GAO Sees Progress and Limitations for NextGen

 - April 15, 2013, 2:35 PM
Innovative Solutions & Support will retrofit an advanced flight management system and primary flight displays on Delta Air Lines MD-88s, shown here, and MD-90s. This will help prepare the older aircraft for operations in the NextGen ATC environment. (Photo: IS&S)

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has made progress in delivering some of the operational improvements that are envisioned by the NextGen ATC modernization effort. But to demonstrate those improvements sooner, the agency has also made “trade-offs” that could limit their overall benefit to airlines in the coming years, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

In an April report to Congress, the GAO analyzed the FAA’s planned efforts covering the NextGen “midterm” period of 2013 to 2018. The FAA, the watchdog agency said, is concentrating its efforts at key airports, primarily by implementing “performance-based” navigation (PBN) procedures such as required navigation performance (RNP) approaches that save time and reduce fuel and emissions. The main effort to deliver PBN procedures is the Optimization of Airspace and Procedures in the Metroplex (OAPM) initiative, which focuses on major airports within busy metropolitan areas, or “metroplexes,” that have a large effect on the overall National Airspace System. Another major effort is the “Greener Skies over Seattle” program to implement RNP approaches and “optimized profile descents” into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

The FAA’s strategy for the midterm period draws from the 2009 recommendations of an RTCA industry-government advisory committee known as Task Force 5. That group expressed a preference for using already available aircraft equipment and procedures that would enable a quicker return on investment to achieve NextGen capabilities. Similarly, the FAA has put off implementing more time-consuming procedures such as ones that could trigger lengthy environmental reviews, the GAO said. “To deliver benefits more quickly and avoid some obstacles that have hampered prior NextGen efforts, the FAA has made trade-offs in selecting sites and the scope of proposed improvements, concentrating on those projects that can demonstrate some benefits in the midterm and leaving more time-consuming but potentially higher benefit-yielding projects for the longer term,” the agency said.

The FAA must convince airlines to make the necessary investments in equipment and training for NextGen to succeed, but thus far it has provided limited data to demonstrate the benefits, according to the GAO. The FAA estimates that airlines will need to invest $6.6 billion in avionics through 2018–its share of the $18 billion overall cost of implementing operational improvements. “Without greater certainty on when and where NextGen improvements are planned, airlines and others are unlikely to invest in the equipage (and conduct the associated staffing and training) that will help achieve the full benefits of NextGen implementation,” the GAO said.

Airlines are nevertheless making some of the necessary investments, often with support from the FAA. On April 4, US Airways announced that the FAA had certified its use on Airbus A330s of automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) “In” applications of the ACSS “SafeRoute” software suite. The 20 A330s involved in the program will be fitted for ADS-B In/Out capabilities by the end of October, according to ACSS.

Also on April 4, Innovative Solutions & Support said that it had received a $60 million order from Delta Air Lines to retrofit Delta’s MD-88s and MD-90s with a new flight management system and primary flight displays, enabling RNP, ADS-B and datalink operations required for NextGen.