FAA Concept of Operations gives sneak peek at NextGen

 - July 25, 2007, 6:33 AM

Most pilots by now are aware that at some point in the future, today’s ATC system is expected to morph into something called NextGen, Administrator Marion Blakey’s term for what was previously known as the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NGATS). But what NextGen would actually bring has never been defined clearly; what is known is that it will become a system of air traffic management, and therefore a lot better than today’s system.

Now, the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) has released NextGen’s Concept of Operations (ConOps), which provides a first look at what’s in store. (That document is available at www.jpdo. gov. Don’t confuse it with the NextGen Enterprise Architecture, which is listed prominently on the same page. That highly technical document is  reputed to weigh 8.5 pounds when printed.)

In its 219 pages, the decidedly non-technical ConOps provides a comprehensive review of the interlocking facets of NextGen, with particular emphasis on air traffic management, airport operations, net-centric (or Internet-like) aviation linkages, situational awareness including weather and surveillance, security and environmental, safety and performance management. Essentially the document provides an excellent overview of the JPDO’s perspective of how the system could run by 2025, and how aircraft operations then would differ from now.

User Input Urged
Those words “could” and “would” are important, since this is an operational concept, not a firm plan. As a concept, ConOps will be updated annually. Consequently, it is and will be based on the best current assessment of the technologies that will be operationally applicable by or before NextGen’s targeted full readiness date of 2025.

In that way, ConOps avoids proposing theoretical, but unproven, solutions to the problems we would face if we tried to make today’s ATC system handle the forecast doubling, and maybe tripling, of aircraft movements by that date. But at the same time, JPDO-directed research will continue to monitor the potential readiness state of emerging technologies to determine whether they can bring future benefits.

Equally, and perhaps wisely, there are no statements of what specific avionics we will need, or when, as we move toward 2025, because no one is certain at this point. The document also provides no forecasts for future equipment mandates, although we already expect an ADS-B mandate rule, since that seems likely to be a major NextGen-enabling technology. RNav and RNP will also be important capabilities, as we move into a predominantly performance-based environment. And ConOps places strong emphasis on the airspace capacity benefits of 4-D (lat/long/altitude/time) trajectory operations, along with “super density” terminal arrivals and departures, which will almost certainly have mandatory “admission tickets.”

It’s also important to recognize that ConOps was developed jointly by government and industry team members, including operations people. Therefore, as a “living” document updated annually, it provides ample opportunity for continuous input from the user community. This is a major philosophical change for the FAA, which in the past has introduced major programs with minimal user input and minimal success. But this also underscores the importance of pilots’ and flight operations departments’ understanding of the current ConOps proposals since, with the passage of time, they will become more set in concrete and less easy to amend.

Finally, ConOps includes a change in the traditional FAA approach to ATC. One of the document’s earliest illustrations shows the dramatic shift projected in the relative influence on air traffic management decisions of the air navigation service provider (the FAA), the flight operations center and the aircraft’s flight crew. Today, the service provider is shown as dominant, overriding the flight operations center and the pilot. Under NextGen, all three have equal influence on decisions. For just that reason alone, the ConOps is a must read.