Panel urges Washington to stay focused on ATC issues

 - May 16, 2008, 6:59 AM

In an interim report issued in late March, the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry urged President Bush and Congress to form a “high level” working group to deal with the long-term ATC needs of the country. At the same time, the group also wants funding to be maintained in fiscal years 2003 and 2004 for FAA and NASA projects to improve the ATC system.

Commission member John Douglass, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, said that in the out years even more money will be needed to move capacity ahead of demand. Of particular concern, he said, is a belief by some that the recent downturn in air travel has negated the sense of urgency to expand ATC capacity.

Douglass said the commission has received “solid consensus” from across the aviation spectrum that demands for air traffic are going to grow “pretty robustly” starting in the middle of next year and then growing even more quickly. “Exactly when we really begin to grow rapidly again is a function of how quickly the economy recovers and whether or not there might be future terrorist events,” he explained.

General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) president Ed Bolen, also a member of the commission, said the interim report was issued to preclude Congress and the Bush Administration from delaying additional ATC funding until later fiscal years.

“When our recommendations come out in November,” said Bolen, “we don’t want them to say, ‘Well, guess what? We’re now living a 2003 budget, we’ve put together the 2004 budget, so we’ll start thinking about that in the 2005 timeframe.’” He said the 12-member commission has identified some items that are critical right now.

Broadly Tasked

The Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry was given a broad mandate to study projected federal budgets for aerospace research, development and procurement; the acquisition process of federal departments and agencies; procedures for the timely development and fielding of new aerospace systems; financing and payment of government contracts; laws governing international trade and technology export; the effect of current tax laws and practices on international competitiveness of the aerospace industry; maintenance of the national space launch infrastructure; and programs to support science and engineering education.

It has already held two public meetings, and it has four others scheduled before a final report is sent to President Bush and Congress on November 19.

Bolen said the commission is opposed to suggestions that the FAA could take money out of its operational evolution plan (OEP) because of the drop in traffic and concerns about security. The OEP is an organized collection of more than 100 programs that address capacity problems, and its goal is to increase National Airspace System capacity by approximately 30 percent by 2010–the equivalent of about 700 to 800 more flights in the air at a given time during normal operating hours.

“We are not going to say that the OEP is the be-all and end-all in terms of capacity,” said Bolen. “In fact, I think at best the OEP simply maintains the level of delays that we have. However, it is important in the near term, and we do want to keep going forward on the OEP as we look for solutions in the out years that are going to [progress] from simply keeping pace with delays to actually getting in front of them.”

The OEP concept calls for incorporating additional technologies and capabilities as they emerge, but it does not include funding for either these emerging technologies or for operator equipage. Since these critical improvements are as yet unknown, no budget provision has been made for them. In fact, the FAA has admitted, “We are short now and we will be for the next eight years.”

Further, the OEP capacity improvements rely heavily on the airlines’ voluntary purchase and installation of an estimated $11 billion in new equipment. Given the economic realities airlines are facing today, the commission said, this is a highly problematic assumption.

Bolen also emphasized that the commission is studying all aspects of aerospace–civil aviation, general aviation, military aviation and space. He said it is important that all segments work together, including the Office of Homeland Security, when a future communications, navigation and surveillance (CNS) system is built.

“We’ve got to make sure that we are coordinated,” said Bolen, “so that we are not building systems in the military that are at cross purposes with civil, and we are not doing things in space that ultimately are going to debilitate our ability to work in aviation.”

Douglass said several other important issues are beginning to percolate, such as why the U.S. leads the world in military technology, while Boeing and Airbus are technologically “pretty much on par.” One of the answers beginning to emerge, he said, is that as a nation, the U.S. spends about $50 billion a year on military research, while the European Union–our closest competitor–spends only about $4 billion.

“But on civil aviation research we spend about a billion and a half and they spend about two billion,” Douglass said. “So it’s clear that their level of spending on civil aviation matches, and may even exceed, ours. The transfer of technology from the military side to the civil side has stopped.”

He attributed that to the fact that airliners flying today already have more technology in them than this ATC system will allow them to use. Whereas military fighters can essentially fly anyplace in the world without being in an ATC system and return safely, that technology is not spinning off because the U.S. ATC system has not kept pace.

“So more and more people are beginning to realize that we have this large reservoir of technology here in this country that could be used,” continued Douglass. “But it is not effectively being put together into a system that will move the capacity of the system ahead of demand.”

Douglass and Bolen, who were speaking for the entire commission, said that dichotomy is one of the big structural issues that the group believes the Bush Administration has to tackle from an organizational point of view, along with some system building to get capacity ahead of demand.

The commission recommended that the Bush White House immediately create a multi-agency task force with the leadership to develop and implement an integrated plan to transform the nation’s air transportation system. The group also urged the Administration and Congress to fully fund ATC modernization efforts in fiscal year 2003 (which begins this October 1) and beyond, and prioritize FAA and NASA R&D efforts that are the critical building blocks for the future.

The commission also made recommendations involving international tax and trade laws, revisions to the U.S. tax code, incentives for contractors to pursue cost efficiencies, reform of the nation’s arms transfer policy and regulatory process and creation of a defense export credit organization.