NextGen Debate Takes Center Stage at RAA Convention

 - May 13, 2013, 10:55 AM
RAA vice president Scott Foose engages with a pilot following a panel discussion on the coming shortage of qualified cockpit crew. (Photo: Gregory Polek)

As the Regional Airline Association gathered its membership in Montreal from May 6 to 9 for its first-ever annual convention held outside the U.S., few among the RAA braintrust could set aside thoughts of events back home in Washington, D.C. In fact, what many consider the FAA’s bungled effort to advance the Next Generation Air Traffic Control system, or NextGen, took top billing among the various panel discussions held at the Palais des Congres de Montreal, where the RAA saw some 1,400 visitors pass through the turnstiles.

NextGen panel moderator and CEO of Air Wisconsin Jim Rankin set the tone for the conversation during his introductory remarks, when he compared the progress made on today’s ATC technology to the standard set in 1984 with the emergence of the telefax machine. “In 2013 the system is managed in the same way,” said Rankin. “[The technology] has evolved, but not at the speed in has evolved in other aspects of everybody’s lives.”

Rankin asked the members of the panel for their opinions on why NextGen hasn’t evolved as quickly as most “stakeholders” would like. Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice president of air traffic management Neil Planzer hearkened to the days when planners envisioned a tripling of traffic capacity. “Clearly that’s not achievable,” said Planzer, who noted that expectations have “morphed” into hopes of efficiency gains. “We haven’t reduced separation [and] we haven’t seen capacity gains,” he added. “It hasn’t reduced costs for the FAA…there aren’t any fewer radars or navaids…NextGen brings us hope but not anywhere near the return on investment yet.”

In defense of the FAA, ICAO’s air navigation bureau director, Nancy Graham, characterized the U.S. system “incredibly safe” and “pretty damned efficient.” She did agree with Planzer on the need to clear the bureaucracy from the NextGen effort, and likened the challenge the FAA faces to that of the Internal Revenue Service’s IT woes.

“I think the U.S. Congress needs to get off its duff,” said Graham.

Leading another panel discussion on May 7, RAA vice president Scott Foose suggested that government should also play a role in addressing the coming shortage of pilots. Of course, the airlines need to play a more active role themselves by offering clear career paths through efforts such as Cape Air’s University Gateway Program. Sitting beside Gateway Program manager and Cape Air captain Krista Poppe on the panel, University of North Dakota professor and aviation department chair Kent Lovelace cited findings by a UND survey showing that 35 percent of young people asked what incentives would convince them to pursue a professional piloting career ranked salaries first, while 20 percent cited lifestyle and family concerns and another 13 percent named schedules. However, Lovelace cautioned against underestimating the influence of the profession’s waning prestige as well. Meanwhile, today’s young people express more concern with maintaining close ties with family and friends than prospective pilots did even 15 years ago, said Lovelace. “Lifestyle is a bigger issue than cost [of training] I think,” he concluded.