Stuck on the Tarmac: Satellite Navigation

For years, airlines have been frustrated with the U.S. government's slow progress in adopting a satellite-based navigation system for landings and takeoffs. Ground-based instruments aren't reliable in foul weather, causing flight delays and diversions that waste fuel. To hasten the switch-over, the Federal Aviation Administration in 2007 enlisted the private sector's help.

So far, the FAA has designed only 251 satellite-based procedures (step-by-step instructions about a flight path, much like the directions a driver gets from a car GPS system), now available to all carriers, and Boeing (BA) and General Electric (GE) have designed two. Thousands of routes need to be covered if all commercial airports are to switch to satellite navigation. Only 74 of the 450 U.S. commercial airports have satellite-guided systems in place.

Now the FAA in a report due on Feb. 1 is expected to advocate speeding things up by relying even more on private companies. "The firepower is not in-house. Help is needed," says William Voss, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va. FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto declined comment on plans for the vendors ahead of the report.

Why the holdup? The Transportation Dept.'s inspector general faulted the FAA in December for failing to spell out a clear role for the companies. That report also said divisions within the agency had slowed progress on a plan to monitor the companies' work. Without such an oversight plan, the union that represents 300 FAA workers who craft the navigation procedures says it opposes broader use of the vendors, out of safety concerns. The FAA, too, wants to make sure controllers and pilots have enough time to become familiar with the more complex satellite procedures.

Advocates say the new navigation technology is safe and cost-effective. An airline with 30 single-aisle planes flying the more direct routes might save $3.8 million a year in jet fuel, based on a $2.20-per-gallon cost, according to GE Aviation. With 3,554 narrowbodies in service in the U.S., according to the London consulting firm Ascend Worldwide, carriers could save up to $450 million annually. "It's all about the time value of money," says Steve Fulton, who helped develop the technology as a co-founder of Naverus, which GE acquired in 2009.

Seattle-based Alaska Airlines (ALK), which in 1996 became the first airline to use satellite navigation, flew almost 12,000 approaches and departures in 2010. Flights took off or landed 1,500 times with a satellite guidance system in tough weather without delays or cancellations. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines (DAL), the world's second-largest carrier, has the technology available at more than 50 airports, says Grady Boyce, a technical pilot for the carrier. The technology also helped Delta eliminate flight diversions at Quito, Ecuador, an airport essentially carved out of a bowl in the mountains, he says.

GE and Boeing are participating to speed up the conversion. They hope to sell more airplanes and jet engines, which won't happen unless air congestion is relieved, says Dan Elwell, vice-president of civil aviation for the Aerospace Industries Assn., a trade group. Otherwise, "we'll just hit gridlock," says Elwell.

The bottom line: The FAA may soon ask outside companies to help speed up adoption of a next-generation satellite navigation system.

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