FAA’s ATC upgrade program moves to make up lost time

 - May 15, 2008, 9:25 AM

The FAA’s Operational Evolution Plan (OEP) is moving to regain the momentum lost following September 11. Introduced last June, the OEP was aimed at transforming today’s air traffic system into a more efficient, expanded-capacity operating environment by the progressive introduction of advanced ATC and aircraft systems over the next 10 years.

Developed through extensive consultation with the user community, air traffic controllers and the manufacturing industry, the plan introduced last June mapped out the gradual and balanced implementation of new ground and airborne technologies and procedures that, over a 10-year period, would eventually lead to the realization of the Free Flight concept, accompanied by a forecast 30-percent increase in system capacity.

As the system provider, the FAA estimated its investment would be $11.5 billion, and while no firm estimates were made for the user community’s investment, it too would be substantial. Yet there was virtually unanimous agreement that such investments were essential to bring the system into the 21st century.

But after September 11 the plan changed dramatically. Airline re-equipment budgets were swiftly drained to help offset mounting losses, and FAA planners were forced quickly to re-prioritize the OEP’s schedules. Major projects, such as airline controller/pilot datalink communications (CPDLC) upgrades, were postponed, while longer-term FAA projects, such as the ATC user request evaluation tool (URET) were accelerated. URET, sometimes called the conflict probe, provides ARTCC controllers with instant conflict assessments when responding to pilots’ enroute requests for altitude or routing changes, and is estimated to save more than $1 million in annual operator fuel costs per center.

In addition, according to OEP director Charles Keegan, URET can “provide us with about 2,500 more direct routes every single day.” Planned for all 20 ARTCCs by 2010, URET will now be installed at all centers by 2004. Other longer-term FAA capacity-improvement projects, such as the traffic movement advisor and the surface movement advisor, which require no user investment, are also being accelerated.

Yet while most airlines are still suffering the financial effects of September 11, they also recognize the benefits of moving ahead with their side of the FAA plan. At an RTCA meeting in February, Malcolm Armstrong, senior vice president of the Air Transport Association of America, said, “We must all support OEP. But we must move quickly beyond planning to implementation.”

Armstrong cited domestic RVSM, CPDLC, LAAS and WAAS and “an ADS-B-like capability” as key contributors to capacity improvements. By last December, in fact, the FAA had reassessed its planned postponement of its CPDLC tests at the request of American Airlines and other carriers.

Stating that “business aviation will equip,” Bob Lamond, NBAA director of air traffic services, essentially echoed Armstrong’s views at the meeting, adding that corporate aviation intends to be a full partner with other airspace users and the FAA in the execution of the OEP. But Lamond pointed out that total inclusion in the process is key, with critical issues like voluntary vs mandatory equipage, compliance timelines, equitable access to airports and airspace, security and safety all needing to be resolved. Already, he said, NBAA partnership in, and contributions to, the daily FAA/airlines collaborative decision making (CDM) activity had been welcomed by the other members, who readily recognize the important role of corporate aviation.