FAA: some NextGen ATC benefits are here

 - September 12, 2006, 8:21 AM

Seeking to dispel common misconceptions that the next-generation air transportation system (NGATS) will not provide benefits to users until 2025, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey told lawmakers that some aspects of the system are already being used or about to be implemented.

Blakey said Alaska Airlines is using required navigation performance (RNP) at Palm Springs (Calif.) International Airport and automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) is being introduced in the Gulf of Mexico following successful testing in Alaska.

The use of RNP at Palm Springs lowered landing minimums at the field and, between January and November last year, allowed 27 Alaska Airlines flights to land there rather than divert more than 70 miles to Ontario International Airport in California. “Given the current state of fuel prices, savings such as this can mean a great deal to an airline’s bottom line, to say nothing of passengers’ schedules and convenience,” Blakey said.

The Gulf of Mexico will be one of the first regions outside Alaska to use ADS-B technology. “We have recently signed a memorandum of agreement with the Helicopter Association International, helicopter operators and oil and gas platform owners in the Gulf of Mexico to improve service in the Gulf,” Blakey told the Senate subcommittee on aviation. “Using ADS-B technology, helicopter operators will transmit critical position information to the Houston [en route] center, enabling unprecedented air traffic control services in the Gulf,” she added.

Aircraft equipped with ADS-B have had a lower accident rate than non-equipped aircraft. From 2000 through 2005, the rate of accidents for ADS-B-equipped aircraft dropped by 49 percent.

According to Blakey, the FAA and the multi-agency Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) have taken a dual-track but complementary approach to developing NGATS, often referred to as NextGen now. Existing technology is providing tangible operational benefits today and helping to lay the foundation for the next-generation system.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned that convincing nonfederal stakeholders that the government is committed to NGATS poses a challenge, because, in the past, the agency has abandoned some modernization efforts before completion.

American Airlines got burned after it invested in datalink communications in some of its aircraft to help test the concept of controller/pilot datalink communications. The FAA canceled that program because of funding cuts.

The GAO said that some aviation stakeholders have expressed concern that the FAA might not follow through on its airspace redesign efforts and, therefore, are hesitant to invest in equipment unless they are sure that the agency will remain committed to its efforts. One expert suggested that the government could mitigate this problem by making an initial investment in a specific technology before requesting that airlines or other industry stakeholders purchase equipment.

Blakey told the lawmakers that the JPDO now serves as a focal point for coordinating the research related to air transportation for a number of federal agencies, including the Departments of Transportation, Commerce, Defense and Homeland Security.

The JPDO created eight government/industry integrated product teams (IPT) to divide the large and complex project into manageable tasks. The teams work with FAA stakeholders to ensure that they can participate in the planning process.

To attract the best minds from both the private and public sectors, the FAA has also established the Next Generation Air Transportation System Institute, which allows stakeholders to get directly involved in the transformation process. The institute is open to participation from all segments of the industry.

Blakey claimed that the NGATS Institute minimizes duplication of effort and resources among federal agencies and maximizes the input of the private sector toward a common goal–the creation of a NextGen system.

Last year, for example, the JPDO, the FAA and an industry team showed how network-enabled concepts developed for the military can be applied to air traffic management. Establishing an initial network-enabled operations (NEO) capability is a top priority for the JPDO and its member agencies.

The joint network-enabled operations security demonstration connected seven existing air traffic management and security systems distributed over 12 different locations. It showed how sharing information across air traffic, air defense and law enforcement domains could improve coordination and help agencies respond to a security incident more efficiently, thereby lessening the need for evacuations and scrambling fighter jets.

“The exciting part of the NEO demonstration is that it enabled communication between agencies’ current networks,” Blakey told the Senate panel, “eliminating the need to throw out all the individual legacy systems and create a brand-new mega-system, which would be prohibitively expensive.”

One of the major products of the JPDO is the development of the “concept of operations” and “enterprise architecture,” she said. These documents define each NextGen function, its requirements and evolution.

The concept of operations outlines what the system will look like, how it will function and what its capabilities will be. The enterprise architecture represents the actual plan for how the NextGen system will be developed. This includes the systems that will be needed, the timing for their deployment and how they will work together.

“Our vision of the NextGen system is not limited to increased airspace capacity,” said Blakey. “Rather, it is one that encompasses the whole air travel experience–from the moment the passenger arrives at the curb of his departure airport to his exit from the destination airport. The NextGen system includes security, safety and efficiency of passenger, cargo and aircraft operations.”

The FAA’s goal in the NextGen initiative, she said, is to develop a system that will be flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of users– very light jets and large commercial aircraft, manned and unmanned aircraft, large and small airports, business and vacation travelers alike– while handling a significantly increasing number of operations with a commensurate improvement in safety, security and efficiency.