Fuller: Funding the FAA’s Quietest Success Story

Posted April 23, 2013 at 4:00am

Every day, as many as 90,000 flights safely crisscross U.S. airspace. This year marks the 10th anniversary of one quiet, but essential, technology that has helped make air travel safer and more efficient for private and commercial travelers alike.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) is the most accurate navigation system available to the aviation community, and it’s one that I personally rely on as a pilot. Now Congress has the opportunity to not just sustain the system but to help it evolve and expand, even in the wake of sequestration.

In the administration’s fiscal year 2014 budget, released on April 10, President Barack Obama requested $109 million for WAAS, a 13 percent increase over his FY13 request of $96 million, which Congress ultimately funded at $95 million.

WAAS represents a valuable investment in our transportation infrastructure. If Congress, which includes several active members of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), appropriates funding at the administration’s requested level for WAAS, it will help ensure not only that the system continues to operate, but that the number of airports offering WAAS access will continue to grow. Expansion is crucial to the long-term value of WAAS, which opens up new economic opportunities and improves access to otherwise isolated congressional districts across America. In Alaska, for example, where many small communities are only accessible by airplane, WAAS has truly revolutionized travel, effectively increasing the number of days each year when remote towns can connect to the wider world.

When it was first activated in 2003, WAAS represented a revolution in flight, allowing pilots for the first time to rely on GPS as the sole, precise means of navigation. Today, WAAS-enabled runway approaches are available at more than 1,500 U.S. airports, giving us reliable all-weather access at a fraction of the cost of ground-based systems.

WAAS has been a boon to aviation and is critical to the FAA’s NextGen modernization program. The 38 WAAS stations in North America continuously evaluate GPS signals to address imperfections in signal quality that are caused by atmospheric disturbances. Once a correction has been developed, two primary uplink stations update the data to three satellites, which broadcast the GPS correction signal to the WAAS-capable receivers now in tens of thousands of cockpits. The result is precision navigation that allows pilots to fly without any ground-based navigation aids.

While WAAS adds significant value throughout the entire aviation system, it has been most strongly felt in the general aviation community thus far. WAAS makes it possible for me to land AOPA’s Cessna Grand Caravan airplane at smaller airports in low weather. In practical terms, this saves me from having to land at a larger airport and drive the final leg to my destination, with the net result that I can attend multiple meetings in a single day and still make it home for dinner. I even equipped my last Beechcraft Bonanza airplane with WAAS, giving me added flexibility and capability in my personal flying.

Traditional ground-based precision instrument landing systems require expensive hardware for each airport runway served. But WAAS requires no such ground equipment. Aircraft simply need WAAS receivers, now a component of most GPS devices and even many smartphones, to plug into the system. And while general aviation pilots pioneered the use of this technology, Horizon Air, Southwest Airlines and UPS are utilizing WAAS as well, creating the advantage of greater efficiencies in the form of shortened routes and time and fuel savings. On the ground, that means more passengers and cargo to support, driving jobs, investment and energy into congressional districts across the country.

AOPA has been a strong advocate for WAAS since the program’s inception, and we’ve been actively involved in supporting its testing and development. We believe that WAAS benefits far outweigh the costs, offering cost savings for both users and the FAA in the future while putting smaller airports and communities they serve within reach.

The president made an important statement by choosing to increase funding for WAAS in FY14, and now Congress has the opportunity to follow his lead during the appropriations process. The 10th anniversary of the FAA’s quietest success story is not just a time for us to celebrate how far we’ve come in providing affordable precision navigation for civil aviation, but also a time to double down on congressional support of WAAS, a smart and necessary investment.

Craig Fuller is president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.