FAA planners begin the task of identifying solutions to gridlock

 - September 19, 2006, 10:32 AM

With rare unanimity, aviation experts have agreed over the past few years on one thing: traffic will at least double, and perhaps even triple, by 2025. There has also been clear consensus that, at least in the U.S. and Europe, the current aviation infrastructure won’t be able to accommodate that level of demand, which would lead to daily gridlock at major centers. As a result, in its 2003 Vision 100 legislation, Congress charged the FAA and DOT with identifying the root causes of the problems and developing solutions.

The first step in the process was to expand the FAA’s existing Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) into a multi-agency organization, which included the Departments of Transportation, Defense, Homeland Security, Commerce, NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Once established, staffed and funded, the JPDO launched into the task of developing the next-generation air transportation system (NGATS), to be fully implemented by 2025. In March, the JPDO presented its first progress report to Congress.

The report explains that the development of NGATS will be a long and challenging process, designed to address “the most significant limitations to growth in the current air transportation system.” These include “runway capabilities, the inherent limitations of ground-based control of en route and terminal airspace and the vulnerability of the system to weather.”

The report points out that 60 percent  of today’s weather delays, which cost the industry more than $6 billion annually, “are now being attributed to potentially avoidable weather situations.” NGATS is aimed at allowing airports to maintain the same rate of arrivals and departures during instrument-based operations as during visual flight conditions, with the only exceptions being in extreme weather conditions.

A Slow Transition

But NGATS will not be an overnight “big bang” event in 2025. Rather, there will be a gradual transformation, one, in fact, that is already under way. Recently introduced systems such as RNP and ADS-B are expected to play key roles, with a number of other systems, such as more advanced versions of today’s “net-centric” data messaging and new weather reporting and forecasting techniques, being introduced as they meet NGATS requirements.

In addition, JPDO specialists are charged with examining the potential of future technologies that have not yet been fully developed but could, later in the program, yield benefits.

The important–and some say critical–difference between NGATS and previous major FAA airspace improvement initiatives is that the JPDO specialists who are developing the NGATS requirements are a mix of government personnel and private industry experts from the user, manufacturer, support and other civil disciplines.

The JPDO has established eight integrated product teams (IPTs) that will investigate problem areas within their assigned mandates, study and recommend solutions, and then manage their development and monitor their implementation. So far, the JPDO has recruited more than 200 specialists for the IPTs. NBAA is well represented, as are almost all the aviation-industry groups except the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which opted not to participate.

IPT guidance is provided by the NGATS Institute, a high-level government/industry body, along with a senior policy committee representing the heads of the various federal departmental and agency participants. FAA Administrator Marion Blakey is the DOT/ FAA representative. The senior policy committee’s main function is to provide continuing government oversight and, equally important, to ensure uninterrupted funding.

Europe’s Eurocontrol organization is also involved, but at the JPDO level, since Europe is developing its NGATS-like Sesar (for single European sky ATM research) it is essential that the two programs remain compatible.

Yet while the NGATS concept is a long way from complete definition, some of the report’s observations on future scenarios are of interest. The traditional “first come, first served” philosophy, for example, will be replaced by performance-based service tiers, “rewarding intelligent aircraft for their high-tech capabilities.” In the report’s words, “In NGATS…one size does not fit all.”

Similarly, those intelligent aircraft can, within the next 10 years, expect to be able to maintain their own separation in airport areas, reduced separations in other parts of the airspace, and during converging and closely separated approaches in what the report describes as “super density” operations.

Eventually, flight plans will be filed as 4-D trajectories from takeoff to landing and assessed for acceptance after comparison with other filed trajectories by conflict-recognition automation. Required navigation performance will be augmented by communications and surveillance performance to meet new required total system performance (RTSP) standards.