NGATS focus of FAA workshop

 - January 19, 2007, 9:18 AM

At the FAA’s two-day New Technology Workshop last month, the focus was sharply on the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NGATS). The key enablers to get there, according to Nick Sabatini, FAA associate administrator for aviation safety, will be “performance-based” navigation and Internet-like access to critical information such as near real-time weather. With those tools, he stated, “pilots will make precision landings at airports that do not have control towers, radar, or instrument landing systems.”

NGATS will also bring about an aircraft-centric future, in which the air traffic system would “reward” more capable aircraft by allowing them greater operating flexibility, and where the traditional “first come, first served” philosophy could be supplemented by a system that offers priority to the best equipped aircraft. The latter category was defined as meeting advanced performance-based standards in the three areas of required navigation, surveillance and communications performance. Combined, these will meet the broader standard of required total system performance, with ADS-B the key surveillance element. That system is planned for mandatory equipage by 2020.
Sabatini also noted that in the future ATC will become less of a “control” function. That is a particularly interesting comment, since the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca) has become a member of the board of the NGATS Institute, which guides the organization’s agenda. Until now, Natca, under the leadership of John Carr, had declined invitations to join the board. One attendee observed that Natca’s new management undoubtedly recognized that being excluded from any future planning activity was not in the association’s best interests.

Several presentations at the workshop made it clear that LPV, Rnav and RNP procedures will become dominant in the future, where traditional airways, terrestrial navaids and nonprecision approaches will eventually disappear, superseded by trajectory-based flight plans, coupled with 4-D path management and linked to continuous descent arrivals.

The FAA is accelerating its Rnav and RNP development and publication processes and, in response to business aviation needs, has launched a series of procedures to airports not along the airlines’ mainstream routes. The current production schedule for these procedures is available online at

NGATS officials expect that the system’s formal concept of operations–the roadmap to the future–will be published in the spring and will mark the commencement of the transition from the earlier development planning activity to the pre-implementation phase. The aim of the concept of operations is straightforward: it will take us from today’s NAS to tomorrow’s NGATS, to handle the tripling of traffic forecast to take place by 2025.

As always, the availability of funding is the driving element. NGATS receives money not just from the FAA but also informal funding from several separate federal government bodies, each of which has its own more important non-aviation program priorities. Charles Leader, NGATS director within the FAA’s Joint Planning and Development Office, said that Fiscal Year 2008 will be “a critical investment period” for NGATS.

Europe, which expects a similar increase in traffic, is moving in a parallel direction, with its Single European Sky ATM Research (Sesar) program. Alexander Hendriks, Eurocontrol’s deputy director for air traffic management, forecast a total, and mandatory, performance-based environment by 2015. All VORs and NDBs will be withdrawn by 2020, and all runway ends will have LPV approaches, many to Category I. These will be supported by Europe’s Galileo satnav and/or GPS augmented by Europe’s EGNOS, essentially the equivalent of WAAS in the U.S.

But Europe’s ILS installations will be unable to support major increases in traffic demand under the continent’s frequent low-visibility Category II/III conditions. This is due to the extended approach spacing imposed to avoid localizer signal distortions caused by reflections from preceding aircraft. Consequently, Eurocontrol will begin MLS Category II/III operations this year, since MLS is immune to that problem. GPS and Galileo are also immune to signal reflections, but Eurocontrol landing system specialists believe satnav Category II/III will not be available before at least 2020.