U.S. airspace plan will show slow progress, official warns

 - October 8, 2007, 5:43 AM

The multi-agency Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) now working on
a roadmap for a next-generation air-transportation system (NGATS) expects to have a draft plan by this summer and a report to Congress by December. But don’t expect to see any immediate changes in the U.S. air-transportation system.

“I think it’s a rolling 20- to 25-year plan,” said John Kern, director of the JPDO, who noted that along the way the far-reaching agenda will incorporate both the FAA’s 10-year Operational Evolution Plan and its Flight Plan 2004-2008 (AIN, December 2003, page 1).

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta first announced the initiative for a next-generation air-transportation system at a meeting of the Washington Aero Club in late January, describing 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.

In his Aero Club speech, Mineta conceded that the U.S. is being challenged in manufacturing and in satellite positioning and navigation services as Europe develops Galileo. This was reinforced by Kern, who recently attended a meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization. “What I heard at ICAO is that it is about time the U.S. government got serious about this,” he said. “I sensed the international community is looking for U.S. leadership.”

The JPDO itself grew out of a recommendation from the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry in November 2002 and was created under the Vision 100 FAA reauthorization bill passed last year. The office includes the Departments of Transportation, Commerce, Defense and Homeland Security, as well as NASA and the White House office of science and technology policy.

Kern characterized NGATS as a roadmap to move from a modernized, but rigid, aviation system to a transformed system flexible enough to adapt to changing market conditions and national security needs. “I would like to see us have the roadmap by this time next year,” he said in late April.

“As far as I know, this JPDO should be around forever,” said Kern. “Industry needs to know where government is going.” He said that this summer the office will be asking government and industry to provide additional expertise in the form of personnel to staff several key development teams. Although he conceded the program “isn’t going to bear fruit” for 10 years, “We are actually putting meat on the bones.”

Kern compares the transformation of the air transportation system to what was done with the nation’s highway system in the 1950s, when the interstate highways and other roadway projects addressed critical transportation, civil defense and economic requirements.

The current system is showing its age and inherent weaknesses through its inability to deal quickly with changing technology, demands and markets, and many of its limitations are due to its piecemeal structure, adopted in stages throughout the course of the last several decades.

However, the JPDO stressed that in spite of technological gains and an enviable safety record, the current aviation system is still very much a remnant of the last century. Change is needed in both the short term (such as the FAA Flight Plan) and the long term (as with the OEP), the new agency said.

Congress set out seven specific goals that NGATS must accomplish. The FAA Administrator must send the plan to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the Committee on Science by December.

Kern said the JPDO is “as much about changing the government as creating a system,” to which Aerospace Industries Association president John Douglass added, “It is fair to be skeptical about this because they are breaking new ground.”

Once the JPDO has its draft plan approved by the Senior Policy Committee in July, it will be reviewed by the FAA’s Research, Engineering and Development Advisory Committee (REDAC), which will be the chief advisor to the FAA on modernization of the NA