An Outdated Air Traffic Network Used By America

A World War II-era air traffic network that often forces planes to take longer, zigzagging routes is costing U.S. airlines billions of dollars in wasted fuel while an upgrade to a satellite-based system has languished in the planning stages for more than a decade.

The $35 billion plan would replace the current radar system with the kind of GPS technology that has become commonplace in cars and cell phones. Supporters say it would triple air traffic capacity, reduce delays by at least half, improve safety and curb greenhouse gas emissions.

An Associated Press analysis of federal and industry data found that if the new system were already in place, airlines could have saved more than $5 billion in fuel this year alone.

But funding delays and the complexities of the switchover have kept the project grounded. The government does not expect to have it up and running until the early 2020s, and without a major commitment, supporters warn that even that goal might be not be attainable.

U.S. airlines have struggled in recent years, in part because of rising fuel prices. Ten airlines have shut down and others are facing bankruptcy. Their financial troubles mean less-frequent flights and fewer amenities for air travelers, who must pay more for tickets, luggage, and drinks — even pillows.

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Updated: December 1, 2015 — 3:46 am
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