Natca Calls for NextGen Moratorium

 - May 5, 2008, 6:33 AM

National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca) president Patrick Forrey raised more than a few eyebrows in a recent speech at the Washington Aero Club, calling on Congress to order an immediate, comprehensive evaluation of the NextGen ATC system before any more funds are expended.

He said the FAA should suspend all work on the $1.8 billion automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast contract until a reappraisal of NextGen is completed. Last August, the FAA awarded the pact for ADS-B to a team led by ITT. If the system lives up to the FAA’s requirements, it will be fully
deployed nationwide by 2013.

Natca, which represents 19,000 members in 16 different bargaining units, remains locked in a dispute with the FAA over a contract imposed over its objections in June 2006.

“As recommended by the [Department of Transportation] inspector general, the agency should, at a minimum, establish an interim architecture for what can be accomplished at the front end of the [NextGen] program, perhaps by 2015,” Forrey told the Aero Club. “This would better define costs and transition strategies.”

Forrey suggested that a first step would be for the Senate to pass FAA reauthorization, which has been languishing since last year. “The system can’t withstand a series of patchwork short-term extensions,” he said. “We need a reauthorization bill that is long-term but not short-sighted.”

Use Technology Effectively
Claiming that Natca is on record as endorsing any technological advance to improve ATC operations, he said that NextGen, as currently conceived, cannot do that. And the Air Transport Association (ATA), which represents airlines, seems to agree. ATA believes the current plan “calls for a Porsche when a Chevy can do the job” and would not increase system capacity, efficiency or environmental performance.

Even AOPA urged the FAA to go back to the drawing board, and the Aircraft Electronics Association described the proposed system as ADS-B on steroids. “Plan advocates point to new technology as a way to overcome the limiting factors of weather and runway capacity,” Forrey continued. “For us controllers, time is measured in distance, and one minute equals three miles of separation. So, regardless of how closely spaced aircraft are on approach, only one every minute, under ideal circumstances, can land.”

He contended that NextGen is a “loaded buzzword, full of hype and PR value, but lacking in substance. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the NowGen is being neglected.” The Natca president argued that until every aircraft flying in U.S. airspace is equipped for NextGen, and all ATC elements are transitioned from ground to space, benefits will remain unknown.

While 30 projects totaling $17 billion form NextGen’s building blocks, Forrey said the FAA must focus its resources and management attention on completing these and other modernization initiatives vital to “NowGen.”

“More significantly, these projects can ease congestion and delays and confer needed safety and efficiency benefits immediately to an ATC system under significant stress,” he said.

Forrey called for a review of ground radars, communications networks, oceanic automation platforms and other system upgrades to ensure adequate backup and redundancy. All ATC modernization procurements should require complete and full government oversight and testing of vendor hardware, software and system performance standards, he said.

Next, there needs to be expedited delivery of ASDE-X, the safety-critical ground radar technology that has widespread support among pilots, controllers and airport operators. In addition, he said that all medium- to large-size airports should be covered by runway detection technology.

He said that the FAA should also reinstitute its CPDLC program for data transfer between pilot and controllers to add another means of runway communications when frequencies are congested. New color-coded taxiway monitoring systems should be deployed, he maintained, allowing controllers to more precisely track pilot deviations from assigned taxiways during periods of peak traffic or bad weather.

Forrey also said the FAA should finish terminal automation; “quickly determine” the end state for the nearly 100 radar facilities without Stars or Common ARTS radars and “move expeditiously” to upgrade them. Many of these sites face life limits on older technology and decisions to consolidate or upgrade must be made now;  he asserted that his union should be involved in any facility relocation decisions that have safety impacts.

“The FAA should also fully fund and complete the system-wide deployment of controller automation technologies like URET [user request and evaluation tool] and should move aggressively to automate tower and Tracon flight planning, scheduling and data tracking procedures, by fielding technology that can fully integrate these functions into NAS operations,” Forrey urged.

He said that the FAA’s oceanic modernization should be completed and expanded, and he offered that a better first step for NextGen might be the early application of ADS-B for oceanic surveillance. “Unlike the high cost, long lead time, technical risk and uncertain value of ADS-B implementation in airspace that is already covered by radar, oceanic ADS-B is an order of magnitude less complex and less ex- pensive,” Forrey said.