Back to drawing board on ADS-B proposal

 - April 30, 2008, 9:43 AM

The FAA’s ADS-B Program Office has received a stern directive from top management to consult with industry representatives to produce a more acceptable version of its notice of proposed rule-making (NPRM), which in March received an almost unanimous thumbs-down from operators. “I guess the top brass took the program office to the woodshed on that one,” offered one long-time agency observer. “But when you’ve got strong opposition from everybody from the AOPA to the Air Transport Association, you just know something’s wrong.”

The NPRM, for which public comment closed on March 3, drew more than 300 comments from a wide spectrum of interests, from general aviation to the airlines, and from outside organizations such as Eurocontrol and the International Air Transport Association. Essentially, the planned implementation would require ADS-B installations in all aircraft operating in U.S. airspace. However, the mandated equipment would provide only the ADS-B out service, where onboard avionics would transmit signals used primarily by ATC but would not provide pilots with information about other traffic around them. That would remain the function of ADS-B in equipment, a much higher-priced addition that was not mandated.

Many have felt that, for one reason or another, agency spokespeople have avoided making the critical distinction between ADS-B out and in, or even mentioning their existence, in briefings to legislators or the media.

A situation already confusing to some was not clarified by a recent New York Times article that quoted Acting FAA Administrator Bobby Sturgell as saying that “within the cockpit, pilots will know where other airplanes are around them.” Few outside aviation understand that ADS-B is not necessarily quite as Sturgell described.

In addition to the absence of user operational benefits, the NPRM also introduced a number of technical requirements that many respondents felt were unnecessary and costly. For example, operators were required to have WAAS capability to achieve a high level of positional accuracy. It turned out that the level of accuracy required was needed primarily for low-visibility airport surface operations, an activity in which relatively few operators engage. For virtually all other operations, WAAS would not be necessary.

What’s more, had the FAA first asked Boeing or Airbus–whose aircraft dominate the airline industry–it would have quickly learned that neither has installed, or intends to install, WAAS in its airplanes, and neither does the DOD, with all three opting for coupled GPS/IRS systems. In this regard, the NPRM’s mandate is contrary to the FAA’s much vaunted “performance-based” philosophy, which proposes that an operator invest in the capabilities it believes are necessary to meet its airspace access needs, and no more.

But the NPRM’s proposals didn’t affect only medium and large aircraft operators. Private pilots were equally aggrieved. “The NPRM is simply unacceptable to our members,” AOPA chief of staff for government affairs Randy Kenagy told AIN. “Not only are its benefits extremely difficult to find, but the compliance costs could be very high. It is certainly not consistent with our vision for ADS-B, which we have held since 1990.”

The directive to the program office was clear, according to FAA insiders. Program officials would immediately arrange an NPRM review program with the Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC), a group of 30 to 40 specialists from across the full spectrum of aviation including operators, airframe, avionics and ground equipment manufacturers and other experts from related disciplines. The ARC process is a longstanding one, where the FAA invites a team of independent specialists to advise the agency on specific issues where outside opinions and expertise can help policy makers.

An ARC for the ADS-B NPRM was established last June, four months before the NPRM issuance, under the co-chairmanship of Steve Brown, NBAA senior vice president for operations and administration, and Basil Barimo, ATA vice president for operations and safety. The same co-chairs and members will continue to serve during the review period.

New Proposal Forthcoming

Brown told AIN that biweekly meetings of four ARC sub-groups assigned to separate aspects of the NPRM are already under way, with a target completion date in mid-September. He added, “ADS-B, as a replacement of radar separation for all aircraft, is a core element in ATC modernization that NBAA supports and is working to enhance through the ARC.”

FAA officials attend the meetings, but only to clarify aspects of the document and provide other support, such as submitting background data on specific issues. But under ARC rules, they are not permitted to attempt to “sell” their NPRM proposals to the ARC, or argue for the retention of certain items. However, some industry observers believe that the ARC still might be unable fully to explore the issue of system security risks, which program officials have always appeared reluctant to discuss or quantify.

Unquestionably, the ARC has a challenging assignment. While responders to the NPRM were virtually unanimous that ADS-B was an important, even vital, future step, the criticism of the FAA’s approach came from several different directions, and these often conflicted with each other. Satisfying the special interests of operators across the whole spectrum, from AOPA to ATA, will exercise the ARC’s talents to the fullest.

Upon completion, the ARC’s report and recommendations will be submitted to the FAA. From there, the agency can decide that the NPRM will remain unchanged, modify the NPRM to incorporate some of the ARC’s recommendations or perform a complete makeover and produce a supplemental NPRM (SNPRM) to replace the October 2007 document. AIN discussions with people close to the process suggest that a completely revised supplement appears to be the most likely outcome. If so, they suggest that the rewriting task could take at least six months, and would necessarily be followed by another public comment period.

Under the FAA’s original plan, a final ADS-B rule would have been published in November next year, almost two years after the originally planned comment period closed in early January last year. Now, the ARC review and the likely rewriting of the NPRM and public comment period could be expected to run through mid- or late 2009, suggesting that the final rule might not emerge much before the middle of 2011. In that case, the FAA’s proposed mandatory equipage date of 2020 could slip to 2023 or beyond.

A common industry question being asked today is just how could the FAA have gotten its NPRM so wrong, given its background in ADS-B going back to its pioneering, and still running, Alaska Capstone initiative in 2000, and its subsequent support of a wide variety of domestic projects such as those at Louisville with UPS and in the Gulf of Mexico, along with the installation of numerous ADS-B ground stations in the domestic U.S.?

Some blame the agency’s changing horses in midstream, referring to the fact that in 2005 the ADS-B program was moved out of the FAA’s Safe Flight 21 Office, which had run the program since 1999, and placed with the agency’s Surveillance and Broadcast Services group, whose personnel were more familiar with radar traffic control and appeared to many to view the project from a controller’s–rather than a pilot’s–perspective.

Long-time FAA staffers believe that the transfer of responsibility effectively jettisoned the past experience resident in the SF21 group, and the industry partnerships it had developed, forcing the surveillance personnel into a steep learning curve. (The FAA in April singled out SF21 leader Paul Fontaine for special mention from the large group of companies and individuals of the ADS-B Team who were jointly awarded the 2007 Collier Trophy.)

And FAA insiders point to other, non-technical imperatives pushing for program completion, which might have compressed the time required for closer study of alternative approaches. One was the strong interest of then-Administrator Marion Blakey, who championed the launch of ADS-B–“the backbone of NextGen”–and who reportedly felt that the award of the ground-station contract to ITT on Aug. 30, 2007, coupled with the issue of the NPRM shortly after, should stand as her ADS-B legacy upon leaving the agency in September. FAA insiders have also suggested to AIN that under the FAA ATO’s “performance-based” philosophy, completion of major projects such as these within a targeted fiscal year–in this case FY07, which ended on Sept. 30, 2007–would have qualified senior ATO managers and program office staff for significant incentive bonuses.

A two-year delay might really make little difference in a program that does not call for compliance for 10 years. In fact, unless a re-written NPRM significantly slackens many of its earlier requirements, and includes clear incentives for early equipage, there might well be operator reluctance to invest until much closer to the mandatory date, in the hope that the cost of a full ADS-B out package drops far enough to allow them to benefit from Sturgell’s vision.