Chamber of Commerce aviation summit: NowGen will evolve to NextGen

 - April 30, 2008, 10:10 AM

The next-generation ATC system (NextGen) will not be turned on instantly with the flip of a switch but rather will evolve over a period of years as components already developed become more predictive and repeatable.

“In essence, ‘NextGen’ is the term used to identify a number of programs that are coming together to expand the capacity of the system,” said NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 7th annual aviation summit in Washington last month.

As moderator of a panel on “The Business of Aviation: A Five-Year Industry Growth Plan,” he explained that NextGen “is not a computer program that we’ll one day flip a switch for and find ourselves operating in a different environment. Instead, it’s already under way, and it builds on a number of initiatives that, taken together, will optimize the efficiency of system use.”

One of the complaints against NextGen is that the targeted end date of 2025 for full operability is too far in the future for many to comprehend. So, at a meeting of the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) in late February, a group of personal air transport providers asked JPDO to accelerate the pace of NextGen, which many in the aviation industry have begun referring to as “NowGen.”

At that “all hands” meeting, former NBAA president Jack Olcott, now head of aviation consulting firm General Aero, said that members of the Personal Air Transportation Alliance already operate within an environment that enables early implementation of NextGen technologies.

Less than two weeks later, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced that Florida will begin serving as the testbed for NextGen beginning this summer with the introduction of automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast–the performance-based air/ground, ground/air and air/air surveillance system that will replace ground-based radar–throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Other components will be introduced at Daytona Beach and Miami International Airport.

At the aviation summit, one of the priorities that the speakers on Bolen’s panel focused on was the need to transform the nation’s aviation system from its current radar-based surveillance to one based on satellite technology. To a question about when the panelists predicted such a next-generation system might be in place, Bolen responded, “We’re on our way.”

On an earlier panel, Charles Leader, director of JPDO, said, “The drive toward automation is the heart of the system,” including providing predictability and repeatability. He said that industry, users and the public need to support NextGen. He added that he hoped the next President will make this a national priority.

Former acting FAA Administrator Monte Belger, now v-p of Lockheed Martin Transportation Systems Solutions, said he prefers to refer to the next-generation ATC system as a transformation rather than a modernization. He views “modernization” as taking something old and updating it; he sees NextGen as transforming the current system to a totally new one.

According to Michael Lewis, director of business development for Boeing Advanced Air Traffic Management, most of the innovation that will go into NextGen already exists as a technology. But he conceded that weather prediction is not as good as it needs to be and wake vortex predictability must have better precision in locating vortices.

Another question is how to double or triple capacity without doubling or tripling the number of people required to operate the ATC system. “The biggest challenge is not the technology; it is getting the technology implemented.”

Lewis said that the air navigation services provider–in the case of the U.S. it is the FAA–must build the necessary infrastructure, the aircraft operators need to embrace equipage and the FAA must develop the regulations and procedures that allow the new equipment to be used.

The U.S Chamber of Commerce said the 7th annual aviation summit is another example of its effort to shed light on the important challenges facing America’s infrastructure system, as is its “Let’s Rebuild America” initiative, a multimillion-dollar sustained long-term campaign to rebuild the economic platform of the nation.

“Infrastructure projects require foresight and years of careful planning,” said Carol Hallett, former head of the Aerospace Industries Association. “The aviation industry faces many challenges and changes, but continued innovation and exciting developments are on the horizon.”

At the summit, representatives from the commercial, cargo and business aviation sectors discussed issues ranging from airline mergers and the rising cost of fuel to environmental policies and technology innovation.

“Whether you consider commercial travel, air cargo, military aviation, business and private travel or general aviation, the aviation industry is an essential component of our domestic economy and everyday lives,” said Hallett, who now is counselor for the chamber. “There are challenges and changes that lie on aviation’s horizon which must be understood and resolved to ensure this vital industry continues to grow and succeed.”

In a panel on technology innovations, Alan Epstein, v-p of technology and environment for Pratt & Whitney, said that today’s high-bypass jet engines will gradually be replaced by ultra-high-bypass engines.

While aviation’s impact on global warming is almost all through carbon dioxide emissions, Pratt’s new geared turbofan engine will reduce CO2 emissions by 1,500 tons per aircraft per year and nitrous oxide emissions by half. Noise levels will be Stage 4 minus 20 decibels. “I think the future is ultra-high-bypass engines on composite aircraft,” Epstein predicted.