NextGen executives told to ‘right-size and review’

atcaDelivery of the $40 billion NextGen switch to satellite-based air traffic control systems will likely remain highly vulnerable to political caprice.

Speaking at this year’s Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) conference and exposition held in Washington D.C., industry leaders took an honest look at the real and potential impact of sequestration on next-generation air traffic management.

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The general consensus was that budgetary uncertainty has become the norm and that the only option for those charged with implementing NextGen was to ‘right-size’ the programme and review priorities once again.

So seriously do Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chiefs view the threat to programme funding that it has already charged the industry-government NextGen Advisory Committee with the task of drafting a list of must-do priorities should further sequestration cuts or House-like appropriations be made.

Addressing the conference, FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker said the complexity of NextGen as a system engineering venture made it impossible to turn on and off at will. “We can’t speed it up or slow it down without sending considerable ripples through the system,” he said.

He added that the FAA had during the last year devoted considerable time to budgeting and furlough planning at the expense of the NextGen programme but that, even so, the aviation agency had managed to reach the final stages of some ‘foundational’ initiatives.

These include En Route Automation Modernisation (ERAM) where 17 of the 20 centres have been upgraded; Advanced Technologies and Oceanic Procedures (ATOP) within oceanic centres and Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) where more than 70 per cent of ground receivers have been installed.

“We remain committed to NextGen in its current schedule, but we need greater fiscal certainty this year and beyond,” said the FAA chief.

Chris Metts from the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization said the agency had not lost its central vision even though it was having to make changes to the path originally envisaged, telling the conference: “We can’t get so locked in on what we need to run the operation today that we miss the demand of mission needs for the future.”

From the air traffic controller viewpoint, the recent government shutdown had proved devastating both in terms of NextGen funding mechanisms but also on morale, reported Trish Gilbert from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

“Confusion inside the FAA is really not a productive thing for our workforce,” Gilbert said. “We all remained very professional throughout, but at some point enough’s enough. Decision-makers seem to see national airspace as a political football.”

Boeing’s vice president of ATM Neil Planzer added that NextGen still lacked a vital focus in terms of defined outcomes. “If you define the outcomes you’re looking for, the priority of the technologies will self-correct.” For Planzer, the focus should have been placed firmly on delivering high capacity traffic increases at the nation’s busiest airports. In that absence, he said the FAA needs to revisit how the tactical applications it has developed fit into the strategic vision.

“We have had a lot of false starts. Southwest put RNP (Required Navigation Performance) on its airplanes yet saw no benefit. When  thinks like that start to happen, airlines start shortening their strategic vision, holding airplanes longer and not equipping them because historically it hasn’t worked out for them,” he said.

Planzer added that the US manufacturing base must also retain the ability to export and not lag behind technologies being developed by other modernisation initiatives such as SESAR in Europe. “Internationally we have to have a level playing field. Things like furloughs tilt the field in the wrong way.”

The leader of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association Paul Rinaldi echoed his comments at a NextGen workshop earlier this summer, where the union chief branded the Sequester ‘a game changer’ that has sparked serious rethinking in labour ranks about how the system should be funded and governed in future.

Posted in News, NextGen

2 Responses to NextGen executives told to ‘right-size and review’

  1. Tim McLauchlin says:

    The only way to significantly increase arrival rates at major airports is to build more runways or reduce separation standards.

  2. Marcelo Pacheco says:

    Nextgen is already a partial reality.
    There are almost three WAAS LPV approaches for each ILS approach in the US airports. Airlines already equipped for LPV report fuel savings, substantial reduction in flight cancellations due to weather, and increased safety (WAAS will make non precision approaches a thing of the past).
    ADS-B implementation is close to 80% done (but covering 95+% of air traffic). By end of summer 2014 99% of controlled airspace traffic should be covered.
    The only key component that I’m yet to see is controller pilot datalink, to end radio frequency congestion (one data link channel has enough capacity for all approach/departure/tower traffic for all airports in the NYC metroplex).
    The largest bottleneck is equipping aircraft with next gen equipment. Specially the major airlines were never big fans of WAAS, because they want SBAS for it’s CAT III capability, but WAAS is far more valuable, because it gives continental coverage thoughout taxi, takeoff, departure, enroute, descent, everything except for CAT II/III approaches.
    The remaining aspects are mostly new procedures for optimizing approaches, that require full airline equipage before they can be mass deployed.
    Of course as long as Tea Party wages its war to destroy government, instead of getting engaged in making government better and more efficient, they are doing zero good to the country, they’re actually just being an evil force on everything they touch.