Business & Economy

FAA wants to use GPS to more precisely track planes in Southern California

Sharon McNary/KPCC

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Traffic in Southern California skies is just as congested as traffic on the ground. That’s why federal air officials want Southern California airports to use satellite-based technology that can precisely track planes and routes.

With the GPS technology, air traffic controllers would be able to track planes more precisely and manage departures and arrivals easier, compared with traditional radar. Besides cutting planes' time on the tarmac, this is supposed to lead to more direct routes and thus shorter flights that burn less fuel.

The system is already planned or in use at a number of airports around the country. The Federal Aviation Administration hopes to introduce it in Southern California next year.

Earlier this month the FAA released an assessment of how the new technology could be utilized in Southern California. It said because of the region’s mountainous terrain and restricted air space due to military activities, many of the available routes get congested, especially under the conventional radar-based flying system.  

"Conventional procedures typically require more airspace, are less efficient, and may result in increased controller and pilot workload," the report said.

Flight paths to and from an airport look like a fan across an area. But with the satellite system, called NextGen, paths can be concentrated to just a handful. That could lead to noise concerns, according to a spokesman for Burbank Bob Hope Airport.

Another concern is the complete reliance on technology, said Joe Finnell, president of the Southern California Pilots Association.

"The efficiencies are admirable," he said. "They need to make sure that it’s going to be able to withstand sunspot activity and how it interferes with GPS."

Finnell said many small aircraft pilots like himself don’t have the new technology installed in their planes, but most major airline jets do.

An FAA spokesman said pilots who don’t have the new upgrades would still be able to fly above Southern California because the FAA would still use some of the conventional radar systems.

The FAA is holding public workshops throughout Southern California over the next two weeks about the NextGen system. 

The FAA proposal calls for installing NextGen at 21 Southern California airports, including Los Angeles International Airport, Bob Hope, Long Beach, John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana and even San Diego.