'NowGen' ATC changes could speed up FAA's NextGen plan

 - July 8, 2008, 8:29 AM

Two recent ATC conferences underscore the various points of view about the most efficient ways to implement the next generation of air transportation, either gradually, taking advantage of today’s technology, or all at once in 2025.

At the RTCA 2008 Symposium (RTCA is a non-government advisory body, formerly named the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics), held in Washington in May, the emphasis was on NowGen, a recently coined term describing the technologies that many operational people feel are required to speed up NAS modernization. NowGen would implement essentially proven near- and mid-term equipment and procedures to increase airspace capacity and throughput, well in advance of the arrival of the full NextGen program in 2025.

At the joint Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA)/FAA Technical Symposium held in
Atlantic City last month, on the other hand, a substantial part of the proceedings was devoted to the future promise of NextGen. At this event no speaker even mentioned the term NowGen. (At the RTCA meeting FAA ATO COO Hank Krakowski did offer a presentation titled “NextGen is Now.”) Moreover, some speakers did discuss NextGen’s future impact, while at the ATCA/FAA event there was recognition, that near- and mid-term strategies were important. But the sense of urgency expressed at RTCA was absent from the ATCA/FAA discussions.

What accounts for the difference in emphasis? As one long-time observer of the air traffic modernization scene commented, “At RTCA, the main constituency is the operator community, and they aren’t shy about speaking frankly about their problems. At ATCA/FAA events, manufacturers are the main constituency, and they are always careful to avoid being seen as critical of FAA programs.”

Short-term Fixes

Spearheading the NowGen discussion at the RTCA Symposium was Northwest Airlines’ Lorne Cass, co-chair of the RTCA’s ATM Requirements and Planning Group, whose membership includes NBAA and most other alphabet organizations. Cass listed the implementations the group wished to see this year, based on currently available technology, to “increase throughput and reduce delay with little or no capital investment.” These included:

• complete as many of the proposed New York airspace changes as possible, since two-thirds of national system delays emanate from there;

• use the available time-based metering capability of the FAA’s Traffic Management Adviser to improve arrival and departure flows, and replace miles-in-trail spacing;

• use Rnav with RNP for traffic “deconfliction” at ORD/MDW and other close airport pairs;

• complete ASDE-X parallel runway monitoring at Detroit to enable closely spaced approaches;

• accelerate airport surface surveillance with upgrades to ASDE-X installations;

• reduce excessive spacing on final;

• expand access to special-use airspace.

He also delineated a number of items that should be started now for completion by 2010, including:

• enhance weather forecast techniques, particularly terminal area convective forecasts in the New York area;

• support LAAS demos and certification at Newark and Teterboro;

• accelerate key elements to support trajectory-based operations;

• restart 1998 4-D trajectory trials;

• collectively rename all CDA variants as profile descents;

• implement Rnav Stars with defined vertical profiles at OEP Metroplex airports.

All these goals are eminently achievable now or in the near term, Cass stated.
This is not to suggest that the FAA has been asleep at the switch. Rnav/RNP activity has been under way under the guidance of the FAA’s Jeff Williams for several years–and long before the NowGen name was coined. By January 1 this year, the agency had published 321 procedures, and a further 195 are projected
by year-end. These will include 67 new RNP/SAAAR procedures, to add to the previously published 75.

Elsewhere in the agency, traffic “deconfliction” procedures around specific airport pairs are being designed; ASDE-X surveillance implementation is being accelerated; ADS-B, despite a troubled start, has been launched; runway safety initiatives have been prioritized; adaptive traffic flow management is being introduced; and many other measures are being evaluated. However, it might still take a little more time before the FAA can offer an implementation timetable such as the one Francois Etienne of Eurocontrol presented at the ATCA/FAA Technical Symposium.

Overall it appears that the increasing operational push for NowGen could indeed speed the delivery of NextGen. But it will require the integration ATM procedures and regulations. Successful coordination will then require only one more element: Congressional approval.