Bad news, good news on the air-traffic beat

Bad news: further evidence that the worldwide GPS system, which is run by the US government and on which everything from airline navigation to iPhone mapping apps relies, is at risk of "browning out." Earlier mention of the problem, back in May, here, based on this government report. Update this month, from Avionics magazine, here. Talk about your deteriorating critical infrastructure! Headline below gives you the gist.

"Fixing GPS

"Almost half of the current constellation of GPS satellites are at or approaching 'single thread' operation, where a critical system failure could render a satellite inoperative. What are the options for replacing GPS satellites?"

Now, the better news. Assuming that the GPS network gets tuned up in time, Scott McCartney, of the WSJ, explains some of the potential for better, more efficient, and safer airline navigation -- including over the vast oceanic "big blue data void" into which Air France 447 disappeared. The "NextGen" navigation systems McCartney describes have their strong supporters and critics, when it comes to specific configurations and timetables for the program. But a shift to some version of the new system is as inevitable, and McCartney explains clearly what the benefits can be.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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