‘NextGen’ avionics could cost users up to $20 billion

 - June 1, 2007, 10:42 AM

While preparing for traffic to double and perhaps even triple in the coming decades, the FAA has made clear that putting up the ground-based infrastructure to support that traffic will be expensive, ultimately costing billions of dollars. In his May 9 Congressional testimony before the House subcommittee on aviation on the future of air traffic control modernization, FAA Deputy Administrator Robert Sturgill stated that preliminary estimates to achieve the end state NextGen system range from $15 billion to $22 billion. However, until recently the agency had not provided an estimate of how much operators will pay to be in compliance with the demands of the brave new NextGen world.

Sturgill told the committee that Mitre–the agency’s major think tank–working in conjunction with FAA officials, had concluded that the most probable range of total avionics costs to system users would be $14 billion to $20 billion. Mitre had, however, cautioned that a wide range of costs was possible, depending on the bundl-ing of avionics and the alignment of equipage schedules, and explained that the range reflected uncertainty about equipage costs for individual aircraft, the number of very light jets that will operate in high-performance airspace and the amount of time out of service required for equipage installation.

Nevertheless, even allowing these various qualifications, these are big numbers. In fact, even if the cost to operators is 50 percent less than the agency estimates, aircraft operators will be expected to shell out a fair amount of money to become mainstream players by the time NextGen’s target “end state” date of 2025 rolls around.

However, many questions about implementation remain. Nobody yet knows what onboard systems will be required. Also a question mark is whether the FAA will require those systems–as is proposed for ADS-B–or whether, under the agency’s future “performance-based” philosophy, operators will be able to assess the costs and benefits and decide for themselves whether to install the equipment.

NextGen was among the topics on the agenda at the annual Integrated Communications, Navigation and Surveillance (I-CNS) Conference held at Dulles the week before Sturgill’s Congressional testimony. At that event, speakers from the FAA and Mitre described the difficulties in pinning down future requirements and standards in the coming era of change, where the operational concepts of today’s NAS will be dramatically reshaped.

The Roadmap Approach
In moving to new concepts, the FAA has adopted a roadmap approach, typified by the agency’s Rnav/RNP roadmap, which sets out the reasons for the policy, explains its operational benefits and provides rulemaking guidance and the planned implementation timeline. As the plans for the several separate components of NextGen reach maturity, they will also produce similar roadmaps. At the I-CNS Conference, the speakers announced that an Aircraft Roadmap, which deals with equipage, is currently under way, with the participation of NBAA, GAMA, ATA and AOPA.

But the task is not an easy one. Currently, the Joint Planning & Development Office (JDPO) has identified more than 170 operational improvements that NextGen is expected to bring; more than half of these will affect the user community. Each of the aircraft-relevant operational improvements must be examined for their impact on aircraft functions or equipment, and any discrepancies or conflicts resolved.
In addition, it can be expected that roadmaps developed for various NextGen parts will not necessarily mesh together when brought into the umbrella Enterprise Architecture, promised for later this year.

As a result, the I-CNS speakers cautioned that the first edition of the Aircraft Roadmap, to be issued in conjunction with the Architecture, would necessarily
be basic, dealing primarily with its future intent to become a comprehensive document. They emphasized, however, that it would not be an avionics buyers’ guide
to what different operators will require. Rather, it would be similar in scope to the FAA’s current Rnav/RNP roadmap.

But each new system required for Next-Gen will require policy, guidance material and standards, with the standards development depending on a system’s maturity and its place in the overall implementation strategy. In that regard, the most essential aspect of the Aircraft Roadmap is that it be closely correlated with the FAA’s NextGen timing. This includes implementation decisions, key aircraft and operational research, and certification standards for new capabilities.

So when should the widespread transition to new avionics start? Probably with ADS-B when contiguous U.S. coverage nears completion around 2015, although some corporate operators will likely have moved to RNP, FMS RTA and other
new technologies before then. Enhanced vision, 4-D trajectories and other more advanced systems–some only in development today–are expected to follow later.
If all proceeds according to plan, Next-Gen operations in 2025 will be a very different world.