Planning for the new U.S. air transportation system

 - December 11, 2007, 10:11 AM

As professionals engaged in business aviation, each of us probably has questions about what lies ahead for our community. Will there be sufficient airspace and runway capacity to accommodate an increasing number of operations without a subsequent increase in delays? Will the ATC infrastructure be improved, and if so, whose voices will dominate the debate for designing a new system? Is it likely that enough very light jets (VLJs) will be sold for this class of aircraft to be a major factor in future airspace design and utilization? Will the government impose additional user fees? Will airlines establish a business model that lets them make money without provoking current levels of traveler dissatisfaction? Is there a bright future for business and corporate aviation?

The federal government provided some insight into answering these questions in its recently released report titled Next Generation Air Transportation System Integrated Plan. Prepared by the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO), which includes representatives from six government agencies as well as input from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), this document proposes eight strategies for transforming our nation’s air transportation system during the next 20 years.

The Secretaries of Transportation, Defense, Homeland Security and Commerce; the administrators of NASA and the FAA; and the director of OSTP are members of the senior policy committee that oversees the transformation roadmap the JPDO developed. DOT Secretary Norman Mineta serves as the committee’s chairman.

To say the least, the JPDO’s Integrated Plan has gravitas. It is also the government’s initial response to a growing awareness that the demand for air travel is outpacing the nation’s aeronautical infrastructure and thereby placing stress on the air transportation system. Delays at airline hubs are mounting now that airline passenger activity has returned to pre-9/11 levels. Operating and maintenance costs for the ATC system are exceeding revenues that flow into the Aviation Trust Fund, and the airline industry seems to encounter additional financial crises monthly. New security requirements have significantly reduced the efficiency of air travel, and environmental concerns have resulted in stricter limits on aircraft noise and emissions. The JPDO has concluded that business as usual is a recipe for gridlock and loss of U.S. leadership in aviation.

I find significance for the business aviation community in the way the authors of the JPDO Integrated Plan framed their transformation from today’s infrastructure to tomorrow’s more capable system. They asked readers of the report to “imagine an alternative world where the traveler or shipper determines departure and arrival times–instead of being confined to a predetermined schedule. Imagine a hassle-free travel experience where safety and security measures, ticketing and baggage checks are transparent as the traveler or package moves easily through the airport and on and off the aircraft.” Sounds a lot like today’s business aviation, doesn’t it? Hopefully, the transformation will lead to a greater appreciation for the capabilities and value of business aircraft.

Visionaries at the JPDO envision increased use of on-demand transportation, facilitated in part by the advent of an agile ATC system that provides relevant services to a variety of diverse users from any location. Technologies, including those being studied as part of NASA’s Small Aircraft Transportation System, will significantly increase the use of smaller airports, thereby bringing air travel to many more rural communities and reducing the bottlenecks caused by the hub-and-spoke system that dominates today’s airline travel.

The JPDO also proposes an air-transportation system that provides routine and reliable access to airspace and airports for very light jets, single-pilot aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles. Federal planners see a significant role for VLJs used to provide on-demand “sky cab” transportation services to smaller airports.

The JPDO’s Integrated Plan is merely the first step in a 20-year program of transformation, and planners expect to make many refinements and revisions during its future development. The plan currently consists of eight major strategies that relate to airports, security, ATC, user-specific situational awareness, safety management, environmental issues, weather and global harmonization of equipment and operations.

Each strategic area affects the others and therefore planners must coordinate all of the areas to yield the system’s full benefits. Creating an integrated air-transportation system to meet future needs will involve redistributing operational and decision-making responsibilities among a broad spectrum of stakeholders, including multiple federal, state, local and private entities.

To understand the role of all stakeholders and to benefit from their expertise, the JPDO will create an integrated product team (IPT) for each strategy, which should provide operators the opportunity to have meaningful input into the next-generation air-transportation system.

Since the transformation as envisioned by the JPDO anticipates new ways of doing business, including the possibility of congestion pricing and other market-based approaches to management of airspace demand, it is essential that operators participate actively in the IPT process.

Aviation’s future hinges on the government’s realization that air transportation is an absolute necessity for economic growth and improved quality of life. But developing and implementing advanced technologies and new operating procedures will be costly, which is challenging at a time when the U.S. government faces deficits and is attempting to shift infrastructure and operating costs to the private sector. It is imperative for members of the business aviation community to become engaged in the transformation process and, among other things, become active members of each integrated product team.