FAA plans for airspace transformation by 2025

 - October 4, 2006, 8:12 AM

Where will aviation be in 20 years? What will the traffic mix look like in 2025? How many airplanes, how many passengers, how many airports, how many runways? How will we manage it all to achieve even higher levels of safety and security than we have today? And finally, how much will it cost to get there?

These are the sort of broad questions that a small cadre of specialists at the FAA’s Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) have been grappling with, in collaboration with the Departments of Transportation, Defense, Homeland Security, Commerce, NASA, the White House Office of Science and Technology and other experts from government and industry.

Traffic in the U.S. and Europe is expected to double by 2025. And that doesn’t take into account the impact of the very light jets (VLJs). According to the JPDO, if 2 percent of airline passengers opt to switch to four- to six-passenger VLJs by then, the number of aircraft in the system will triple.

Obviously, something has to be done, and in 2003, under its Vision 100 legislation, Congress charged the FAA with defining exactly what could be done and determining how to implement it by 2025. In December the JPDO presented to Congress its integrated plan, called the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NGATS).

The group describes NGATS as a “transformational” process, meaning that its purpose is to transform the whole framework of aviation, rather than simply adding random, un-integrated elements on a piecemeal basis. But surely, some may ask, haven’t we been here before? It’s a fair question. Those of us who have watched aviation evolve over the past decade or two have seen the FAA roll out a number of plans, only to find that the results never quite lived up to initial billing.

In 1981, for example, the agency launched with great fanfare a major 10-year, NAS-wide, ATC modernization program. But after 15 years, and still far from completion, it was classified as a high-risk venture, due to “systemic management problems, organizational culture, cost growth, schedule slippage and performance shortfalls.”

Not unreasonably, perhaps, some wonder whether NGATS isn’t another serving of deja vu. Isn’t it, they ask, just another grand FAA plan?

Well, no, it shouldn’t be, for several reasons. First, the FAA isn’t promoting it as a “big bang” event that, come 2025, will suddenly blossom into a brave new aeronautical world. The FAA showed it had learned its lesson on that score in the late 1990s, when it introduced its Operational Evolution Plan (OEP), with the emphasis on evolution. Now in its seventh year, and based on a rolling 10-year concept, the OEP is moving the NAS ahead by increments rather than large bounds.

The second reason is that NGATS isn’t exclusively an FAA program. Instead, it’s a plan in which Secretary-level participation in a senior policy committee replaces departmental fiefdoms, which are notorious for slowing progress. Of that seven-member committee, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey is the agency’s sole representative.

And the third reason is that planning and execution of NGATS is to be a collaborative effort that will meld government and industry expertise through the recently formed NGATS Institute. This facility, established within the Aerospace Industries Association’s National Center for Advanced Technologies, is co-chaired by the presidents of the Air Traffic Control Association and the Air Transport Association and includes participation from all the major aviation organizations, including NBAA. One of the first tasks for the Institute’s members, which is now under way, is the selection and recruitment of top government and industry specialists to serve on the eight NGATS Integrated Product Teams (IPTs).

The IPTs are where the heavy lifting will be done. They will be responsible for initially planning and then managing the NGATS development, and their individual tasks illustrate the breadth of the concept’s integration:

• develop airport infrastructure to meet future demand;

• establish an effective security system without limiting mobility or civil liberties;

• establish an agile air traffic system;

• establish user-specific situational awareness;

• establish a comprehensive proactive safety management approach;

• develop environmental protection that allows sustained aviation growth;

• develop a system-wide capability to reduce weather effects;

• harmonize equipage and operations globally.

But the IPTs aren’t independent “stovepipes” working in isolation, a process that has hamstrung the FAA in the past. The NGATS charter demands a high level of cross-pollination among IPTs. Most of their taskings are reasonably self-evident, and the full NGATS Integrated Plan, with detailed descriptions of each task, is at www.jdpo.aero.

Finally, global harmonization is essential, since however good the NGATS plan might be, it cannot be solely a U.S. solution. Already, therefore, the JPDO has been working with ICAO, IATA, Eurocontrol, the European Single Sky initiative and other international bodies who are seeking a similar integrated solution to their needs.

Will it all work out? Unquestionably, it will be tough sledding to accomplish all NGATS goals by 2025. Yet the JPDO must succeed.