GPS Technology Could Improve Airplane Performance, Safety

It might be hard to believe, but the radar-based technology still in use to track the airplanes in the skies above us was developed a half-century ago.

The outdated technology, some pilots say, is why passengers experience delayed flights – because they can only be tracked to within miles of each other, instead of feet, there is a lot of unused air space.

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“They have to keep airplanes two miles, laterally, apart — because they’re, honestly, not sure how close they are,” said flight instructor Gary Reeves.

Controllers have to err on the side of safety, he said, and since we have one of the most crowded chunks of airspace in the world, there are often bottlenecks that leave travelers stranded.

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“(Being delayed) is the worst. I just want to get home sometimes. And nothing’s worse than a delay,” said Tim Jones, who travels frequently for work.

But now, GPS technology similar to the navigation device in your car is about to change all that.

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It’s called NextGen, and the FAA is rolling out in the next five years.

“If we can keep them 1,000 feet apart, you can double, triple the amount of airplanes,” Reeves said. “And allow them to take a more direct routing.”

NextGen will mandate that all planes — big and small, commercial and private — be outfitted with GPS devices, and ground controllers will be able to pinpoint their locations to within feet, not miles.

Reeves said it will also improve safety.

“They’re actually going to be much safer, because we know precisely where they are,” he said.

Flight delays could be reduced by as much as 50 percent, Reeves said.

And that is music to weary traveler Tim Jones’ ears.

“If it makes it better,” he said, “I’m all for it.”