Jim Burnley quoted in USA Today article on need for new airline traffic control system

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According to an April 20th USA Today story, airline industry leaders recently launched a lobbying effort to secure $20 billion in funding for a new satellite-based airline tracking system which could increase efficiency of routes, cut airline labor costs and save travel time for customers. James Burnley, a Venable partner who served as the last Transportation secretary in the Reagan administration in 1987-89, was quoted in the article saying the complexity of the system is one of the reasons it hasn't gained funding, despite its obvious benefits.

The NextGen system would shift plane tracking to satellites using GPS and hundreds of small ground sensors that track digital signals broadcast by every airplane in the sky - instead of the current model of ground-based navigational radio beacon. According to the USA Today article, current radio beacon sites were located largely along paths that airlines already were flying, which tended to follow highways between cities so that pilots in pre-radar days could find their way, in part, by following the roads below.

Some airlines have spent money upgrading their planes to be ready for NextGen, but funding has been caught in Washington disputes over whether to raise fuel taxes, taxes on tickets or impose takeoff fees. Airlines expect to spend $20 billion on new equipment and system training in addition to the $20 billion needed from the federal government.

According to the article, the congressional Joint Economic Committee reported last year that in 2007 air traffic control-related congestion and delays cost the U.S. economy $41 billion. That included $19 billion in extra operating costs on fuel, labor, aircraft maintenance and the lost use of delayed planes. It also included $12 billion in reduced productivity for the passengers traveling and $10 billion in added spending for food and lodging for travelers.

However, Burnley said, the airlines could not make that case quickly and clearly enough to get money for NextGen into the stimulus legislation — despite it being an upgrade to the nation's infrastructure that could provide long-term economic benefits.