Flight ops role overlooked in NextGen

NextGen architects are failing to include the vital role of airline flight operations centres in planning how US airspace will be managed in future.

The new report from NextGen agency, the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPOD) is called Flight Operations Centers, Transforming NextGen Air Traffic Management. It finds that while many of the stated NextGen capabilities and operational improvements are not pos­sible without the flight operations centre, its actual role is de-emphasized or omitted entirely from NextGen planning documents.

“The study team concluded that greater involvement will ensure that NextGen development produces results that are markedly better for the broader transportation system. However, failure to recognise the evolving impor­tance of the flight operations centre will limit NextGen to tactical, individual flight-focused, sub-optimal operations,” warned the report.

The report recommends better involvement in NextGen planning and development processes as a means of achieving broader system benefits and en­suring a proper focus is placed on transforming the air transportation system.

The report also found that lessons learned from ongo­ing efforts such as Collaborative Decision Making (CDM) have not been incorporated into NextGen documents in the form of research areas or operational improvements.

“The overall goal is to identify opportu­nities for making broader system improvements through expanded NextGen interaction. This expansion represents a new form of cooperative partnership that can accelerate implementation of NextGen capabilities, reduce programme risk, and improve return on investment,” said the JPOD.

Experts from industry and government, including major air carri­ers and regional airlines, the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), Department of Defense (DOD), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), partici­pated in a series of workshops driven by a core team led by industry and the FAA.

During the 10-month process, participants explored the role of the operations centre in the NextGen Implementation Plan (NGIP) and the JPDO’s Joint Plan­ning Environment (JPE). Areas where their involvement was found to be too minimal include:

  • Finding 1: The current NextGen approach is focused on Air Traffic Control (ATC) modernisation rather than National Airspace System (NAS) transformation. This is evident in NextGen’s individual flight- and pilot-controller emphasis, and the lack of a system focus. Specifically, Trajectory-based Operations (TBO), the key operating paradigm of NextGen, lacks full consideration of centre decision processes. The centre’s role is key to initiating trajectories. The centre should also play an important role in the Air Traffic Management (ATM) process throughout the lifecycle of the flight.
  • Finding 2: Today’s FAA planning horizon is not sufficiently strategic and lacks continuity across the decision-making process. As reflected in NextGen planning documents, NextGen does not improve upon this current limitation.
  • Finding 3: There is no clarity on how scarce National Airspace System (NAS) resources will be rationed in the NextGen environment. The strengths and weaknesses of today’s methods of resource rationing have been documented through the CDM processes, yet the vital need to repair these weaknesses is not addressed in NextGen planning documents. In NextGen, it remains unclear what the right rationing mechanisms are when NAS resources (e.g., airport and airspace capacity) become constrained, or how NextGen prioritises flights.
  • Finding 4: The rules and content for data sharing are not clearly defined. While NextGen stresses the importance of ‘distributed decision making’, increased user focus, and provisioning information to users, the current NGIP does not address the data availability, rules, and related processes that will be required to bring this to fruition.
  • Finding 5: There is a lack of appreciation for and incorporation of the role of the centre to ensure the success of the FAA Data Communications (Data Comm) programme.

Opportunities for making a course correction in NextGen through greater operations centre interaction include:.

  • Recommendation 1: Involve the centres upfront and continually in NextGen planning and implementation activities. This should include direct participation in concept exploration, development, and verification and validation processes, as well as operational trials and demonstrations. Specifically, centre decision processes need to be directly integrated into TBO planning documents and related tests and experiments.
  • Recommendation 2: Expand the present FAA planning horizon to improve strategic decision making. This should be implemented progressively. The associated data sharing and procedural changes needed to implement the expanded planning horizon should also be developed.
  • Recommendation 3: Determine and implement clear and improved rationing mechanisms for NAS resources that become scarce. NextGen should leverage lessons learned from CDM and ensure that rationing mechanisms provide proper incentives for demand reduction, address equity issues, and provide operators with fleet and system optimization-enabling mechanisms
  • Recommendation 4: Expand and formalise data sharing. Uniform rules for data sharing should be developed that address roles, responsibilities, quality, timing, and governance. Formalising rules for protecting proprietary data, accessing System Wide Information Management (SWIM), and standardising all data-sharing activities are related activities that are also needed.
  • Recommendation 5: Broaden the perspective on Data Communications. NextGen Data Communications should be expanded beyond pilot/controller interaction by leveraging the experience, capabilities, and infrastructure of the centres. The FAA Data Communications Program Office should reach out to the community and create an Operations Centre/ATC data link communications working group as a means to this end. The centres should also be involved directly in developing the processes and procedures to handle data link messages between controllers and the flight deck.
  • Recommendation 6: Conduct collaborative experiments with centres. Important NextGen experiments and trials (e.g., Greener Skies, NextGen Test Bed, JetBlue Other Transaction Agreement [OTA]) should continue but with greater operations centre involvement. Additional NextGen experiments should be constructed and conducted with specific FOC focus.

Suggested experiments with this focus include:

  • Improving data-sharing processes and data
  • Developing enabling capabilities for an expanded, planning time horizon
  • Exploring the concept of an improved “unifying” approach to resource rationing
  • Developing and implementing collaborative system metrics
  • Concept exploration and development of the role of the operations centre in trajectory negotiation in a TBO environment

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