There are signs that Washington has acquired a sense of urgency (long past due, some would say) about the disarray that has thus far stalled progress on ATC modernization. Last month’s appointment of former FAA ATO v-p of operations planning Vicki Cox to the new position of senior v-p for NextGen and operations planning raised some questions about the agency’s desire to be more involved in planning the future airspace system. The addition of command responsibility for NextGen puts Cox in charge of the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO), an independent government/industry body established with the specific goal of having an arms-length relationship with the FAA and several other government agencies involved in future airspace planning and technology applications.
In announcing the new position, acting FAA Administrator Bobby Sturgell said, “Given the aviation community’s increasing need for faster modernization of our air traffic control system, the time is now to transition to faster implementation of NextGen.” He added, “The FAA is putting an emphasis on near- and mid-term implementation, while the JPDO continues its focus on long-term R&D and cross-agency cooperation.”
Several agency and industry insiders interpreted Sturgell’s comments as coinciding with their own views of the JPDO as an organization that, given its independent charter, started out with the intention of developing creative solutions to aviation’s future needs but slowly devolved into a generator of innumerable reports but few identifiable products that showed the way ahead. One FAA source told AIN that his agency’s taking over control was “putting the JPDO on a much shorter leash.”
When the JPDO was launched in 2003, industry was an eager participant, but the allure of helping to define future technologies, instead of having them determined solely by the FAA, gradually faded. In fact, it was reported that voluntary attendance by company personnel dwindled as the costs of participating started to outweigh the benefits. At one point, an obscure federal government rule was found to disqualify private companies from bidding on contracts where their representatives had offered prior specialist advice about the equipment or service being sought under that contract. Such a rule was, of course, in direct conflict with the fundamental JPDO concept.
Many observers, both within and outside the FAA, believe achieving full implementation of NextGen by 2025 does little to improve things in the short term, since system capacity is already under strain and will get progressively worse in the future. “Now, finally,” an industry manager told AIN after the Cox appointment, “that message has got to the top brass.”
One carrier of that message could have been outgoing RTCA president David Watrous, a highly respected member of Washington’s aviation inner circle, who called in April for a fresh approach, which he termed NowGen. While recognizing that NextGen provides a strategic target toward which to proceed, he cautioned, “The community needs to improve operational capabilities now…not in five, ten or more years.”
Watrous continued, “The community needs an executable plan to guide us from NowGen to NextGen. It would be great if we could immediately assemble a stable plan upon which everyone could agree. Then the community could focus all of its resources on implementing the plan. But that won’t happen. Too many issues, too many players, too many options. Furthermore, the environment–issues, budgets, technology–is constantly changing. Clearly there’s no single, simple solution.”
To break this logjam, he proposed using RTCA’s Air Traffic Management Advisory Committee, composed of senior government and industry executives, “to perform the critical collaborative function of defining urgent current operational needs while building to a less than perfectly defined future NAS.” Several government and industry individuals AIN interviewed echoed those sentiments. “It’s an excellent stake in the ground,” said one.
Europeans Move Forward on Sesar
Meanwhile, the Europeans appear to need no such stake. At February’s international ATC Global conference in Amsterdam, Patrick Ky, head of Sesar–Europe’s equivalent of NextGen–reported that project is moving aggressively ahead. With substantial funding–and decision making–shared equally among a consortium of the European Union, Eurocontrol and the aviation community, Sesar has clearly established goals, tied to stated timelines.
The NextGen presentation following Ky was less uplifting. While the U.S. has made significant progress in many areas, such as the UPS application of ADS-B merging and spacing techniques, that information was not communicated effectively, and the predominantly airline-oriented attendees were puzzled when U.S. ADS-B initiatives were illustrated solely by a scenic photo of a seaplane participant in FAA’s Alaska Capstone project.
It is to be hoped that Cox, aided by proposals from RTCA’s Watrous and others, can put the original missionary zeal back into the JPDO, while also focusing on the immediate needs of NowGen.