FAA asks for big increase for next-generation air traffic control system

Some of the 31 percent hike will pay for automated clearances for takeoffs and managing enroute communications between pilots and controllers.

The White House asked for a dramatic increase for its ongoing program to replace the decades-old air traffic control system with a one that relies on GPS, real-time weather updates in cockpits and enhanced runway control.

President Obama asked for a $1.14 billion budget in fiscal 2011 for the Federal Aviation Administration's Next-Generation Air Transportation System, a 31 percent increase from the $867.7 million fiscal 2010 budget.

The NexGen program incorporates more than two dozen projects that will transform the air traffic control system in the United States by 2025, FAA said in its budget request. NexGen will replace today's radar-based system, which relies on extensive voice communications between controllers and pilots, with a GPS satellite-based system.

Current voice communications systems will not be able to manage the projected growth in air traffic after 2020 and data communications lies at the heart of its advanced airspace management system, the agency said. As part of the NextGen budget request, FAA asked for $153.3 million for data communications in fiscal 2011, more than three times the $46.7 million the agency spent in fiscal 2010. The amount was the largest increase in the fiscal 2011 NexGen budget.

FAA plans to deploy data communications in phases, starting with automated clearances for takeoffs and eventually managing enroute communications between pilots and controllers. The agency said the budget will support specification and standards development for data link services, systems engineering and integration.

A GPS system, known as the Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast system (ADS-B) is the core project in the NexGen program. FAA requested $176.1 million for the project in fiscal 2011, down 16 percent from fiscal 2010.

Aircraft equipped with ADS-B have an avionics system that uses a GPS receiver to determine location and a data link that broadcasts the position to controllers and other aircraft also equipped with the system. ADS-B offers more accurate positioning than today's radar-based systems, FAA said. Funding in fiscal 2011 will support national deployment of the system.

Last month FAA turned on ADS-B in the Gulf of Mexico to support as many as 9,000 daily helicopter flights carrying personnel and equipment to offshore oil platforms. Because FAA radars did not cover the gulf, aircraft previously had to fly at least 120 miles apart, limiting the number of flights in the area. With the new system, helicopters can fly within five miles of each other, increasing the number of flights every day.

ADS-B also is in operation in Louisville, Ky., the hub for United Parcel Service, and FAA said controllers in Philadelphia will start using the system this month. A system will live in Juneau, Alaska, in April. The agency plans to deploy the system nationwide by 2013.