Holes in the Airspace, Holes in our Infrastructure – Deborah M. Figart, Ph.D.

Holes in the Airspace, Holes in our Infrastructure

Deborah M. Figart, Ph.D., Professor of Education and Economics, The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

With globalization, we thought the world was shrinking until the reality set in that a valuable and expensive asset, a Boeing 777 from Malaysia Airways, along with human beings can go missing from the skies. Why is it that Global Positioning Systems software (GPS) can track our children through their cell phones but we cannot instantaneously determine where a large jumbo jet is in the sky? Because air traffic control technology is over 70 years old.

Air traffic control uses ground-based radar (short for radio detection and ranging) to track the location of airplanes on the ground and in airspace. It is more precisely a transponder on a plane that broadcasts data through radio waves to the ground. While advances have improved accuracy, airplanes could still be hundreds of miles off from the sophisticated triangulation. (My apologies to scientists and engineers for this amateur explanation of radar.)

The United States is taking the lead in working on a new generation of satellite-based air traffic control system. The Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) was authorized by Congress in the Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act of 2003. NextGen is expected in phases and seeks to fully provide the new system by 2025. It is a huge undertaking coordinated by the national Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), with the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Galloway Township, NJ, serving as the main facility supporting the research and testing for NextGen.

NextGen is one of the largest investments in infrastructure in U.S. history, totaling billions of dollars. The investment has been plagued by delays and difficulties, according to the U.S. General Accountability Office and the Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General. At times, this bipartisan program has suffered from spending cuts or threats of spending cuts. This is not how to treat an investment project with such enormous potential.

When governments take leadership in investing in infrastructure, significant scientific advances can exert positive externalities and well-being throughout the globe. Witness the Netherlands and dike and floodgate construction. Or Germany’s national highway system. And the United States’ exploration of space. A similar high priority should be accorded to NextGen.

In fact, with our economy remaining relatively anemic, we should accelerate the NextGen timetable. In addition to making our skies safer, every dollar we spend will generate jobs, income, and technical expertise—all of which can help the private sector. People with jobs and income spend money. The knowledge gained from investments in scientific and technical projects can be translated into applications we have yet to imagine.

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