For decades, the main method for keeping airplanes separated in the skies has been through the use of radar, with air traffic controllers tracking aircraft to maintain their horizontal and vertical separation.
But there are vast areas, like large bodies of water or remote parts of the continent, where radar coverage is either spotty or non-existent altogether.
Also, the dependence on radar has limited the amount of air traffic allowed to what controllers could manage on their screens.
What's more, pilots mostly had to rely on controllers to know what was in the same airspace since only the most sophisticated or largest commercial aircraft had radar that could pick up other planes and even those had limits.
That's all set to change, however. On Thursday, Secretary Ray LaHood issued final regulations meant to usher in a new era in air traffic control. Using satellites technology similar to what underlies GPS devices, the new system called Next Gen will allow pilots to see aircraft in their airspace the way typically only controllers can today.
The regulations will provide guidance to aircraft manufacturers who will be installing the technology in new aircraft.
A relevant post from LaHood's Fast Lane blog:
NextGen is important for the convenience, dependability, sustainability, and safety of your air travel. And it is happening—now.
Today's regulations set clear performance requirements for the electronics that will allow aircraft to be tracked with greater precision and accuracy. And by 2020, all aircraft flying over the United States will be broadcasting an ADS-B signal.
Since December 2009, our new satellite-based airline tracking system, Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), has made air traffic control services available in an area over the Gulf of Mexico where these services had never been possible before.
And since then we've been testing this new capability in the high-traffic airspace over Philadelphia, over Louisville, Kentucky, and over Juneau, Alaska, where there's little or no radar today.
NextGen sounds like a great idea. So who could be against something with so many benefits?
An excerpt from an Associated Press story helps answers that question:
Airlines and small plane owners say they can't afford the new equipment. They want the government to help pay for it.
I'll have to jot myself a note to see if I can find any examples of new technology mandated by federal regulators for safety reasons that the airline industry embraced immediately. If anyone knows of an example, let us know about it. I certainly can't think of one off the top of my head.