FAA teams up with JetBlue to advance NextGen

Low-cost carrier to install advanced avionics on jets, and agency to monitor cost savings.

The Federal Aviation Administration and JetBlue Airways are partnering in FAA's massive program to upgrade the nation's air traffic control system. JetBlue will equip up to 35 of its planes with advanced navigation equipment and, if the trial run is successful, could expand the technology to its entire fleet.

FAA will pay $4.2 million to equip up to 35 JetBlue Airbus A320s with Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast avionics during the next two years, according to an agreement announced on Thursday. JetBlue has a total of 114 A320s and 43 smaller Embraer E190s. With the updated equipment, the jets will be able to fly in two more-direct routes off the East Coast even if radar coverage is unavailable.

ADS-B is a critical component of the Next-Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) airspace modernization program, an ambitious plan to replace the nation's aging radar-based air traffic control system with a network of satellites. With ADS-B, both pilots and controllers will see radarlike displays with traffic data from satellites and displays that update themselves in real time and don't degrade with distance or terrain, as radar does, according to an agency fact sheet.

JetBlue also will invest an undisclosed amount of money to install the equipment, train its crews in the system and absorb the costs of downtime while it is being installed. The low-cost airline expects in the future to be able to fly additional direct routes from its New York hub and from Boston. It is the largest carrier in both those heavily congested airspaces.

In the past, commercial air carriers hesitated to invest in NextGen, said Victoria Cox, FAA's senior vice president for NextGen in November 2010, because of a high upfront cost and inherent benefits that "don't go directly into [their] bottom line."

For example, when an airline invests in sleeper beds for first-class cabins, the plane must be taken out of service for a few days for retrofitting, but the cost is quickly recouped through higher ticket prices. Passengers, Cox said, will typically not pay more just because they're told the aircraft is equipped with better navigation technology.

FAA plans to have the infrastructure for NextGen completed by 2013 nationwide. By 2020, any airline that wants to fly in controlled airspace in the United States must have ADS-B avionics.

JetBlue believes in the business case for installing the equipment, said Rob Land, the airline's senior vice president of government relations and associate general counsel. Using the newer equipment, the airline expects to save time and money on trips by adding more direct routes and cutting fuel consumption.

The agreement also will allow JetBlue to fly a new route to the Caribbean and could lead to the development of two new, shorter ADS-B-only routes to the Caribbean from Boston, New York and Washington.

Once equipped, the planes will be able to use routes that are available uniquely to them, reducing passenger waiting time in the air and on the tarmac. In the long run, this might allow the airline to add flights to its schedule, as less passenger waiting time allows for higher utilization, Land said. The airline hopes to be able to make the case that "this is a very snazzy investment both for the carriers and the government," he said.

On the flights using the new technology, FAA will collect data and conduct real-time operational evaluations. "We believe the investment will not only be successful . . . but will spur us and other carriers to invest more," Land said.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said in remarks at Reagan Washington National Airport Thursday that the partnership will "give us a glimpse into the future right now."

"Companies that are equipping today with NextGen are going to reap the benefits of the transformation of our airspace system sooner rather than later," he added. "They'll see greater efficiency, fuel savings and more on-time arrivals as we continue to increase the availability of NextGen procedures."

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