The FAA's ambitious NextGen program gets big data boost

This satellite-based traffic management system is expected to replace the country's aging ground-based radar traffic control system between now and 2025.

If you fly as much as I do, which is to say, quite a bit, you have a stake in the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) ambitious program known as NextGen. This satellite-based traffic management system is expected to replace the country's aging ground-based radar traffic control system between now and 2025. NextGen will be compatible with Europe's Single Sky initiative through technologies developed under the aegis of the Single Sky European ATM Research (SESAR) program.

Naturally, such massive undertakings like NextGen and SESAR will hit some turbulence en route to completion, but their projected benefits to the flying public, air carriers, the environment, and the global economy will be substantial. For example, a Deloitte study estimates that if both NextGen and SESAR are completed on time the net-present value savings will exceed a stunning $897 billion through 2035.

Most of those direct savings come from lower fuel costs due to less time taxiing on runways, more efficient routes, and direct landings. Passengers will benefit from much higher on-time and departure schedules and, hopefully, pass-along cost savings. And the environment will be a big winner as planes will consume much less jet fuel. In Houston alone the air quality benefits will be the equivalent of taking more than 6,000 cars off the city's roads.

While many of these benefits are projected, some are already happening as portions of the technology are deployed in different regions. For example, at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix two carriers are using some NextGen technology to improve direct landings and will save a combined $6.4 million this year.

Neither NextGen nor SESAR would be possible without managing the big data generated by the world's air traffic. In the U.S. alone at any given moment the FAA says there are 7,000 planes aloft. The data involved for each flight is substantial and for air traffic purposes must be managed in combination with numerous other flights—everything from varying air speeds and altitudes to relationship to other planes in the air.

As the FAA describes its ambitious program: “NextGen boils down to getting the right information to the right person at the right time. It will help controllers and operators make better decisions. This data will assist operators in keeping employees and passengers better informed.”

Maybe in the near future as we deplane, in addition to exchanging polite words with a pilot or flight attendant, we can add our thanks to big data for helping to get us to our destination safely, on time, and for less cost.

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