XM, Raytheon logos
XM, Raytheon logos - 
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KAI RYSSDAL: Those who've been on an airplane this summer know the feeling of dread that comes with a trip to the airport. Overcrowded planes and flight delays have become the norm, not the exception. The Federal Aviation Administration is about to do something that might ultimately help that latter problem. The government plans to award a contract to overhaul the nation's air-traffic-control system by the end of the month. The list of bidders includes companies you'd probably expect. Like defense contractor Lockheed Martin and engineering company ITT. But Marketplace's Lisa Napoli reports there's a not-so-usual suspect on the list too.

Lisa Napoli: The satellite radio company XM figures into one of the bids. The one made by defense contractor Raytheon. Now, what could the purveyor of "superstar country hits of the 80s" have to do with improving air traffic control?

Technology analyst Jimmy Schaeffler says he knows.

Jimmy Schaeffler: The XM ingredient involves using XM Satellites to track weather fronts which they've been doing for a long, long time.

Providing weather data to the cockpit is just one piece of the complex air-traffic-control system upgrade. Going from the antiquated analogue system to a digital one will speed up communications in the skies, and route traffic more quickly. That'll supposedly help accommodate flight volume that's going to swell. The number of people flying is expected to double by the year 2025.

And Paul Takemoto of the Federal Aviation Administration says because of that, the $20 billion upgrade is essential. He says test programs have also shown it's safer.

Paul Takemoto: With satellites the signal is much more precise, it's much more accurate. And that allows us to safely reduce the separation standards.

That's aviation-speak for how close airplanes can fly. The closer they can fly, the more planes there can be in the skies to relieve some of the gridlock. No matter who gets the contract from the government sometime in the next week, don't expect any immediate relief. All this upgrading is going to be gradual. It'll take 20 years.

In Los Angeles, I'm Lisa Napoli for Marketplace.