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Lesson 6: Crowded Skies:

Imagining the Future of Air Transportation


 Why are there so many delays in air travel nowadays? Is it because the skies are overcrowded? Or is the infrastructure and technology outdated? How can the situation be changed? Support your History, Geography, and Science curriculum with this video which takes a close look at how policy and technology improvements in the planning and procedure of air traffic control systems can guide the future of air transportation. Then, use the accompanying lesson plan to have students write proposals for improving the state of transportation in the United States. 



 How were our nation’s airways set up? In the 1920s when the government was developing airmail service, they established air-traffic routes. In 1926, he government built a network of navigational aids for pilots, beginning with bonfires that were later replaced by illuminated towers and, eventually, radio beacons and radar. Today, air traffic controllers still rely on radar to manage our choked airways. 

Too many airplanes in the sky, not enough runways on the ground, too much congestion, and outdated technology. This is the state of air travel in America today.Compared to 1950 when 17 million people flew by air each year, today 700 million Americans use air transportation to get places. That number is projected to rise to one billion by 2023. How can an overloaded and outdated system adjust to these changes? In this episode, we learn about NextGen technology, a modern satellite-driven air traffic control system that is designed to accommodate this growth. Currently being used by the military, it is yet to be implemented on the ground and has the potential to transform and make more efficient air travel as we know it.  

Featured Vocabulary

  • FAA – the Federal Aviation Authority, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, oversees and regulates all aspects of civil aviation in the United States
  • radar - an object-detection system which uses radio waves to determine the range, altitute, direction, or speed of objects such as aircraft, ships, motor vehicles, and even weather formations
  • satellite – a semi-independent computer controlled object placed in orbit that can be used to attend many tasks including power generation, altitude control, communication, navigation, and observation
  • NextGen – NextGen is the transformation of the National Airspace System from a ground-based system of air traffic control to a satellite-based system of air traffic management, utilizing a portfolio of policy, procedures and 21st-century technology. 

Warm Up

Get students thinking about the differences between the state of different modes of travel in the United States by engaging them in a whole-group discussion on the topic. Ask them to compare car, bus, bicycle, train, and airplane travel in terms of: (a) speed (b) cost (c) time (d) efficiency (on time) and (e) environmental impact. You might wish to share the infographic “Space Required to Transport 60 People” with students. This poster was originally displayed in a city planning office in Germany and has been widely circulated on the Internet. It sends a strong visual image about the impact of various modes of transportation on the environment.

Discussion Questions

  • Have students watch the video while taking notes on the following. Afterwards, use the following questions to assess comprehension and prompt discussion:  
  • What is the state of airline travel in America today? 
  • What are the limitations of radar and today’s air traffic system?
  • Why is overcrowding in the skies a concern?
  • What is NextGen technology?
  • How does it work?
  • How can changing from radar to NextGen improve efficiency in air travel?
  • What is holding it back? 


Using the Venn Diagram reproducible Comparing Transportation, have students work in pairs or small groups to research and compare any two modes of travel. They can select from: air, train, car, bicycle, and public transportation. The websites listed in the resources section could serve as useful starting points for research, as is the America Revealed site. Questions to ask: How are the modes different? Similar? What efficiencies do they share? What inefficiencies do they share? What technologies does each rely upon? What impact do they have on the environment? 

Students should compile key findings and observations into infographics, then write a proposal to improve the state of a specific mode of transportation. You might wish to share the following sites with students as inspiration for their infographics:

Going Further

What will people want from air travel 10 years from now? What did people want or imagine about transportation 50 or 100 years ago? Have students research science fiction and fantasy literature and pop culture depictions of travel and create visual presentations about their discoveries. Invite them to imagine what people will want from transportation 50 years from now and illustrate their concepts as well. Create a classroom exhibit around this theme. 

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Infographic An infographic showing checkins related to travel in the United States by plane, train, and automobile, covering a period from Halloween until just after Christmas in 2010.
Why Even Sunny Days Can Ground Airplanes Article from Wall Street Journal examining the reasons for the United States’ antiquated and inefficient aviation system 
New Plan Aims to Relieve Travel Congestion Transcript of PBS Newshour interview with former FAA chief of staff, Michael Goldfarb
NextGen Now Website of Port Authority of NY and NJ’s alliance to support NextGen



4. Understands the physical and human characteristics of place9. Understands the nature, distribution and migration of human populations on Earth’s surface14. Understands how human actions modify the physical environment

16.  Understands the changes that occur in the meaning, use, distribution and importance of resources


6. Understands and applies basic and advanced concepts of statistics and data analysis


13. Understands the scientific enterprise

3. Understands the relationships among science, technology, society, and the individual

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