Commentary: NextGen will upgrade flight safety

Boeing 737s land at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport many times a day, but a recent 3 a.m. arrival was something special.

An Alaska Airlines jet touched down carrying 40 engineers and technicians who were on hand to witness a test run of the future of air travel.

Their landing was characterized by a short approach, a smooth descent, and minimal chatter between the pilots and air traffic controllers. In other words, it was anything but ordinary.

The flight, reported Sunday in The News Tribune and The Seattle Times, was a demonstration of a new satellite-based airplane navigation system pioneered by Alaska. The airline originally used the technology to assist its pilots in navigating some hairy approaches at Alaskan airports.

Now the system, developed by Boeing's navigation unit and a Kent-based firm founded by two Alaska Airline pilots, could be at the forefront of the federal government's overdue plan to modernize air traffic control.

Dubbed NextGen, the overhaul is key to easing gridlock in the skies. The current air traffic control system relies on World War II-era ground radar systems. The result is imprecise information that creates inefficiencies in the name of safety.

To read the complete editorial, visit The (Tacoma) News Tribune.