The federal government on Thursday will award a $1 billion contract to begin modernizing the nation's air traffic control system.
The contract is a long awaited first step towards relieving growing congestion in the skies. This summer has been the worst on record for flight delays, and government officials expect air traffic to double in the next 20 years.
Federal Aviation Administration officials say the current air traffic control system is reaching the end of its useful life.
FAA Administrator, Marion Blakey says pilots have to follow rigid flight paths that are marked by radio beacons.
"Those way points were established when they flew the mail," Blakey says. "At night they'd put bonfires out in farmers fields, and they would fly from one spot to another to be able to get where they were going."
Controllers track planes using radar technology developed more than a half century ago.
While airlines are tracked by radar, almost everybody else has moved on to using GPS — global positioning system. GPS receivers are in cars and boats, and Blakey says they are even in kids' sneakers.
She says switching to a new satellite-based navigation system will make it possible to pinpoint the location of planes, route them more directly and fly them closer together safely.
"That is the optimal because, particularly in congested airspace, you need to be able to get more out of the real estate that's there," Blakey says.
The FAA has been testing the new system in Alaska and the number of accidents has been cut in half. It is also being tested in Frederick, Md., just north of Washington, D.C.
Randy Kenagy, a pilot and technology expert for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, flies a small plane equipped with all the new technology — an advanced GPS navigation system; modems to transmit data on the plane's exact coordinates, altitude and speed; and a big screen showing a multicolored, moving map
"There's a little picture of an airplane crossing a runway, and its' our airplane. It shows us right where we're at at all times," he says. "On the same exact screen we can look at the weather information."
The display also shows Kenagy the terrain he is flying over and other airplanes nearby. Those planes are stilling being tracked by radar.
The new FAA contract is for the purchase of hundreds of refrigerator-sized ground receivers that are meant to replace radar. Planes will be able to broadcast their GPS data to air traffic controllers and directly to one another.
Industry groups agree the new system is needed, but they are squabbling over who should pay for it. Retooling the system could cost $40 billion and take more than a decade.