Despite mixed signals, DOT lauds next-gen NAS

 - March 16, 2007, 9:29 AM

At about the same time Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta was announcing plans for a “next-generation air transportation system” to the Washington Aero Club in late January, word was filtering out of the White House that the Bush Administration wanted to cut the FAA’s facilities and equipment (F&E) budget for fiscal year 2005 by almost half a billion dollars.

Never mind that any proposal to reduce F&E funding is likely to meet stiff resistance from a Congress that clearly remembers the near-gridlocked ATC system during spring/summer 2000, the timing nevertheless seemed a bit odd.

Asked about it at a DOT budget briefing several days later, Mineta tossed the ball to FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, who said her agency would look at the F&E budget “with an eye to priority, both on broad issues of safety and capacity and, at the same time, putting a priority on those programs that are already under way.” She admitted that some previous ATC modernization efforts–such as the local-area augmentation system (LAAS), next generation communications system (Nexcom) and controller/pilot datalink communications (CPDLC)–would have to be deferred.
In his speech at the Aero Club, Mineta claimed he “galvanized America’s energies” to design the next-generation air transportation system. He described it as a cleaner, quieter system based on 21st-century technology that will offer seamless security and added capacity to relieve congestion, as well as secure the nation’s place as the global leader in aviation’s second century.

“I am investing my personal time in this initiative because of its critical importance to the future of U.S. aviation,” said Mineta, who chaired the National Civil Aviation Review Commission in 1997 when he was with Lockheed Martin. “I’ve sat down with my counterparts in the Cabinet to enlist their support. And I chair the Senior Policy Committee that provides oversight of the project.”

Represented on the Senior Policy Committee, along with the DOT, are NASA and the Departments of Commerce, Defense and Homeland Security. “The objective is nothing less than creating a unified vision of what our air-transportation system can and should deliver for the next generation,” Mineta said.

According to the DOT Secretary, the next-generation air transportation system initiative will harness technology in a way that triples the capacity of the nation’s aviation system over the next 15 to 20 years. Coupled with the forthcoming modernization of GPS, onboard aircraft technologies will provide even higher levels of safety and security.

“So I have challenged my department to develop a comprehensive strategy to promote technology that will help reduce future air traffic delays, improve airport management and maximize the safety and efficiency of our nation’s aviation system,” said Mineta.

The FAA has already established a joint planning and development office (JPDO), a multi-agency organization created under the FAA reauthorization bill that President Bush signed late last year. The JPDO, Mineta said, is developing “the ideas and technologies that will take us to the aviation system of the future.”

Citing the importance of leadership, Mineta told the Aero Club that Dr. John Hamre will begin a two-year term as chairman of the FAA’s Research, Engineering and Development Advisory Committee (REDAC), which will be the chief advisor to the FAA on modernization of the National Airspace System.

Mineta conceded that the U.S. is being challenged in manufacturing and in satellite positioning and navigation services as Europe develops Galileo. “We can work with our international partners to develop an interoperable aviation system that increases mobility,” he said. “Or we can refuse to engage, refuse to lead and thereby let others set the rules of the world’s skyways.”

He said airport construction projects added 4 percent in capacity last year, with new runways commissioned in Denver, Miami, Houston and Orlando, Fla. Seven new runways at various airports and a runway extension in Cleveland will result in another 6.5-percent capacity increase over the next five years.

Meanwhile, in the next two years the FAA plans seven new control towers; six new Tracons; new advanced radar systems at 12 airports; standard terminal automation replacement systems (Stars) at 16 airports; and advanced weather satelllite/radar systems at four major hubs.

But Mineta warned that any successes realized through Vision 100 and the FAA’s Operational Evolution Plan will not be sufficient to accommodate the air-transportation market 15 or 20 years from now. “Whether it’s unmanned aerial vehicles or microjets and jet-taxi service, we do know that the system of the future will involve a great many more operations than we have today,” he said. “The changes that are coming are too big, too fundamental for incremental adaptations of the infrastructure.”