aircraft tracking, spread data more quickly and eventually allow planes to come closer together so that traffic flows improve. The basis for many of the improvements is replacing radar, which is relatively imprecise, with GPS-generated position reports for aircraft. All but the smallest planes will have to transmit their positions with GPS by 2020.

“We’re ready for a big improvement, a bold one,” he said. He said it was important to “educate” lawmakers on the importance of the improvements.

While other members of the committee said they’d welcome the focus on New York, some cautioned that the issues weren’t simple. The group includes government, industry and labor officials.

“New York is like no other place in the world,” said Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union. Many of the airports there are already at or near maximum capacity during good weather, making improvements difficult, Rinaldi said.

New York’s three biggest airports — John F. Kennedy International, Newark Liberty International and LaGuardia — were among the five worst for on-time arrivals in the U.S. in 2016, according to the government’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. About one-quarter of flights were at least 15 minutes behind schedule.

The previous year, Kennedy, Newark and LaGuardia occupied all three slots at the bottom of the on-time rankings, according to government data. A 2010 report by the Transportation Department’s inspector general found the airports have been among those with the most delays in the U.S. for 40 years.

While the New York area has greater congestion, it hasn’t had the benefit of recent FAA programs to speed flights. Under a program known as Metroplex, the agency has begun rerouting flights and allowing planes to fly more precise routes directed by GPS. Among the 12 regions with Metroplex programs, New York isn’t one of them, according to the FAA.

Kennedy and LaGuardia are only about 10 miles (16 kilometers) apart. That means Kennedy has traditionally been unable to use all four of its runways without interfering with LaGuardia’s traffic. In the past, attempts to reroute traffic has brought noise to neighborhoods unaccustomed to it, prompting protests and objections by elected officials.