U.S. and Europe plan ‘seamless’ ATC

 - September 27, 2006, 12:50 PM

At the Farnborough Air Show this summer, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey and European Commission (EC) vice president Jacques Barrot signed a memorandum of understanding to enhance cooperation toward developing compatible, “seamless” air traffic management systems. The agreement formalizes previously informal exchanges between U.S. and European specialists working on the next-generation air transportation system (NGATS) and single European sky ATM research (Sesar) initiatives, respectively.

Both groups recognize that traffic will at least double by 2025. They also agree that, at least in the U.S. and Europe, the current aviation infrastructure cannot accommodate that level of demand and that if it is not changed, major airports on both continents would face daily gridlock and delays.

The FAA’s Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) has been working on NGATS concepts for several years, while Sesar is still in the early planning stage. The Europeans expect to have a master plan in 2008, followed by development and deployment phases.

In comparison, the JPDO has already decided on several key NGATS elements and is moving ahead with their implementation. Most recent was the commitment to a nationwide ADS-B environment, with estimated lifetime costs of around $2 billion and installations beginning in 2009 or 2010 and completion forecast by 2015.

Other major programs under way are the $2.1 billion en route automation modernization (ERAM) and the $2.4 billion FAA telecommunications infrastructure (FTI) projects, aimed at totally replacing today’s ATC en route computer network and renewing the nationwide aviation communications system, respectively.

The FAA also intends to field its currently unpriced system-wide information management (Swim) network, which will provide real-time data to everyone from pilots and controllers to ramp vehicle drivers.

Finding Program Funding
The final cost of the “transformation” to NGATS is unclear, although some estimates have been as high as $21 billion.

The FAA’s capital budget is becoming stretched to the limit with ERAM and FTI, causing the agency to move to a “performance-based” contract for its forthcoming ADS-B procurement. Here, the FAA will simply “buy” certified signals in space from ground stations built, owned and operated by the winning bidder.

Despite such economies,  NGATS funding will be an ongoing concern of the JPDO, which, financed by a number of U.S. agencies, lacks long-term commitments from any of them.

Europe’s Sesar program will likely be funded and directed in a different way. European officials have proposed that its incremental cost over the current system could be funded by the EC, Eurocontrol and the user community, each of which could contribute one-third of the cost. This appears acceptable to participants, since Sesar’s configuration and technologies are being largely proposed by the user community, putting Sesar on a more secure financial footing than NGATS.

Funding issues aside, the FAA/EC agreement is a vital first step toward ensuring a future ATC environment that uses standard procedures and protocols and enhances operator efficiency in the crowded skies ahead.