Stand & Deliver

Andrew Charlton interviews Edward L Bolton Jr, assistant administrator for NextGen, the multi-billion dollar effort to overhaul US air traffic management

The task of making NextGen real has often been described as having to change the tyres of a car as it speeds down the highway. Tricky, to say the least. That is not how Ed Bolton, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) assistant administrator for the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), sees it.

“Not at all,” he says. “We are lucky that the National Airspace System (NAS) is so big – that is an advantage, not a disadvantage. It means that we can do it one piece at a time. We can start with some easy steps, in quiet areas, and then move on to the bigger pieces in the busier parts of the NAS, using what we learned to make each step better.”

The FAA also can work out most issues long before new technologies and procedures are implemented in the field during testing at labs that can replicate every part of the NAS, located at the FAA’s Technical Center in New Jersey.

“The process works. We focus on proper design and execution, we deliver the new element, including any procedure changes and then we examine what we did, what the change did and what we can do to make that happen better and renew our processes.”

Bolton leads NextGen, the initiative to make air travel safer, more efficient and greener for decades to come. NextGen is already delivering some benefits with more efficient flight paths into and out of busy airports, a satellite system that increases situational awareness in ways that radar cannot, and better information sharing and collaborative decision-making.

Bolton started his job in September 2013, just as automatic budget cuts – or sequestration – which impacted much of the US Federal Government’s activities were about to take effect. He had recently retired from more than three decades in the United States Air Force (USAF). There, his last job was as deputy assistant secretary for Budget, in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Financial Management and Comptroller. He led a team of financial managers responsible for the Air Force’s $110 billion annual budget for an organisation of nearly 700,000 personnel.

Achiever

Bolton retired from the USAF as a major general, and with a reputation for getting things done. ‘I have to admit that I did not fully understand the task at hand when I first took the job’ at the FAA, he said in an interview with Air Traffic Management. ‘But it is going far better than I have the right to expect,’ he adds.

‘It is all about building team success. To do that you need to work across the various parts of the FAA – a wonderful organisation, but complex – and to ensure transparency. We have created cross-FAA teams that include people from our safety area, our operations area and our NextGen implementation area. That way, we focus on what matters, we do it properly and there are no surprises. We work toward a common goal. You can see that collaboration at work. No surprises, focused, done.”

“That is a credit to Teri Bristol, the chief operating officer for air traffic, and associate administrator for aviation safety Peggy Gilligan, who lead those areas. They get it, and building and maintaining these teams is something I am proud of. It is a team success,” says Bolton. “That’s why we are able to say that NextGen is happening now. So many benefits are being delivered today and there are more to come in the future.”

Bolton says improvements to the airspace will come in phases.

‘We work in three timeframes. There are the one to three year out issues that we need to address now. Then, there are the 2018-2020 timeframe issues. Finally, we need to look beyond that. What will happen after NextGen? We need to stay focussed on all three of these areas. That is why the transparency and the cross-functionality are so important,” he adds.

That is not to say that there are not challenges ahead. “The big areas we need to work on include Data Communication, Performance Based Navigation (PBN), surface movement and multiple runway operations,” Bolton notes. “Data Comm is important internationally. Interoperability is vital to everything we do in ATM, and on Data Comm, I am sure we can get there. We are on the right path. We will map out convergence and make it happen.”

“We have some wonderful assets to help us in that,” adds Bolton, who also oversees the FAA’s Technical Center, the international leader in aviation research. ‘At our Tech Center, we have a wonderful team. Add to that NASA, and the support we get from our unions, and we have the resources to address any issues. I would also like to pay tribute to our industry partners. This truly is a team effort.”

Asked what his biggest challenge is Bolton was sure and to the point. “We have to keep on working on building the collaboration we have both inside the FAA and outside it, we have to keep on building momentum and we have to stay in sync with the industry.”

Measure

Metrics, or finding agreed measures for the work being done, is another area that has received a lot of attention. There has been some criticism that the NextGen work has been focused on activities undertaken rather than outcomes achieved. Bolton does not agree.

“The time for that will come. Performance metrics alone don’t get the job done. Now, we are all about getting the work done and delivering benefits. There can be no performance unless we focus now on the activity that needs to be done. It is completely appropriate that we monitor and measure the work that we are doing. That is critical for future success.”

To Bolton, the issue comes back to transparency. “As I mentioned before, if everybody knows what you are doing, and how and why you are doing it, and how you are doing it, it is easier to keep everyone on-board and focused on the end goal of the most safe and efficient airspace possible. That includes our staff, industry and the airlines. That really is our biggest challenge.”

Another area that has been tense in the past is the relationship with the airlines. Bolton does not see it that way. He regularly meets with airlines, pilots, and other stakeholders, including the airline trade association Airlines For America (A4A). “A4A members acknowledge that this is our ‘Last, best, chance’ to make this happen. There is no doubt that the airspace users, the airlines, want this to succeed.”

“We have agreed to regular meetings, to make sure that there is that transparency we need. I would describe them as supportive, but sceptical, at this stage. Naturally, they are focused on their bottom line. I understand that and appreciate their point of view.”

Surely they are more focused on performance issues? “Of course, but it comes back to this, and I think they acknowledge this too – if we succeed they succeed.”

Posted in CAAs/ANSPs, Features, NextGen

One Response to Stand & Deliver

  1. Diacen K Ndiaga says:

    This is great, that is the faith and the zeal that has always transformed the aviation industry for good.Kudos FAA and the team.