Speakers: Political Winds Threaten NextGen Effort

 - November 4, 2013, 11:10 AM
The FAA remains committed to the current NextGen schedule, said Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker. (Photo: ATCA)

Delivery of the $40 billion NextGen ATC modernization will likely remain highly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of politics unless those charged with implementing the system work to protect its funding streams, senior industry leaders told the recent Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) conference and exposition.

Speakers at the conference, held last month in National Harbor, Md., near Washington D.C., took an honest look at the real and potential impact of “sequestration” federal budget cuts on next-generation air traffic management in the U.S. Most agreed that budgetary uncertainty has become the norm, and that regulators must “rightsize” NextGen and commit to continuously reviewing its priorities. So seriously does the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) view the threat to program funding that it has charged the industry-government NextGen Advisory Committee (NAC) with the task of drafting a list of must-do NextGen priorities in the event of further sequestration cuts or reduced appropriations. (The FAA planned a “deep dive” meeting on November 1 to consider the NAC recommendations.)

FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker said the complexity of NextGen as a systems engineering venture makes it impossible to turn the program on and off at will. “We can’t speed it up or slow it down without sending considerable ripples through the system,” he said. “We remain committed to NextGen in its current schedule, but we need greater fiscal certainty this year and beyond.”

Whitaker told delegates that the FAA has devoted considerable time to budgeting and employee furlough planning at the expense of the NextGen program. Even so, the agency has achieved real progress in some foundational NextGen initiatives. Examples include deployment of the en route automation modernization (Eram) system to 17 of the 20 en route ATC centers; the Advanced Technologies and Oceanic Procedures (Atop) upgrade of oceanic centers in New York, California and Alaska; and the installation of more than 70 percent of the transceivers needed for the automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) ground network.

Chris Metts, FAA Air Traffic Organization vice president of program management, told the conference that the agency has not lost its central vision even though it needs to change the path originally envisioned. “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,” he said.

From the controller viewpoint, the recent federal government shutdown proved devastating both in terms of NextGen funding and morale, said Trish Gilbert, National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca) executive vice president.

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

Boeing vice president of air traffic management Neil Planzer added that NextGen risks failure because it lacks vital focus in terms of defined outcomes. “If you define the outcomes you’re looking for, the priority of the technologies will self-correct,” he noted.

For Planzer, accommodating traffic increases at the nation’s airports should take priority. He said the FAA needs to revisit how the tactical applications it has developed will fit into a NextGen strategic vision. “We have had a lot of false starts,” he said. “Southwest put RNP [required navigation performance] on its airplanes yet saw no benefit. When things like that happen, airlines start shortening their strategic vision, holding airplanes longer and not equipping them because historically it hasn’t worked out for them.”

Planzer added that the U.S. manufacturing base must also retain the ability to export, offering the same technologies under development for other modernization initiatives such as Sesar in Europe. “Internationally, we have to have a level playing field,” he stressed. “Things like furloughs tilt the field the wrong way.”

Natca president Paul Rinaldi also echoed his comments made at a NextGen workshop earlier this summer, where the union chief branded the sequester “a game changer” that has sparked serious rethinking in labor ranks about how lawmakers should fund and govern the system in the future.